A city-based designer uses carbon to create personalised designs on a range of sustainable fabrics.
Soot, the black powdery substance created when organic matter is burnt, has been put to use in various ways over time. Some use it as a pigment in ink, some as manure in their gardens while others mix it with natural oils to make kohl or kajal. But a 26-year-old textile designer has come up with a unique use for the substance – to make sustainable dyes. Neha Rao’s SOOT uses carbon black (a substance created by treating soot) to create personalised designs on a range of sustainable fabrics. Neha says that the idea to use soot for designing came about when she was looking for sustainable materials for a college project.
“For my Master’s project at Chelsea College of Art and Design, I had to work on a project that combined sustainability with design. I chose to look closely at inks and the more I researched, I realised that natural dyes are not really sustainable because they use up a lot of natural resources. So, I began to look at ways to use waste materials to create colours,” shares Neha. This made her zoom in on carbon black since it is a byproduct produced by most factories during incineration. “Several factories burn fossil fuels and the smoke passes through huge industrial chimneys. These chimneys are fitted with filters that catch carbon black particles. Every three to six months, the factories undergo cleaning and maintenance checks and during these checks, the chimneys are cleaned and tonnes of carbon black powder are collected,” reveals Neha.
While some factories channelise the byproduct for use in construction work or the tyre industry, many factories are not so responsible with their waste and end up dumping tonnes of carbon black into water bodies or in landfills. To prevent this from happening, Neha ties up with companies and uses their carbon black waste to make dyes. “This waste then goes through a cleaning process, where the dust and dirt are removed and a really fine powder is acquired. I mix this powder with a water-based binder and use it to screen print it on fabric,” says the Chembur-based designer. She also says that her desire to revive the dying craft of hand screen-printing further motivated her to set up SOOT in Mumbai in 2016.
But apart from introducing sustainability in the dye-making process, Neha also tries to champion the cause through the designing process. She motivates her customers to use SOOT garments for longer by involving them in the decision-making process. “I make every design customisable to bolster the sustainability angle. In college, I learnt that when the consumer becomes a part of the decision-making process, they’re likely to keep the product for a longer time because they have that sense of ownership. So, I try hard to engage the customer and ask them to select the material, colour and the designs on the garment,” shares the designer.
Neha uses her unique dye to print on a range of garments like sarees and kurtas and even uses it to design on paper and wooden furniture. She mostly creates shades of grey and black and uses opaque and transparent binders to manipulate the shade. After placing the order, it can take about two weeks to receive the finished product, but Neha says this is because she goes the extra mile to personalise the packaging as well. The designer also says that the dye is extremely safe to use, is clinically tested and has good colourfastness. “People worry if soot is safe to wear; it absolutely is, unless you ingest or inhale it. Our grandmothers used it to line our eyes, so in no way is it harmful,” avers Neha.
While in the past, Neha mostly stuck to printing on organic silk and cotton, for the past six months she has been experimenting with a new textile – fabrics made from industrial hemp. In the future, she hopes to invest more in research and indulge in collaborations that help her work on a range of products.