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How This Designer Creates Printed textiles from Industrial Soot

Textile designer and founder of the label Soot, Neha Rao, uses the byproduct of industrial fuel to create prints

Soot as the name implies is the carbon black, the pollutant that accumulates when any fossil fuel is burnt. The label Soot founded by 27-year-old Mumbai-based Neha Rao, in 2018, collects the waste from pharma and pesticides companies, treats them to create a powder. The powder is then used for screen printing on surfaces like fabric and paper. Rao initially launched her brand with soot-printed sarees and yardages but later on included shirts, skirts, kurtas and dresses as the demand grew.

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A graduate from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, the idea to utilize the industrial byproduct came to her while doing a course at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, in 2017. She was asked to come up with a sustainable innovation that could be used in the fashion industry. “I decided to come up with something that would help the textile industry back in India, where the biggest impact point in terms of pollution is colouration,” she says adding “and natural dyes don’t provide a solution.” She reasons when it comes to large scale production natural dyes pose a problem as a huge amount of natural resources have to be used. “Besides, colour fastness is a problem. It has to be mixed with certain chemicals to make it stay on clothes,” quips Rao.

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After much research on carbon black and its application in different ways for colouration, she came up with a formula to treat and use it for printing. “Soot is a byproduct, we can’t escape. Tonnes of it is produced every 3-6 months in India. Some of it is used in the production of cement tyres but a lot of it goes into water bodies or the soil,” she says. Rao recycles the waste using screen printing as a technique to transfer the design to the surface. “I have been able to achieve shades of grey and black and with the change in recipe you can print on dark and light surfaces,” she adds. Rao has a team of master printers who help her in printing once she develops the patterns. The orders that she gets generate a source of livelihood for these printers, and also to an extent helps reviving the dwindling art of screen printing

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An emotional connect

Fast fashion is hugely popular among millennials as it helps them keep up with trends but it stops them from establishing an emotional connect. And clothes can have a longer life span and become sustainable only if they rouse emotions in the wearer, feels Rao. To make that connect she asks people to send their old clothes that she upcycles with prints and gives them a fresh lease of life. While catering for fresh orders, she tries to get her clients involved. “I get prints customized and make it meaningful as per their need, so that the whole process becomes significant. It gives them a sense of belonging,” adds Rao. Her clients are in the age group from 23-55, who mostly place orders through Instagram or come to her through word of mouth. Rao has also been a part of many exhibitions, which she feels is a good platform to reach out to potential clients and create awareness about the brand.  “The sustainable fashion scene in India is getting better with time. There are many conscious individuals who want to invest in environmentally responsible clothes,” she concludes.