I have been a lover of plants since childhood, and have vivid sensory memories of connecting to them from a very early age. In dreams as an adult I have even visited some of my favorite childhood trees. Falling into natural dyes was really an inevitability.
Both of my boys enjoyed many hours of plant based play, and the youngest is especially passionate about growing things. As homeschoolers we spent two years focused on herbalism and ever since we regularly make use of various herbal concoctions, everything from homemade deodorant to tinctures for a sinus infection. So even during the big art break of the last decade plants have surrounded me.
“The plants that follow us around.”
I recently met another natural dyer who lives in Clatsop County. While speaking with her she said something that I have said many times, and have thought about a lot. It is even how I classified a section of our homeschool herbalism, namely “the plants that follow us around.” Her words felt like a sign from the universe that validated my feeling that the plants are always speaking to us, that they really do follow us around. A lot of the global movement of species has been intentional, various immigrants and migrants bringing familiar and useful plants with them to new locations, and some has been at the at the whim of the plants themselves. The plants offer their gifts to the world joyously.
This dyer said that after she first learned about natural dyes she had a profound moment when she looked around and realized that these marvelous plants had been with her all along, waiting for her to recognize their magic. her words were a nudge from the plants themselves reminding me that they really are following all of us around. In this I am not special. Perhaps plants are the original equal opportunity agents of love, healing and general goodness. We can learn so much from them.
Hijacked by plants
I intended that this would be the summer of indigo for me, then the class with Irit Dulman arrived on the scene and completely blew my mind. While I have continued to care for and learn from my four little indigo vats, the eco printing class opened up an entirely new way of interacting with plants and cloth. I find myself looking at all of the plants around me with new appreciation, and even a tinge of greed. What color will that leaf give up in the steam pot? Plants that might only provide very modest color when boiled up, may create striking marks on cloth when bundled and steamed. The whole thing is intoxicating.
The Brave New Frontiers
Because I stepped away from dyeing for a decade I missed the arrival on the scene of dyeing in this way. The hope we had in the early 1990’s that natural dye knowledge would be preserved, has blossomed into something much bigger during the last decade. For the first time in history we are understanding much more about this ancient art that was nearly lost with the onset and take over of synthetic dyes starting in the 1850’s. Understanding and also advancement – the plants are communicating new ways of working with them to artists and science geeks alike.
From the natural dye extracts that the brilliant Michele Wipplinger of Earthues helped birth, to the direct printing with plants in bundles which was first proposed by Canadian natural dye scholar Karen Diadick Casselman, and then promoted by Australian India Flint who spent her MFA exploring it then publishing her findings in the 2008 book, Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles, natural dyeing has kept a fresh foothold in the ever changing modern world.
Another “new” development comes from the Indian subcontinent, homeland of many incredible textile traditions. Weavers there have coined a new term, Ayurvastra, literally translated as healing cloth. While the ancient Ayurvedic tradition has always acknowledged that many dye plants are also medicinal herbs, therefore cloth has a healing capacity, this is a new term to describe it. Arurvastra is the effort of traditional hand weavers in the Indian State of Kerala to offer something that powered looms cannot, naturally dyed organic cloth woven with and infused with healing intent. When you hold cloth in your hands that has been hand made, or hand dyed it feels very different than cloth from a factory. We are hungry for that difference.
Meaning is everywhere
For most of human history everything you might touch in your life would be imbedded with meaning, and with energy from the maker. The experience of drinking out of a beautiful cup crafted by a familiar potter with clay from the earth of your community is a million miles away from drinking from a plastic Taco Time cup exuded in some toxic factory. There is no life in machine produced objects. It is only through our actions that objects begin to resonate. The proliferation of industrially produced goods, and the global exploitation and destruction of traditional cultures has left us with an emptiness that can not be soothed by anything money can buy. No matter how shiny and perfect. We long for the spirit of the craftsman and the material that strengthen our connection to the Earth.
This is an exciting time to be alive. The maker movements of all kinds are a direct response to this deadening of objects. It has inspired action by many to seek ways to make things with their own hands. It is calling into question practices that create our daily belongings in ways that poison the land and enslave people. The history of cloth is the history of humanity. Perhaps what is percolating now is the beginning of the end of some of the ugliest parts of industrialization. Perhaps the artists and knitters and makers of all kinds are creating the next revolution of human consciousness, one in which we again align ourselves with plants. If so then it is as part of a long line of craftsman, artists, farmers and activists who have known this truth all along. The lineage that acknowledges that to be human is to be a creator.
For me this is the summer of plant love. I feel as if the plants have turned up the volume of their messages. The more time I spend outside, the more time I spend playing with plants, the more exciting it all becomes. This new way of working with plants with botanical printing is a wonderful conversation to be having. Just as the experience of the Eclipse was made more meaningful knowing that others were witnessing it too, the experience of connecting to plants is more lovely because I know that others are listening in to the same wavelengths. The plants are broadcasting and more and more people are hearing that call.
What messages are you getting from the plants?