The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world, in which one the most environmentally disastrous processes is the dyeing of fibers and textiles of the clothes we wear. Chemicals are released daily in nature destroying the environment around us to satisfy the colour demands that we create as designers, industry and consumers. Very few options are being explored in this fast changing fashion, clothing and textile industry, in which the list of chemical treatments is only expanding. We are simultaneously trying to identify the real environmental costs we are paying and researching for less harmful alternatives.

The workshop was co ran by

Manufacture cph

Maria Viftrup


Collectively they gathered a small group to reside at Biologigaragen for a afternoon of learning, inspiring and creating.In the hope of using this future method within textiles.

People have used other organisms to dye clothing since prehistory. Archaeologists traced indigo derived from plants to a 6,000-year-old piece of fabric recovered on the coast of Peru. Aztec and Maya peoples extracted a crimson dye from insects on cactus and others in the Mediterranean made royal purple from snails. As I found these stories of natural dyes from all kinds of plants and animals, I found fewer examples of ancient dyes from creatures of the microbial world. There is a long record of making dyes from lichen and mushrooms, but not from the most biodiverse domain of life, the Bacteria. This is not too surprising, since we only began culturing isolated bacterial species a few hundred years ago. And the lack of history in this case is a good thing: it means that the history of using bacteria for dyeing clothing is being made right now.

Looking at the photographs, I wonder now at the biology behind the beautiful patterns. We could certainly get hard answers by chemically mapping the fabrics using advanced mass spectrometry to see which pigment molecules are where and when. In lieu of those experiments, I can speculate.

The first key to the patterns is that colonies grow at different rates throughout the plate, and in some locations they do not develop at all. This is due to the texture and placement of the fabric. The bacteria on and nearest to the medium have direct access to water and nutrients and grow best.

Meanwhile fewer colonies develop on crinkles of fabric raised above the media, because there the bacteria rely only on what can diffuse up into the fabric and on what nutrients were initially soaked into the fabric. The next key is the pigments themselves.

 Streptomyces coelicolor produces pink to red prodiginine molecules (like prodigiosin) and the water-soluble molecule actinorhodin. Actinorhodin is exported into the extracellular environment and its color depends on pH; it is blue in typical laboratory cultures. Therefore, the deep magenta of the flat sections of fabric is likely a combination of the red prodiginines which stay with the colonies and blue actinorhodin that is both in the colonies and diffuses out. And the blue color is seen in areas that lack enough cells to detect red from intracellular prodiginines while still close enough to large colonies that actinorhodin diffuses out.

The colonies may also be changing the pH of their surroundings as they metabolize nutrients, creating a mosaic of microenvironments and different shades of actinorhodin in more acidic areas. No two pieces of fabric will be the same. Like the subtle flavors of a wine produced by the microbial fermentation of grapes, we don’t fully understand how the exact end product arises, and there is added beauty in that mystery.