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Article Art & Photography

Reviving the ancient art of natural dyeing


Words by Sophie Wright

Photos by Sophie Wright

The textile industry has been dominated by fast, cheap and synthetic production since the mid-1800s. It is becoming one of the world’s largest polluters in the process. But Amsterdam-based designer and researcher Lucila Kenny is on a mission to bring natural dyeing processes them back and into the future. From natural dyeing workshops and research projects to her own scarf collection, Lucila is set on opening our eyes to the rainbow of colours hidden in plants and flowers all around us.

A laboratory for colour

With a view overlooking the leafy green expanse of Westerpark, Lucila’s studio is a visual feast. Like a mini-production house, it’s packed to the brim with pots and pans, enclosing a central table lined with dried plants and colour swatches, and cornered by shelves of colourful scarves. It was as a young textile designer in her native Argentina that Lucila first became interested in getting hands on and experimenting with natural dyeing processes, whilst creating patterns and silkscreen printing for local labels.  

Getting back to the roots

At the heart of Lucila’s work is regaining an intimate understanding of natural materials and their potential, a quality that she feels we have been disconnected from since the dawn of mass production. Her practice has grown from using plants and dyes from all over the world to experimenting with anything she can get her hands on, from fresh flowers to avocado skins, leafy carrot tops and even beetroot mixed with wine. “You can use natural dyes that come from the earth – plants, seeds, barks, flowers and fruits – to colour any textile. Every part of a plant species probably has colour potential after treating it,” she says. “People used to dye with plants 2000 years BC. It was only recently that we stopped using natural processes. Industrialisation spoiled everything in such a short amount of time.” While her approach draws on ancestral methods, the focus is on the future: researching, building and sharing knowledge, both old and new, about sustainable processes.

A spectrum of endless possibilities

Each four-hour workshop Lucila runs gives an introduction to natural dyeing by testing out different “recipes”, from start to finish. First, students are taught about the natural fabrics you can colour. Then, they experiment with three different colours before dyeing the material. “It’s like cooking – you think about how many grams of pigment, how long and at what temperature to cook,” Lucila explains. “You collect your natural material, you soak it for as long as it needs then you boil it for around an hour looking at the recipe, before treating the fabric with fixer and dipping it.” The colour possibilities of each plant and flower are endless, and having the process dissected in front of you allows you to literally see how colour comes to life. “From one tree you get so many different colours. The trees are all green, and all the barks are brown. But there are colours hiding in there!”

“People used to dye with plants 2000 years BC. It was only recently that we stopped using natural processes”

Revealing the colours of the city

With over 400,000 trees, Amsterdam is a perfect place to hunt for colours. For her latest project, Lucila is going fully local and directing her attention onto her neighbourhood of Westerpark. “I dye with plants that come from South America or India, but I was always wondering, where are the local colours of The Netherlands?” she explains. “We want to make colours that come from Amsterdam, made out of waste from nature or caused by the changing seasons.” Collaborating closely with Rens Spanjaard, a plant specialist with a background in food and bio-dynamic farming, Lucila has been harvesting material from the park, then labelling and testing it across seasons. “Nettles grow everywhere. In April, I went and harvested some leaves, and got one colour. Then I went back in May, to the same spot, same amount, same plant, same fabric, same recipes, and got a completely different colour. It’s infinite!” she says. “I want to do something for my little environment. Because I believe that if we all take care of our neighbourhoods, it’s a global change.”