Tagged: Katelyn Toth Fejel

Gardens Illustrated | nature’s palette

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 01

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.”

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 02

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.

Lost in London | to dye for

This feature was originally written for the summer issue of Lost in London

When dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel first moved to Hackney Wick she didn’t like it much.  She was craving something wild and this place didn’t seem to offer that.  Katelyn discovered the marshes alone one day when she ventured off her usual path.  Suddenly she was lost in the undergrowth, surrounded by a rich knot of plant life.  She had, at last, found herself a local patch.

I meet Katelyn at her warehouse home as she packs up kit for a foraging session.  We’re going to hunt for dye plants in a clump of woodland off the River Lee towpath.  She leads the way by bicycle, negotiating her trailer through messy road works and over bone-shaking cobbles, past the scars of the Olympics and beneath busy road bridges.  Her handmade white dress billows about her like a sail.

It’s not long before we disappear down a rough path, made into a romantic tunnel by trees that bend over to meet in the middle.  It’s the first day of sun after endless rain and the wood is deep green, lush and muddy.  It turns out that ten minutes from Hackney Wick station wilderness reigns.

“I like foraging locally because I can monitor my patch.  It’s about paying attention” says Katelyn.  “You have to be really responsible.  I was taught by a Native American basket weaver that you should never take more than a tenth of what you find.  And I would never take anything uncommon, like lichen or mushrooms, even though they make really great dyes.”

Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute and organises ‘Dinners To Dye For’, which involve natural dyeing workshops paired with shared meals using plants, nuts and berries foraged locally.  Many natural dyes are edible, which means you can use your pickings to both colour your cloth and make your meal.  The Institute was founded in America by Sasha Duerr and Katelyn has brought it to Britain.

“We’re inspired by permaculture” she explains.  “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology; an ecosystem. People are starting to think about food provenance more and more, but we don’t really think about fashion provenance yet.  We can use people’s connection with food as a way in.  Our workshops are a sensory experience and can turn something banal like an onion skin into something magical.”

Katelyn pulls on thick gloves and starts harvesting bundles of nettles and stuffing them into a huge cooking pot, where they will later be boiled in water to make a green/yellow dye.  “Nettle is a food, a fibre and a dye.  And there’s so much of it.  I’m thinking about overlooked local resources and encouraging eco-literacy.”  She grabs a trowel and heads into the bushes to find a dock root, returning with an enormous specimen.

“You can make lots of different pinks with dock root by adding an alkaline like baking soda to the dye.  If you added something acidic you’d get yellow.  There’s a huge variety to be had from one plant.  You also get drastically different colours depending on the natural conditions, like the soil.  In the same way there are distinctive wine regions, there are colour regions too.”

Preparation depends on what you’re dealing with – making dye is a lot like cooking.  Bark likes to be cooked hot for a long time, whereas something light and leafy would be dealt with in a much gentler way.  To turn the concoction from a colourful stew into a dye, you need to add a ‘mordant’ like alum.  It’s a safe mineral salt that fixes the dye to fabric.  It’s gentle enough that, when you’re finished, the dye bath can be used to water acid soil loving plants like rhododendron or blueberry.

“I did it first as a science project at art school, where I screen printed with mail order natural dyes” explains Katelyn.  “I used madder, which is red.  I painted vinegar on one print and baking soda on another – one turned plum purple and the other turned yellow.  It was like magic.  I haven’t used synthetic dye since.”

Katelyn quickly moved on from mail order.  “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye plants yourself.  With powders you get the same result each time.”  Some people hate the inconsistency of natural dyeing but Katelyn embraces the unknown.  She also appreciates being able to handle her freshly dyed wet work without gloves. “It is so beautiful that you can touch them.  With synthetic dyes you would never be able to do that.”

The woodland is a great source of both colour and inspiration but the humble kitchen cupboard has much to offer too.  Red cabbage can dye a piece of silk an elegant blue, while red onion skin can produce a shocking green and yellow.  It is indeed like magic and Katelyn is the wizard that can transform a veg box into a painter’s palette.

As well as running ‘Dinners To Dye For’, Katelyn is also part of a collective and shop on Balls Pond Road in Dalston called ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow’.  It was set up by four London College of Fashion graduates and is about showing that there isn’t just one way to be sustainable, but many.  One of those many ways is to use natural dyes, and Katelyn sells clothes in the shop.

We return to the warehouse, where Katelyn sets up her stove and gets some nettles bubbling.  She makes mugs of hot tea and offers slices of sour dough with fresh nettle pesto and sweet dandelion jam.  She talks about an upcoming event she’s running at Hackney City Farm as part of the new Chelsea Fringe festival of gardening.

“It was the idea of people creating ‘horticultural happenings’ that drew me to the festival.  I’m not a city person really.  I think the Fringe for me is about being a nature lover in the city.  People here are interested in nature, but that love comes out in interesting ways because we don’t take it for granted.”