An article by Susan
I was recently asked by writer, speaker and activist Bel Jacobs to answer some research questions to inform an article she is writing for BBC Culture online about the recent rise in popularity of natural dyeing.
I greatly admire Bel and Fashion Act Now, which she co-founded. Her questions are timely and thoughtful. Here they are with my responses. Hopefully they provoke some helpful reflections.
Question 1. Give me an idea of how and where you work (eg grow your own, work with a collective, handprint).
I started exploring natural dyes about 17 years ago when my partner Ashley began to grow dye plants for his work as a horticultural therapist in St Alban’s in Hertfordshire. We began with dyeing sheep fleeces but nowadays we dye fibre, fabric and yarn of all kinds. It is hard to learn to dye entirely from books and my teachers (see note at end) have mostly been from the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. This is a network of independent local voluntary groups dedicated to promoting, teaching and preserving weaving, spinning and dyeing skills. Anything we have achieved has been in large part thanks to the expertise, generosity and encouragement of this Guild community. Our local guild is North Herts Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers and I also belong to the London Guild.
Our focus is not on dyeing items to sell but on teaching others to become self-sufficient in home grown natural dyes. We have a well-established dye garden on a small allotment in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. We are lucky that this is next door to a community garden with an indoor and outdoor classroom which we can hire to host garden visits and day workshops. We mostly teach small groups as we like to have time to work with each person individually. The people on our workshops tend to be incredibly positive, creative and environmentally engaged; they see learning how to use home grown dyes as a way to bring an added depth and meaning to their art and craft work.
We have also published a lot of our horticultural knowledge on our website which has brought us connections with people growing and using dye plants all over the world.
During covid I started to explore botanical printing which is a craft using many of the same principles as natural dyeing. Although I am still a relative beginner it has been very enjoyable discovering how many leaves contain useful tannins and dyes for printing. My ability to identify neighbourhood trees has increased remarkably as a result.
This year we also have been collaborating with Cora Wall, a postgraduate student in Sustainable Fashion who helps us in the dye garden (@arocwall on instagram). One of Cora’s current goals is to connect people involved with textiles locally and share ideas for developing more sustainable practice.
Question 2: Is there a growing interest in dyeing – and why?
It seems to me that there has been a massive increase in interest in natural dyes in recent years, accelerated by covid lock-downs allowing people time to explore the craft at home. The number of social media groups and online courses dedicated to natural dyes has grown rapidly. Perhaps I’m imagining it but high street fashion colours appear to mimic natural dyes more and more. Now the mainstream media has taken an interest in natural dyeing and I wonder what the underlying motivations for this are.
For many years now campaigners have exposed the appalling pollution from synthetic dyes used in textile factories in the global south. So the public is aware of the hidden costs of synthetic colour used by the fast and high fashion sector and wants to know about alternatives. But I also wonder if people in the global north are now desperate to find ways to atone for their part in the wider ecological crisis? Perhaps people feel that adopting natural dyes helps in some way. It’s complicated though isn’t it? If a naturally dyed garment is treasured and therefore washed more mindfully, mended and worn until it falls apart that’s good. But little changes if natural dyes are only an option for the very wealthy to add another layer of exclusivity and luxury to an extensive wardrobe.
DIY natural dyeing can be a bit punk, empowering and subversive. It requires no specialist equipment. People whose homes and budgets can’t stretch to a weaving loom or spinning wheel can often find space for one large charity shop dye pot and a bucket or two. Some form of colour can be obtained quickly and easily from foraged or scavenged plant material. Most of these ‘close to hand’ dyes yield yellows, golds or browns. Blues and pinks from berries and petals will usually fade to pale greys or browns.
I also wonder if natural dyeing is popular because some people yearn to get closer to nature and ‘get their hands dirty’? As human civilisation feels more fragile in the face of huge natural forces perhaps it’s time to reconnect with simple more elemental processes? If you can’t grow your own vegetables or raise sheep, you can at least boil up some yarn with onion skins.
I encourage new dyers to learn about the science and history of the craft, not least to appreciate how vibrant and long lasting natural dyes can be. Understanding the chemistry helps you be sure your practice is safe if you start to create more ambitious colours. It’s also good to know about historic over-extraction of natural dyes and dye chemicals so we are mindful of the wider impacts of wild harvested dyes. Historical examples over over-extraction are tropical hardwood trees which yield Brazilwood dye (now protected under CITES) and barilla seashore plants which were taken from the wild for making alkali.
I’m certain that the global fashion industry can’t switch entirely to natural dyes at present consumption levels. There simply isn’t enough land. So while some farmers are supplying new commercial natural dye enterprises to meet market demand, big industry is researching ways to create dyes from food waste and genetically engineer organisms to create dyes and pigments through vat fermentation. Going by past experience I doubt whether these technologies alone will moderate the harms of the global fashion sector to any substantial degree.
Question 3: What is the common thread between those who are interested in hand-dyeing today?
There is a lot of diversity amongst contemporary natural dyers but on the whole I would say that most people want to be as sustainable as possible. Some people want to be directly involved in all stages of the process and grow their own dye plants. Others prefer to forage for dyes or use food waste. Dyers who buy their ingredients are increasingly concerned to seek suppliers who can demonstrate provenance with good environmental and ethical credentials.
Traditional dyers use dyes and mordants inspired by historical recipes to achieve colour-fastness and brightness comparable with synthetic dyes. This approach can make very efficient use of resources to get the most colour from a given amount of plant material, water and energy. Interestingly some new practitioners are questioning the importance of permanence. The reasons for this may be to simplify and speed up the process, to save money and/or to avoid industrially produced ingredients or even as a way to reject of the ‘look and feel’ of commercially produced colour.
I suspect that what unites us is a love of colour and a taste for the alchemy of transformation. Using a pile of unremarkable dried weld leaves to create a hank of ‘electric’ yellow woollen yarn never ceases to give me a thrill. Dyeing requires a satisfying attention to both science and art. Whether we consciously celebrate it or not, successful natural dyers are masters of chemistry and biology. We learn how to extract dye molecules from plants and bind them to fibres. In all kinds of natural dyeing process it’s important to control temperature, alkalinity and acidity. Indigo dyeing additionally requires the skilled use of reduction and oxidation, and in some cases also fermentation.
Question 4: Which other cultures practices of dyeing are you inspired by?
I have not studied any particular culture’s dyeing tradition closely. However in our indigo dyeing practice we like using Indian dabu (mud resist) recipes where alkali, tannin and iron create a rich palette of blues purples, and browns. We also admire traditional Japanese katazome stencilling to create bold and graphic resist designs for the indigo vat. We are however nothing but beginners in these techniques and do not teach them.
However I have a special fascination with the dyeing history of the city I was born and grew up in. Norwich has a long history of dyeing yarn and weaving textiles of high quality. The river water was particularly favourable for dyeing reds from madder. Norwich weaving became less and less economically competitive as the industrial revolution progressed. Desperate to survive, weaving businesses turned to emulating the intricate Mughal shawls which Empress Josephine of France had made the ultimate fashion accessory in the early 1800s. Several excellent books have been written in recent years about the history of Norwich textiles including these shawls. Surviving Norwich shawls provide breathtaking design inspiration and it is remarkable that such fine work was produced in weavers’ modest homes. We know relatively little about the dye recipes used as these were trade secrets but we do know that there were pioneering chemists at the cutting edge of textile dyeing working in the city’s dye houses at that time. Another specialist product which Norwich managed to continue to be competitive in for a while was black bombazine for Victorian mourning dress.
But there are difficult themes here. Shawl designs were stolen from one culture by another. Mughal shawl weaving in Kashmir was successively cheapened to serve the European market and dwindled away. An English city’s proud production of diverse textiles for many applications narrowed down to a few luxury products which eventually went out of fashion. Industrial innovation allowed cheaper and faster production elsewhere for wider and wider markets until the designs devolved to mass-produced printed paisley handkerchiefs. The shawls and bombazines were the last gasp of centuries’ long dyeing and weaving tradition of which nothing is left today.
I learnt about the history of Norwich Shawls when studying for a City and Guilds Certificate in Patchwork and Quilting between 2012 and 2015. My final quilt was an attempt to depict the Norwich Shawl story using fabrics I had naturally dyed myself.
Question 5. What are the aspects of natural dyeing that make it such a beautiful act of resistance against mainstream fashion practice? Its connection with nature, its imperfections, the slowness of the process?
What makes natural dyeing so appealing to me, especially when it uses home grown plants, is that way it strengthens my connection to a textile. I have upcycled a couple of tired or unloved items in my wardrobe by over-dyeing. I’ve mended and embellished other garments with naturally dyed patches of cloth. I feel very differently towards them as a result and know that I will keep repairing the mended items for as long as I can.
A desire for colour might bring people to gardening who wouldn’t otherwise want to start growing plants. There’s a permanence and symbolic power to wearing colour from your own garden which I think goes beyond the delight and satisfaction of eating food you have grown. If natural dyeing creates more and better gardeners that’s a plus in a world facing uncertain food supply chains.
I also like to imagine new dyers, in their quest for colour, beginning to worry less about a few dye stains in the kitchen or robust smells in their home. In the process perhaps we let go some of our socially-constructed anxious selves in favour of our more natural, playful selves. We may eventually begin to see ourselves not only as consumers but also as makers.
Natural dyeing can also be a slow craft. For example you can save energy by using glass jars as dye pots, kept in the sun all summer. I botanically printed some old linen napkins with a friend recently. She works full time and has busy family commitments and said how nourishing it was to spend the whole day testing, preparing, creating and steaming the fabric prints. The dyes we used were pomegranate skin we had each collected last winter, madder root from our dye garden, some fresh plant material from the back yard and windfall leaves from a local park scavenged the day before. The process required close attention to detail and was highly immersive. The finished napkins, though far from perfect, now have a new life. I’m sure my friend will recall the summer’s day of printing whenever she uses the napkins. I can’t think of anything less like modern fashion practice where the materials and the making are hidden from the customer, the design is rarely one of a kind and the option to upcycle an existing item is simply not available.
1) I have referred only to plants as a source of natural dye here as this is what I almost exclusively use in my practice. However, the insect dye of cochineal provides a magenta colour for which there is no plant substitute. Dyes are also obtainable from lichens and fungi but my view is that in the degraded ecology of the part of south eastern England where I am based, these species are best left undisturbed.
I have learned immeasurably from attending workshops by the following natural dyers:
Along with Jane, Isabella and Debbie, for the past 18 months Ashley and I have been researching the subject of foraging for dyes in the UK. Many of the subjects we have deliberated on in the process of this enquiry have deepened my curiosity about the role of natural dyeing in contemporary British culture.
3) If you are new to natural dyeing it’s important to follow health and safety guidelines as set out, for example, in Jenny Dean’s books available here. Tip: Unless you are only using dyes from food and never use metallic mordants, you must not use the same equipment for food and dye. Additionally the use of strong alkali and strong acids requires caution.
Text copyright Susan Dye, 2023. All photographs by Susan unless otherwise stated.