When buying clothes, most people barely think about how it has been made. Not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know and aren’t offered a lot of information about the production process. Logically, if you are not involved in the fashion business, you mostly do not come into contact with these kind of matters. However, there are a lot of interesting developments going on that are definitely worth knowing about.
A development such as natural dyeing for instance. Karlijne Opmeer (27), a fashion graduate from the AMFI (Amsterdam Fashion Institute), informed us about her graduation project called ‘dyeing for a change’. Being a fashion student working in an industry which is based on constant change and being unsustainable in its deep core, was not something Karlijne was particularly proud of. So she started to look for alternatives, and found one in bacteria. At the end of the project Karlijne successfully dyed 3 shirts based on 100% bacteria and 0% chemicals. This is an extremely positive and innovative development, considering the amount of damage chemicals have on the air, waters, land and health of the workers during the production phase of clothes. We were intrigued, so we met Karlijne over a cup of coffee to hear about the ins and outs of her project.
Why did you decide to study fashion design?
Karlijne: Before I started at the AMFI, I went to an art school called Sint Lucas. There I quickly discovered that I loved being creative. I got to do an internship at a fashion designer in Berlin. Unfortunately, I had to go back to the Netherlands to collect my diploma. Otherwise I would still live in Berlin I guess. In Berlin it was actually the first time I really got in contact with fashion design. It triggered me to attend an open day at the AMFI after I graduated from Sint Lucas. I got through the selection procedure quite easily, which I never expected to. My studies at the AMFI went really well and I felt at place. Until I got to know more about the other side of the fashion industry and all its flaws. All of a sudden studying became hard, since I didn’t believe in the industry anymore. I had to try harder than usual.
But doesn’t the AMFI actually lecture sustainability in fashion?
Karlijne: Maybe it seems that way for people that are not really into the subject. They try to incorporate the subject slightly more, but not enough if you ask me.
‘’Being a fashion student that is concerned with the threat of climate change, working in an industry that is based on constant change and therefore seems unsustainable in its deep core is not something to be particularly proud of.’’
You would expect future fashion influencers to know all the ins and outs of the fashion industry. The flaws included. Right?
Karlijne: Yes definitely! It’s just that not everyone cares enough.
Despite the ones that do not care, do you notice other individuals just like you trying to change the traditional fashion industry?
Karlijne: During my project I attended a lot of seminars and events addressing sustainable fashion. The more I showed my face during these events, the more I learned and got to know people doing similar things like me. I found out that there are a lot of likeminded people, fighting similar struggles and looking for other options. Changing both production and value systems. Not only looking for answers on the biology platform, but for example friends of mine, young designers are now fully embracing technology, in order to avoid the wasteful prototyping period. Or others that are also pushing the boundaries of biology, working with mycelium (a type of mushroom) or jellyfish and trying to grow their own fabrics. Actually there are a lot of cool things going on, just bubbling below the surface!
‘’In order to promote innovation through research I exchanged my sewing machine for a few incubators and a pair of gloves, and my pattern book for a lab journal.’’
How did this project start?
Karlijne: Well I always wanted to do something with sustainability, but it was quite difficult to decide what and how exactly. I think it is important to design with an eye for the environment. Not only during my studies, but also in my day-to-day life I try to be conscious. At one moment I was looking for alternative materials and/or techniques. Strangely enough to others, I started with techniques such as tanning fish skin and felting human hair. I think even my teachers thought it was very odd… Eventually I ended up at the open wet lab of WaagSociety, where one of my teachers who saw my struggles had just started a Textile Academy. All of a sudden I was surrounded by biologists and scientists. It was a completely new field and environment for me. At the lab they already had a small sample of textile dyed with bacteria. I got very excited and curious to research further possibilities. The eventual aim of my project was to find out how many colours I could create with this technique. But I was basically just trying stuff and trying to figure it out along the way.
How did it work with the bacteria? What kind of bacteria are you using for the dyeing for example?
Karlijne: There are pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria. Pathogenic bacteria are harmful and can cause infections and diseases. Non-pathogenic logically cannot. I worked with non-pathogenic bacteria. Funny enough, at a certain moment I had to search for a different lab because the possibilities became too limited at the lab I worked at by then. Eventually I ended up working at the research department of UMC, an academic hospital in Utrecht. I contacted the lab and informed them about the bacteria I was working with. They told me they did not know them since they weren’t human related. Nevertheless, I was allowed to use the facilities of the lab because they were interested in my project. They also saw the fun of mixing different disciplines since they had never worked with a fashion student before.
‘’The bacteria are to some extent co-designers during the process.’’
What was the eventual outcome?
Karlijne: The research I did is still in its early phase. A study that normally takes several years to complete, I had to complete in 4 months to be able to graduate on time. Of course this wasn’t enough to research everything I wanted to around this subject. However, to complete my studies I had to meet certain deadlines. My aim was to be able to dye several colors, and with a lot of help from people from different backgrounds, I was able to present three shirts in the end. All dyed in the lab with dye obtained from bacteria! I managed to dye the shirts in the colours light yellow, pink and blue.
How much does it cost to dye with bacteria? Is it feasible for companies to already start selling clothes dyed with this method?
Karlijne: At this moment the project is still in its research phase, so the costs involved are a bit hard to determine. Taking into account the shirts are dyed in a lab, which is an expensive location, it definitely cannot compete with the traditional way of dyeing. Yet.
And how much time does the dyeing process take?
Karlijne: First the bacteria have to ‘‘settle’’ before they start to reproducing themselves. Within an hour the bacteria already start to grow, but it is different per strain, however. The organisms have a growth spurt and after three to four days they have reached their maximum growth. After that, they decrease in amount. They are just like pets. You have to feed them and they need to be in the right conditions. Both temperature as light for example, influence the growth. The organisms grow in trays and are stored in climate cabinets where they have the right temperature to grow.
Is it also possible to make patterns with this dyeing method?
Karlijne: It is actually easier to dye material with a pattern than completely solid. The bacteria can actually, to some extent, co-design during the process. They grow the way they want to and a lot of times that results in uneven colouring. For this project though, I managed to create solid dyed shirts, to show the industry the possibility. Because at the end of the day, the industry is not interested in another ‘tie dye’ print, but wants proof that it is possible to control the process.
‘’Pigments can be grown instead of produced and their rapid production rate makes them an interesting resource to work with.’’
What are the overall limitations of this project?
Karlijne: Hmm good question. I think, because of the early stage of this project, a better question could be: what are the options? There is still a lot to be figured out, but I think the options could be limitless!
Also intrigued? Let us know what you think in the comments below and make sure you visit Karlijne’s website including her other projects http://www.karlijneopmeer.nl.