Honest Alchemy: Q&A with Natural Dye Maven Elizabeth McTear & A DIY Hapa-Zome Felt Banner Project

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Honest Alchemy: Q&A with Natural Dye Maven Elizabeth McTear & A DIY Hapa-Zome Felt Banner Project

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Stepping into Elizabeth McTear’s garden is like stepping into an outdoor laboratory. Every plant and flower has a purpose. And if it does not have one, it’s only because Elizabeth hasn’t invented it yet. I first met Elizabeth as a fellow vendor at the Phoenicia Flea where she was selling her beautiful naturally dyed textiles. I was struck by her knowledge of and passion for the craft. She lives and breathes natural dying. We sat down in her beautiful garden in Philadelphia over homemade ice tea so she could tell me more about her story.

Did you grow up thinking, “Oh, I want to be a natural dyer when I grow up”?

Growing up, I just knew I was an artist. It was what I was doing all the time, and it came most naturally to me. For about a decade when I was growing up, I was doing both visual arts and music (playing the piano). The visual arts won out, and I enrolled in art school, where I earned my BFA in textile design.

How did you get into natural dying?

After college, I got a heavy dose of the real world: I no longer had access to big studio spaces filled with the appropriate equipment, and my job wasn’t “art student” 24/7. I had to get a full-time job and figure things out. Plus I was burned out after finals. So I floated and went back to sketch books and small scale drawing, while working wherever and sometimes working two jobs. Then as things stabilized, I went back to my passion, which is working with textiles, slowly accruing equipment and carving out space to do my work. But by then I had also done a lot of research, and learned a bit more about myself, as one does when one grows and learns from life. I found that the textile industry is one of the biggest contributors to our global pollution problems, due in a great deal to under- or unregulated textile production in developing countries and our widespread addiction to fast fashion. I wanted to find a way to pursue what I loved while being kinder and gentler to myself and the planet, so I turned to natural dyes.

There are so many good synthetic dyes out there. Why natural dyes?

That’s a great question. Synthetics were developed to be able to blast through impurities in water to give consistent results. This is why the water quality in developing countries doesn’t matter as much. The results will be within an acceptable range to hit the racks at any big box store. And there’s plenty of beautiful things one can do with synthetics. I learned using synthetics and they are amazing. But natural dyes are amazing too. They  have a sensitivity and personality all their own. They change and shift and demand that the dyer learn the many lessons they have to teach or keep failing and making crap work. And for most of human history, natural dyes were the go-to when it came to textiles. The first synthetic dye, mauve, was invented by accident in the mid 1800s. By contrast, indigo was used by civilizations reaching back into ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and was the most widely distributed dye on the planet until the early 1910s when it was dethroned by its synthetic counterpart. The 1910s to today is not a long time in human history. So really, our legacy and our true connection as a species is with the natural dyes. This does not mean that production should be completely turned over to natural dyes. We are too numerous to support that kind of production. But there are lessons here—in how the dyes work, in how they can be recycled, composted, or safely disposed of—that the widespread synthetic dye marketplace should really start learning from and employing. In learning this vast history of textiles, I wanted to find my own place in it. And I wanted that place to be something that I could proudly talk about and share and be transparent about. It needed to align with my need to live as ethical a life as I can. So now I’m on my path of learning the particular chemistry of natural dyes, and I’m slowly unlocking all the history and secrets and beauty they hold.

Tell me about your garden. How did it come about?

I’ve been digging around in the dirt for as long as I can remember. Dirt and art, art and dirt. My life was always half outside, at camp or in a garden, half in the studio, making messes of one kind or another. The longer I pursue the natural dyes, the more I want to learn. The dye garden is the latest step in my education. After reading about various sources of dye materials—this kind of flower or root or leaf—I wanted to grow some. I consider the dye garden a kind of outdoor laboratory. I can do small experiments; I can collect specimens; I can learn how to grow and process the plants that give color, and eventually learn how to tweak things, like soil content or pH, to influence dyes inherent in the plants.

If you wanted to ease into natural dyeing and start planting, what would you start with and why?

I’d suggest buying a natural dye kit. My friend Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors sells great kits worth checking out. She has clear directions too. As for a dye garden, I’d suggest starting with some easy-to-grow varieties: marigolds, calendula, hollyhock, yellow yarrow, joe pye weed, and fennel. These plants are pretty easy to grow in temperate climates and are easy to harvest. For the flowering plants, the flowers are what you harvest for dye; for the fennel, it’s the fronds. The key to any good dyeing, be it from an extract, a kit, or raw materials from the garden, is how the fabric is prepared. Scouring it properly, to remove all pectic substances, waxes, sizing, dirt, oils, etc., and then mordanting it, will help ensure that your efforts adhere to the fabric and are lasting.

Where do you find inspiration?

Art, fashion? I love looking at textiles from around the world: Japan, Scandinavia, the U.S., various African countries, Peru, Mexico. I love watching what other dyers are doing too, and seeing how their own practice grows. But most of all, I get inspired by the dyes and plants themselves. Most dye plants are very humble, looking like weeds. It amazes me that somewhere along the line, some savvy ancient ancestor noticed color coming from a plant. They figured out how to use that plant to make a dye, then figured out how to use what was around them to make that dye chemically bond with basket reeds or spun flax or animal hide. And then it evolved and grew from there. It was interpreted in unique ways by each culture on Earth. Different peoples chose different colors to express things like status or wealth or their profession. Colors have been assigned meanings, like red for love or anger, black for mourning, blue for serenity. It is a unifying and beautiful thing, and all because once upon a time people saw some great potential in an unassuming weed and learned from it to make color.

I feel everyone is doing the shibori thing. What’s next in dyeing?

Screen printing, eco printing, and next-level shibori. I’m already working on perfecting my screen printing work, and aim to expand my offerings of this technique in the coming years. I have one major client, Baby Jives, that I work with on a weekly basis to build up her line of naturally dyed, screen-printed goods. I’m working on my own line of printed textiles for my work and to offer clients. And I’ve been steadily building up my line of eco-printed goods, which you can read more about on the Terrain blog. The other thing that needs to happen is that the shibori work needs to go to the next level. Layering of color and pattern, be it subtle or bombastic, is where things have to go. In the mainstream, we’ve only seen the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to what shibori can do. I’m hoping to push my own techniques further, but I really want to see others push it too. Frank Connet, to me, is a masterful shibori artist. His sense of control and precision when it comes to shibori is mind boggling. There’s a lot that can happen with simple mark-making that becomes more nuanced and layered. I want to see everyone seeking that next level, finding their own unique ways of putting pattern and color onto fabric.

Take wool felt and give it a gentle wash. Let it air dry, and then press flat. Decide what shape of banner you want and cut accordingly, leaving an extra inch or so at the top. Take that extra inch and fold it over, sewing it into a sleeve for a thin dowel rod to slide through. Gather your favorite flowers and leaves. If you don’t know if a flower gives color, feel free to experiment! Lay felt on a hard, flat surface, and place your first flower. Take a piece of scrap felt and sandwich the plant material between the felt pieces. With a hammer or mallet, firmly pound the plant material sandwiched between the scrap felt and felt banner. This can take some time and effort, depending on how carefully you wish to transfer the imprint. Small, sharp hits can help transfer lots of beautiful details onto your piece. Repeat with new plant materials until you’ve finished your hapa-zome piece, replacing the felt scrap as needed. Attach with string to your dowel, and display your cool handiwork in your home, out of direct sunlight.

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