Beautiful Bacteria: How Biodesign Is Changing the Way the Fashion Industry Produces Colour

Laura Perryman
The Startup
Published in
10 min readOct 13, 2020


Laura Perryman interviews Living Colour Collective’s Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

By exploring bacterial alternatives to synthetic dyes, Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar are transforming our understanding of the origins, behaviour and very nature of colour. Their collaborative approach to developing new sustainist palettes anticipates a future where designers and manufacturers work with the biosphere, rather than against it.

CMF Designer and Trend Forecaster Laura Perryman asks Laura and Ilfa about their colour processes; the opportunities and risks presented by biocolouration, and their vision for biodesign.

LP — Laura Perryman — Colour of Saying

LL — Laura Luchtman — Living Colour Collective

IS — Ilfa Siebenhaar — Living Colour Collective

How are you creating colour, and how would you describe your palette?

IS: The colour we are using now is a purple dye made from the bacteria strain Janthinobacterium Lividum. We also have a red from Serratia marcescens and a yellow from a bacteria called Micrococcus luteus. The yellow is a little more difficult to work with because the colour comes from inside the cell, whereas in the others the colour is on the cell surface and will attach more easily to fabric.

The colour range is bright and vivid, but it also depends on the type of textile we are dyeing. For example, the outcome on cotton is very different from silk or synthetic fibres. Synthetic fabrics give an almost neon effect which is very interesting. We can even apply colour to up-cycled fibres like PET bottles.

Is the colour only affected by the material, or are you able to influence it in other ways?

LL: For the most part, the colour is caused by the material. We have tried to manipulate the nutrient in the bacteria, and that can affect the colour, but for the ones we are working with, we don’t. The colour depends on the batch: sometimes it’s a little bit darker, sometimes it’s a bit more blueish or more purple. But basically, the textile causes the different shades and tints.

IS: It’s also possible to mix colours if you are working with the bacteria extract, rather than the living bacteria. And you can have different outcomes and shades. The bacteria are affected by temperature, so the place where they grow can move the colour a little. This doesn’t change the colour totally, it perhaps makes it a bit more intense, but won’t change it from red to green, for example.

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

Do you think repeatability is possible in your process? Does it matter?

LL: For us, it’s not an issue to repeat. We like the difference. But for others, and industrial standards, it is important to know or predict the exact shade and tint. What we need is a change in mindset. We are used to colours that last ten years or longer, but we aren’t in our clothes for that long. So, I think a little bit of fading is quite acceptable. We already accept it in leather or denim, so why not for other clothes?

You’ve recently worked with Puma. What was their perspective on colour and repeatability?

LL: Puma was very open to experimentation, providing us with lots of different materials to see what colour effects would happen. We dyed some pieces in plain colours with dye extracts. In others, there are growth patterns on the surface where the bacteria are living. Their view was: we don’t want standardised colour, we don’t want the same colour every time. They liked the natural growth patterns on the bacteria and were much more interested in real, living colour.

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

You mentioned cotton, silk, and recycled plastics. Which substrates were included?

LL: At first, we were mostly working with the materials Puma uses in their shoes: leather, synthetic leather, synthetic rubber, PU material and polyester fabrics. Later, we tested some of their deadstock and sourced fabrics from local garment designers, such as beautiful silk and hemp blends.

LP: It’s interesting to hear that your colours have been tested on such a wide range of materials successfully. This suggests it could be adopted widely, which is positive news. I’m curious, as yours is a new system approach to colour, and because your colours have fluctuating, unfixed appearances, how you describe this new palette.

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

Have you given your colours names?

LL: I think you are the first to ask this question! How to describe the colour. I have been thinking about how to do this. For instance, the Lividum could be Lividum-lilac, because Lividum means purple. The pigment produced by Lividum is called Violacuem. It’s fascinating to develop a new language for these colours.

IS: Perhaps it’s more Living Lividum.

LP: Yes. It’s not a static colour but a very unique proposition. I think it’s nice to keep that active element in the name.

What are some of the risks of bacteria colour for a manufacturer?

LL: You need to work in a sterile environment as contamination can be an issue. From a pollution point of view, it wouldn’t be a good idea to dye fabric and then have the wastewater run directly into the sewage system. Even though the bacteria is biodegradable, we don’t know exactly how fast it will degrade in those conditions. Also, if the water is coloured, normally it’s not of course, but if it turns purple, for example, sunlight would be absorbed differently, which would affect biodiversity under the water surface. You would still need to have a closed-loop system, to filter it out.

IS: From a circular perspective, it’s always good to keep the water, filter it and reuse it again and again, as you already have it. We’re always aiming to make the process more circular.

Have you looked at the waste streams of bacterial dying?

LL: The students we are working with are looking at this, but there are no existing studies with these particular pigments. Some benefits need further investigating too, such as the effect of the bacteria on your skin. We know these pigment-producing bacteria have anti-bacterial qualities so we would want to know what happens when you wear them for an extended period. What happens when the fabric gets wet on your skin? We want to understand more about how the pigment will be affected by wear and tear. We know it’s a natural colour and not a toxic colour because we don’t use any toxic chemicals in the process. But still, the pigment could do something to your skin or microbiome. We would love to investigate this, but there are not these kinds of standards in fashion, colours don’t have to be tested to a dermatological level.

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

Do you know of any beauty products, where dermatological testing is standard, that have used bacterial pigments?

LL: I have seen some patents for the use of these pigments in beauty products, but I don’t think they are in production or on the market yet. We found one study that shows the antibacterial qualities stay for a while in the fabric, which would add another function and make the fabric useful in medical or sportswear.

When bacterial dyes fade in UV light, what’s happening to the bacteria?

IS: The bacteria aren’t actually on the fabric anymore. It’s only while the dying is happening that the bacteria are present, so it’s the pigment that’s been left behind that fades.

LL: We know all natural colours tend to fade in sunlight, and that fading is a chemical process. The molecules of pigment are affected by UV. When the light hits, the chains of molecules are broken and the colour fades.

IS: We’re not protecting the colour in any way as it’s natural, and we want to keep it like that. It’s not like with chemical dyes which are treated, and then the fabric is treated again to help stop UV breakdown.

In your first project as Living Colour, you used sound to manipulate the bacteria and change its performance. Did you do this with Puma?

IS: We did it as an experiment, but we didn’t take it further. With Puma, we developed laboratory dyeing more than ever before.

LL: It would be interesting to see what more sound frequencies could do, but it involves using the lab for long periods of time.

LP: I like the idea of sound enabling the process, using artistic qualities to influence something so scientific. It would be great to see more of these types of cross-disciplinary projects happen.

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

What is your vision for the future in terms of bacterial colour application?

IS: For me, it’s about an approach as a designer: how we look at colour effects such as fading in the design process and creating awareness of the possibilities of natural dyeing.

LL: In terms of the bacterial colours, perhaps they won’t replace all synthetic colours, but I think they will add to the existing palette of plants, minerals and insects, and I think they will offer something new and appreciated because of the qualities, tints, shades etc. There are many start-ups working on scaling this to an industrial level, so I definitely see a future where we use these colours to dye a lot of our clothes and products. But even if it were just to replace synthetic indigo, for instance, it would make a huge difference. I see a future where we will work more with nature than against it.

Where do you see laboratory methods of making in the future?

LL: Design and science are going to merge, and the gap will lessen. Designers and scientists will collaborate more and more. In a lab setting, you cannot work without a scientist as you don’t know what you are doing and it’s unsafe. I see a future of factories that are microbiology labs or fermentation plants or breweries, that grow colour or beer or anything. I really feel it will change the way we manufacture.

IS: It’s also straightforward to scale up. If you look at how natural dyes are grown in fields, you need lots of space to grow pigments. In a lab, you can grow bacterial pigments in fermenters so that it can be scaled up to an industrial level very quickly.

Design to FADE, Puma x Living Colour Collective, 2020

Where would you like biodesign to go next?

LL: Collaboration is crucial. We’re small, but we would love to make a huge impact, so we’re collaborating with other start-ups to help each other out. We need different economic systems to help biodesign. You have companies that want to do good, to work sustainably and build something for a new future, but investors are still working with old systems that only focus on scaling fast and selling. We don’t need to make everything suitable for mass production.

IS: Also, our universities have been teaching students to be more aware of sustainability. New graduates already have a green vision. Companies who need to translate their ways can learn a lot by bringing recent graduates aboard.

LP: That’s an excellent point: that a new sustainability-focused generation is coming into the design sector. That collaboration is key to the future.

Finally, I’d love to know, are there any other colours in the pipeline?

LL: There are a lot of different bacteria types that produce colour. All the colours of the rainbow. But not all bacteria strains are easy to get or work with, or safe even, and that can limit the colour palette. They all have different growth conditions that affect colour too. We can say we are developing a green.

IS: In the future, it would be nice if people working with bacteria dyes could share their knowledge in a bacteria library where you can exchange colours.

LP: It would be lovely if it had an open-source feel, and with provenance becoming more and more important, it would great to see a visual map: where bacteria is grown or where it lives optimally, the conditions is it needs, like a nugget of intelligence that comes with the colour. It’s not just a recipe, but a set of conditions that sit around it, a system around it and it would be vital as a designer to understand before taking on that colour.

IS: What we have learned is that places where there is already a lot of natural colour: red earth, coloured water etc. there it’s possible you will find coloured bacteria.

With thanks to Laura Luchtman and Ilfia Siebenhaar. You can find out more about Living Colour Collective here.

This article was jointly curated with Sarah Conway from Stories of Design.

#colour #biodesign #colourfutures #biocolour #CMF #circular



Laura Perryman
The Startup

Trend forecaster, Colour and Material Consultant at Colour of Saying. Finding what’s significant and meaningful about colour.