With the fashion industry booming, researchers are focused on finding more sustainable solutions for dyeing synthetic fibres. The answer could lie in alpaca fleece. Unlike similar fibres such as wool, alpaca fibres come in 22 natural colours, due to the melanin pigment.

Global production of alpaca fibre was estimated at 6000 tonnes in 2015. About 20–30 per cent of fibre is lost during shearing and processing representing a loss of approximately 1200-1800 tonnes of fibre. These short, non-spinnable fibres mostly end up in landfill, are fed into incinerators or used as low-grade animal feed.

Dr Maryam Naebe, a Senior Research Fellow in Fibre Science and Technology at the Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) at Deakin University and her research team are investigating the use of these currently wasted fibres as a natural colourant for dyeing a range of synthetic fibres including acrylics.

In the conventional dyeing process, acrylic fibres are treated with synthetic dyes. Other chemicals are used to accelerate the process and produce an even result. All these dyes and chemicals also produce massive amounts of waste water into the environment.

Using their expertise on producing powders from natural fibres, Dr Naebe and her colleagues are developing a chemical free pathway to colour acrylic fibres. The waste alpaca fibres are mechanically milled into a powder, which is applied during fibre spinning to colour the acrylic fibres.

These short, non-spinnable alpaca fibres provide a sustainable innovative alternative to the chemical-heavy, water wasting processes of yesterday, in an important step towards a novel future for natural dyes.