By Ivory King
Written on 5/25/2018
Color is a noun and a verb for humans: the psychology of hue and saturation shows how our relationship to light being bounced off the insides of sighted eyes affects our mood, behavior and choices. It’s hardly hyperbole to say that when we choose clothes that color is one of the most important components of what we wear. Technology has afforded us infinite control over shade and brightness in textiles, though much of these controls have been developed using petroleum products - not only toxic to use, but heavily reliant on finite resources, such as the aforementioned fossil fuel and tons and tons of water.
Dyes have come from natural sources, like plants and insects, and more recently have been synthesized with chemicals and petroleum products. But whatever the source, dyes are usually reliant upon mordants - often metal-based products that fix pigments to textile fibers and sometimes toxic. This means that the more innocuous non-chemical based dyes can still be polluting to the environment and harmful for workers. Additionally, these processes use huge amounts of water - to dissolve the dye and submerge the fabric, as well as to wash the residue away after dyeing is complete.
But there is a more efficient, ecologically-sound way to create vivid fabric. Though our relationship with color has been long and intimately entwined, so has our relationship been with microbes - a renewable resource that can be cultivated without poisoning ourselves and the environment, and with much less water. And some of these microbes - specifically, species of bacteria - create pigments that can be grown on textiles and leave them vibrant.
Only discovered over the last few years, the bacteria pigment practice has much room to grow in order to become a fully realized craft. But the experiments being undertaken by cross-discipline designers such as Natsai Audrey Chieza of Faber Futures have created tangible results that are beautiful in a wild, organic way. Streptomyces coelicolor is her microbe of choice, which she cultivates in petri dishes on lengths of sik that several days later glow with shades of blue, violet, and magenta. So far, the variables that can be controlled to some extent include pH levels, how long the bacteria are allowed to grow, temperature, and bacterial saturation of the material. At specific conditions and low saturation, for example, the color manifests as an indigo blue similar to that of denim.
While the bacteria cannot yet be directly manipulated to control pigment distribution, Chieza uses traditional methods to influence the finished product. Tried-and-true fabric preparations like folding or twisting, as well as other methods that control how the bacteria are deposited onto the fabric (“inoculated”) such as stamping, shibori or stencilling are all on the proverbial table. While the myriad finished garments have a common unique aesthetic, as described in Chieza’s TED talk they can take the form of solid colors or graphic prints.
Streptomyces has been useful for quite a while before its chromatic gifts were harnessed. The organism is used to produced antibiotics within “human and veterinary medicine and agriculture,” and other food and industrial uses. Now that it has been discovered to have design uses as well, it can be considered an even more versatile microbe.
from Instagram @heenaj90
One of the major reasons to transition out of using petrochemical dyes is the toxicity to dye plant and garment workers as well as the wearers of the finished product. As shown in the need to test finished garments for safety, we often wear clothing that contains an amount of the chemicals used to process and finish garments that have been deemed safe or acceptable. This maximum level is determined because our porous, vulnerable skin does absorb substances from its surrounding. But if instead of toxic dyes our fabrics were colored with innocuous or even beneficial substances, we could live a little bit more free from harmful environmental factors.
According to Kukka, another biodesign researcher that has created the Living Colour project in the Netherlands, biological colors could offer us some benefits. Besides the utilitarian benefits of colorfastness that exceeds the capabilities of more common natural dyes, bacteria produce color in the form of beneficial compounds like carotenoids and violacein. While these are projected to have potential side benefits alongside the bacterial color process, the Living Colour project has quite a ways to go in order to document any actual positive effects that these compounds may have on the skin. Still, despite the lack of evidence that fabric can hold onto the antioxidant effects of pigments, the absence of toxic chemicals is a considerable benefit in and of itself.
This project uses different organisms than Faber Futures: Janthinobacterium lividum for purple, arthrobacter agilis for red, and micrococcus luteus for yellow. Their strategy for controlling the pigment patterns on fabric is also unique: they are experimenting with using sound to influence the distribution of the organisms.
Biological processes are being harnessed in many ways for a cleaner, greener textile future. Bacteria and other microbes are just part of this shift away from toxic chemicals and polluting processes. Look for it in animal-free leather, spider silk yarn and 3D printed algae fabric. Isn’t nature fun?
Cover image courtesy of Ginkgo Bioworks