The world’s first T-shirt dyed with black algae

Innovative clothing company Vollebak, in collaboration with bioscience company Living Ink, launched what they say is the world’s first T-shirt that is dyed using black algae.

The use of black algae is an attempt to find a more sustainable alternative to carbon black, a pigment derived from petroleum that is commonly used to create black, not just in clothing, but from anything from phones to cars, to the ink in your pen. Vast tracts of lands called tar sands are stripped of all life and vegetation to extract the heavy petroleum, while the production process creates significant greenhouse gas emissions.

The black algae offer a more sustainable alternative to carbon black. Algae generate more than half the oxygen on earth, and captures and stores carbon dioxide. In addition, the dye is actually made from a byproduct from algae that are gown in huge open-air ponds for use in natural food colourings.

In 2021, Vollebak released the first edition of a black algae T-shirt, which was screen-printed using ink made from black algae. To make normal black clothing, the fibres of the fabric are dyed black, but they started off by printing with black algae ink as black algae dye hadn’t yet been invented. But it has now, and Vollebak is the first company to use it in clothing.

The most challenging part of creating black algae dye pigment is to create individual particles of pigment that are microscopically small and very black. Making ink from black algae pigment is easier, because it can be made with larger particles. But with dye, the particles have to be small enough to be absorbed by the fibres in the fabric. Now, Living Ink used its technology to produce a pigment that’s fine enough to use as dye pigment.

It took a lot of experimentation to create the T-shirt, and Vollebak is already working on the next version to achieve a more intense black colour, as the current version is more of a dark grey. The goal is to ultimately match the colour that carbon black can produce.

The T-shirt itself is made from 80 per cent organic cotton and 20 per cent SeaCell, a blend of pulped eucalyptus from sustainably managed forests and seaweed. The stitching is cotton thread and even the size and care labels are printed with black algae ink that’s made from the same algae waste as the dye.

Photos: Vollebak / Sun Lee