This Spring, trend isn’t the only thing dictating the fashion calendar. The emphasis is on conversation pieces that tell a story, and fashion enthusiasts are feeling more connected than ever to the makers and cultures that inspired or created their outfits. Lively color, mimicking native flora, is also in demand. With the momentum of the slow fashion movement comes a resurgence of natural dyes and earth-inspired patterns that replace toxic, synthetic dyes with color derived from plants, minerals, wood– even insects.
Natural dyes aren’t something new, they’ve been around since the bronze age. It was only in the mid-19th century that synthetic dyes were introduced and began their wide-spread into many of the products and clothing we use today. Over time, the craft of natural dyeing took to the underground, but has stayed alive through traditional cultures of North America, Africa, Asia, and the Scottish Highlands. Shibori, a Japanese art of dyeing where the cloth is bound, stitched, folded, twisted or compressed before being dropped into the dye vat, has also resurfaced this season. With shibori, one can create gorgeous geometric shapes and resist patterns without having to machine print onto fabric.
Hexagon Silk Scarf : Modern Shibori
This year, many designers have partnered up with natural dye experts, artisans and foragers alike to integrate this ancient art form into their lines. Some are even learning the technique themselves and basing entire collections upon these gorgeous color ways and irregular effects. Take for example, San Francisco based Elizabeth Brunner, founder and lead designer of sustainable fashion brand Piece x Piece:
“Honestly, it never really occurred to me as to why I decided to learn how to dye on my own. I guess I’m stubborn in a way because if I really want something, I figure out how to roll up my sleeves and get it. It can be really hard sometimes but it’s always gratifying. With dyeing it was the same, it started small then I just kept saying to myself… ‘now let’s try this’. The rich natural colors of those first experiments ended up being my muse and inspired me to evolve my brand and take it to the next level.
My creative process is simple. I do what feels right. With the new collection it was about creating a non-toxic collection. Organic cotton is starting to become more prevalent, why not take it even further and demand less chemicals in the dyeing process too? For me, it’s a small positive contribution to a bigger issue, but every effort to make things better, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction.”
– Elizabeth Brunner, Piece x Piece
Eva Silk Jacket : Piece x Piece
As the weather warms up, many of us are re-introduced to the outdoors as the season brings with it the ever-awaited music festival. From Coachella to SXSW, people are gearing up to get back in touch with their roots. Expect to see a lot of bold, ethnic patterns inspired by African, Navajo and Andean cultures. Speaking of bold, a revival of thick chunky bracelets, long earrings that dangle to shoulder, and chocker-esque statement pieces that rest at the base of the neck will be accessorized.
Like natural dyeing, we are seeing traditional crafts emerge this year, peaking the interest of the mainstream – and rightfully so. These handmade works of art have a history and uniqueness all their own. Through conservation of these invaluable skill sets we can help them survive while supporting the economic wellbeing of the people that make with them. Many fashion companies are doing just that by partnering up with artisan collectives in places like South India, Peru and the Thailand Burma border.
Pochampally Ikat Shoulder Sling : EST WST
Socially focused company EST WST works with handloom weavers in rural Nepal and India to create authentic rucksacks, messenger bags, slings and ipad cases from traditional handwoven textiles like dhaka, a staple in western Nepal, and ikat, a resist dyeing technique used to create tie-dye effects through weaving . These crafts are quickly vanishing with the rise of machine wovens:
“The first factory to start weaving dhaka in Nepal once employed, housed and fed 400 weavers, now they have 25. Although technology will always progress, in rural areas there’s a huge problem with power shortages and extended daily blackouts; the incredible thing about handloom textiles is that they don’t require the use of electricity.
Through the practice of weaving these authentic fabrics, women can work from home instead of migrating to the overpopulated, polluted city. They can earn a sustainable living from home, without having to compromise time with their children or time caring for their land or livestock. This is where slow fashion can be so empowering: it produces more jobs and provides economic opportunity in remote regions, usually for women who would otherwise have a very hard time earning a living wage.”
– Jhana Clayton, Co-founder of EST WST
Pesticide use is also a problem in the area resulting in high rates of depression and farmer suicides in rural Andhra Pradesh, not to mention the contamination of local water sources. In response, the use of EST WST ikat, made from organic cotton and azo-free dyes, not only supports fair wage opportunities for the weavers, but in purchasing an EST WST ikat product, you are helping save enough fresh water for somebody to drink for a year.
Layered Cuffs : Ways of Change
Conscious consumerism, a new form of philanthropy, can also offer a way to support those affected by conflict and migration by connecting them to a global community. Ways of Change, a fashion brand inspiring change through community development, works directly with artisan refugees living on the Thailand Burma border to create gorgeous brass jewelry utilizing skills that have been passed down for many generations :
“From the start WoC has worked in collaboration with refugee artisans because we wanted to help in the preservation of the traditional Kayan and Karen jewelry making skills that were otherwise dying out due to a lack of sustainable income. It allows us to create truly unique and one of a kind collections that are both inspired by modern designs while simultaneously capitalizing on traditional skills.
The best part of the whole experience for me is watching the younger generations learn these traditional skills and become so excited about keeping their culture alive”
– Lauren Baird, Co-founder of Ways of Change
In addition to helping secure a livelihood for artisans, a portion of Ways of Change profits go towards community projects focused on empowerment and sustainable living, providing support to refugees as they become repatriated, resettled or integrated into local communities.9