Short Stories

Could Textiles Redeem Tobacco in NC?

A textiles company in North Carolina has found a new use for tobacco that they say will change the textiles industry. Ploughboy Organics of Raleigh is using a new technology to extract natural dyes from a part of the tobacco plant most smokers haven’t considered — the stalk.

Farmer cropping tobacco, eastern North Carolina, August 1946  Source: State Archives of NC

Farmer cropping tobacco,
Eastern North Carolina, August 1946
Source: State Archives of NC

Traditionally, when tobacco is harvested, its prized leaves are plucked from the plant and sent off to dry, eventually being rolled into cigarettes. The stalks however, have a different fate. Because they have no use to Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds, they are ultimately discarded as field waste — an ignoble end for one of the plant’s vital organs. But, there’s another point in the process where waste is produced, and that’s in the processing plant.

Karen York, a graduate researcher in NC State’s Textiles Engineering program, says that a significant amount of tobacco dust is created while processing cured tobacco into cigarettes. The dust has no apparent use to tobacco companies, and is usually thrown away. In 2012, Ploughboy approached York to investigate the viability of commercial tobacco dust as another source of natural colorants. If the stalks can give us dyes, shouldn’t the dust?

As a former owner of a small hand-dyed yarn business, Karen York was already interested in natural dyes when she began working with the tobacco dust. To conduct the study, York obtained three dust samples, in shades ranging from light to dark brown, from a Philip Morris plant in Richmond, Va., and drew color from the dust using an extraction procedure she developed in the lab. She exposed the dust to several solvents in combination, like Isopropyl alcohol and water, at different temperatures and lengths of time to find which pairings would give her the most pigment. Unfortunately, York discloses, “The results were not what I had hoped for.” The only colors that came from the brown dust were other shades of brown or weak yellows.

York’s dyed fabric samples (top), Ploughboy’s dye range (bottom)

Karen’s dyed fabric samples (top),
Ploughboy’s dye range (bottom)

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for tobacco-based dyes in the bath. “Others have tried combining tobacco-based dye with other natural dyes and were able to achieve some lovely colors,” York says. Ploughboy, for instance, shows a range of 18 different colors on their website, from dusty aubergines to rich turquoise and ruby.

As exciting as these vibrant colors may be, tobacco-based dyes are still missing something important — an affinity for fabric. Dr. Harold Freeman, York’s research co-chair, explains that unlike synthetic dyes, natural dyes weren’t created with textiles in mind. This means that they have no innate desire to bond with fibers, even natural ones like cotton. To fuse natural dyes with fabric, mordants, or dye binding agents, must be used. Some mordants, like chromium or copper, are toxic and have been designated as priority pollutants by the US EPA. Others, like iron and aluminum, are safe to use.

So if we use the right mordants, we’re protecting our environment, but what about our health? Tobacco is a known carcinogen — should something that causes cancer really be worn next to skin?

According to Karen York’s research, maybe. The amount of nicotine inhaled from one cigarette is between one and two milligrams. Using her extraction, dyeing and washing process, a small women’s cotton t-shirt would contain .66 milligrams of nicotine — only slightly less than the amount inhaled from one cigarette. But that’s just one test. Tumbling Colors, another natural dye business in Raleigh, did some experiments of its own and reports, “Our initial tests showed no nicotine or other known hazardous compounds present in garment dyes using color extracted from tobacco,” a much different verdict.

So, what’s next for tobacco in textiles? Will there be tobacco-dyed t-shirts on the racks this fall? York thinks there’s a market for these products, but not a large one. “The problem with natural dyes is that it can be difficult to get consistent results like consumers are use to. They fit well into a niche market where that is acceptable and even preferred. For the company I owned, I wouldn’t have used natural dyes unless it was for limited edition collection, but then again, my company was a tiny one-woman show.” Considering the research that still needs to be done in this area, tobacco’s niche market may continue to be smokers for a while.


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