Fiona Pattison talks to Justine Aldersey-Williams about natural dyeing, her passion for teaching and the passing on of her skills to help others create a more sustainable, toxin-free culture within all household materials including our wardrobes.
Describe your background, where you are from and what you do?
I’m a textile designer and teacher specialising in natural fabric dyeing, so I colour, print and pattern cloth using plants. I’ve lived in Cornwall, Wales, the US for three summers and Berkshire, but was born on the Wirral peninsula in North West England which is where I now live.
How did you come into this profession and how does it differ from your last job?
I’ve meandered my way back to textiles having originally graduated with a degree in Fashion (Printed Textiles) followed by a teaching qualification in art and design, only to spend much of my adult life raising children and running small businesses that fitted in with being a full-time mum. I’ve been a handmade wedding stationer, a web designer, a mural artist, a secondary school art teacher and, for the last 10 years predominantly, a yoga teacher.
I got into yoga and meditation during my kids' toddler years when I was horribly sleep deprived, then trained to teach as I wanted to ensure my children had some emotional education to balance what the current system offers. When they outgrew my classes, I continued teaching adults but gradually, with the space and extra time the teen years brought, I felt a strong call to return to my creative roots. So I returned to university to complete an MA, where I focused on both digital surface pattern design and natural fabric dyeing. My current job only differs in its subject matter - I'm still a teacher. Yoga gave me a strong awareness of my physical and emotional wellbeing, which meant I needed to balance my digital work with a ‘hands-dirty’ practice so I wasn’t sitting at a computer all day. It also developed my compassion and reverence for the environment which inspired my interest in natural alternatives in my creative work.
I had been put off screen printing due to the toxic inks we used in the 90s; no one at the time really questioned where these inks went when they were rinsed down the drain. Thankfully, things have changed in the fifteen years between my degree and MA. Updating my digital design skills means I can now communicate my ideas without using physical resources and I hope I’m contributing to a more sustainable future by showing people how to extend the life of their textiles by using natural dyes.
You create courses where people can learn about natural dyeing processes, Tell us why you decided to teach and what do you like about passing the message on?
When I’m inspired by a subject, my first instinct is to share it with others. I had a great education so always appreciated how crucial the craft of teaching is in bringing a subject to life. We all know teachers who managed to hold our attention and those that didn’t! Teaching is such a skill in and of itself. I really enjoy presenting information in a fun and engaging way that transfers the sense of joy I feel for the subject. I also consider what I do creatively to be another form of yoga because working by hand with natural materials can have such a positive effect on wellbeing.
If you could describe you and your practice in 30 words, what what it be?
I enhance wellbeing through natural creativity. This involves slowing down, learning about the environment and making heirloom textiles that celebrate nature.
What is the message of your company and the products you create? Who is your customer?
I’d compare the message of my company to a programme that used to be on when I was a child, called, ‘Why Don’t You?’ It was a TV show that wanted you to switch off the TV (after you’d watched!). Similarly, when people see the textiles I create to demonstrate the techniques I teach, they often want to buy them but I’d like people to have a go themselves. I do occasionally sell my work and I’m not saying I’ll never create more textile products, but right now I’m uncomfortable with the speed with which people purchase then discard things. I don’t want to add to landfill. Instead, I offer the knowledge, skills and kits to do what I do because I think natural fabric dyeing could offer an important alternative to buying new. As part of a much needed return to the ‘make do and mend’ ethos of our war-time ancestors, reviving our home textiles and clothing using locally found plant colours could extend their life so saving planetary resources. The practice also gives parents a chance to share crafts in the home with their families, all the while learning about raw materials, where they come from, which are safe to use etc. These simple home crafts have such a bonding effect because there’s nothing quite as special as something made for you by someone you love.
What do you think you can teach big fashion chains? And what do you think the answer is to changing the fashion market?
I’m not sure I can teach big fashion chains anything and I doubt they’d appreciate my ethos because I’d like people to stop buying so much new clothing from them. I’m not saying buy nothing, although taking a week/month/year long break occasionally would slow down the environmental damage caused by fast fashion. Just one new T shirt takes over 2700 litres of water to produce. What I am saying is, buy a few ethically made, quality items that will last a lifetime or buy second hand. I’m really interested in clothing that can be edited, mended and embellished with time and memories; a simple capsule wardrobe of garments fit for life’s purposes and comfortable to wear. I’m not really interested in following someone else’s judgement about what is and isn’t stylish, although if everyone started auditing and upcycling their wardrobes I can see how this would become a fashion too!
I recently organised a community event in association with Fashion Revolution where I collaborated with local farmers, allotment holders, chefs and tree wardens to make a statement about sustainable consumerism. I asked them to donate some plant or food waste along with an old T shirt which I then revived using their own natural dyes. We all met for a photo on Earth Day to demonstrate that you can re-wild your wardrobe using free local resources and clothing that you might otherwise never wear again.
How can you be that change agent?
By practicing what I preach. In 2016, I didn’t buy any new clothes but instead started patching, stitching and re-dyeing garments that had worn out or been stained. I love the aesthetic and philosophy behind the Japanese ‘mottainai’ meaning ‘too good to waste’ which includes crafts such as sashiko stitching, boro patchwork and natural dyeing.
I also donate a percentage of my company profits to the environmental charity TreeSisters: Women Seeding Change every month. I love the circularity of using plants in my work to raise awareness of ecological issues and then giving back to the Earth via such an inspirational organisation who are reforesting the tropics (also known as the lungs of our planet.)
How can others get behind you to make the changes needed? What steps would you advise someone wanting to make that change in what they wear?
Take an audit of all your clothing. Section it into items needing mending and items that have become faded or stained. If you tend to enjoy buying new clothing on your day off work, could you devote perhaps one day a month to upcycling or reviving something old? We all discard plant and food waste that could be used to re-colour our clothing; onion or avocado skins for instance create beautiful shades of yellow and pink and offer an easy place to start. Alternatively, you could buy one of The Wild Dyery’s kits. We are just about to add madder (red) and weld (yellow) to our range that already includes ‘mystic blue’ indigo. These three dyes are the ones used for thousands of years before the advent of the synthetic, petrochemical substitutes which rose to popularity during the Industrial Revolution. You can create just about any colour from these incredible three plants. I also have a free video on our YouTube channel showing how to create four different shibori (tie-dye) patterns, so in just a few hours you could have dipped new life into an old garment.
There are a lot of fascinating skills to learn if you want your natural colours to last and I teach these during my workshops. This craft is becoming really popular and everyone wants to have a go. However, I wouldn’t recommend people start foraging for plant dyes without proper tuition because just as we wouldn’t eat anything we picked, we shouldn’t dye with it either. This is why quality training with a qualified teacher is so important.
What workshops or classes have you got coming up?
I am currently running module 2 of my online course, ‘Natural Fabric Dyeing: Colour, Print and Pattern’ Click here to sign up http://naturalfabricdyeing.com/study/module-2-print/ ). This module can be studied independent of the others and covers the popular eco printing craze which involves printing locally foraged flowers and leaves directly onto cloth. I’m also teaching a one-day intensive workshop on eco printing just outside Liverpool on Saturday 16th June.
What plans do you have for over the summertime?
Summer is a great time for getting outside, foraging for dye plants and getting creative with nature! I’ll be continuing to work on my own clothing by eco printing some old garments with my local flora. I’m also studying Celtic mythology and herbalism, so I’m particularly excited to deepen my research into the healing potential of clothing dyed using medicinal plants.
I plan to take as much of August off as possible and will be going away for a family holiday, but I’m also working on new projects which are all hush hush for now but very exciting! I’ll be adding a new online workshop and possibly a book which will cater for absolute beginners to the craft, and I also plan to offer my online training as an ‘on demand’ class so that anyone, at any time anywhere in the world, can home-study natural fabric dyeing.
For more information about Justine and ‘The Wild Dyery’, please visit: