If Textiles Could Talk: “Does that color come in organic?”

In a prior blog  I wrote about the unfortunate toxicity of conventional dyes and how the textile industry historically has a devastating effect on the environment and people’s health. As populations continue to grow and eco-awareness spreads, the clothing industry will need to find viable solutions to this problem.

People have been using “natural” dyes made from plant, mineral, and animal ingredients for thousands of years. In fact, dyed flax fibers, dating back 36,000 years, were found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia. Today, cultures around the world continue the craft of natural dyeing to produce uniquely colored yarns and cloths.

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There is a huge variety of natural substances that can be used to color fabric. Having a broad chemical range, different substances require different techniques, and many require the use of a mordant. Mordants are metallic salts that bind the dye to the fabric, typically applied prior to submerging fabric into a dye bath. Many, but not all, traditionally used mordants are toxic, which presents the same problems as synthetic dyes: human exposure and wastewater disposal. Some popular natural dye extracts have a certain level of toxicity as well. Hmmm…

Though natural dyes can produce rich, complementary colors, many of the bright hues we see in stores are not available as natural dye colors. Even if consumers were to accept those limitations and switch to naturally dyed items only, we wouldn’t have enough land and water to produce all the dye material needed to color the human race’s wardrobes.

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The concept of using agricultural waste as dye material makes good sense. Let’s see where that goes in the future. Ploughboy Organics, a blooming U.S. company, is developing a line of organic dyes and textiles using organic tobacco by-products, and claims the process will use less water and energy than conventional dyeing.

Noon Design Studio in Los Angeles specializes in dyeing natural fibers using natural ingredients and non-toxic mordants.

Saco River Dyehouse claims to be the only GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified yarn-dyeing factory in the U.S., and is now operating in Biddeford, Maine.

DIY. Safe, natural dyeing is definitely doable. If you do it yourself you can control which substances are used. I recommend you research the effects of the chemical compounds of each individual plant, mineral or animal used, as well as for the mordant recommended for each dye material.

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Until truly sustainable dyeing systems are invented and adopted for mass production, I recommend backing the alternatives. Buy GOTS-certified organic textiles that were produced using low-impact dyes or none at all. Support colorgrown cotton, hemp, untreated wools, and recycled fabrics. Look for up-cycled items (clothes and accessories made from repurposed textiles and used clothes).

If items are certified organic to the GOTS standard, they will have the following qualities:

  • All chemical inputs (e.g., dyes, auxiliaries, and process chemicals) must be evaluated and meet basic requirements for toxicity and biodegradability/eliminability
  • Prohibition of critical inputs such as toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, functional nano particles, and genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their enzymes
  • The use of synthetic sizing agents is restricted; knitting and weaving oils must not contain heavy metals
  • Bleaches must be based on oxygen (no chlorine bleaching)

Here at Lifekind, we only use colorgrown organic cotton, meaning the colors you see are the natural colors of the plant fibers that were used to make the product– NO DYES! More on colorgrown cotton to come…

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