This feature appears in the June issue of Gardens Illustrated
Photography by Rachel Warne
Dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel hails from America but currently lives in Hackney Wick. As well as acres of urban grit, this part of east London also has a river, the Lee, and a modest tangle of woodland called Wick Woods. In the summer it’s tempting to get a little bit lost in its lushness. Sadly, I meet Katelyn on a day that’s less than perfect.
How many people in the fashion industry aren’t a little bit allergic to rain? Katelyn has excellent couture credentials but constantly craves the outdoors. Persistent drizzle, and the subsequent waterproofs it requires, doesn’t put her off. A walk in Wick Woods with Katelyn, her local dye foraging spot, involves getting down on your hands on knees to peer at things in intimate close up, whatever the weather.
Inspired by permaculture, Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute, works for the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion and helps run an ethical boutique called Here Today, Here Tomorrow. She’s a nature lover and environmentalist as much as she is a designer, and these passions inform and shape her work. “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology, an ecosystem.”
She began experimenting with mail order natural dyes at art school and hasn’t looked back, quickly graduating to ones she makes herself. “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye yourself. With powders you get the same result each time.” She talks of the beauty of creating a dye palette that reflects her local environment, suggesting the blur of colour you might see through a car or train window is likely a similar spread of shades you would get from dye plants sourced in that area.
Katelyn champions species that are abundant but others may see as a nuisance. “I love plants that do many things like nettle – it can be used to make soup or tea, as a fabric and a dye.” A favourite last summer was a container of cut-and-come-again pot marigolds – the flowers are delicious in salads and can also be used as a dye. She has a huge bag of frozen petals in her freezer, ready for brewing into a dye bath when the right project comes along.
Making natural dyes from plants is a lot like cooking – there’s no one way to do it. Bark likes to be cooked long and hot, whereas something light and leafy needs much gentler treatment. To turn the concoction from colourful stew into dye you may need to add a mordant like alum, which helps fix the dye to the fabric. It’s gentle enough that leftover dye can be used to water acid loving plants like blueberry or rhododendron.
Katelyn’s experiments with plants have produced hues of ombre, chestnut, rust, gold, mustard, terracotta, pink, mink and cream. The colours compliment each other and have unusual depths. “Natural dyes, like a Seurat painting, change in different lights,” she says. “They shimmer. It’s almost like an optical illusion. They have a richness and depth that synthetic colours lack.”
For Katelyn, dock root is “an unusual blessing”. It may need to be boiled for several hours to release the dye, but the resulting rusty pinks, shimmering golds and autumnal oranges are worth it. In a world dominated by yellows, natural dyers come to prize the reds. Dock works beautifully on silk or wool, and you can achieve many more shades by adding acid or alkali to the dye. A dash of baking soda will bring out a warm terracotta. Dock leaves can be used too – young foliage produces a bright green-yellow, older leaves create more of a mustard.
As someone who loves a challenge and embraces the opportunity to experiment, cherry is a favourite of Katelyn. “It’s such a mystery, still. If I had any tree it would be this.” While some people hate the inconsistency of natural dying, she relishes the unknown. The bark from young, fallen branches can produce a dye that ranges from pinks and oranges to greens and golds. The colour achieved depends on the variety of tree and the environmental conditions where it is found, not to mention the fabric you are dying – wool and silk will turn different colours when dipped in the same dye bath.
The inner bark of the birch tree produces a pretty pink, while the outer bark achieves a paler, subtler shade. The leaves create yellow or olive green. Add iron to the dye bath – Katelyn nurtures rusty nails in jars of water especially for the task – to produce a creamy, purplish grey. A range of special effects are possible with natural dyes and specific techniques can be used to create unusual patterns. For example, Itajime – Japanese wood block clamping – leaves behind un-dyed shapes with haloes around the edge. You can use natural dyes to colour yarn and for screen-printing projects too.
The bark, leaves and berries of the elder tree can all be used as dyes. The bark creates a delicate metallic colour like the palest pink of the inside of a shell, while the leaves produce tans, greens and golds. The berries can be used to create a fugitive purple stain, which changes over time and eventually washes out. Katelyn welcomes the impermanence – “embrace unpredictably and accept change – dye a dress afresh every season.” Her foraging also embraces the edible and she advises you eat some elder berries too. The ideal plant will colour your cloth and make a meal.