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Lost in London | to dye for

August 10, 2012

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.”

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