British clothier Vollebak has commercially introduced the Black Algae Dyed T-Shirt, claiming it is the first time that a piece of clothing has been colored using dye made from black algae. Over the last few years Vollebak has worked closely with bioscience company Living Ink to accelerate the adoption of black algae to color clothing.
“Finding a new way to create the color black is a sustainability priority for us because the conventional approach relies heavily on carbon black — a pigment derived from petroleum,” says Vollebak co-founder Steve Tidball. “Every black thing we own is likely to contain carbon black, from our phones to our cars to the ink in our pens. The production process creates significant greenhouse gas emissions. So, our intention is to reinvent the way in which the color black is made.”
The algae used in the black algae dye is a waste byproduct from algae that’s grown in huge open-air ponds for use in natural food colorings. “In summer 2021 we released the first edition of our Black Algae T-Shirt, which we screen-printed using ink made from black algae,” said Mr. Tidball. “To make normal black clothing you dye the fibers of the fabric black, but we started off by printing with black algae ink as black algae dye hadn’t yet been invented. But it has now, and we’re the first company to use it in our clothing.”
“The most challenging part of creating black algae dye pigment is to create individual particles of pigment that are microscopically small and very black,” said Scott Fulbright, co-founder and CEO of Living Ink. “Making ink from black algae pigment is easier because it can be made with larger particles. But with dye, the particles must be small enough to be absorbed by the fibers in the fabric. With our proprietary technology we’ve been able to produce a pigment that’s fine enough to use as dye pigment.”
Vollebak conducted six months of lab tests to successfully dye the T-shirt, trying different fabrics, dyeing temperatures, and pigment concentrations before finding the “right combination.” For the next version of the T-shirt, they are looking to achieve a more intense black color by further reducing the particle size in the black algae pigment. “Ultimately it should be possible to match the color that carbon black can produce,” said Mr.Tidball.
The company stresses that every detail of the Black Algae Dyed T-Shirt is made with materials from nature. The fabric is 80% organic cotton and 20% SeaCell, which is a blend of pulped eucalyptus and seaweed. The eucalyptus is sourced from sustainably managed forests, while the brown algae is harvested from Iceland’s North Atlantic fjords where it grows in abundance. Only the top parts of the seaweed are harvested, which means it can quickly regenerate and regrow. The stitching is 100% cotton thread and even the size and care labels are printed with black algae ink that’s made from the same algae waste as the dye.
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