Cuckoo Children's Co.

Natural Dyes: the Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Morgan CoxComment

This week I’d love to share my experiences with natural dyes with you since we are currently using them in our collections for their sustainable and visual qualities.  Natural dyes can be sorted into three categories: natural dyes obtained from plants (indigo), animals (cochineal), and minerals (ocher).  In ancient times, the most commonly used dyes were found near their source-- color differentiated geographical location, class, and custom.  Fast forward to today, where 90% of the dyes used now are synthetic and the textile industry’s wastewater from textile plants is classified as the most polluting of all the industry sectors.  In addition to the environmental impacts, synthetic dyes are very dangerous for the industry workers who inhale and absorb them during the production process.  “The use of natural dyes would solve the problems associated with synthetic dyes, but for the shift to occur, society will need to band together-- on behalf of fabric workers and on behalf of our planet-- to demand a change in landscape” (Zady).  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn more about natural dyes from my friend from college, Mackenzie Bullard.

Mackenzie and I began working together last spring, just in time for my senior year childrenswear collection.  She dyed a medley of cotton velveteens, lawns, silk velvets, and hemp cloths in the most gorgeous shades I had ever seen and then passed them over to me to sew them into my childrenswear designs.  It was magical and I fell in love with the results from natural dyeing.  A combination of unique fabric choices (as far as childrenswear goes) and beautiful, rich naturally dyed colors gave my collection a spirited, whimsical, and distinctive look.  As luck has it, we are working on another children’s collection, this time for the annual fashionSPARK show in downtown Raleigh on September 19th.  Cotton+linen and velveteen in stunning indigo, madder, and weld are the key players this time.  Think autumnal, rustic, rich shades that synthetic dyes just cannot hold a candle to.    

I could keep going but I’d really love for you all to meet Mackenzie since she is here with us today!

What inspired you to start using natural dyes in your work?

A year and a half ago, I was fortunate to have taken a workshop with Catharine Ellis at NCSU. I was  inspired by her passion and energy for natural dyestuffs and colors. Both Catharine Ellis and the workshop have been extremely pivotal in my education and life.

Have you had any influential teachers or mentors that have made a big impact in your practice and work?

I have been very fortunate that many people and experiences in my life that have led me to be curious and creative. Most recently my professors at NCSU, Susan Brandeis, Dr. Cecilia Mouat, Dr. JMark Scearce and my fellow peers have really challenged me in research, reflection and making. These most recent relationships have fostered growth in my visual language, design sensibilities and continue to push me forward.

Why do you prefer natural dyes to synthetic/chemical?

Immediately, I was drawn to the color outcome of natural dyes. I also have great interest in the science and procedural structure needed to replicate and extract color from flora or fauna. Natural dye work is slower and requires a level of intention that I really enjoy.

What's the next project you have planned?  

I am currently researching natural color interaction by constructing a series of woven natural dye gamps (blankets). The gamps utilize various woven structures to explore the optical blending of naturally dyed yarns.

Iowa native Mackenzie Bullard is current Art+Design graduate student at North Carolina State University.  After a course at Penland School of Crafts, she had a major material shift from oil painting to fibers and decided it was time to continue her education.  In addition to making beautiful weavings and dyeing, she enjoys designing and planting terraniums.  She also cans up jams, veggies, and soups like a pro.