As part of an ongoing exploration into indigo and other natural dyes, we are spotlighting artists we consider to be experts in the field—including Scott Peacock, Donna Hardy, and today, Kathy Hattori. Kathy is one of the founders of Botanical Colors, a well-respected source of materials, support, and educational offerings for those seeking to employ natural dyeing techniques. They offer a range of services for both the new dyer and the designer wishing to use a more sustainable supply chain—including color development, prototypes, sampling, and production. Kathy was a big help to us when we started our own natural dye house at The Factory in 2014. We sourced our indigo from her, and she patiently answered questions and helped us troubleshoot our vats.
Kathy has a background in environmental studies but spent years working in the tech industry before founding Botanical Colors. When asked why she wanted to make the change, Kathy told us, “The realization of how precious time is and how I wanted to spend it prompted the leap from telecommunications to textiles. And then I found it wasn’t a leap at all, but just a firm step forward. Working with colorants wasn’t my first career, but I had created for many years with textiles and dyes in my own work. The reason I moved toward natural dyes was that I felt strongly that my next career had to make a positive impact in the world.”
It is important to Kathy that both large- and small-scale makers see natural dyeing as a feasible alternative to synthetic dyeing, as long as you understand the benefits and limitations of each; to her, the differences between the two approaches can result in remarkably different results in quality. “Synthetic dyes are efficient, as they are engineered to bond with one fiber type and are designed to produce consistent results. Their color palette is very bright and saturated. [But] they are derived mainly from petrochemical feedstock and their manufacture can produce toxic waste if not carefully managed. Natural dyes…have a more varied color profile that must be coaxed from the plant onto the fabric. Their color palette is richly colored and less saturated.” And, as opposed to synthetics, natural dyes are cultivated, grown, and maintained on closely managed land using agricultural or food processing waste—or are responsibly wild-harvested.
“Ten years ago, natural dyers were often challenged and dismissed because the dyestuffs and methods we used were perceived as lower quality than synthetic dyes. That perception has shifted as makers and customers embrace the natural beauty of the color and learn how to create quality items using natural dyes. I see that natural dyes are overlapping and being used to create inks, paints, healing tinctures, and colorants for cosmetics, so makers are getting really creative and tapping into other aspects of the dyestuffs.”
Botanical Colors and Kathy are helping usher in a new era of artisan-driven growth in the textile industry. They use their expertise to help individual makers and small businesses find sustainable solutions that will work on their respective scales. “The new American manufacturer is often a smaller scale company who must innovate in order to survive, and they are often interested in new technology or intriguing collaborations. Most of the companies that we’ve worked with are also pioneers and innovators in sustainable production. Botanical Colors provides an interesting solution with plant-based, beautiful color and this seems to resonate deeply among designers and brands.” And like many farmers who use organic methods but cannot afford to go through the process of being certified organic, there are also textile manufacturers who produce using standards like those governed by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), but cannot afford to be officially certified. “GOTS certification certainly helps to identify suppliers who adhere to the standard,” she says. “But there are many suppliers who don’t carry certification and have built their businesses on thoughtful and sustainable practices, and these companies are equally worthy of our support.”
Kathy agrees with Donna Hardy’s assertion that natural dyeing can be utilized by large manufacturers, if they make the necessary commitment to responsible production. “Moving from artisan-based making to larger format production can be a challenge, as the equipment and volumes can change dramatically. That being said, larger scale natural dyeing is quite feasible. For companies who are concerned with toxicity and wastewater issues, natural dyes can provide a solution, so several visionary companies have made the leap and introduced natural dyes.” She and Botanical Colors work with Eileen Fisher on the Green Eileen and Vision 20/20 programs that aim to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. “Eileen Fisher has confronted the environmental issues facing the industry head-on with their Vision 20/20 policy. Vision 20/20 is the roadmap toward a more responsible and sustainable company including emphasis on organic fibers, fair trade, safe chemistry and wise water use. It’s been a great honor to work with them on their Green Eileen recycling initiative and extend the life of clothing.”
Kathy also recommends that consumers educate themselves on the issues surrounding garment production, safety, and the environment and she supports Greenpeace in this effort. “They offer an important service by exposing the complex chemistry that industry uses for dyeing and finishing garments and publicizing the brands that continue to use toxic substances in their clothing. These chemicals persist in the environment and in some cases break down into more toxic components with home laundering.”
More than anything else, it is obvious that Kathy Hattori is still enamored with the artistry of natural dyeing and excited by the possibilities. “I’ve worked with and learned from some very talented teachers in the natural dye world, and am constantly striving to improve processes, while celebrating the tradition of natural color. I love to see how natural colors change with different locations and water sources. There’s something about being able to drop a few flowers into a dye pot and pull out a beautifully dyed fabric. That will always be magic for me.”
P.S.: We recently received a report from our dye house, and while many of our colors are not derived from natural dyestuffs, we take great strides to understand, be aware of, and be transparent with the process that our fabrics go through. Regarding the dyeing process for most of our organic cotton, “The only dyes to be used will be natural, low-energy, non-metal, reactive dyes, bi-functional dyes, or low impact dyes.” And the exact dye formula is kept on file along with MSDS (material safety data sheet) for each ingredient in the dye bath for review or audit.