4. Biofabricating Dyes and Materials#

Natural Dyes I Made#

Antwerp Sampler#

This week I had to skip one day at Fabricademy because I had to work in Antwerp. For those who don’t know: this city is in Belgium, a neighbouring country. The location of the project was near Middelheim Park, a beautiful open air museum with a lot of trees. It was a wonderful autumn day. The weather was sunny and the leaves were falling. I was delighted by all the colours and wondered if I could extract dye from the fallen leaves. So I picked up a bunch of oak leaves (mellow brown), magnolia leaves (yellow) and maple leaves (bright red) and brought them back to Amsterdam. I looked up the recipy for making dyes from leaves in Jenny Dean’s book Wild Color. The recipy said that it is not necessary and also useless to pre-mordant (pre-fixate) the fabrics in iron, alum or copper because leaves have so much tannin that there will be no effect and the colours wil hold anyway. I decided to experiment and dyed both unmordanted and pre-mordanted fabrics. This was the first time I had ever boiled leaves on the stove. They smelled strongly. A true autumn perfume. I soaked the leaves for about an hour. The colours did come out. After an hour I put in the fabrics (60 grams fabric on 60 grams of leaves). Appearantly I used a cotton fabric that didn’t soak up colour very well, even after scouring. The results were quite pale. I put in pieces of other fabrics to compare. Indeed the looser weaved fabrics became darker. I also discovered that colours deepened when I left the fabrics soak for a longer time. I was pleased to see that brown leaves give a brown(-ish) colour, yellow leaves give yellow(ish) and red leaves red(-ish) hues. Some fabrics dyed with oak leaves I post-mordanted in iron. The brown became a beautiful soft grey. Also the fabrics pre-mordanted in iron were slightly more grey. Other pre- and post-mordants had no effect, just like the recipy described. Yarns of wool became brown, yarns of cotton more sand-like. There are enough pieces of fabric to make an Antwerp Sampler. I am looking forward to do so. By the way: the trees on the photos below are the actual trees that provided me with the leaves.

The results#

Some fabrics I redyed in a tie-dye bundle. There were results but very slight, like traces of dried water drops on a window.

References and Inspiration#

First Flush in the TextileLab#

This was a very exciting and lovely day. Colours are such a joy and they make me so happy! We learned how to scour, pre-mordant, dye and post-mordant (also with acidic like vinegar and alkaline solutions like soda). There are countless books and websites that have recipies and how-to-manuals for mordants and natural dyes. This one I found quite handy. The most surprising thing was the math. It is very important to make exact calculations of dry fabric weight (WOF) and amounts of mordant/dye. I dyed fabrics with turmeric, which was on the one hand lucky (fantastic yellow) and on the other hand a bit unfortunate because pre- and post-mordants have a limited effect on turmeric dye (to name them: post-mordant alkaline solutions make the turmeric dye turn red, pre-mordant alum makes the yellow more bright, pre-mordant copper gives fantastic oker hues, iron does not seem to make much of a difference). One post-mordant I tried gave a totally mysterious result, namely blue-ish grey. Perhaps I dipped the fabric in another dye without realising (probably).

The Turmeric Experience#

Bacteria Dyes I Made#

The result is beautiful. Clockwise: a piece of silk satin, a piece of silk organza and headdress made of unbleached cotton.

Dyeing with bacteria is not as difficult as I thought it would be. In fact, it is a bit like making homemade yoghurt (also a microbiological procedure that calls for heating, inoculating and incubating.) The only difference is that with bacteria dyes you work much cleaner (sterile) and much more careful as not to spread the bacteria all over the place (‘misplaced’ yoghurt bacteria won’t do any harm; Janthinobacterium Lividum will probably leave purple stains where you don’t want to). I love the results and wonder how this technique could be used in other ways than in the ‘tie-dye method we use.

Roughly, the procedure goes as follows:

Fellow-student Jessica Stanley made a very detailed description of the bacteria dye process. Many thanks for her meticulous notes!

In the wetlab/biolab at WAAG. We work in a very clean (sterile) environment. Coats on, hands washed, door closed. First we prepare the fabrics and the nutrients for the bacteria. We prepare a broth (made from agar) for the actual dyeing, we prepare a gel for new bacteria to grow on for the next batch of fabrics to be dyed.

We sterilise everything in pressure cookers: fabric, liquid broth and nutrient gel for growing more bacteria. Some bacteria are dead and cannot be used for dyeing. We extract the pigment of the dead bacteria with some ethanol. Before throwing petridishes away, we kill what is left of the bacteria in the pressure cooker, just to be sure they won’t grow anywhere we do not want to.

To create a makeshift sterile environment in the wetlab, we spray ethanol on the table and put a burner in the middle. The air circulating sterilizes the workspace. When we open the petridishes we hold our breaths as not to infect the insides. We inoculate the fabrics by holding an inoculation instrument in the flame, scraping off some bacteria from the ‘colony’ and putting it on and next to the fabric, also in the broth that serves as food for the bacteria.

We use the bacteria Janthinobacterium Lividum. Inoculated fabric stays in the incubator for a few days. Afterwards the bacteria are killed in the sterilisation pot. The fabric is rinsed thoroughly and dryed. The Journal of Applied Microbiology gives more info on the bacteria.

Recipe for bacteria dyeing#

Biomaterials I made#

Trying Recipies for Bioplastics#

Trying as in both ‘to attempt’ and ‘difficult’. I sadly missed the class instructions because I was in Antwerp, so I did some experimenting later. I must admit that I did not make a bioplastic that I found tolerable, although there were some pretty failures. Really I did not get the hang of it, even though I cooked some batches and did improve somewhat. But I learned a lot and thought a lot about bioplastics. The process is rather difficult I find. I wonder how all these great examples in the TextileLab were made. Some are so firm and neat! Also I noticed I developed some doubts. Bioplastics are digradable and this seems not a good thing for developing sustainable textiles. The bioplastic that I made cannot be washed, it is not water or heat resistent (I tried!). A real dissappointment because I thought I had finally solved the ‘anti-slip’-problem of my handmade yogamat (I wanted to make bioplastic ‘dots’ on the downward side, but alas, no go). In the end I must admit that even though I think bioplastics might solve some urgent issues in the food and packaging industries, and even though it is good and wonderful to experiment, bioplastics are still disposable products. Single use plastics, be they synthetic or bio, are relatively expensive and still produce CO2 emissions and waste. Undigradable plastic should not end up in our oceans and bodies but there is some upside to the fact that it does not wear easy. Perhaps we should use and re-use plastics in another way?

Laboratory Experiment#

Since I never made bioplastic before I mainly wanted to get to know the material. Therefore I decided to cook five basic gelatine-recipies (regular biosilicon, biosilicon with 1:1 ratio of gelatine-glycerine, bioplastic, biofoam and bioraisin). Which I found hard enough, actually, especially the application of the warm bioplastics on the prepared surfaces. I simply poored the bioplastics on different ones, for example some pieces of textile I had biodyed earlier. Really I just wondered what would happen. I was surprised to see that the textiles curled up when the bioplastics dried, meaning there are possibilities for making interesting patterns and embossments?

Kitchen Experiment: Salty Dough#

As a girl I made little sculptures of salty dough. These sculptures lasted for years, certainly when varnished. So I wondered if I could make some biomaterials with this ‘bio-clay’. I used my old recipy (1/2 flour, 1/2 salt, some water, some glycerine; bake for 1 hr at 100ºC or until hard) but here are more recipies. These buttons and part of a bracelet (I suppose) were the result. They are not flexible. I wonder if the material might be suitable for the lasercutter? I also poured some bioplastic over pieces of salty dough but these are still drying.

Note to Self#

Bioplastic full moon rising over my appartment.

Design for Antwerp Sampler with selfmade biodyes fabrics and bioplastics.

Further Reading#