Ready to embrace the serendipity that happens when you extract color from nature and use it to transform cloth, natural dyer Kathryn Davey knows that even when she has a careful plan, nature has delightful surprises in store. When that happens, Kathryn embraces the wonder, documents the process and uses her new knowledge as a springboard for future work. Responsible sourcing of materials and environmentally friendly methods are the hallmarks of the rich-looking textiles she produces.
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
My parents are both very creative. My mother is a great cook, baker and gardener. She was also very resourceful, making curtains and homewares for our home, even making clothes for me when I was very young. Although she worked a full time job, she managed to make the time to add these creative touches to our lives. My father was also very talented and missed his true calling as an artist. Since retiring, he has focused entirely on his painting and is an accomplished artist. In many ways I was exposed to and encouraged to be creative from a young age. I was fortunate to be exposed to lots of different mediums as a child which provided an early start to building my confidence as a creative person.
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What inspires you to create? How does your environment influence your creativity?
The simplicity of nature and the rugged beauty of Ireland constantly inspire me. Especially the changing colours of the seasons, the landscape, the natural world, the generosity of the plant world. I have been working with plant dyes since 2010 and no matter how much I learn, there is always more to discover. Learning about plants and the colours they hold beneath the surface is a constant source of inspiration and motivation. I find plant colour so soothing, and I love how the colours from plants are so complimentary to each other.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working? How did you become interested in sustainable design, for example?
I am a self taught natural dyer. Before I worked with plant dyes, I painted with oils and acrylics. I have always been my most engaged and at peace when I am making or creating. While living in California, I started experimenting with natural dye. The first plant I worked with was indigo and I was instantly captivated. I have always being interested in natural materials, fibres and the plant world. For as long as I can remember, I have had an ongoing love affair with textiles and merging this with natural dyes was the perfect way for me to combine what I love. So sustainability and consideration for the environment is a natural extension of what matters to me.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Natural Dyeing?
I want readers to feel inspired and empowered to experiment with plant dyes. The process can be very simple to start, as well as deeply satisfying and rewarding. You don’t need much to begin: a stove, pot, water, dye plants and something to dye. It can be a wonderful way to connect to nature, explore your creativity as well as bring new life to textiles or garments that might be waiting for a revival.
It is very common to feel overwhelmed when you first start out. I have presented the information in the book with the beginner in mind in the hopes that they will give natural dyeing a go despite any uncertainty that may feel. I have to warn you, once you start you might not be able to stop.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I am nor sure that I do anything differently. I think there are a lot of people doing very similar work to me so I am not sure that I have the perspective to see how mine differs. However, I am committed to creating products and textiles that genuinely have as minimal an impact as possible on the environment. My processes are slow and incredibly labour intensive, my ingredients are of the highest quality and my fibres are sourced consciously. I would like to think these details and decisions are reflected in the quality of my work which is hopefully noticeable in some way.
Is it difficult to source your raw materials? What are the biggest challenges in that regard?
As I have become more committed to sustainable design and learnt more about the challenges we face environmentally, I have become more committed to sourcing materials and fibres that are created in the most eco-friendly way possible. I enjoy the challenge of sourcing raw materials. The biggest challenge is the cost and proximity to Ireland. As I live on a small Island, it’s always costly to import quality materials, and it’s hard to find what you need here. Finding raw materials that are certified and traceable in their origin can be a challenge. Last year I was fortunate to source beautiful quality Alpaca fibre not too far from my studio that was then knit into hats and hand dyed with plant extracts. The fact that is was sourced, knit and dyed within a 50km radius was incredibly rewarding.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I plan, and then I am open to the process. So sometimes I plan the colours and then they become something else. Colours don’t always come out the way I intend, so I have to be flexible and open to the process.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a lovely light filled studio in Dublin, on the outskirts of Dublin city. An open plan type studio with a long countertop for my hobs (cooktop), a sink, kitchen type situation. In spring, I invited my Dad to share my studio with me because he is a painter and needed a studio. So you will find him taking up an area of my studio with his paintings. The rest of my studio is filled with pots. I have little bundles of naturally dyed swatches everywhere and my scissors collection hangs on the wall. I have an area for dyeing, table for working, an area for printing and packaging and most importantly a little area to sit down and relax.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
Scissors are one of my most prized tools. I have a small collection and each has its own use. I have a guillotine which is invaluable as I print my own hangtags and postcards. For the dyeing my pots and wooden spoons are indispensable, as well as a hanging laundry rail and lots of Irish linen.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I have a natural dye journal, made from handmade cotton paper. I am currently dyeing with a new dye plant and documenting this every month in my monthly membership, The Colourway. Each month I add the swatches and colour results to my journal. I hope to document and record as many local plants as possible. Seeing the colours of the plants recorded in this way gives me a sense of purpose and direction with my work.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It depends on my mood and whatever I am working on, usually music or a podcast. A few months ago I binged on “The Wintering Sessions” with Katherine May. I found it incredibly inspiring to listen to other women’s stories of adversity. Sometimes I listen to Brené Brown. She always interviews interesting people or Esther Perel if I need a relationship pep-talk.
The time I have alone in my studio to listen to whatever I want and discover new music while I work is one of my greatest pleasure in life!
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Paul Henry or Sheila Hicks. Painting and textiles, both of which resonated deeply with me when I first saw their work. The work of Paul Henry stirs something in me; perhaps it’s my desire to live on the west coast of Ireland or the imagining of a more peaceful way of life drenched in the everyday beauty of nature.
The work of Sheila Hicks fascinates and inspires me. I would love to hear about her life and career, the challenges she faced, her inspiration, her greatest lessons and teachers in life. I would have no end of questions for her!
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I like to think that we are all creative; some of us are more in touch with it than others. Like everything in life, creativity comes naturally to some and others have to work at it. I believe creativity is there in all of us; we just need to find the outlet that will help it to flow freely. There are so many ways to exhibit creativity. I think people don’t often recognise where they may already be creative in their own lives. Cooking food, creating a beautiful home, gardening, art, style, music, photography, bringing people together, story telling, humour, writing: these are all forms of creativity.
I think creativity needs space to flourish. You have to give it space, make time for it. It’s like anything, the more space you create, the more you nurture it, the stronger it becomes. I think we pick up a lot of negative or limiting messaging around creativity whether from school, parents or people in our lives and these messages can impact how we view or own creativity. I think we owe it to ourselves to explore our own creativity free from the constraints or opinions of others.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as an artist?
Earning a living doing what I love is by far the biggest challenge as an artist. My work has had its own set of challenges as I relied on this to take care of my daughters. At times that was incredibly challenging and stressful financially. I sacrificed a lot to make sure I could pay our bills. In many ways, I didn’t have the time, space or luxury to explore my creativity fully and I am hopeful that my best is yet to come 🙂
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is where people can go to see some of my work. I naturally dye products and I teach others how to do so. I make my goods in limited batches and these are available once a year. The rest of the year, I offer workshops, tutorials and classes on natural dyeing. I have an ongoing monthly membership where I explore a different dye plant every month to share with my members. I hope to inspire people to experiment with natural dyes and look at plants differently and with more appreciation!
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, I teach workshops to individuals, groups and also for events or corporate clients. Although I am based in Dublin, I often travel to teach. Anyone interested can get in touch with me directly through the contact info on my website.
Interview posted June 2022
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