Plants, Dyes & Exploration

written by Sophena Kwon, Founder of Indigo Social

I grew up with an indigo vat on my back porch. My mom is a natural dyer and since my earliest memories, colour has related back to nature. I remember this gigantic wildflower garden in our backyard filled with marigolds, chamomiles and coreopsis: petals with the ability to embed even the most gold of sunshine into the cloth we dyed. I remember picking wild yarrow and tansy along the train tracks. Lots of dye plants are often wild or weeds, overlooked and under appreciated but filled with secrets of colour and medicine.

I have been traveling to India with my mother since I was nine. She started Maiwa the same year I was born and trips to India meant playing with all the kids in the villages we worked in, who were the sons and daughters of the artisans Maiwa partnered with. From a young age, I had so much exposure to the hands-on process of textiles. I was always attracted to the dye pots as the dyers looked like they were making potions, cooking colour from plants into cloth and yarn. The most magical of these potions was indigo, and I will never get tired of seeing the wonder of how indigo oxidizes from green to blue in front of your eyes.

A lot of experimentation takes place in order to understand the chemistry of the plant kingdom. When I get asked, ‘How do I dye black?’ my mind swirls with all the possibilities to achieve a black on cloth naturally. There are endless recipes and directions you can head in – some which I’ve experienced and some which are just theoretical. For example, if you react tannin and iron you get grey but how do you push that to black? You experiment: red-based blacks and blue-based blacks, complementary colours in the same dye pot to create black. But no matter how much colour you throw at a cloth, if you do not understand the chemistry you will not get black. You can have all the theory in the world but it takes hands-on practice and trial-and-error to fully understand natural dyes. Visit Maiwa here.