Fabric Focus

Demystifying Dye Chemists

All fabrics in our lives, at home and at work, are a combination of fibres, processes and finishes. Not Just A Label contributor, Meriel Chamberlin, Textile Technologist, discusses the myths and realities of this essential part of our industry.

Industrial Chemists are generally viewed from a distance and with caution, particularly within the network of the fashion industry. But it's a facade I aim to crack. I work closely with chemists in the industry—as the creator of Full Circle Fibres, I use my knowledge as a Textile Technologist to create 100% Single Origin Australian Cotton for makers and designers all around the world. 

I meet so many people who ask me if there are any ‘chemicals' on my fabrics. I find it hard to greet this question without feeling incredulous. Our science literacy within the fashion community is patchy and widely variable, and as a result, we can find ourselves wavering on differences between fact and fiction. Water, salt, tannins in gum leaves, snake venom, sap, olive oil—they are all chemicals and compounds of chemicals. So are benzene, chromium salts, penicillin, petrol, and so forth. See the variety? Perhaps it is time to reframe our question to something more on point: are there any harmful residual chemicals on this product?


Invariably the answer is no to harmful residual chemicals. But the answer grows to be a bit more complex when it comes to the chemicals attached to the processing of textiles. Much of this depends on concentrations or temporary stages of processing, and it’s the safe handling and management of chemicals that can cause harm if discharged poorly. Think about it: salt water is safe to swim in and small quantities can be used as an antiseptic, but drinking large volumes would eventually be toxic.

Our industrial textile world has seen a lot of changes over the last 200 years. Mills in Europe could be hideous and rivers were dead. Today, there are polluted rivers in countries that are more recent adopters of textile and other manufacturing industries, but for those rivers in Europe, their bio-diversity has returned, and the textile industry is still there. So, what happened?

I surprise people when I tell them that dye chemistry has changed in the last 50 years. There’s no need for heavy metals or for the water in the proportions. The ability to get batches right the first time, thanks to the high tech quality systems, has made an inordinate difference to reduce energy use. There are chemists, physicists, and engineers whose life's work has been dedicated to researching how we make this industry tread as lightly as possible.


The research is there, we just need high quality supply chains actually implementing the knowledge. 

Today, there are dye houses that have no effluent discharge into environmental systems other than clean water—maybe even cleaner than when it went in. When best practice happens on a big scale, we make huge progress. These mills aren’t the ones that make it into the fashion and clothing industry news stories and documentaries. Why? Because they are the good news.

When I set up Full Circle Fibres, it was with the idea of putting a quality supply chain together, not just to manage the integrity of provenance from the paddock, avoiding exploitation and pollution, but to also apply best practice in all the stages afterwards.

Many of the industries that exist to supply our daily needs are full of these people you will never have heard of—those designing new medical widgets, metal salts for the batteries in your phone to last longer, efficiently making toilet paper, filtering our waste, improving solar panels, the bar code scanner at the checkout, engineering more efficiency into our vehicles or lightbulbs. The vast majority of the items we touch and use came from humans. The future resides in our own innovation and ability to stand behind beliefs to create something spectacular. It's inspiring, isn't it? 

For those who find themselves at a stage in their life where they are choosing what to study or pursue, here's my plea: study pathways, work in sustainability and fashion, consider picking the hardest science and math courses you can handle, choose to study history to learn from others' mistakes, choose geography to learn how we are all connected, choose design so you can put all of this hard work into items people will love and cherish.