Lab-grown pigments and food by-products: The future of natural textile dyes

Marimekko collaboration with BioColour, Professor Kirsi Niinimäki and Natural Indigo Finland on display at Designs for a Cooler Planet. Photo: Kalle Kataila
As the environmental impact of the fashion and textile industries becomes clearer, the demand and need for sustainable alternatives is growing. One international research group aims to replace toxic synthetic dyes with natural alternatives, ranging from plants to microbes to food waste.

Walk into any clothing store and you’ll find a rainbow of fluorescent shirts, pastel sweaters and blue jeans that rotate in and out of style each season. The colours of each garment are pristine, eye-catching and identical, but there are consequences hidden in those racks of colourful clothes.

Our planet and the factory workers producing our clothes are paying a steep price: toxic chemicals used in the synthetic dyeing process pollute waterways and soil.

Introduced in the 1860s, synthetic dyes and pigments have become commonplace in the textile industry. These dyes are part of the reason why clothes of every colour imaginable are so readily available: they offer quick and easy alternatives to the natural sources of colour that used to be the only option.

While this synthetic process has become normalised, using natural pigments to dye textiles has been part of human history for thousands of years.

BioColour suggests it’s time to revisit and reimagine this long history.

Associate Professor in Design at Aalto University and member of the BioColour research group Kirsi Niinimäki explains, ‘We’re looking back in history to see how we can bring the information we had before synthetic chemicals existed to the current day, but also how we can apply it in a more modern way by working with the [textile] industry.’

BioColour is an international research consortium of designers, material scientists, biologists, mathematicians and engineers. These researchers from Finnish, American and Brazilian universities and research institutes work together to find non-toxic and biodegradable natural alternatives to synthetic dyes and pigments.

Natural dyes at an industrial scale

Aalto University Better Balance in the Fashion System BioColour Linen collection design Elina Onkinen and Kasia Gorniak photo Helen Korpak 004 1
Garment from BioColour’s onion skin and willow bark dyed linens, designed by Elina Onkinen and Kasia Gorniak. Photo: Helen Korpak

BioColour’s research isn’t just about identifying and testing natural colour sources, it’s also about working with the textile industry and consumers to bring widespread change to the new normal of synthetic colours.

One such example comes from Finnish design house Marimekko. Using dyer’s woad, a plant native to Finland, the project tested this alternative to synthetic indigo, a dye that’s created using toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.

This collaboration revealed an additional perk of natural dyes: as a Finnish design house, by using a plant cultivated in Finland, Marimekko could tell a local story with dyer’s woad that wasn’t possible with synthetic indigo.

Such collaborations are an opportunity to challenge and learn from each other, says Niinimäki. While BioColour challenges industry partners to work with different methods and recipes that draw on historical practices, industry partners put dye recipes to the test outside of precise laboratory conditions.

‘In a laboratory, it’s possible [adjust] processes, but when we go to the industry, it’s not possible to precisely modify the recipes,’ says Niinimäki, ‘we have to accept the industrial processes and what comes out of them.’

The textile industry isn’t the only source of collaboration: Food and agricultural industries create massive amounts of biowaste that spell untapped potential of natural dyes. By-products such as onion skins and willow bark from these industries can be used to dye clothing, creating new side streams and reducing waste.

Though the details are still secret, Niinimäki also described an ongoing collaboration with a food company that aims to investigate how much pigment can be extracted from food waste material. They will also test the durability of said colours.

Changing attitudes towards colour

Woad natural blue and violet dye research by Kirsi NiiniMäki DSC 7401 photo Valeria Azovskaya Original Original
Fabrics dyed with dyer’s woad as part of Professor Niinimäki’s research. Photo: Valeria Azovskaya

Ensuring consumers are willing to purchase naturally dyed textiles is vital in the quest to replace synthetic dyes. Yet, consumers still find this concept to be a strange one, according to Niinimäki.

Synthetic dyes are appealing because they provide long-lasting and identical colours between each garment. As Niinimäki points out, however, that ‘sameness’ is one of fast fashion’s problems.

‘Blue is a trendy colour, but why does everything have to be the same blue? Even in mass production, why can’t we accept that there might be different kinds of blue? Why does everything have to be the same?’

Natural dyes, which are not as stable, may look different from garment to garment and even fade over time.

These fading colours don’t need to be seen as a negative, however.

Niinimäki believes fading colours open the door to an attractive new type of design: garments could be designed to reveal new patterns as certain colours fade over time.

While BioColour’s consumer studies aim to identify and change current attitudes to colours and textiles, other researchers in the group are investigating the durability and longevity of natural dyes. Fading colours may offer interesting design potential, but they aren’t the only option.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here