Going round in circles…. Can coloured fashion and textiles be sustainable? By Dr. Dawn Ellams


For most designers the relationship we have with colour is a huge part of our personal handprint on the work we create; and as consumers colour is all around us and is an integral part of the decision making process for purchases. However, when aiming to produce future sustainable fashion and textiles the environmental consequences of the creation and application of colour and the implications of the processes used are less obvious.


Embarking on my PhD I was fascinated by how such a complex, integral piece of fashion textile design and production, profoundly reliant on petrochemical resources, can evolve to fit within a model of sustainability. My research explored reducing the environmental impact of coloured fashion textiles, exploring the life cycle of products through an interdisciplinary approach where the creativity of design thinking is underpinned by the technical inquiry of coloration technology, to provide models for short-term and long-term solutions for sustainability.


A reoccurring thread within my research is natural versus synthetic. Although in some very niche, small, local cases natural may be better, on a commercial, large scale it is much more complex.  Producing coloured fashion and textiles requires two key elements – fibre and dyestuff. Navigating my way through fibre choices was at times daunting, but ultimately I decided to work with a regenerated cellulose fibre, Lyocell, which is technically ‘natural’ but produced within a manmade chemical process.


This fibre choice set up a biological life cycle framework to work within to create sustainable coloured fashion textiles. For colour choice (dyestuff), the natural versus synthetic argument raged much more zealously, with the only definitive conclusion on offer being whether from natural or synthetic sources, all colour for textiles has some level of negative environmental impacts. In the end it’s all about appropriateness.


Frustrated by being just an observer and desperately needing more definitive answers to how sustainable coloured fashion textiles can be designed and produced, I carved out a space for my research in the ‘space in-between’ science and design. Through my project this context became a place to explore sustainable textiles from ‘within’ the system; not from a purely design or science perspective, but from an obscure and fascinating little area in the middle where the disciplines intertwine.


Working at this design/technology interface enabled me to create definitive outcomes for my research, negatives would become positives and vice versa, as the two disciplines collided within my provocative new space. This provided both the creative methods and outcomes but also, vitally for me, underpinned with environmental credentials. As a designer I began not just to understand but also challenge the technical implications of my design decisions, using this new knowledge to ultimately design product life cycles.


I was incredibly fortunate to have an amazing supervisor during my research, a colour chemist who loved learning about design as much as I loved learning about science. It was this relationship between a chemist and a designer, the openness and trust we developed – constantly challenging and questioning the other – and ultimately jumping together into the ‘space in-between’ from which the developed interdisciplinary methodology from my research emerged.


My research concluded that both sustainable and responsible coloration is possible at a commercial scale within cyclical models of design and production.