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August 25, 2021

Scaling Up | Kate Reed | Industrial Design | 2021

by katereedreads

Recap: I am an Artist in Residence at BosLab, in Cambridge, MA, researching new ways to use bacteria to dye textiles. I have successfully dyed textiles the color purple using Violacein.

Through my research, I have been growing vats of Violacein dyes and then refrigerating them until ready to use. I have found that the fresher dyes create the boldest colors, and the longer a dye sits, the more dull gray the colors become. Having said that, I love the range of colors the Violacein creates. I have created my darkest hues by growing up a vat of Violacein, and centrifuging it down to a concentrate. Using this concentrate, I have been able to control the fabric to dye ratio, allowing me to get very dark purple shades. This has worked amazingly well for small scale dye jobs.

I have spent the past month trying to scale up my work to be able to dye batches of textiles by the yard. This has turned out to be quite difficult because it means I need a lot of dye, and I have found that the more dye that I use, the smellier the project gets. I am working with synthetic e.coli, which unfortunately, smells like e.coli. Yesterday, I opened a dye bath that had been dying for 5 days and the smell was so putrid that it made my eyes water – no one ever talks about the smell of science. Generally though, the smell is only temporary, and once the bacteria is killed the smell mostly goes away.

I have been dying a series of scarves using the Violacein and the size of the scarves has made it difficult to dye consistently. As result, I have re-dyed the same scarf multiple times to create darker colors. This has created beautiful results, with nice variation in the purples from different bacteria dye batches. Because each dye bath is alive, the dye can grow in the most beautiful patterns and places. Each textile becomes a conversation between living and fossilized bacteria.

I went with Boslab to share our research and lab at a maker festival in Cambridge, MA. We brought a strawberry DNA activity to do with the kids there. It was very fun to share my research with the community, inspiring the next generation of biologists and designers. It was reaffirming for our future to see that all kids have an interest and an eagerness to play, experiment, and learn. But, somehow, as these kids grow up, they are herded into respective fields, and magically, the field of science becomes filled mostly with men. It made me proud to be a woman in science and role model for the next generation of young girls.

Design can empower communities. Responsible design can eradicate social problems. Biodesign has the power to shift this dichotomy and offer our planet time to rest and heal. As designers we need to keep thinking towards this future of products that help our bodies and our planet. But right now, the industry has not innovated as quickly and does not have the infrastructure to support living products. But this infrastructure will catch up to our living futures, it just needs the next generation of designers that believe in the balance between living futures, form, and function.

This summer at Boslab has given me the skills and tools to design living systems that put our planet and its ecology first. I will be forever grateful for my time here and the wonderful community I met. This summer project has unfolded at the perfect time in my life and leaves me inspired to continue my deep dive into the field of biodesign. 

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