Nowadays, there are many alternatives to the polluting and chemical dyeing methods used in the fashion industry. For example, plant dyeing has returned. In addition, there are new and innovative alternatives for dyeing fabric and trims with, for example, CO2 or even bacteria.

Gewend aan het effect van chemische verfstoffen

Sustainable dyeing methods are more commonly used in smaller-scale production, though it is possible for larger production scales. Changing the fixed, fast and cheap dyeing process of the polluting fashion industry can be difficult. Want to read more regarding the effects of harmful dyes? Click here to read our previous blog post.

People are used to the constant colours they see in all shops, such as navy blue, classic red, leafy green and Dutch orange. Vegetable-based dyeing methods do not narrow the colour palette, though creating bright colours can be challenging with colours fading.

Alternatives to natural and synthetic materials

Natural dyes are only effective on natural textiles because each fibre type has its own unique structure. When dyeing with natural dyes, some dyes will adhere to different fibres better than others. We can dye blue cotton jeans with vegetable indigo or a linen blouse from avocado seeds or onion peel. Vegetable dyes also adhere well to animal fibres such as silk and wool.

Another possibility to dye natural and synthetic fibres is with bacteria or fungi, literally living colours! It is possible to extract colour pigments from biodegradable and human-friendly bacteria. The bacteria convert nutrients into pigments that can dye or grow on clothing, thus creating unique patterns. Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar researched the possibilities of bacteria in their research Living Colour and designed a collection dyed with bacteria for Puma.

A similar process can also apply to fungi. Ilse Kremer investigated the possibilities of dyeing with fungi in her graduation project, "Fabulous Funghi". Together with the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute, she developed a dyeing method. First, the fungi are grown. When the colour pigment is clearly visible, the fungi are dissolved in an agent. This kills the fungus and only the pigment remains, which you can use to dye textiles.. Dyeing with bacteria and fungi is a natural, eco-friendly way of dyeing clothes. At COSH! We think there is a lot of potential in this for the future!

Natural dyes do not work with synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon (polyamide). Therefore, other innovations have been developed to be able to dye without letting dyes escape to nature. For example, fibres can be dyed at an early stage, as in We aRe SpinDye® where colour pigments and recycled polyester are melted together. Dyecoo, where synthetic fibres are dyed using CO2 techniques. Other solutions are to re-use the dye bath repeatedly or to apply the pigment directly to the fibres so no dye residue remains. There are also techniques for sorting clothes by colour and then recycling them. The brand Loop a Life uses this technique for its clothing, and Reblend also works in this way. You can read more about it later in the article.

“A lot is possible, because we dye and make clothes by hand"

Lotje Terra runs the BORO*ATELIER together with Lotje Terra, who set up the studio some five years ago with Celia Geraedts.

The BORO*ATELIER is a natural dye factory in Amsterdam with the mission to make the textile industry more social and sustainable. Here, we dye with pigments based on plants and minerals. It is also a social production workshop where a training programme is offered to long-term jobseekers and status holders to guide them towards paid employment.

As Lotje points out, few people think about the colours. "Usually money and convenience keep fashion giants from using natural dyes and colouring methods". It's the limited collections when natural dyes are generally used by bigger brands as they want to make a one-off statement. We're used to things being too cheap, so we see more sustainable options as 'expensive'. In addition, natural colours are not mainstream, they are unknown to many people." And while natural dyes have nice benefits to offer, Lotje says. "They look beautiful and the colours can have so much life! It's sustainable because everything comes from nature. If the dyes ever returned to nature, they would pose no threat.

The BORO*ATELIER usually produces 100 to 300 garments per project. "But dyeing with natural fabrics can certainly be done on a larger scale if there is a demand for it. There is no such demand at the moment because people are not very familiar with it and may be afraid that the colours will fade." The colours from the studio are quite washable because the fabrics are properly pre-treated and the recipes for colour baths are optimised. "Eventually the colour will age, but that doesn't have to be a problem. The colour will still be present, only it will become lighter, more pastel. But it does depend on what kind of dye has been used. Clothing dyed with the pigment indigo, for example, remains the same colour for a long time.

According to Lotje, many variations in colours and patterns are possible with natural dyes. "We have that freedom because we do everything by hand. As we work with tie-dye, dip-dye and we do screen printing with rice paste and natural ink. We use a colour bath of indigo and old iron from rusty nails for a lilac-like grey colour. With madder, we make orange, red and pink shades, with reseda fresh yellow colours. You can also combine these colours bath by bath for a mixed colour. Exactly what the colour will look like depends on the pre-treatment, acidity and how long you let the colour soak into the garment in the dye bath."

“Dyeing clothes with plants at home''

Janne Roels obtained her master's degree in collaborative and industrial design at the University of Antwerp with her thesis 'TINTU'; she also worked for a few months as a student worker at COSH!, where she learnt more about the polluting side of the clothing industry.

TINTU is a cooking device with which you can make dyes for ink or clothing at home. "With food scraps or plants, you can make a concentrate to work with. Whereupon you can make a dye bath to dye clothes in.

Janne wants people who like to be ecologically minded and creative, an easy-to-use product so that they can enjoy dyeing. "When I discovered how many people on Instagram are recreational dyers, it opened up a whole new world for me. This inspired me because I saw how everyone was dyeing the 'old-fashioned way', with pots and pans on the cooker. I tried that myself once, making paint from avocado peels and pits. That was fun, but I thought: we can do it better and deliver a nicer product.

In the corona year, she took online courses on ink making, dyeing clothes and creating motifs with natural dyes. "This is how I learned how you can only use natural dyes on natural textiles such as cotton and wool, whilst each specific material will give a different colour result. For example, wool absorbs more dye than silk or cotton." Tip from COSH! If you've warmed up to natural dyeing and want to work with felt and vegetable dyes yourself, be sure to attend a workshop at Katrien Perquy in Bruges!

If you have become enthusiastic about natural dyeing and want to work with felt and vegetable dyes yourself, then be sure to follow a workshop with Katrien Perquy in Brugge!

Janne sees a positive future for the clothing industry using natural dyes. "It's healthier to wear on the skin and it's unique. We are used to constant colour, but if people are open to the effect of natural dyes, natural changes and evolution of the colours used on their clothes, it can become big. In principle, natural dyes degrade slowly, yet with the correct knowledge, application, and care, they can remain beautiful for a long time. Maybe in the future, we can even go back to the shop to get our clothes re-dyed."

Niki, the founder of COSH!, is happy that solutions like TINTU are being developed. "As we learn to deal with clothes that are naturally dyed, and the colour fades, it would be nice if there was someone in every community who could get started with re-colouring. TINTU can be a big help in this, and will become a much-needed tool on PEERBY, a website where you can borrow and rent stuff from your neighbours."

“Suits dyed with Fanta caps''

Last summer, Lieke and Fenna graduated from the 'Fashion and textile technologies' programme at Saxion University. As their graduation project, they started the brand Neena. together. The first collection consists of powerful suits in unique colours and will be released in the spring of 2022.

Lieke and Fenna only want to produce in an ecologically and ethically responsible way. Fenna commented, "We learned a lot about sustainability during our education, where we think this should be the new normal. We have seen how the clothing industry works abroad; we do not wish to be part of it.

Through their training, they came into contact with the sustainable weaving mill 'Enschede Textile City', run by Annemieke Koster. They weave fabrics with recycled yarn from ReBlend. ReBlend sorts discarded garments by colour and composition and then spins them into new yarns. The yarns do not need re-dying as they keep their original colour, except for the yellow yarn. Fanta bottle tops dye the yellow yarn where even pieces of the bottle tops are within the textile fibres.

Lieke and Fenna used this fabric for the prototypes of the suits. "We thought the idea of this dyeing method was very cool," says Lieke. "Only the material was not suitable for our suits. We noticed from the prototypes that they piled quickly, the fabric was too thick and we were looking for something that would be comfortable in both winter and summer," says Fenna. That is why they had to let go of the Fanta yellow suits. They are keeping the fabric in mind for subsequent collections.

"We are therefore making the first collection from the material Tencel, which is a fabric made from wood pulp. It is a fabric that falls nicely and fits well with our design. They reuse waste products from production, with no chlorine used to make the Tencel fabric. A sustainable alternative which is positive.

"Using supercritical CO2, your t-shirt is yellow in the summer and blue in the winter''

Hanne Schatteman is a chemical civil engineer and is in the process of founding her own circular clothing brand. The plan is to dye clothes using supercritical CO2, which is a physical state between liquid and gas.

Hanne started her career at a chemical company but wanted to be involved in sustainability. "It's time to apply more technology to the fashion industry, yet it is frustrating that little has happened yet." The opposite diagram shows how the colouring method works. "In principle, you could give your clothes a different colour every season in this way."

At COSH!, we are fans of this idea. In this way, you could enjoy the same clothes for longer and make sure they continue to fit your style. It fits well within the circular economy. Would you go to a centre where you can change the colour of your clothes if you don't like the original colour anymore? Let us know!

Circular means that every part of a garment's lifecycle is cyclical, so no raw materials are left unused from the beginning of production to when the garment has finished its life as a T-shirt, for example. "I want to set up urban hubs where you can buy clothes, have them repaired, re-coloured and eventually hand them in so we can recycle them." No toxic dyes end in the environment with Hanne's chosen dyeing method. "We collect all excess dyes, which we can reuse later."

She wants to take responsibility for the entire life of the garments of her future brand. "My concept is that you can have a yellow t-shirt from June dyed blue, for example, when you're tired of it. Or that you can change a long-sleeved shirt to a short-sleeved one when it gets cold. This way, a T-shirt never ends up in the rubbish dump. If someone doesn't want it anymore, we'll recycle it. That's easy to do because I will make the clothes from 100% recycled polyester and continue to recycle again and again".

Polyester (both 'new' and recycled) is a synthetic fabric that you cannot colour with natural dyes because it does not absorb those dyes well. Supercritical CO2 could be a harmless alternative to the way polyester is dyed at the moment.

And now? How do I find clothes without chemical dyes?

It's difficult to picture our culture without rapid fashion. Fast fashion is clothing that rapidly copies trends, manufactured at the highest possible speed and the lowest cost to be sold, then swiftly in stores. Because the garments are frequently of inferior quality and the trends change quickly, fast fashion usually leaves the buyer's wardrobe soon after purchase. It also means that colours can be trendy one minute and then vanish from the street scene the next. The bright green Zara trousers that many fashion-forward people ordered in the spring of 2021 are unlikely to be seen again in the spring of 2022.

It is a shame that the chemicals used in dyes for the various colours and the dyeing waste end up in the natural water streams. But it can do differently it. Consciously choosing colours that suit you, you would like for a long time, wearing clothes you have already have help to create a long-lasting wardrobe and is the most sustainable option. If a colourful trend comes along that you want to join, you can start by looking in second-hand shops. This way we use no new dyes for clothes and no more rivers have to be polluted. Your physical health needs to wash newly purchased clothes before wearing them to prevent harmful dyes from penetrating your skin.

​​When shopping, you can look for clothes that carry a GOTS, OEKO-TEX or Bluesign label, which are labels that include chemicals and dyes in the control and evaluation of products. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) also guarantees that the textile fibres are of organic origin and that the working conditions in which they make the clothes are OK. OEKO-TEX can only guarantee no harmful substances are in the final product. With the Bluesign certificate, they have used no chemicals in the production, no natural resources have been over-utilised, and the apparel is devoid of dangerous substances, ressponsibly managed, water, air pollution and waste water are reduced to the lowest possible ecological footprint and the safety of employees and consumers involved is guaranteed.

You can also look for undyed clothes. For example, the Dutch brand MUD Jeans has undyed light blue jeans and trousers that are dyed with natural dyes. Another tip is to buy clothes that are made locally in Europe or North America from the yarn to the finished product, because here they enforce strict rules on chemicals. Although the Belgian Hobokens PFOS story by 3M makes us question such statements.

Finally, it is still useful to look at the materials of clothing when you are in the shop. Indeed, with the techniques now used in the major fashion industries, more chemical dyes are always needed to dye synthetic fibres such as polyester than to dye natural or cellulose fibres. Make a conscious choice for clothing made from plant-based materials such as hemp, linen or (organic) cotton, preferably with a GOTS certificate that guarantees organic quality and sustainable and safe textile dyes.