By Ashley Walker
Copyright (text and images) Nature’s Rainbow unless otherwise credited. 10th July 2023.
The Natural Dye Panel from Thursday’s Groundswell 2023 Festival. From Left to Right; Zoe Gilbertson (Chair of panel and UK Bast Fibre Network founder, Babs Behan – Botanical Inks and Bristol Cloth, Sophie Holt – PIGMENT Organic Dyes and William Hudson – Co-Founder and Director of Hodmedods.
See full panel discussion HERE
This was a follow on panel from the 2022 Groundswell event looking at ways of developing a UK grown plant dye business sector. We know now that the bottleneck is not so much the growing of dye plants but the processing of them to produce a convenient, concentrated and consistent product for commercial dye houses as a replacement for the synthetics they are currently tooled up to use. Each of the speakers presented their plans for the year ahead and to summarise:
Babs has a lot of experience at bringing naturally dyed products to market having had a hand in all stages of the process. She has clearly explored many different ways of doing this and is currently focusing in on using woody dye plants that can be found growing in our hedgerows such as Hawthorn, Brambles, Oak and Alder. Hedgerows are regularly cut and trees coppiced so there should be scope for collecting an abundance of material. She has also talked about using invasive plants such as Bracken. The woody plants she has in mind contain lots of tannin and are fairly good light fast “substantive” dyes so fibre could be dyed without the need for mordant chemicals. She sees the way ahead within the practice of agro forestry where strips of land growing more conventional crops are spaced between strips of woodland. This would have the advantage of fitting neatly into an already expanding branch of agriculture.
Sophie by contrast presented more modest plans involving growing dye plants horticulturally on a medium scale as an integral part of a new Social and Therapeutic Horticulture project (called PIGMENT Organic Dyes). At a medium scale there is a ready market with bespoke designer/makers for the dried dye plant material the project will be producing. She has the use of organically certified land (part of the Baddaford Collective). She is already growing dye plants in quantity (some on commission) and is in the process of starting the therapeutic side of the operation.
New to the natural dye world, William has big plans to facilitate the growing of dye and fibre plants at field scale which he would then integrate with processing and making fashion items that could be sold direct to the public. He does not see a problem with dye plant processing which could start at a small scale but with incremental investment in equipment and training the enterprise could be built into a mature operation.
I am not experienced in business analysis so the opinions expressed below are those of an amateur grower and craftsperson. I wholly welcome these diverse approaches which I see as different strategies for success. All face the problems of setting up a new business in the face of tough competition from dominating synthetic dye and fibre industries. However, we know that the demand for “natural” products (already quite big) is rising as consumers fall out of love with synthetics.
Babs Behan’s previous projects have been to be aimed at the luxury market with a relatively small scale production. Her plans take advantage of a bounteous supply of woody dye plant material with little or no cultivation requirements. This would require harvesting by hand as most currently available hedgerows contain all sorts of plants. Woody plants deliberately planted as part of an ago-forestry scheme could be grown in mono culture so would be easy to cut mechanically but such a source of woody material could take a few years before harvesting was possible. But, even hand harvesting of hedgerows would still allow easy collection of a substantial amount of material. A shredder or wood chipper could be used to help prepare the material for dye extraction and facilities to harvest, shred and dry the material would probably be available on most farms. It’s unclear how important conversion of the raw plant material to a concentrated pigment would be at this scale but it could become an issue if production was increased. The only drawback I can see to Bab’s plan is the colour of the dyes available from these woody plants which would be limited to shades of yellows, oranges, greens, pinks, browns, and greys. Fashion of course is all about persuasion so probably not a problem.
Sophie Holt’s project is the most familiar to me. As a qualified Horticultural Therapist I have worked at projects seeking to generate income from the products of such an enterprise. I have to say that doing so is a lot more difficult than people imagine as there is an inherent tension between the therapy and working to create a product. In Social and Therapeutic Horticulture it is the client that comes first and the plants a distinct second so it would be a rare thing indeed for such a project to be able to fund staff wages from the proceeds of sales. However, if the income from selling the dye plants is seen as a secondary support for an already partially funded project then it can work well and can provide meaning, social support, training, confidence, fitness and a host of other benefits to the clients while at the same time providing a service to textile makers everywhere. A number of other small co-operatives and Community Interest Companies are currently trying to go down a similar route so the possibility of collaboration to scale up production is possible.
William Hudson is new to growing natural dyes and fibres but he brings with him all the expertise gained in setting up and running Hodmedod’s, an exclusively British grown and supplied whole food company which specialises in bringing farmers, processors and product suppliers under one umbrella organisation. He aims to do for natural dyes what he has done for beans, pulses and grains. He proposes to grow dye plants on a field scale, and has confidence that “in house” methods to process the crop can be found. In the last year he has been working with Ian Howard who successfully built a Woad growing and indigo processing business in Norfolk before his retirement a few years ago. William sowed a test strip of Woad at the Groundswell 23 site to start things off. His plans also include clothing company Jasper.
I have not mentioned Fibershed the network which played a prominent role in the Groundswell22 panel. The Fibershed team have already been wrestling with all the problems of bringing home grown home produced textiles to the country. Like William they hope to produce a network of growers, makers and sellers that could create a market for ethical and sustainable collaborative businesses. The difference is that William wishes to move faster and at a larger scale.
Anyone trying to get into growing and using natural dyes or fibre is up against the economies of scale and the inequality of production costs between countries. In short, the Capitalist system! Perhaps in time the inequalities will even themselves out but that does not seem likely when the system is weighted so heavily in favour of cheap profits. Currently naturally dyed products are only available to those with money (or those who make for themselves). A Kashmir edition scarf from Bristol Cloth can cost £650 so at these prices the product will remain a status symbol for the wealthy only.
Meanwhile waiting in the wings is the “natural dye” fermenting business where micro-organisms selected or engineered to produce dye stuffs are brewed up in huge tanks to replace our fossil fuel derived synthetics. The industry is also investigating dyes from food and other agricultural wastes. Many of these dye stuffs are fugitive so they are looking at chemical processes that might stabilise them. This would take natural dye production out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of the chemical industry. If the oil taps are turned off there may be no other option.
But there is hope for farmers. Already the global business of extracting plant colourants for food is worth $1.82 Billion and set to rise to $3.21 Billion by 2028.* Natural colourants are also extensively used in printing inks. If we already have an industry in place that can extract plant dyes for food and ink then they could also extract plant dyes for textiles.
It would be impossible for the whole industry at current consumption levels to move over to field or hedgerow grown natural dyes as there is not enough land to support both the food and fashion industries. But there will be room for a substantial new industry extracting plant dyes from field and hedgerow crops. How big that can be is open to question and will be dependent on many factors.
No matter what, I think there will always be a market for locally produced products so I really hope to see Babs, Sophie’s and William’s projects prosper.
Some interesting Food colourant companies.