Natural dye is an intimate practice that follows the rhythms of nature and unfolds in communion with the plant. One of the oldest crafts of humankind, it is a method of obtaining colour from plants and other biological sources (such as minerals or invertebrates) to create a dye matter for textiles and yarns.
Natural dyes have a long and rich history, and the first archaeological traces of textile dyeing date back more than 5,000 years. Before the invention of man-made synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century, all textiles were dyed with natural dyes, gathered from local lands and traded far and wide. As a practice, it has remained essentially unchanged to this day and holds an innate sense of wonderment and a deep connection with nature.
When synthetic dyes arrived on the scene, they took over fast, acting as an inexpensive alternative for a scaled-up commercial textile production enabled by the industrial revolution, and as a catalyst for the decline of natural dyes. Nonetheless, artisans around the world have preserved traditional techniques for dyeing and printing with natural dyestuffs. Practicing the art of natural dye in her garden and studio in North Berlin, Elke Fiebig of Still Garments is one dyer keeping the craft alive and thriving today.
I always watch closely what is currently growing and in bloom, even if I’m in other regions. It’s very special to collect the first fresh birch leaves at the beginning of the year and to dye with them – they create such a beautiful colour, a great, bright yellow! It always feels like: “Oh, winter is over!” With trees, the colours often change with the seasons, and you can also observe this well with stinging nettles. Colour is contained in different concentrations in young plants than it is at the end of a season’s cycle when the plants prepare for winter. When stinging nettles are young, they create a beautiful, tender green. Over time, the colour becomes muddier, more yellow or brown. The colour of nettles also very much depends on their location, and you can see if they have grown on the roadside or in natural surroundings without much pollution. Looking at nettles is a good way of observing how colour changes throughout the year.
Before I had my garden, I foraged plants in the city. Walking around town with open eyes is so rewarding – I started to notice plants that I used to walk by or even step on – and I like the idea of rootedness to a place. Plant knowledge is very important – there are protected plants, poisonous plants – and it is necessary to be able to navigate. But I feel like many people in the city. I often think that I knew a lot more about plants as a child than I do today, that I could name many more trees.
You should take at most twenty percent of a plant or a plant population. If several plants are growing next to each other, I only take a bit of each, so as not to weaken the individual one. When I collect flowers, I make sure that there is still something left that can form seeds so that the plants can sow themselves. This is also important in the city, and that’s why I pick a lot fewer wild plants since I have a garden.
Our allotment is now in its second season. In the first year, I intervened very gently. I wanted to wait and observe the garden first to see what would unfold in the course of the year. This year, I started to mix the vegetables and the dye-plants. Last year, the dyer’s chamomile wouldn’t grow well and I didn’t know why. Now I’ve planted it everywhere and it thrives between the vegetables and the indigo. It’s exciting to immerse oneself in a dye garden, but I also realised how difficult it is to grow colour right from the beginning.
There are a few plants known for being the most traditional dye plants – they contain a lot of dye and their colours are very durable. In the past, there were large regions not far from here in Thuringia known for growing woad, which gives a rich blue pigment. The root of madder would be used for its intense red. An incredible number of plants create a yellow colour, but the most durable yellow comes from a plant called weld. Natural dyes have always played a big part in global trade.They were among the most precious things that were shipped around the world. Traditionally, dyer’s woad from Germany but also Belgium and France would be formed into balls and left to dry. This way, it could be stored and traded.
At some point, every plant dyer will have worked with kitchen waste. I find the process fascinating. Onion skin, for example – it looks so unassuming, it costs next to nothing, it’s thrown away – and it creates such an incredibly intense colour. Kitchen waste is a local resource and so wonderfully attainable.
My focus is on working as energy and water efficient as possible, without compromising the process. For plant dyeing, the time that the different steps take is incredibly important. Working in several steps means that you consume more water and energy but it is necessary for the molecules and the fabric to bond together and for the process to work properly. Finding the middle ground between durability and saving resources is an important topic for me. The people who attend my workshops for the first time are often concerned when they see how much water the dyeing process consumes. But essentially, everything we produce consumes energy and water, we simply don’t see it in our everyday lives.
Every year has its unique expression. In 2017, when it rained so much, all the colours looked washed-out – probably because everything was so full of water. And last year, everything was a bit out of step because it was so hot and dry. Many plants that I was waiting for in the garden did not grow in their usual time. They flowered very fast or they came much too early. Natural dye has opened my eyes to these rhythms in nature, and I find it extremely empowering to work and create in this simple way. It makes me feel connected and gives me a sense of purpose.