Dyeing with bacteria

Austrian designer Julia Moser is working with pigment-producing bacteria to dye textile without harmful chemicals and pollution.

Fashion colours change each year, yet one thing doesn’t seem to change: the polluting nature of dye, leaving whole rivers dirty with chemicals and pigments.

One solution to these harmful dyes may be found in bacteria. Pigment producing bacteria do not require harmful chemicals for the dyeing process, and they need only little space and little growing time compared to natural dyes. In addition, for particular bacterial pigments there is no need for mordants (dye fixative).

In the early stages of the project, Moser was focused on finding ways to let the bacteria grow into shape and allowing intentional pattern designs and multi-coloured fabrics to emerge. She selected different types of bacteria which produce different colours of pigment, such as violet, blue, red and yellow. Moser has also worked with soak water of black beans to dye fabrics in a fermentation process with lactic acid bacteria. These bacteria make the pigments of the black bean more light-fast.

In the second phase, rather than steering the bacteria, Moser let them do as they pleased. “Often when working with the bacteria, I asked myself what they were trying to tell me with their behaviour,” Moser says, “when they always reacted in new ways under seemingly the same circumstances and conditions.” This inspired her to develop a type of alphabet to create some kind of a bacterial ‘language’ where the different colour hues the bacteria had created on the fabrics were assigned certain letters or letter combinations. Therefore the bacteria were some kind of speaking through their colour appearance. She did something similar to translate the colours into music for the handpan.

Finally, she found a similar translation of a bacteria-dyed piece of fabric to a digital knitting machine that navigated the knitting needles following different commands dependent on the coloured pixels of the fabric. This created 3-dimensional, tactile surface structures as the raw material for an innovative piece of fashion. In addition, the shapes left and created by the bacteria on different fabrics through their growth were used as cutting shapes to develop extraordinary dress forms, which were used in a performance.

Ironically, the materials used for this project were discarded fabrics from hospitals, dyed by bacteria, a place where bacteria are usually regarded as an enemy.

Photos: Julia Moser / Yuti Kainz