Sustainable. Natural. Organic. These are all words that are integral to the Alabama Chanin identity. Our core values compel us to take a holistic approach to our design methods, looking at every aspect, quality, material or person that may play a part in our production process. This way of thinking led us toward using natural dyes on our fabrics. One of the companies that carefully colors our fabrics is Artisan Natural Dyeworks based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Alabama Chanin was originally introduced to the women behind the company by a mutual acquaintance. At the time, the dye company was being run by sisters Alesandra and Sarah. The sisters, both transplants to Nashville, decided to start a business together, but wanted to make sure that it reflected their values, drew from their strengths and interests, and celebrated their deep love for the earth. Though neither sister had any experience with natural dyes (or apparel, or production), they ambitiously decided that establishing a natural dye house would perfectly integrate all of their requirements.
We took some time to talk with Ali, one of the sisters behind Artisan Natural Dyeworks. And we also sent photographer friend Gina Binkley to their studio to capture the process.
AC: First can you share with us exactly what your company does? What is your focus, and what are your goals?
AB: Artistan Natural Dyeworks uses plant- and earth-based dyes to color cloth. We dye fabrics using materials found in the natural world. We extract color from plants, roots, flowers, berries, bark, wood – anything that will produce beautiful, earthy, vibrant colors. Like Alabama Chanin, we seek to revive age-old traditions; we want to keep the art of natural dyework alive and to work ethically, using ecologically sound techniques, with healthy and sustainable standards for our product.
AC: How did your company come into being? How long have you been doing this?
AB: We set up shop in our kitchen – learning to make colors and perfecting techniques through simple trial and error. We then set up our own line, ASK Apparel, which we ran until 2010, when we transitioned into natural dyework only. ASK stands for Alesandra, Sarah and Kate (Sarah’s twin). Sarah has now launched two new projects: Southern Hues, a line of shawls and fabrics dyed naturally, and (in collaboration with regional farmers) a line of U.S. grown natural dye extracts called Stony Creek Colors. I continue to run Artisan Natural Dyeworks and to dye fabrics.
AC: What plants do you use? What is your process, and why is this important to you?
AB: We use a variety of natural elements to produce our signature colors. As of today, we’ve settled on about twelve to fifteen dyes that we use regularly. We use the same plants and recipes that we have developed over the years to create these hues, but without making them standardized. Natural dyeing can create occasional, yet beautiful color variations. We’ve found that our recipes allow consistency of color while allowing the natural elements to make each piece slightly unique – and our processes stand up to repeated washing, daily wear and exposure to light.
We create our colors using an impressive list of elements. For blues, we utilize indigo-producing plants like tropical indigo or Japanese indigo; yellow colors are created using osage orange wood, marigolds, and myrobalan; for reds, oranges, corals, peaches and browns, we use madder root in different preparations; browns and tans come from black walnuts and cutch; the tannins from sumac berries or myrobalan with iron produce a range of grays.
AC: Thank you for our beautiful natural dyed fabrics- Indigo, Coral, Light Golden, and Goldenrod, and hopefully more to come soon. And thank you for taking the time to share with us your company’s work.
For thousands of years, all cloth was colored using natural methods and substances. Alesandra says, “Our eyes and hearts and our bodies respond to fabrics dyed with natural dyes in part because they share the subtle shading of other natural forms. If you look at a leaf, a stone, a feather, the patterns of light on water — these are never one single color but rather many colors all subtly blended together.” Artisan Natural Dyeworks a part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.