The practice of fabric dyeing has existed since our earliest cultures. In Mexico, the Aztecs created their deep blood-red dye from annatto or “achiotl”, the dried seeds of an evergreen shrub. Ancient Egyptian blue has always been called indigo, of “Isatis tinctoria”, the dyestuff extracted from its plant leaves. The Mayans used various organic sources to create dyes; plants, minerals, insects, and mollusks, each colour used for visual storytelling in dress and tapestry. Black was indicative of creation and death, green for the ancestors and the abundance of cacao and tobacco crops, and purple was considered the first colour associated with Mama Oclla, the founding mother of the Inca people.
Today, we’re still drawn to colour. We pay consultants to instruct us what colours to wear according to our ‘seasonal colour palette’. We have our auras read, in the ancient Chinese tradition, to be assigned ‘our’ colour. We have the right and the wrong colours for ourselves, but what are the wrong colours from an ecological standpoint?
Fabric dyeing, for the most part, is incredibly unsustainable and an issue that the fashion industry needs to address urgently. Today, the large majority of clothing is dyed synthetically, with detrimental effects on our natural environment. The Yangtze River, which runs all through China, is one of hundreds of water sources heavily polluted by the fashion industry. Orsola de Castro, the founder of fashionrevolution.org, states, "There is a joke in China that you can tell the 'it' color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers."
The majority of the water used during the production of garments is for the dyeing process. Following this, billions of tonnes of wastewater are then flushed into water sources completely untreated, containing residual dyes, chemicals, and mordants (a substance used to set dyes on fabrics). The result is water oxygen dissolving to levels that are unable to sustain life. These hazardous and highly toxic chemicals do not break down as they enter water streams, making their way around the world. While retailers and customers worldwide relish in the kaleidoscope of prints and tones from which to select, the ramifications are felt by local communities surrounding production sites. Often, the water is flushed through untraceable pipes meaning no individual brand or retailer can be held accountable for their contribution. Over 70% of water sources in China are heavily contaminated, which results in an estimated 1.4 billion people being unable to access uncontaminated water.
Water waste and contamination are indicative of a broader issue in the fashion industry. Many brands, retailers, and companies do not own their manufacturing facilities and instead outsource to less economically developed countries to cut costs, creating a greater profit margin. This lack of accountability and transparency through the manufacturing process puts lives and the future of our planet at risk. Optimistically, more and more labels are increasing supply chain transparency as consumers and investors are holding labels accountable for their sustainability practices.
In celebration of human craft and local artistry, Showroom-X has collaborated with Rukaji Designs in curating a collection of 100% Australian silk sarongs and scarves. Looking back to historical techniques of fabric dyeing, each scarf is dyed by hand with naturally occurring Australian earth elements; bark, rust, red dirt, and botanicals such as tea tree. These elemental pigments capture the diversity and geographical drama of the West Australian landscape. Led by matriarch Eva Nargoodah and her eldest daughter Ivy, the Nargoodah family are passionate creators and cultural keepers, having developed their textile designs over many years. Rukaji are proud to keep the cultural practices that surround bush medicines and dyes alive, teaching their children and broader community about these essential practices. The profits from each purchase are reinvested back into the Rukaji family business to support the creation of new artworks. This acts to support local economies by facilitating income streams for the artists.
Wolfgang Scout is another label who’s fabric dyeing techniques reflect their overall commitment to tread lightly. Leading the way for a more sustainable future, Wolfgang Scout is synonymous with super-soft knitwear, handwoven from Australian Merino wool and designed with purpose to minimise waste and water usage. Their entire hand-dyeing process is done within Australia with organic, certified non-hazardous, non-chrome dyes, with a low impact on the environment and minimal water wasted. Further, their linens are dyed with natural eucalyptus. This artisanal approach harkens back to a different, earlier time and produces investment pieces to be cherished. Founders Natalie Wood, Carla Woidt, and Marianne Horton have built a brand around the philosophy of interwoven connections; to people, places, and the natural environment.
At Showroom-X, one of our central themes is human craft, a step away from the industrial and appreciation of local artistry and the beauty of imperfection. We love the words of artist David Hockey, “I prefer living in colour”, but it’s integral to take a pause to consider how the shades, tones, and patterns of the clothes we wear each day have come to pass. We can actively choose which brands and what processes we want to support. So, choose wisely, and choose your future.