Trash Fashion - the exhibition on display in a quiet corner of the science museum - was a small collection of the work being showcased as the future of sustainable fashion and textiles. And I was pretty excited about it. Back in August, I made the trip down to London - which was soon to be my new home - from Manchester, just to go and visit it, as I knew a lot of the work had been done by my future tutors at Chelsea college of art, and as part of the TED Group of designers, who are pushing forward the design ethos of sustainability, waste reduction, and environmental design. The display was small, but all the fascinating information was packed into the interactive kiosks, explaining the ideas and processes behind the garments/textiles. I must have spent a good hour and a half, scribbling down notes, on that summer's day.
As we all know, textile design is pretty much all about colour, if we go back centuries, humans have been weaving, knitting, printing and dyeing their cloths throughout history. In the mountains of Vietnam, they still naturally dye threads, to adorn distinct, colourful, embroidery onto their indigo dyed clothes to mark their tribe's colours. Dyeing is paramount to textile production, and in mass production destined for the world market, often being dyed in south east Asia, this means a lot of wasted and polluted water running back into unregulated water systems.
"Textile dyeing currently accounts for 17 - 20% of worldwide industrial pollution."
Far too many large, multi national corporations take advantage of the lax laws, and the blind eye many government leaders turn, — desperate for the work and jobs these companies offer to their countries' economy — to not take responsibility for the harmful pollution they cause. Once dye has been contaminated with water, it is very expensive to clean up that coloured water again, so instead, it is just flushed back into the waterways and rivers, still full of the chemicals from the dyeing process.
DyeCat - a company that was part of Leeds University, have engineered methods of dyeing polyester without water, and thus reducing the waste and pollution caused. A full PDF of the process is here.
Basically, to manufacture polyester — a man-made, mono-filament fibre — which is a PET type of plastic, is formed by a chemical polymerisation reaction, of long carbon chains that are ultimately split and reformed to make 3D polymers, from crude oil, via a catalyst and heat. The plastic is initially a hot liquid, which is then cooled down and spun out to create a continuous , mono-filament fibre. It is usually dyed with disperse dyes. Richard Blackburn and his team at DyeCat, have developed a method that incorporates the dyeing process within the manufacturing process of polyester itself, and most importantly, without water. By adding chromophores, the atom responsible for colour in molecules, to the catalyst during the formation of the carbon chains that make up the polyester, the colour becomes integral to its form and chemical make up, and therefore part of the fibre. The colours achieved can be infinite, and with much more depth and intensity, than standard dyes.
This also ties in with DyeCat's involvement with creating a sustainable polyester type of polymer - PLA (polylactic acid) which are corn based/sugar based plastics.
- sugar beet
- sugar cane
All renewable sources, unlike oil, which is in limited supply. The end sustainable plastic is also fully biodegradable, and in industrial composting, can be made good as new, and reused again and again.
"If you release the starch, with corn, or other similar materials, and break the starch down into sugar, micro organisms convert the sugar into lactic acid. Then the many single molecules of lactic acid are joined together in a chemical reaction to form a plastic polymer"
DyeCat want to be able to use this process of creating PLA, with the water free, dyeing techniques. Therefore the aim is to produce fully sustainable textiles, whilst also reducing the environmental impact of the dyeing production.
Which I think, is a truly exciting prospect for the future of dyeing, in terms of revolutionising the way we design textiles, dyeing processes and the impact of colour. But the sheer advantage is the avoiding maximum waste of our water resources, and the welfare for countries where their water supply is being abused. If this were to take over as the main dyeing method of polyester fabrics, and fibres - which make up a large percentage of all textile products - would this ruin the textile dye house businesses in the East? And even if polyester textiles are used in so many applications; silk, cotton, wool, and linen would still be dyed with water? It's an ingenious start, definitely quite a few steps towards ecological and ethical dyeing; but there is still some way to go.
The issue of recycling textiles, is that even though there are many discarded garments, you could potentially upcycle or re vamp and re imagine in new customised clothing, if you wanted to recycle the textile fibres and produce fabric from scratch with these fibres, you would have a hard time doing it. To enable a polyester fabric producer to remelt and re spin the fibre, the fabric has to be untampered with as much as possible, for this to be possible you must have 100% polyester and no mixed fibre blends, only then can a polyester fabric be recycled again and again.
Kate Goldsworthy, a past research fellow at Chelsea college of art and design, took this upon as a designer's mission. How to design the textile with minimal tampering of the pure fibre? She experimented with lasers to beautiful effect, creating intricate patterns and interesting textures without affecting the fabric with any treatments, processes or dyes. Enabling the fabric she designs, to be recycled and re imagined again and again.
Firstly, a programmed robotic arm applies an, "absorber liquid, to the fabric to outline the pattern. Then a low-energy laser beam travels over the material — it leaves some of the areas unaffected, but the sprayed areas, melt because they absorb more of the laser energy."
"Yes, Large companies need to figure out how to collect and sort old, unwanted clothing to reuse and recycle. But at the moment it's very very hard, because so many different types of material types are all mixed together. So it comes back to designers - we really need to think ahead and design clothes that are easy to recycle"
- Kate Goldsworthy
I think that quote says it all, the effect would be palpable if all designers suddenly started designed textiles that inherently were made in mind to be easily recycled.