Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Natural Dye Conference at RMIT in Melbourne. On a sunny Friday morning, the otherwise quiet campus was abuzz with ladies in felt hats, eco-printed tights, tops, coats and scarves. Creative extravaganza everywhere.
A vibrant group gathered to share knowledge in the field of dyeing and fibre. We had panels of experts from industry, fashion, academia, students and woolgrowers. A wide area of expertise was displayed in stimulating presentations which informed but also provoked a lot of inquiry.
To prevent exhaustion, we were generously and healthily nourished all day by KINFOLK catering. The food was excellent; they do catering, as well as run a café.
There was a small display of works by Sally Blake who investigated the dye capacity of local Eucalypt in exhaustive detail with beautifully assembled samples.
The organisers Fibreshed Melbourne took great care to pay homage and express respect to the elders and traditional owners of country, who were represented on the day and welcomed us on their land. See display below.
Please see my previous blog post on Kirsten Smith and her work with Aboriginal Women.
Fibershed California, the parent organisation, seeks to replace mass production of fibre/garments which is a large polluter of waterways with regional textile communities.
This mandate requires rebuilding and integration of regional manufacturing, production and consumption.
Small hubs of farmers seek to attract processing facilities into the neighbourhood for their wool processing and so closing the gap between production and consumer.
Fibershed is also a great promoter of indigo production and share their knowledge and experience very generously on their website, it really is worth having a look if you are thinking of growing your own.
This brings us back to dyeing and adding colour to fibre. According to Fibreshed Melbourne, colour was the motivation to host this event as well as establishing connection between industry and members.
Highlights from the Conference:
The main topic of Friday's program was Natural Dye systems at Scale and featured the work of Meriel Chamberlin from Full Circle Fibre. Miriel comes from a scientific background. She discussed various aspects of cotton farming and the little known fact that it has an undeserved bad reputation as it has a very high yield due to GM modification and therefore uses comparatively less water.
She spoke at length about synthetic dye use, the huge machinery that is needed to dye enormous quantity of cloth necessary to make a dye lot financially viable, (remember the market wants cheap garments). It puts into perspective that it would be a gargantuan task to replace this with natural dyes. Miriel also stressed that the modern synthetic dyes are environmentally friendly and subject to stringent government guidelines to regulate their toxicity.
Rebecca van Amber from Deakin University presented a most interesting concept. In her trials textiles are ground down to a very fine powder and mixed with a binder can be re-used as printing ink!
She is focussing on jeans, hence blue dyes, but other colours work as well as long as the fibre is mainly natural.
The future is bright!!
Another intriguing concept presented was a hybrid of synthetic and natural dyes to overcome the limitations of consistency of the latter and the undesirable side effects of the former.
Food waste was repeatedly advocated as a source for commercially produced natural dyes.
It was also noted that there is no funding for research into Natural Dyes .
Education was mentioned many times in a variety of contexts. Consumers have to be educated about the nature of inconsistency of Natural Dyes, accept it as a unique feature rather than a flaw. He/she also has to be made aware how labour intensive and therefore costly slow fashion is. Workshops are a wonderful introduction to gain an understanding of some of the processes involved.
Dye chemists have to learn about Natural dyes and their potential, manufacturers need to be made aware that there is a desire for more ethical clothing and adjust their practices.
Sally Blake talked about her amazing work recording the dye colours of eucalyptus in her area. She systematically dyed on silk, wool and linen with iron, alum or no mordant. This is an amazing resource and accessible to all online.
It is important to note that Eucalyptus is a substantive dye and does not require a mordant which makes it very attractive.
There were some inconsistencies noted. For instance, some found the young leaves contain a lot of colour, others noted that the older, dried leaves on the ground are better.
We also learned about Eucalyptus genetics and that colour can be predicted to a degree.
Joanna Fowles spoke about her body of work research into mordants and contemporary application of mordant printing. She is fascinated by the fact that a mordants can generate so many colours and wants to investigate lesser known mordants like salt, blood and bio accumulators in the future.
Lucy Adams elaborated on her Natural dye course at Kawashima Textile School in Kyoto with many slides.
Lauren Stringini, a very talented graduate from RMIT introduced us to her exquisite and creative work in Natural Dyes and Couture. Anybody hiring in the fashion industry at the moment would be very well advised to contact her on Instagram lauren.stringini
Lauren's experiment turning avocados into printing paste! Stunning.
We also talked about the Australian native Indigo, Indigofera Australis. Notably there is only one botanical name but many different varieties with varying dye content (indican) which may explain that some dyers have more success than others using this plant.
I will write more about the progress with this investigation as I am currently discussing possibilities with the RBG examining this issue in some more structured way.
I was grateful to Fibreshed Melbourne for providing a forum for so many different perspectives on fibre and dyeing. It was an interesting and inspiring group of people progressing important work. Lots more to be done!