April 2019

Can colours communicate a place?

In fully transparent design, the consumer can see the true origins of a piece through the dyes used and a communication of colours. 


Recently, the V&A’s ‘Fashioned From Nature’ and Japan House’s ‘Living Colours’ exhibitions have raised awareness of organic ways of colouring our fabrics. The Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop in Kyoto, Japan was the focus of 'Living Colours', and presented the products of years of research and experimentation in reviving plant-based dyes. 

The Japanese culture has a deeply rooted connection to their surroundings, and an appreciation of how the landscape can change with the prominent seasons, causing new colours to bloom every few months. The delicate pink cherry blossoms (sakura) of springtime have become a world-wide attraction in Japan, so much so that the Japan Meteorological Corporation have issued a sakura forecast which estimates when the trees will start to flower and reach full bloom. Of course, Yoshioka has produced shades of pinks to reflect this.


He even works with farmers to revive the endangered Murasakiso plant, as the roots contain his favourite colour, purple. A whole range of purple shades can be made from one species of the purple gromwell. These practitioners are reaching to the past to create a more sustainable and colourful future.

'Living Colours' at Japan House London, photography by Ella Mai Downes

Similarly to Yoshioka, in the textile village of Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico, master weaver Isaac Vasquez Garcia has dedicated his life to reviving the natural dye techniques of his region and has been creating naturally-dyed rugs for 70 years. The vivid colours of the pigments reflect the surrounding areas of Oaxaca; the mountainous landscape of earthy oranges, faded purples, and shades of greens against a bright blue sky. Indigo blues (the only plant in Mexico to produce a blue), yellows made from rock moss, and reds, pinks and purples made from ‘The King of Colours’, the Cochineal insect. Fixed with natural salt or ash, these dyes are permanent and do not fade in the sun, and they do not contaminate the environment. They represent a strong connection to the Mexican flora and fauna, as well as to the Zapotec culture that still exists in the state of Oaxaca. These rugs are shipped all over the world, but are usually purchased in the showroom as travellers want to bring a piece of Oaxaca home with them. Vasquez, now in his eighties, has made sure to teach his sons his ways of dyeing because in his words, “the colours are the important thing.”

Isaac Vasquez's work at his 'Bug in a Rug' Studio, photography by Ella Mai Downes

Ffion Taverner creates naturally-dyed large scale art pieces. She recently studied an artist residency in natural pigments at Arquetopia in Cusco, Peru. Her studio is currently based in the farmlands of West Wales, but she works from wherever she can, collecting materials from her surroundings. Petals for dyes, dried plants as props, charcoal for drawing, leaves for oils.


The reflection of the environment is seen in the colours of her textiles. When in the luscious mountains of Cusco, the plants she collected as colourants resulted in deep shades of green. In Chile, the orange, rusty desert floor was mirrored in her fabrics. In Wales, the majority of tones are more muted; greys and beiges seep into the fibres alongside yellow-greens and wild berry tints.

Focussing on a sense of place, everywhere she visits Taverner is “reading colour from a new landscape”. These pieces are almost like souvenirs, the colours rooted in a memory of a place. 


She makes her dyes as if cooking. “Gathering, sourcing and identifying are the ingredients of a recipe of actions combined with a speculative approach, allowing me to discover of what our surroundings can create.” Taverner’s curiosity into how our environments can give us more leads to a process of foraging and experimentation. She will boil up a nettle soup as a source of iron alongside a yellow nettle dye, using the land to it's full potential and showcasing it's properties. Taverner cooks together a number of natural pigments sourced from the landscape, dyeing fabrics to form recipes of colour, scent and pattern, boiling, steaming and pressing organic material allowing the pigment to bleed into the fabric.

'The Desert' by Ffion Taverner, photography by Penny Booth

Richard Baskerville, Studio Manager of Material Lab realises that “designers have recently been looking to nature and we are starting to see this replicated in the home… In a world where mass produced perfection and the artificial have become the norm in city life, this backlash focuses on the organic, natural and individual.” Warm natural hues with subtle texture are being favoured over cold, slick materials.


In a fragile world, we are searching for solutions to contribute towards environmental change, and buying sustainable products is a small and achievable step. Natural dyes cannot contaminate our planet and sometimes are sourced from areas so close by that the carbon footprint is minimal. More and more consumers are realising that their purchases can have a destructive life before (and after) them and an effect on their environment.  As the nation is learning more about materials and their impact on the planet. A story behind a product and the knowledge of its origins is becoming more appealing than a plastic novelty.




Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in a Rug Studio, Avenida Hidalgo #30, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

© 2019 by Ella Mai Downes

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