No Such Thing as 100% Sustainable Textiles?

On January 9th, I embarked on a textile tour as a part of the work I conducted for The Caring Cotton. The trip was a 5 hour drive inland from Auroville to Erode, a textile producing town in Tamil Nadu region. Ruby, founder of The Caring Cotton, informed me that Tamil Nadu is actually one of the largest textile producing regions in the world, producing yarn and fabrics for many large, well-known designers.

The purpose of the trip was to develop a deeper understanding of the processes used by The Caring Cotton’s suppliers and to identify if and how the suppliers acted sustainably. This would help me to create a more accurate communication plan and develop key messages to share with the organization’s target audiences. I sought to understand how The Caring Cotton maintained sustainable practices in every aspect of its complex supply chain and I found interest in observing the artisans behind the textile production and design in the region.

I witnessed the following processes on our two-day trip: natural dyeing, power loom weaving, “sustainable” dyeing, screen printing, tye dyeing, batik printing, and fabric sourcing. In this blog I will share photos and mechanisms of each process, and reflect on the sustainable elements and their impacts.

 

The Processes:

Natural Dye

This dyeing process derives color from natural resources such leaves, fruit, flowers, branches, bark, and minerals. Resultantly, there is non-toxic dye waste produced which can be dumped back into an ocean or field without having any harmful impact on the environment.

Color is extracted from each organic material differently, then the color is turned to a dye powder (as seen below). The dye powder is then mixed with water and a salt solution that promotes the diffusion of the natural dye into various fibers (silk, modal, wool, or cotton). A heating method is used to turn the liquid dye mixture into steam which will come into contact with a yarn or fabric resulting in an evenly dyed product. Every element; from the creation of the dye powder to the dyeing process used natural resources and minimal water, showing the sustainability in its practice.

I appreciated that this natural dye method used a combination of nature and technology to achieve sustainability. For example, the development of an apparatus to produce steam rather than use copious amount of water (for conservation purposes) is genius!

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Naturally Dyed wool yarn, the yellow color is derived from the pictured flower. 

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Raw, un-dyed, silk yarn which can be dyed or woven into silk fabric then dyed. 

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Cotton yarn being washed and prepared for the dyeing process

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Natural dye powder which will produce a pink color on yarn or fabric 

 

Power Loom Weaving

Weaving is the process of developing fabric from yarn. A power loom uses the combination of the automated weaving process with the hand weaving process. For example, if a pattern were to be produced, the strands of yarn would need to be placed by hand in the machine, then woven automatically.

I witnessed cotton yarn (not specified to be organic) being woven into fabric. The process took place in a poorly lit room and the machines were very loud. (The artisans did not wear protection for their ears or hands, which was surprising to me.) The use of the power loom is not necessarily environmentally sustainable. However, it sustains the culture of Indian artisanship by incorporating the hand weaving process.

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Raw cotton yarn prior to weaving

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Pattern checking by hand in a power loom

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Cotton yarn in a power loom

Sustainable Dye

This dye process was described as sustainable because it requires less water, however, a toxic and illegal waste called “sludge” is still produced by this method. The suppliers accumulate massive amounts of sludge and have no way to dispose of it.

While I did not witness the actual dye process, the ready for dyeing (RFD) process, and a pigment extraction process were visible. RFD strips fabric down to its raw fiber, allowing  dye to penetrate the fibers and printing future bleeding of dye.

I wondered if it was plausible to consider this method sustainable; how much water is actually conserved in the process? Does the accumulation of harmful pigment sludge counter the positive effects of that water conservation?

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Ready for Dyeing (RFD) process- a chemical solution which fabric is soaked in that prevents future dye from bleeding.

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Pigment being removed from waste chemical dye water and turning into dry, toxic sludge (far right cubicle)

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Bags of accumulated sludge 

Screen Printing

This method of surface design can be done with chemical and natural dyes. The supplier that we visited does the entire process by hand. You simply choose your design template, choose your ink/dye color, choose your fabric and fabric color, and the printing process occurs. One layer of the process only takes about 10 minutes to complete, but more colors can be added for a more complex process.

This printing method sustains artisanship because it is a method conducted by hand. Also, the method is conducive to the use of natural inks/dyes which have zero harmful impact on the environment. Conducting the work by hand as opposed to using large machinery reduces the effects of industrialization such as fossil fuel emission.

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Spreading of ink onto cotton fabric to produce our pattern of choice.

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Finished one-layer print product.

 

Tie & Dye

 A method of scrunching fabric together and strategically spraying dye (chemical or natural) onto it in order to produce a tie-dye surface design. This was done by two Indian women and one Indian man in the backyard of a facility. The beautiful products were then hung to dry in the yard before a protective coat was added. A glove is worn to protect the hand from chemical dye, but as you can see in the photos below, the dye still gets on the opposite hand and is also inhaled by the artisan.

If a natural dye were used, there would be less harmful on the impact and the artisan. However, the use of natural dyes has not yet been adopted by the tie-dye supplier. This experience broadened my perspective on the effects of harmful chemical dyes. These dyes have a negative impact on the artisan, the supplier, the client, the environment, and the consumer. This realization inspired me to develop communication strategies that Ruby could use to encourage her suppliers to adopt natural dye methods more quickly.

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Spraying of chemical dye onto scrunched fabric

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Hanging tie-dye fabric 

Batik Printing

Batik is a traditional Indian printing method which uses a block of wood with nails pounded into it to create a desired pattern. The nails are then waxed so that dye does not stick. The nails are repeatedly dipped into ink to create ornate patterns on fabrics. The use of batik printing by designers is one method of sustaining the culture of India through its artisans.

Use of batik printing by designers allows for lower minimum order quantities. The less designers are required to order, the less waste their production will accumulate. Therefore, crafts such as batik preserve artisanship and reduce waste.

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Fabric Sourcing

An Aurovillian sustainable fashion designer accompanied us on our journey. We visited fabric houses that serve both large and small brands, but who had not yet been introduced to the natural dye concept. This gave Ruby the opportunity to pitch her newly pioneered, natural dye concept to the owners of the fabric houses.

The manufacturers shared some of the worries that their big clients would have with natural dye: color inaccuracy and variation, color fading, dye smell, and overall pigmentation. Designers are more concerned with achieving exact colors for their collections, and unfortunately sustainability must take a back seat in order to achieve this.

As a designer myself, this presents an ethical dilemma and raises the question of how “for-profit” brands should make decisions regarding sustainability.

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Discussing natural dye with the textile house owner

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Organic brushed cotton, made of chemically dyed yarn, woven into plaid patterns

 

By the end of our journey, I was able to grasp elements of The Caring Cotton’s mission to create a sustainable textile platform that reduces the pollution caused by the fashion industry in terms of toxic chemical waste, lack of water conservation, and industrialization and globalization. However, it is not possible for textile companies to be 100% sustainable unless their suppliers and clients are educated in sustainable textile practices.

Therefore, a focus of my communication strategy became education of suppliers and clients on the benefits of sustainable methods such as the use of natural dyes vs. chemical dyes. I realize the difficulty in focusing on sustainability in the demanding fashion world and consumer society of today. However, if The Caring Cotton can successfully create an educational sustainable platform, other textile sourcing companies and designers will follow. The Caring Cotton is only the first step in a multitude of steps that must be taken toward a less pollutant future in fashion.

 

By: Shannon K. Henry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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