Natural dyes exist all around us. They might not be obvious at first sight, but you just need to know where to look, some basic concepts of alchemy, and a whole world of colors will magically appear. If there’s a plant, there’s a potential dye, something that humans learned very early in history.
Nearly all plant material is a potential source of color to dye: flowers, leaves, barks, berries, nuts, mushrooms. Common marigolds and weld can turn into yellow; carrot tops would make pale greens; walnuts will create shades of brown; madder roots produces beautiful red hues; poppies and hibiscus flowers will turn into pink; beets, blueberries, and grapes tend to purple; indigo makes blue. The list of dyeing plants is seemingly endless, as it is the range of colors that can be found in nature. You can get into the wild if you know which ones will work, grow yourself a dye garden or look at your kitchen’s scraps –avocado pits and onion peels, for example. We can find and create beauty anywhere around us.
Guided by a curious, observant, explorative and creative spirit, ROWSE’s long-time friend and collaborator Alina Macías, from Taller Silvestre, got into botanical dyes a few years ago, after working on an exhibition on Mariano Fortuny’s textiles. Instead of the aniline dyes in use at that time, Fortuny’s colors were created with overlaid vegetable dyes. Those vibrant colors sparked something in her. Eager to learn, Alina started to research and practice all that she could about dyeing plants, mordants, and fabrics.
“It’s a slow process that reconnects you with nature, its rhythms, and its many nuances,” Alina says. “It’s honest with nature and involves you both physically and mentally. It’s almost like a ritual.” It begins responsibly gathering the raw material and ends up with a dyed fabric that’s always unique and full of meaning. The color would tell us about the plant itself: how is the soil where it grew? How much sunlight did it receive? Was it collected in spring? And it will tell us, too, about the artisan behind the object –not just about her technical skills, but especially about her intuition, her patience, and her commitment to create beauty.
When we decided to create a swaddling cloth for our Amboseli Pack, it was clear that we had to work together with Alina and Vero from Taller Silvestre. Everything they create at their studio in Madrid is always exquisite and full of magic. They rapidly came up some powdered Acacia extract and turned it into the brightest orange-brown color: “Once we took it out of the dye and exposed it to the sun and the wind, the color revealed all its beauty. It’s the color of the Earth. It’s pure and bright, just like ROWSE’s products.”
Here’s one of Taller Silvestre’s easiest recipes, in case you want to experiment. We’re using avocado pits, they are rich in tannins, which will make things easier for a first-time dyeing since no mordant or fixative is necessary. These will produce a beautiful peachy-pink. You’d hardly get the expected color – sometimes plants are unpredictable – but that’s part of the process. There are so many levels, options and variables. It’s an open door to creativity.
Keep in mind that natural dyes stick best to natural fabrics. This recipe would work with linen, hemp and cotton, although wood and silk would be easier to start with.
You will need
- A piece of fabric
- 4-5 clean avocado pits (you can save them up in the freezer)
- 2 large pots
- A mesh strainer
- 1 large wooden spoon
- Ph neutral laundry soap
Prepare the materials
1º Thoroughly wash the fabric.
2º Thoroughly clean the avocado pits, cut them into small pieces and soak them for 48 h in a large pot fill with water. (Add ½ tsp of baking soda to create a more intense color). You will see the color progressively developing.
Create the dye bath
1º After the pits have been soaked for two days, bring to a slow simmer for about an hour.
2º Strain off the dye into another large pot and, if necessary, add more water. You will need approximately 4-5 l. for each 100 g. of fabric. Keep simmering low.
Dye the fabric
1º Add the fabric to the dye. Remember it should be previously wet and that it’s also important to submerge it well by pushing it down with a large spoon. There should be enough dye and capacity so that the fabric can swim around freely.
2º Keep simmering for about an hour or turn the heat off and leave overnight. The longer you leave it, the darker the color.
3º Once you’re happy with the color, carefully remove the fabric form the dye bath.
Lay out to dry
1º Rinse the fabric with cold water and hang it to dry. Exposed to the sun light and the wind, it will magically reveal a beautiful dusty pink. It will be somehow lighter than expected, but it will stick!
2º As the very last step, wash the fabric with mild laundry soap.
Photography by Nuria Val