Tuesday 12 January 2016

FIT are closing the loop on natural dyes!

In a fine example of what can be done in a truly closed-loop system, students at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York are creating all-natural dyes in a rooftop garden–composted with a material they use every day that until now had been all too hard to get rid of.

Fabric dyeing packs a hefty environmental wallop, using all manner of harsh and potentially toxic chemicals. It doesn't have to be that way. FIT's garden shows that the process can be achieved using specific plants and flowers that are grown, then harvested and dried, to become a source of natural dyes. If it was good enough for the Saxons and Romans, right?

Gardens need food, and this is where the clever bit comes in. Students Lydia Baird and Willa Tsokanis took a good hard look at the waste products coming out of FIT's design studios, and asked themselves a question. Can we do anything with the huge amounts of muslin that the college gets through every year?

Cotton muslin is the unsung hero of the fashion world. It's used to rough out designs and make sure that fit and drape are correct before cutting the final finished garment. Subsequently, designers get through a lot of the stuff–easily a couple of square metres for a simple skirt design. But, as it's never used as part of the end product, when finished with the muslin is simply thrown away. Lydia and Willa wondered whether the unbleached, undyed fabric could be broken back down and used as compost.

Indeed it can. When mixed with organic matter such as food scraps and spent coffee grinds the muslin becomes a dense, nutrient-rich substance that can help fertilize and sustain growing plants. It also adds beneficial bacteria, fungi, and worms to the soil to help it retain water and add biodiversity. 300 pounds of muslin were mixed with 200 pounds of food waste from the FIT cafeteria and coffee grounds from the college Starbucks, and left to cook in compost bins. In December it became ready to use, and is now helping to nurture the spring crop of dye-producing plants for graduate shows in the summer.

Lydia and Willa's professor, Jeffrey Silberman says of the dye garden and compost build:

"These projects provide mechanisms for students to reach back into agriculture as a point of origin, and forward through the supply chain to biodegradation and recycling. It’s really a cradle-to-cradle learning approach to product development and a circular economy. It enables us to expose the students to every part of the supply chain.”

Both projects were student-initiated and led, which is enormously cheering. It shows that the new generation of fashion designers are really taking notions of sustainability on board, and are looking along the full length of the supply chain to see how innovation and a little lateral thinking can really help to make a difference to the environmental impact of our clothes.


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