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sustainable design: bio-based pigments for textile dyeing

in sustainable design

Textile dyeing is an energy-and-water-greedy process that’s often based on heavy chemicals. Is there a better way? Designers around the globe are experimenting with alternative methods, some new and some inspired by past traditions. Let’s get inspired…

plant waste

Dyeing textiles with plants is a long-lived practice that’s still in use. These days, plant dyes are often shipped to the four corners of the globe. But since plants live everywhere is there not another way?

Lucila Kenny started from this question to test the potential of local plant waste. Fallen leaves and flowers, vegetable skins and pits, and other locally foraged plant-based matter is used to create a myriad of colours, from light to dark. The process is slow, manual, and frugal. For instance, water used for dye baths is reused multiple times to achieve deeper hues, saving on this precious resource at the same time.

Display of plant matter (flowers, vegetable skins, bark...) used for dyeing.
Credit: Lucila Kenny
Display of plant-based pigments.
Credit: Lucila Kenny
Pink, orange and green textiles dyed with plant-based pigments.
Credit: Lucila Kenny


The ocean is another great place to find dyeing matter. Zeefier sources seaweed waste from local beaches and industrial partners that use seaweeds in their operations (food, cosmetics…). Pigments are extracted with a process that requires very little fresh water and the resulting colours range from pale yellow to deep purple.

Finding practical applications for seaweeds also responds to a currently inefficient system. Seaweeds are thrown away in massive quantities when they pile up on the shore; a wasteful practice that can be prevented with initiatives and projects that use them as raw materials!

Seaweeds on the shore.
Credit: Zeefier
Textile samples dyed with seaweeds in pink, beige and taupe shades.
Credit: Zeefier
Orange textiles dyed with seaweeds.
Credit: Zeefier


Besides extracting pigments from natural materials, dyes can be grown.

Karlijne Opmeer experimented with (non-pathogen) bacterial cultures and observed colours in them. This was the beginning of LAB_MADE, a colour library produced by bacteria with a closed-loop system requiring little water and energy. The project is still in an early phase but – thinking ahead – the fast reproduction rate of bacteria leaves hopes for scaling.

Colourful bacterial cultures.
Credit: Karlijne Opmeer
Pink textile samples dyed with bacteria.
Credit: Karlijne Opmeer
Pink and purple textiles dyed with bacteria.
Credit: Karlijne Opmeer

So there is a better way to dye textiles! More work still needs to be done until these methods become the norm, but it’s promising to see the alternative is there.

The strength of sustainable design research is exactly its willingness to question everything, never taking things for granted because of how they’ve been done so far. A breath of hope for a more sustainable and mindful future!

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