Wednesday, 8 March 2017

LIVING COLOUR: dying textiles with dancing bacteria

As I wrote earlier, I took part in the class Textile Academy at Waag Society in Amsterdam for 16 weeks. Each week I learned new tools, software and skills to investigate how the textile and fashion industry can benefit from new technologies, processes, and business models. The workshops gave me the instruments and knowledge to develop my own in depth research project in the TextileLab. Living Colour is the result.


Imagine a world where biological fabrication replaces synthetic manufacturing. Until the middle of the 19th century, all dyes used in textiles were naturally derived. Ever since the textile industry uses synthetic and toxic colourants almost exclusively. These dyes are mostly made from non-renewable resources such as fossil oil, in spite of its hazardous effect to the environment, animals and humans.


As an alternative to synthetic pigments, some aerobic bacteria have produce bio pigments. Some bacteria produce colourful molecules: pigments, like carotenoids and violacein. These colours are biodegradable and environmentally friendly. They also have numerous clinical characteristics like anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, anti-biotic, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. This could be beneficial to our skin, our largest organ, which now absorbs small amounts of toxic chemicals on a daily basis.

"Living Colour explores natural textile dying with live bacteria by the use of sound."


Living Colour


Fellow Textile Academy participant Ilfa Siebenhaar & I decided to work together on project Living Colour. We were both fascinated by bacterial pigments and creating patterns on textiles. Living Colour explores natural textile dying with live bacteria by the use of sound. We investigated the optimum growth conditions for bacterial pigments, ways to speed up the growth process and the possibilities of growing bacteria in patterns by subjecting them to sound frequencies. Asking “What effect do sound frequencies have on the growth of bacterial pigments?” and “Can we control the process of growing bacterial pigments?

geometric Chladni figures: sand on a metal resonating plate

We took inspiration from cymatic phenomena like Chladni figures and Faraday waves, which cause matter to take form in geometrical patterns when subjected to sound. With the help of sound engineer Eduard van Dommelen we built a sound installation in the biomedical lab of Rotterdam University. By making the bacteria dance, we attempted to exclude random growth in order to create beautiful patterned fabrics.

Audio installation in lab climate room

"Growing bacteria as a dye factory can lead to a more sustainable way to colour the world."


We discovered that sound frequencies help speed up pigment production. While the bacteria that weren't subjected to sound created stained fabrics, we found that the dancing bacteria created plain dyed fabrics. Even though the result was the opposite of what we aimed for, the result was absolutely fascinating. Using sound frequencies to grow bacteria could lead to ways of scaling up the bacterial dye process.

Lab day 1: petri dishes with pieces of raw silk

Audio experiment results: pieces of plain dyed silk

Janthinobacterium Lividum (JL) is an excellent bacterium for use of textile dying. It grows fast, even in not so optimal conditions and produces saturated pigments. When dying textiles with live bacteria, the textiles don’t necessarily need to be mordanted before dying, unlike natural dyes from plants, insects and spices. Mordanting and fixing the textiles could result in even better colour results. All kinds of textiles and textures, including salmon skin leather, can be dyed with JL bacteria. Bamboo is the only fabric that we tested that the bacteria didn't like.

Material test: dyed fabric swatches, without the use of sound

Living Colour Publication


The results of the research are published in an open source book, available on Issuu. The publication is also included in the library collection of the Applied University of Lucerne, Switzerland. Their research team (products & textiles) in cooperation with 'Raum für Farben' (room for colours) is researching the state of the art concerning natural dye- and print techniques/materials.



In collaboration with TextileLab Amsterdam, Living Colour was featured in the exhibition 'reVISIONing textile' last January.

We would love to extend and continue our research. Therefore we ask scientists, material designers, educational institutes, textile developers, textile institutes, etc. to contact us for future collaborations.
Send your email to: info[@]kukka.nl

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