TAFA’s Botanical Alchemists – Dyeing with Plants, Earth and Bugs
The chemical side of what happens in our textile and fiber art world makes my eyes roll around in my head. Like most teenagers in the 1970’s, I did my share of tie-dyeing and might still overdye something with a commercial dye. But, I’ve never been good at experiments that involve repetition, patience, documentation and the mess that comes with dyeing fabrics or yarns. I’m far too impatient! However, I do enjoy reading and learning about it, from a distance…………. And, commercially printed fabrics can never replicate the gorgeousness we see in the hand dyed and printed processes.
We have far too many members working with dyes, paints and printing techniques to cover them in this post. Instead, I would like to point you to some of the ones who have a botanical focus and who have gone above and beyond in terms of offering resources, supplies or information. We have tagged our Member Profiles with “Dyed/Painted” and you can see them here, so do explore the others as well. And, you can use keywords in our search to try to find specific materials or techniques you might be interested in (indigo, shibori, cochineal, etc.).
Click on the name to go to the profile where you will find their links. I’m not linking directly in the post because if there are changes down the road, it’s easier to keep the profiles updated and not worry about our posts having broken links.
Arlee lives in Calgary, Canada, and has been working with botanical dyes for a long time. She mostly scavenges materials from what is grown locally and as she also works with flowers, sometimes experiments with plants from work. Mixing both machine and hand embroidery, her fabrics often inform how the design unfolds. She works her pieces intensely, often using the human body, organs, and insects as themes. Arlee documents her works in progress on her blog and is active in many groups online. She teaches occasional workshops and sells dyed remnants and supplies in her online shop on a limited basis.
Beautiful Silks, Australia, has a huge inventory online for dye supplies, including gorgeous silks that are ready made to dye. That in itself is a great resource for dyers and printers, but last year they started an awesome project where they bought land, have been building workshop areas and are growing their own supplies. It’s fantastic! Progress is documented on their Facebook page, so be sure to look there for updates as their website doesn’t have much on this so far. If you have been wanting to visit Australia, I would definitely make this fun, vibrant project a destination!
Kathi Hattori of Seattle, Washington (USA), has long been a go-to person for knowledge and supplies. She describes her business:
“I provide natural dyes that are beautiful, sustainable, environmentally friendly and support farming communities and small producers. I have personally visited a number of my major suppliers to ensure that their working environments and processing methods are humane and economically and socially responsible. All of the dyes that I sell are personally tested for quality, light and wash fastness and are the historic dyes that have been used for centuries by textile artisans all over the world.”
Her website sells a wide range of natural dyes, supplies and kits. She also has workshops on a regular basis. Kathi posts great info and resources regularly on the Botanical Colors page on Facebook, so if you are over there, be sure to follow it!
Donna lives in White Lake, Wisconsin, a rural area in the Northern American Midwest. Her tagline is “ancient techniques with a modern twist”. She has many skills that use the natural resources and materials that she finds in the landscape around her, from basketry to knitting, but her two big passions are new age looping and natural dyes. Donna thrives in her role as a teacher, using tech tools to document her experiments and holding online workshops. Living in a rural area has had its challenges and Donna has overcome them by embracing these tools and teaching herself what she needs to know in order to connect with the world. She shared some of this in a previous post here on TAFA, Teaching Online Opens a Global Market.
Donna’s dye focus is on what she can grow or find locally, including willow. The versatile material serves her well in basketry and other functions. Her blog is an excellent resource, covering a wide range of her interests with detailed instructions and gorgeous photography. Donna sells scarves, dyed fabrics and yarns and other things that she makes through her shop on Etsy.
Elena lives in the Ukraine and keeps a bi-lingual blog where she documents her projects. Her brain is that of a scientist, dissecting the processes that happen chemically between plants and fiber. She calls her blog “The Procrastinator Dyer’s Diary” which never made sense to me as she seems so prolific and organized! Does she really procrastinate? Her focus is on contact dyeing, using plants that are natural to her environment. She has a gallery of images showing results of cotinus, maple, and eucalyptus, as well as results on paper and wearables. Any student of eco-dyes needs to follow her and learn from this inquisitive mind and lovely person!
Elena teaches workshops locally at her studio in the Ukraine and sells her work on Etsy.
India Flint is widely acknowledged in our community as the guru of botanical dyes, the mystical mother whose heart is married to earth. A poetic wordsmith, this video captures the spirit of what India does in a beautiful way. She has written numerous books and articles, teaches workshops around the world and has info and gorgeous images on her website and blog. I just realized that she also calls herself a botanical alchemist… Here I thought I was being clever with the post title!
Note: India strongly advocates against smuggling botanical matter from one part of the world to the other. (Something artists boast about online…) I read her statement about it recently, but can’t find it now. I will add it in once I get it from her. All kinds of horrible things can happen when foreign plants are introduced into new environments. If you would like to use botanicals that do not grow in your area, please purchase them through a trusted dealer.
Nancy Zeller runs a sheep farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, which is quite the feat in itself. She has an online shop full of supplies and hosts dye workshops locally. In 2013, she went to Rwanda to work with a cooperative of women who were using botanical dyes for their own yarns and fabrics, helping them to increase their color ranges and dye knowledge. That has grown into a steady relationship and opened new doors and opportunities for continued work in Rwanda. Nancy is amazing! Long Ridge Farm embodies a vision of what can happen when a community taps into its local resources and looks outward to the wider world.
Lotta is a Swedish born designer living in Virginia, USA. She is known for her crisp, clean eco prints, often made into journals, sachets and wall art. She has a beautiful shop on her website and runs a community on Facebook where she shares images and techniques.
Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Maiwa offers one of the most extensive resources on natural dyes in the world. Charlotte Kwon, the owner, travels the world to research techniques and supplies, documenting her findings through the Maiwa blog and sharing techniques through workshops. The Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes is an excellent step-by-step overview of their approach with special attention to Alkanet, Brazilwood, Myrobalan, Cutch, Lac, Safflower and Indigo. Maiwa is HUGE, hosting a yearly symposium with fantastic workshops, with two retail locations, a large and varied online shop, documentaries and a foundation. There is a visible connection and commitment to artisans around the world, which I really love. Spending time there is easy and fun, so do explore!
Morgen (British Columbia, Canada) has been screen printing for many years and began exploring eco dyes a couple of years ago. She now has two distinct looks for her products, one with a hint of tribal colors and impact (hearkening back to her roots in South Africa), and another that is soft, feminine and earthy. She creates wearables that she sells through her shop on Etsy and is moving to larger impact pieces geared towards exhibition. Morgen documents her processes through her blog and inspires us all with her excellent photography. Her commitment to the environment shines through in her choice of materials and designs.
When I think of indigo, which I love, Susan pops into my head. Although she works with other dyes as well through her Oriba Shibori studio, Susan’s passion is indigo. She lived in Kagoshima, Japan, when she was young and was exposed to many of the traditional crafts of the time, an experience that has continued to inform her practice to this day. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina (USA), where she teaches workshops on a regular basis. Susan shares her process regularly on her blog and has a healthy image collection on Flickr.
Linda LaBelle ran The Yarn Tree as a brick and mortar operation for many years. But, as she became more involved with her non-profit work via the Stories of Hope, she moved to Asheville, North Carolina and opted for having her shop go virtual. She sells all kinds of natural supplies, including fabrics, yarns, silk, roving and other things that are ready to dye. Her natural dye selection also includes mordants and other chemicals used in dyeing, so you can get everything you need through her. Linda teaches workshops regularly, travels extensively, writes, advocates for low income and disadvantaged communities and constantly on the go with interesting projects. She sells her own work in her shop along with fair trade products that she supports.
Aren’t these stories exciting? The world has truly become a global market and although that has had devastating effects via unethical corporate greed, it has also allowed all of us to pursue our passions and connect to others effectively. We have so much access to tools, supplies, knowledge and have a great virtual community which we can tap into, learning and sharing as we go along.
What is our connection to the alchemists who prepared the way for these natural dye chemists? Wikipedia and other sources define historical alchemy as having three pursuits:
Defining objectives of alchemy are varied but historically have typically included one or more of the following goals: the creation of the fabled philosopher’s stone; the ability to transmute base metals into the noble metals (gold or silver); and development of an elixir of life, which would confer youth and longevity.
Over time, these pursuits broadened and led to forming the base of scientific inquiry that led to all kinds of discoveries. The stories about the most famous of the practitioners and their thinking of the time are fascinating. Although men dominated most academic fields, there were women who also helped shape the discussion. Some of them are introduced in the website, Women Alchemists. Having an inquisitive mind has often been a dangerous proposition in history, with knowledge and experimentation seen as witchcraft during and after medieval times.
However, I think that the word “alchemist” remains relevant as a description of our botanical dyers as most refer to their practice as a spiritual one, rooted in their connection to the earth, the plants and spirit. Perhaps they no longer seek to change metals into gold, nor need to find the fountain of youth, yet their knowledge seems to keep them young at heart and is worth more than gold to their communities at large.
Are you a botanical alchemist? Feel free to share your links and resources in the comments. We’d love to hear what you are up to and what natural materials you use for dyes.
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Elena Ulyanova has a passion for eco and botanical dye processes and has taught her methods in many European countries. Originally from the Ukraine, she now lives in Poland. She sells upcycled garments and accessories that she dyes on Etsy.View Profile
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