By exploring bacterial alternatives to synthetic dyes, Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar are transforming our understanding of the origins, behaviour and very nature of colour. Their collaborative approach to developing new sustainist palettes anticipates a future where designers and manufacturers work with the biosphere, rather than against it.
CMF Designer and Trend Forecaster Laura Perryman asks Laura and Ilfa, from Living Colour Collective about their colour processes; the opportunities and risks presented by biocolouration, and their vision for biodesign.
This piece was jointly curated by Sarah Conway and Laura Perryman. Read the full article published on Medium.
LP — Laura Perryman — Colour of Saying
LL — Laura Luchtman — Living Colour Collective
IS — Ilfa Siebenhaar — Living Colour Collective
How are you creating colour, and how would you describe your palette?
IS: The colour we are using now is a purple dye made from the bacteria strain Janthinobacterium Lividum. We also have a red from Serratia marcescens and a yellow from a bacteria called Micrococcus luteus. The yellow is a little more difficult to work with because the colour comes from inside the cell, whereas in the others the colour is on the cell surface and will attach more easily to fabric.
The colour range is bright and vivid, but it also depends on the type of textile we are dyeing. For example, the outcome on cotton is very different from silk or synthetic fibres. Synthetic fabrics give an almost neon effect which is very interesting. We can even apply colour to up-cycled fibres like PET bottles.
Is the colour only affected by the material, or are you able to influence it in other ways?
LL: For the most part, the colour is caused by the material. We have tried to manipulate the nutrient in the bacteria, and that can affect the colour, but for the ones we are working with, we don’t. The colour depends on the batch: sometimes it’s a little bit darker, sometimes it’s a bit more blueish or more purple. But basically, the textile causes the different shades and tints.
IS: It’s also possible to mix colours if you are working with the bacteria extract, rather than the living bacteria. And you can have different outcomes and shades. The bacteria are affected by temperature, so the place where they grow can move the colour a little. This doesn’t change the colour totally, it perhaps makes it a bit more intense, but won’t change it from red to green, for example.
Do you think repeatability is possible in your process? Does it matter?
LL: For us, it’s not an issue to repeat. We like the difference. But for others, and industrial standards, it is important to know or predict the exact shade and tint. What we need is a change in mindset. We are used to colours that last ten years or longer, but we aren’t in our clothes for that long. So, I think a little bit of fading is quite acceptable. We already accept it in leather or denim, so why not for other clothes?
You’ve recently worked with Puma. What was their perspective on colour and repeatability?
LL: Puma was very open to experimentation, providing us with lots of different materials to see what colour effects would happen. We dyed some pieces in plain colours with dye extracts. In others, there are growth patterns on the surface where the bacteria are living. Their view was: we don’t want standardised colour, we don’t want the same colour every time. They liked the natural growth patterns on the bacteria and were much more interested in real, living colour.
You mentioned cotton, silk, and recycled plastics. Which substrates were included?
LL: At first, we were mostly working with the materials Puma uses in their shoes: leather, synthetic leather, synthetic rubber, PU material and polyester fabrics. Later, we tested some of their deadstock and sourced fabrics from local garment designers, such as beautiful silk and hemp blends.
LP: It’s interesting to hear that your colours have been tested on such a wide range of materials successfully. This suggests it could be adopted widely, which is positive news. I’m curious, as yours is a new system approach to colour, and because your colours have fluctuating, unfixed appearances, how you describe this new palette.
Have you given your colours names?
LL: I think you are the first to ask this question! How to describe the colour. I have been thinking about how to do this. For instance, the Lividum could be Lividum-lilac, because Lividum means purple. The pigment produced by Lividum is called Violacuem. It’s fascinating to develop a new language for these colours.
IS: Perhaps it’s more Living Lividum.
LP: Yes. It’s not a static colour but a very unique proposition. I think it’s nice to keep that active element in the name.
What are some of the risks of bacteria colour for a manufacturer?
LL: You need to work in a sterile environment as contamination can be an issue. From a pollution point of view, it wouldn’t be a good idea to dye fabric and then have the wastewater run directly into the sewage system. Even though the bacteria is biodegradable, we don’t know exactly how fast it will degrade in those conditions. Also, if the water is coloured, normally it’s not of course, but if it turns purple, for example, sunlight would be absorbed differently, which would affect biodiversity under the water surface. You would still need to have a closed-loop system, to filter it out.
IS: From a circular perspective, it’s always good to keep the water, filter it and reuse it again and again, as you already have it. We’re always aiming to make the process more circular.
Have you looked at the waste streams of bacterial dying?
LL: The students we are working with are looking at this, but there are no existing studies with these particular pigments. Some benefits need further investigating too, such as the effect of the bacteria on your skin. We know these pigment-producing bacteria have anti-bacterial qualities so we would want to know what happens when you wear them for an extended period. What happens when the fabric gets wet on your skin? We want to understand more about how the pigment will be affected by wear and tear. We know it’s a natural colour and not a toxic colour because we don’t use any toxic chemicals in the process. But still, the pigment could do something to your skin or microbiome. We would love to investigate this, but there are not these kinds of standards in fashion, colours don’t have to be tested to a dermatological level.