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July 2, 2021

Sterile, Kate Reed, Industrial Design, 2021

by katereedreads

The textile dying process is one of the most polluting processes in the world. Chemical dyes are used until the color is no longer consistent, then the liquid chemical dye is thrown away, with little regard to where it goes and the harm that it creates. It is an unsustainable and toxic process. Due to high demand and fast fashion, little is being done to disrupt this harmful cycle.

We have a plague on our society of consumer capitalism, with predictable and obedient consumers. Fast fashion is a product of this plague, where clothing is meant to only last for one season and then expire as the trend expires. This has created an uncontrollable amount of textile waste. In 2014, the United States alone produced 32.44 Billion pounds of textile waste.

As the Artist in Residence at BosLab, a community built molecular biology lab in Cambridge, MA, I have the unique opportunity to disrupt this fast fashion cycle through novel bacteria dyes. Bacteria dyes use significantly less water than traditional dying methods, and the biproduct of the dye is ecological, as opposed to foreign chemicals from traditional dying methods.  

I began my journey with safety training and learning the concept of sterile from a biologist’s perspective. Sterile is very different than being clean. We exist in a world surrounded by microbes, they are on our bodies, on surfaces, in the ground and in the air. To create a sterile environment means to rid that environment of all the microbes. This is commonly done with heat, UV light, rubbing alcohol, and bleach. Creating a sterile space is quite straight forward, but keeping a space sterile is much more difficult. If you reach your hand over your work surface, you have contaminated it. If you touch the outside of a bottle or container with your hands, you are contaminated. As result, I find myself spraying my gloved hands down with ethanol every 30 seconds or so in the lab.

This need to keep my workspace sterile shines a light on the cleanliness of my everyday COVID lifestyle habits. I am aware of how many microbes are living all over everything in my home, my car, and my food. I am also more aware of how strong my body is as it co-exists with microbes. But I would not want to be living in a glass bubble – microbes are good.

In my first attempt to dye textiles with bacteria, I used a magenta synthetic e.coli. I took a single e.coli colony and grew it up in a vat of LB broth which provides the food for the bacteria to grow.  Then I added textiles to the dye bath, then put the dye bath on heat. A week later I came back to find beautiful pink textiles. It was so exciting to see the dye work on the textiles, but this was only half of the challenge. Next, I had to figure out how to kill the bacteria while keeping the color, because you can’t have active bacteria living and growing on your clothing. Killing the bacteria turned out to be the most difficult part of the project. I experimented with ethanol, vinegar, UV light and an autoclave. Heating the bacteria in the autoclave was the only method that worked to kill this specific type of bacteria. Unfortunately, killing the bacteria by autoclave also meant killing the color as well. My autoclaved samples looked almost completely washed out, devoid of color.

Back to the drawing board. I need to fine a different type of bacteria for textile dyeing.

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