LCF BA Fashion Textiles student Elizabeth Ranson, winner of the prestigious Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters Award, is an advocate of natural dyes and here explains the beautiful story behind the process.
Making a fashion statement is paramount to so many individuals, so isn’t it odd that consumers are willing to settle for duplicates of the exact same textiles en masse? Colour is so pivotal in defining a look as individual, yet the processes of chemical dying for fast fashion remove this detailing. Colour is the catalyst of success for many collections, but its creation is also the catalyst for damage to the environment as dyes and mordents damage the planet and natural water systems. It is crucial, therefore, that unique colour – worthy of defining a collection – can be obtained from more environmentally friendly sources, both in the name of sustainability and in the name of individuality.
Carefully curating a colour palette from home grown and nurtured resources adheres not only a colour to the fibres, but a story too as the long-term commitment to the process from planting to harvesting and dyeing invests a personal touch. On a worldwide scale, the use of natural dyes could actually be detrimental due to the amount of land required and the pesticides required to tend to such a mass of plants, on a smaller scale the growth of dye plants can increase community resourcefulness. Their use could also encourage appreciation for the history of a garment and lead consumers to question the origins of the cloth and colour they are wearing. Whether kept as an heirloom or allowed to harmlessly biodegrade at the end of their tenure, garments dyed with natural resources could alter the damaging effects of fast fashion and encourage wardrobe longevity and individuality.
Within the knitwear industry, where technology leads and mass production of knitted garments creates a lack of differentiation between knitted textiles, it seems the beauty within the craft has been cast aside in the name of fast fashion. The tactility of knitwear created through craft and handmade methods is often ignored in favor of techniques compatible with the newest technology. In the same way, colour application via Pantone references has lead to the double-edged sword of standardisation: garments are evenly coloured and garments are exactly the same. Natural dyes avoid this monotony. Sustainability does not have to lead to constraints and lacklustre colour. When considered within a design context, it can lead to more experimentation and evolving colour than ever before. Natural dyes are a way of creating colour and texture upon knitted textiles that re-introduces the value of differentiation and the beauty in the ‘one off’. Taking control of the colour creation process with plant and vegetable extract dyes adds another facet to the design process whilst incorporating historical craft dying methods and entwining a narrative within each dyed garment.
With informed fibre choices and alternative application processes, plant, vegetable and fruit dyes can lead to delicate shade transitions and nuances of pigment variation unachievable with chemical dyes. Once relied upon for all colour creation upon fabrics, natural dyes were replaced in the mid 19th Century with synthetic colour and although natural dyes are not without their downfalls, from a design perspective colours created through the use of natural powder pigments, dye plants and fruit, vegetables and flowers hold many unique possibilities. More subtle and translucent than synthetic dyes, natural dyes applied to knitwear allow the yarns and fabrics to remain a focus point of the design rather than dominating with overpowering shades.
Natural dyes produce colours unmatchable through synthetic colour creation; their somewhat unpredictable nature is what gives fibres dyed with their extracts tactility and nuances of blended hues that echo their origins. Kinder to the water systems than synthetic dyes (providing mordant baths are correctly exhausted), natural dyes also leave animal and plant fibres ‘naked’ of substances that will inhibit biodegrading at the end of their use. Experimentation is the key to any natural dye process and keeping expectations open is crucial. Employing any usual resist methods such as tie die, Shibori and dip-dying can create patterns and organic mark making upon fabrics and fibres. As well as this, the translucency of these dyes makes them ideal for over dying and fading into one another creating new shades and ombre effects. Anything can be tried, from fresh and dried flowers to vegetable peels and stones. Try gathering two cups of natural ‘findings’ and boil them in two litres of water for half an hour to extract the colour. Immerse mordanted yarns into the dye vat and see what colours can be created. The results are often surprising, for example avocado stones give a pale pink and fresh peonies dye yarn a pale brick red.
Shunning regulation and dismissing ‘the same’, natural dyes celebrate differentiation and evolve from interesting sources adding symbolic detailing to garments, not just aesthetic. Machinery and technology cannot implement this value. Craft and historical methods appreciating time and patience are the only avenues of achieving this aesthetic and ethos. Improving the biodegradability of a garment by using only natural fibres and dyes, combined with the precious creative narratives entwined within a beautiful hand crafted and hand dyed garment creates an item with a history and a future. Perhaps in appreciating the story behind a piece of textiles, its future will be considered by consumers too.
See more of Elizabeth Ranson’s work.