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‘Textile ecoliteracy’ and why we need it

Developing an ecological knowledge of the materials we use
July 7, 2021
By Vanessa Mardirossian, PhD 21

Avocado dyes At Concordia’s Speculative Life Biolab, Vanessa Mardirossian, PhD 21, stimulates the growth of colour-producing bacteria by feeding them food waste to produce rich and vivid pigments.

Long before I began my PhD research on textile dyes at Concordia, I graduated with my MA in textile design from the University of the Arts London.

It was 1998 and I was excited to embark on a career in fashion. I moved to Paris and worked in all aspects of the industry, from prêt-à-porter to haute couture.

After more than two decades, however, I decided that I wanted to develop a more profound relationship with fashion and textiles. Two factors led to this shift.

Around 2015 I began to watch a number of documentary films that chronicled the environmental and human tolls of the fashion industry. My concerns had also evolved as a mother of three, as more and more scientific evidence confirmed the relationship between environmental toxicity and a rise in cognitive disorders among children.

I turned to books like Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by biologist Janine Benyus, which inspired many of us in the creative community to completely rethink our modes of production. Designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart also influenced how I thought about waste with Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

These two books — as well as research on how toxic chemicals used by the textile industry harm workers and consumers — inspire my research today. We know that synthetic dyes can interfere with the nervous system and cause a variety of health problems. As part of my Individualized Program (INDI) PhD research at Concordia, I develop sustainable dyes for textiles.

At first, I was interested in the molecular aspect of colours and wanted to be supervised by a multidisciplinary committee that combined design and chemistry. I deeply believe in the designer Victor Papanek’s vision from the 1970s, that responsible design requires a diversity of expertise.

Vanessa Mardirossian Vanessa Mardirossian, PhD 21

At Concordia’s Speculative Life Biolab, I stimulate the growth of colour-producing bacteria by feeding them food waste to produce rich and vivid pigments. As a print-textile designer, I also use food waste, such as avocado or onion skins, to dye textiles prior to printing them with bacteria whose growth is guided through stencils.

This approach requires careful manipulation — nutrients, temperature and oxygen must be constantly monitored to maximize pigment growth — but saves valuable resources such as water, energy and land.

Ancient plant-based techniques in tandem with modern biodesign methods of colour production can generate most shades from the Pantone palette (the colour reference in fashion). Crucially, we can obviate the need for harmful petrochemical compounds.

My research at Concordia’s Department of Design and Computation Arts also touches on the concept of “textile ecoliteracy.” The term refers to the development of an ecological knowledge of the materials we use.

Ecoliteracy, as a general concept, was coined by physicist Fritjof Capra, who suggested that a critical approach to how we make and dispose of our materials is needed to foster a more sustainable relationship with the natural world.

Capra defined the term in 1996; given the urgency of climate change, I feel compelled to help build on his work.

Ultimately, my research is inspired by how the natural world creates materials. I like to think of it as a dialogue between design, chemistry and environmental health, and hope to inspire a more profound reflection on textile materiality to address complex societal issues through the prism of biodesign and colour.

Vanessa Mardirossian’s research is funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Hexagram, the Textiles and Materiality Research Cluster, the Sustainability Action Fund, and the Colour Research Society of Canada.

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