Getting it done. Fashion and PR Graduate as well as Junk Kouture alum, Niamh Porter delves into her interest in sustainable botanical dyeing and how interest in this brought an amazing graduate fashion collection to life.
Bringing to life a compelling Junk Kouture alumni story, while incorporating the question of “are natural dyes sustainable?” Taking into consideration the global scale of the fashion industry and the depletion of natural resources, how can we protect this cottage industry and move towards sustainable global production?
I’ve always had an interest and a fascination with the fashion industry. As a young teen growing up in rural Ireland however, it felt somewhat like an unobtainable life, it was too Gossip Girl and Devil Wears Prada for just a girl from sleepy Donegal. Pursuing fashion design was not ever on my radar, but when I came across Junk Kouture and had the opportunity to take part, my art teacher encouraged me to. She told me not to worry about getting far in the competition, but to just have fun with it and see where it takes me. My team’s design only reached the regional finals but it ignited a love for art and design which had been buried inside me – this creative freedom to look at how we could design something incredible our way.
The experience itself was remarkable. My senior years art teacher, Mrs. Gallagher, would tell me almost every week in class that she felt I should seriously consider fashion as a career. I had written her off right up until the submission date for college applications. That morning as I was finalizing my selections, something told me to just go for it and apply to study Fashion with Promotion. From the first day I set foot in the fashion room I knew that Mrs Gallagher had of course been right all along, this was definitely what I was meant to do.
During my studies, my work was always grounded by sustainability. I used local natural textiles, hand-dyed materials (although with synthetic dyes), and printed designs with eco-inks. I aimed to create garments that not only allowed me to express my identity and others theirs – regardless of gender, age, and size.
I also saw my garments as a platform to tell a story or convey a message like raising awareness to ocean pollution, or telling hallowed tales of Irish folklore.
Upon graduating with honors, I had the opportunity to move to New York to work initially as a fashion intern and then as an assistant designer in a Brooklyn based studio. This experience brought so many incredible opportunities – one being to work at New York Fashion Week. During the week, I had to stop and pinch myself so many times – that I, a girl from Donegal, was now living a life that I had imagined to be so out of reach just five years prior, surrounded by the biggest names in world fashion, in New York. During that time, I was afforded the opportunity to work on designs for high-profile clients such as Michelle Obama and Zendaya.
I formed a new appreciation for nature after moving to New York. Coming from rural Ireland to Manhattan was a drastic change - the fast-paced lifestyle was amazing to experience but after a while, I started to miss the rolling fields of home. The nature in the city always felt as if it was trapped inside a concrete cage. As I made plans to return home, I realized I could use my already-developed dyeing techniques and focus on a new field, sustainable textile dyeing.
The textile industry is the second-largest polluting industry in the world.
Synthetic dyes are a major contributor to this pollution, attributing to almost 20 per cent of global water pollution. The main issue is the use of toxic or non-biodegradable and petroleum-based colorants.
The textile and fashion industries are all in search of alternative and sustainable coloring methods and influential brands are beginning to collaborate with innovative researchers in this area. One example is Puma’s collaboration with Living Colour, a bio-design team based in the Netherlands that have developed a process of using pigment producing bacteria to color both natural and synthetic dyes.
My attraction to this method is from the historic dyeing tradition in Ireland. Viewed as a respected, specialized field for women, it stemmed from the use of herbal medicines and healers. My fascination with this began in childhood, watching demonstrations of these techniques at the Ulster American Folk Park in Ireland.
I returned to my studies in 2020 and created a collection, “We Still Burn Her,” inspired by Irish healers, the 9,000,000 killed in Europe during the witch trials and the further vilification of women throughout history. The collection focused on sustainable solutions and sustainable hand-dyed textiles. On a global scale, adopting the techniques used in this cottage industry using food and plant waste would not be sustainable. Many of the problems with the current textile dyeing and treatment process in mass production are related to excess water consumption. Not only does dyeing require huge volumes of water, it also relies on huge amounts of energy to heat dye baths and steam for the required finishing.
The textile industry needs to focus on the sustainable start-ups using innovation in dye technologies. From pressurized CO2 dye application to bio-design creating natural pigments from bacteria like Living Colour, these innovations reduce water usage, dye waste and creates more efficient and environmentally friendly way to create the pigments we need to color our clothes.
Having joined the Junk Kouture team in recent months, it is incredible to see how conscious young people are becoming and how they are adapting their own behaviors towards fashion consumption.
Whilst Junk Kouture challenges its community to inspire change – be it through experimenting with natural dyes, repurposing waste materials or indeed rethinking intergenerational techniques, it is encouraging to see so many young people taking their own steps towards a more considered approach to fashion.Protecting cottage industries is a must, but promoting new thinking is just as important.
Learn more about our Sustainable Living Program Partner, Junk Kouture.