The Q&A: Rebecca Desnos, the forager and grower driving the trend for natural dyes
I talk to the queen of colour about the lost art of plant-based dyes, and seeing the world around you through new eyes
Hi, I’m Dan, and this is my alternative gardening newsletter, The Earthworm. Whether you’re a first-time reader or a long-time subscriber, thanks for being here. The Earthworm is a reader-supported publication. The two best ways you can support my work are to share this newsletter with a friend, and to consider upgrading to a paid subscription. And remember, the entire back catalogue of features, interviews, columns and more is freely available to all members of The Earthworm community. Why not take a scroll down memory lane?
Most people will be pretty comfortable with the concept that gardens provide colour. In fact for many of us, colour is the quality that we most admire in gardens, and in our floral friends in general.
Sure, sometimes we’re attracted to plants, or choose to grow them in our own gardens, thanks to their scent, or their flavour, or the size, shape and texture of their leaves. But more often than not, it is their flowers that seduce us, and their colours that steal our hearts.
For as long as humans have gardened, they have thought about how to weave together this herbal tapestry in the most aesthetically pleasing way. You need only look as far as Jo Thompson’s wonderful book ‘The Gardener’s Palette’ to begin to understand the power of colour, and combinations of colours, over our minds and our moods. But for most of us, any thoughts we might have about the kaleidoscopic qualities of plants tend to be confined to what we observe in our gardens.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I wear clothes. Like, all the time. I’d say that, along with eating and drinking and I guess breathing, getting dressed is one of the things I most frequently and most reliably do in my day-to-day life.
I also tend to put a fair amount of thought and effort into the clothes I wear. In aesthetic terms, of course, but also increasingly in environmental ones. I am aware that fast fashion exploits people and natural resources, pollutes waterways, poisons wildlife, and is responsible for the formation of festering landfill mountains of off-trend threads.
But what about the fabrics? What about the colours? I can honestly say that the thought had not once occurred to me about how my clothes – the ones I wear literally every single day – came to acquire their particular colourways. I certainly didn’t stop to think that these colours are more often than not derived from synthetic, chemical dyes; or that they might instead be harvested from my garden.
Until, that is, I came across Rebecca Desnos, natural dyer, writer, and creator of the magazine Plant Forage Make. Rebecca originally followed up her degree in Linguistics with an MA in Interior and Spatial design, but soon fell out of love with her fledgling career as an interior designer. It was the world outside her home that she felt calling to her, and that eventually lured her into a new life – one crafted with and nourished by plants.
In her work as a natural dyer, Rebecca turns plant matter – sometimes foraged, sometimes grown in her own humble back yard – into a spectacular spectrum of inks and dyes. And through her books and blogs, magazines and social media accounts (perhaps you’re already one of the 124k people who follow her on Instagram), she educates and advocates with palpable passion for the dying art of, um, the art of dyeing.
Rebecca is hard to pin down. A full-time mother of three young children, she uses every available minute of “spare” time to work on one of her many projects. I was lucky enough to borrow some of this valuable time last week, to chat via video call. Rebecca dialled in from her phone, with her adorable 11-month-old daughter strapped into a baby carrier on her chest and being gently jiggled to sleep.
Rebecca animatedly explained the ins and outs of turning plants into dyes; revealed her favourite flowers and foliage to grow and to forage; and why fast fashion and natural dyes just don’t mix.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first discover dyeing with plants?
It all started when I had my first baby. He’s nearly nine now, but that’s when I really got into it. I’d spend his nap times going for walks with him to collect plants, and then I’d come back and have some time to myself in the kitchen. It was a way of relaxing.
There are lots of different crafts out there, and there are lots of different things you can do with plants. What was it about dyeing – which seems to me to be one of the more niche uses for plants – that attracted you so much?
In my early 20s I was dabbling in different crafts, and I started making clothes out of things I found in charity shops. This was maybe 15 years ago. I was making dresses and skirts from men’s shirts. I then progressed to wanting to dye things, so I started buying dyes, from places like Woolworths – the ones where you put them in the washing machine. And then I started thinking, “I’m not really sure what these dyes contain.” I’d already started on a journey where I was trying to live a natural lifestyle, so I thought I’d try plant dyes, and as soon as I started I was just hooked. The colours were incredible, and I realised that I’d stumbled on something that I was really excited about.
That explains the crafty aspect, but what about the plants? Were you already a really keen gardener?
Well, no. I didn’t actually have a garden. I lived in a flat. I had a balcony, and I’d sort of potter around and have a few plants on the balcony. And I grew up in a town, not even in the countryside. When I look back to my childhood, plants were always a bit of a mystery, and a bit intimidating. I was worried that everything was poisonous – there was a fear around plants. As I became an adult, I became more and more intrigued, and I wanted to learn more about plants and learn what was safe to touch, and that’s when I got into it.
The world of plants can be quite daunting for all sorts of reasons. Not least, there are just so many of them, and telling them apart can be tricky, even sometimes for experienced plantspeople. Obviously in a garden centre everything is labelled, but out in the wild you don’t have that luxury. You do a lot of foraging – how did you go about acquiring the knowledge to do that productively and safely?
I’m picking plants for dyes, so it’s a bit safer, because I’m not actually eating them. But I started off really carefully, with simple things like nettles, alder cones, and then the leaves from trees like oak, birch. So I stuck to things I really knew. Because even the most common and most familiar plants make beautiful dyes. And I never pick anything that I can’t identify. It’s just not worth the risk. So I am still really careful now. But I think every year I get to know a few more plants and then just build on the knowledge. It’s a cumulative thing.
In our email exchange leading up to this chat, you told me that for you, the experience of foraging and collecting plants is not just about making dyes, but a way of exploring your immediate surroundings. What did you mean by that?
The bigger aspect for me is actually getting to know the nature around me. When I lived in a town near London, it was getting to know the local park with the woods that I had up the road, and seeing all the different plants pop up. And suddenly it wasn’t just a mass of green anymore; within a hedge, I could begin to identify all the different plants that made up that hedge. It encouraged me to open my eyes and see what was around me.
You know, I walked down the same roads for years and I wasn’t aware of what I was seeing. Foraging gives every walk a new purpose. It’s not just a walk down the road, it’s like: “What might I see today?” Everything took on a new meaning. And I think when you slow down, and stop, and look at things, it makes life more enjoyable. Especially when I started having children. It’s nice to point these things out to them and help them learn about plants, and not just see a mass of green, but focus in on details.
It’s just exciting learning about plants. And with all these plant identification apps, I’m constantly snapping photos and working out what they are, and trying to learn new plants every week.
What is the process of dyeing with plants? If I want to have a go myself, what do I need? What do I do? And is it complicated?
It can be really straightforward. First of all, you need a saucepan with a lid. One that’s not used for food. It’s not proper practice to use the same pan as for food, because some plants aren’t edible. And then it’s as simple as putting a handful of plants in the saucepan, adding water, and then heating it.
Always begin heating gently, to see how much colour’s released. And then if necessary, top up the water. But if you start with too much water, and you don't have enough plants, you don’t end up with a very concentrated colour. Then finally, strain it through a cloth to catch bits of plants, and you have an ink. It’s a bit like making a strong tea.
And depending on the plant, you might use the flowers, or the leaves, is that right?
Yeah, so flowers generally need the least amount of heat, otherwise they’ll potentially turn brown. You can even pour hot water over the top, without putting the pan on the heat at all, and the colour will transfer into the water.
Then with things like leaves, they can take higher temperatures. But my favourite way of doing it is to heat it up and then turn the hob ring off, leaving the lid on, and then letting it infuse for around 12 hours. Then I often reheat it a little bit, maybe 10 minutes, and then leave it a bit longer. And you can keep on doing that over a couple of days, and the colour will build up.
So the longer you leave the plants in the water, the more intense the colour?
Yeah, and you can also observe different colours. Like with hawthorn leaves, which I dyed with a few months ago, initially the water turns yellow, and then it starts darkening to a reddy-brown as different properties of the plant get transferred into the water.
It sounds like a relatively simple process, but fairly long! Does it have to be?
If someone was going to do it for the first time, I’d recommend using something like alder cones. You literally just have to add them to hot water and you can see the golden shades transfer into the water. And then if you put them on the heat for a little while, you’ll have this really rich golden ink.
And then you just use a paintbrush to apply it?
Exactly. If you’re going to paint with it, it’s best to make it really concentrated. So literally just cover the plants with water. But if you’re going to dye fabric, you obviously want a much bigger pot and more water.
Speaking of fabrics, is a natural material like cotton going to be better to use than something synthetic?
Yeah, so, as a general rule, stick to 100% natural material. I specialise in plant materials like cotton, linen and even viscose – which is partially synthetic, but is still derived from plants. There are people who use animal materials – things like silk and wool. They dye well. Basically, any natural material will dye.
But if you’re going to dye fabric, you need to pre-treat it beforehand. I use soya milk, which is a binder that you can soak the fabric in.
As in, the soya milk that you might buy to put in your coffee?
Exactly. I dilute it in a bucket with water, and then soak the pre-washed fabric in the milk. Then you dry it, and then do a couple more dips and dry. So it does require a bit of preparation. The best thing is to have a batch of fabric or clothing prepared, and then when you find the dye plants you want to use, you’ve got it all ready to go.
So you’ve pre-treated your fabric, you’ve prepped and strained your ink, and then what? Just splosh the clothes into the liquid, and job done?
Well, there are tricks to getting an even colour. You need to stir really often, and then have a big enough pan so the fabric can move around and not develop dark patches in the creases. Which is fine, but I often don’t have the time to pop back and make sure that the fabric’s dyeing ok, so I quite like doing different types of tie-dye, where you can just leave it in the dye and let it do its thing. You can even leave it in for a few days and it’ll gradually get darker. It’s quite high maintenance to dye an even colour; I prefer encouraging patterns to form.
Finally, I’ll usually squeeze it out thoroughly and then let it dry. And then a few days later I’ll rinse out the excess dye. I just find letting the dye dry on the fabric gives a longer lasting colour. Or the other way is to rinse it straight away, and then it’s basically ready to go.
A lot of people might read this and think, “that all sounds great, but I just don’t have the time.” Are there any faster routes into plant dyeing?
If you haven’t got a lot of time, try bead dyeing. I love dyeing wooden beads and then making simple projects with those, like necklaces. And I do card-making too. It’s just so lovely, painting stripes and making a homemade card.
And then there’s bundle dyeing, where you sprinkle or lay flowers onto fabric, then you roll it up and steam the bundles, and the pigments from the flowers will transfer onto the fabric. Or with some flowers – like violas – you can just hammer them directly onto fabric, and the print of the flower is transferred onto the fabric.
Can you use any old plant? Or are some better than others? And what are some of your favourites to work with?
Not every plant will give a colour that lasts. For example, I once tried to dye with Cleavers, but the colour just rinsed out immediately, no matter what I did. So it’s not guaranteed that the dye will bind to the fabric, or that there will be any dye at all.
As for my favourite, I think it’s nettle, which is a traditional dye plant. Nettles are so abundant in England, and you can get really beautiful colours: varying shades of greys or grey-greens. Then acorns, oak leaves – they make beautiful tan shades. Eucalyptus is another well-known dye plant, and the leaves – depending on the variety – make pinks or peaches or yellows.
Linden trees – lime trees – make beautiful pinky, peachy shades. And then the same for hawthorn leaves, and also the berries. Buddleja flowers, which are out at the moment, make a beautiful yellow dye. Really bright, almost neon yellow. Oh, and gorse is another one that’s incredible – it makes a rich yellow caramel colour, and it has a lovely scent.
Often if a plant’s got a scent, it’s an indication that it will dye. Lots of culinary herbs, like sage, rosemary, oregano – they’ll give dye. It’s honestly so exciting.
I know when you first got into plant dyeing you lived in a flat, but these days, you’re in a house with a small garden – what plants do you grow there?
I’m growing a lot of flowers that I can’t find out in the wild. So this year I’m growing Hopi Black sunflowers. The seeds give dyes in different shades of blue, grey and purple. And things like coreopsis, which are lovely happy orange flowers – they're lovely for bundle dyeing. Then black cornflowers, chocolate cosmos…
The one thing that is really special to grow is indigo, to make blue. My Japanese indigo I actually like using fresh: you rub the leaves with salt, a bit like making a sauerkraut or something. It releases the liquid, and you then rub that liquid into fabric and it makes beautiful shades of teal.
So many of the plants you mentioned are just really beautiful ornamental plants – the kinds of plants most people would be delighted to have in their garden regardless of whether they were going to use them for dyeing or not.
Exactly. People don’t need to have a specific dye garden, or grow “special” dye plants, they can just forage in their own garden, using plants they already have! You can sneak most of these dye plants into your ornamental areas, or even mix them in amongst the veg, for pollinators.
Now that you have your own garden, is that what you rely on for your dyeing needs? Or do you still enjoy going out and foraging? Which do you prefer?
I think my heart does lie in foraging more than growing plants, just because there’s so much out there, and I can keep finding new things. Also, I don’t really have that much space. It’s quite a small garden. And I feel like I need to prioritise growing food. I feel quite torn about it. I’ve got children, and maybe food’s more important, especially when things like nettles grow so abundantly in the wild.
We’re used to thinking about fashion in terms of seasons: shorts and floaty dresses in summer, coats and woolly jumpers in winter. But we perhaps don’t give any consideration to the seasonality that can be involved in making clothes. You mentioned the buddleja being out – if you want that colour, you have to wait for this time of year. And if you miss your window, you have to wait until next year to use that colour again. Is that frustrating? Or do you enjoy being plugged into the seasons in that way?
That’s an interesting one. I suppose there are a few ways around it. Some plants do dry – I think buddleja is one of those – and even if the plant’s dry, you can actually get some quite nice shades out of it.
But if you want the therapeutic aspect of slowing down and getting to know your surroundings, it’s much nicer to stick to what’s in season now, rather than getting caught up on drying plants. That’s my preference. Every year I look forward to when the buddleja is out, and there’s something lovely about that. And then seeing the first nettles pop up every spring is exciting too.
A lovely project to begin with is having a t-shirt that you use for gardening or for foraging, and you can hammer different plants onto it, or dip bits of the fabric into homemade inks, and capture the season’s colours on it. And then if it fades, you can just re-dye it the next year.
That is a nice idea! I might just give that a go myself. Now, professionally speaking, as much as you’re a dyer, you’re also a publisher and content creator. How did that come about?
When I started doing plant dyeing, I just loved every minute. And then a few years later, lots of people were asking me what methods I was using, so I thought, well, I’ll write an ebook. I spent every nap time for about six months writing this ebook and taking photos. I loved doing that, and it’s all grown from there.
Your early published work focussed largely on plant dyeing. But your most recent venture, the magazine Plant Forage Make, has a much wider remit, exploring all sorts of ways of working with plants. Why did you decide to expand the scope of your subject matter?
I think it’s because I personally have so many interests. I want to learn everything. So it was a way of bringing all of those plant interests together. And there’s quite a lot of overlap with people who work with herbs, who make teas and tinctures and things – they’re often using a lot of the same plants. So it’s basically an exploration of everything that I enjoy, and bringing people together who are interested in that same stuff.
What do you hope people will take away from reading your magazines and published work?
I just want to create a little book of calm for people. So if they just want some time to unwind, they can curl up on the sofa and dip into a few pages and read something relaxing. And I always hope each magazine will have maybe one idea that really stands out to someone, and then they’ll try it and – a bit like with me when I first started plant dyeing – they’ll realise that it makes them feel really good, and it’ll take them on a new journey. I just hope it will sow a tiny seed of an idea for them, and they might find something new.
Something I’m definitely taking away from your work, and from our conversation today, is not to look at plants as having just one purpose, like, “this is a plant I grow to eat; this is a plant I grow because it looks nice; this is a plant I grow to attract ladybirds”. But actually, any one plant can offer many benefits and provide many uses.
Yeah exactly. It all overlaps. Honestly, every plant just has so many uses. Even edible plants, like nasturtium – I’ve seen people do prints with nasturtium leaves. And tomato leaves as well: people hammer those onto fabric and they make really lovely green prints. You can’t pigeonhole plants.
You’ve got a massive following on social media, and clearly what you’re doing is resonating with a lot of people. Is there a growing interest in plant dyeing and working with plants in unusual ways?
I don't think it was as popular when I first started, years ago, but I think it’s gained in popularity over time. There are more and more people doing it, so I suppose the message is being put out there that you can dye with plants. And as more people are aware of what they’re eating, and are developing more natural lifestyles, it’s become something that people want to try out themselves.
Is plant dyeing something you’d like to see rolled out on a much larger scale? I’m thinking in terms of mainstream, high street fashion.
That’s a tricky one. There are some shops that, every so often, will bring out particular ranges of plant-dyed clothing. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that GAP created one. But I don’t think it’s possible to dye everything with plants, because the sheer quantities of what they produce are enormous. I can’t really see a way that the high street could do it. I don’t know if it would be feasible.
But I think that’s probably a general problem with the fashion industry, isn’t it? With the throwaway idea of clothes; cheap, fast fashion. But that’s a whole other topic. What I encourage people to do is to think really small, to buy local and handmade. For me the interest is in how to do everything more locally and on a smaller, slower scale.
You mentioned your kids. Obviously you’ve had one attached to you this entire time, and I can hear another two threatening to burst into the room. How do you fit your foraging, growing, writing, dyeing, magazine making, and the rest, in with your family life? Has it all started to feel like hard work? Or does it still feel like a break?
I completely see it as “me time”. The moment I have a spare 20 minutes, I have so many different things lined up that I can jump straight into. In terms of foraging, that’s easy to do on walks with the kids – apart from when they run off – and they can help me collect bits. Or I can just pop out with the baby and get plants.
But to be honest, it is really tricky, especially with three children now. Unfortunately I can go through several weeks where I can’t do any dyeing, if it’s like a hard patch with a teething baby or difficult times. On my desk downstairs, I’ve got three different piles of fabric ready to dye. I’m just waiting for the right time, when the baby is sleeping well and everyone else is happy, and then I can get started. It’s just finding that magic moment.
So it’s all a little bit up and down and quite changeable. But I always dip back into the dyeing. I’ll never stop doing it, because it’s a big part of who I am.
Have you, like me, been inspired to raid your pots and garden borders and give natural dyeing a go? Have you tried dyeing with plants before and had any notable successes (or failures!)? Leave a comment and let me know!