A Closer Look at Natural Dyes with Graham Keegan

An interview with designer and natural dye extrodinaire, Graham Keegan.

Walking into Graham Keegan’s LA design space in Silver Lake, I am overwhelmed by the idea of simplicity. Natural light pours in from the front wall of windows and brilliantly reflects off of the remaining three. It smells of plants – some dried and cracked, some alive and aromatic. Looking around, I notice a small mood board on the wall – scraps of indigo fabric hang from a nail, paper cutouts of inspiration are suspended by tape, and to-do reminders are scribbled on wrinkled notes. Obscure soul plays softly from the computer. Or maybe it was Otis Redding, I can’t remember.

Graham showed us around his studio for the next hour. Soft-spoken but extremely knowledgeable and bright, he walked us through his process of growing, creating, and using natural dyes. He is a true advocate for an all-natural process, growing plants outside of his studio for use in dyeing his designs. Everything is grown, dyed, and constructed in his Silver Lake studio: large vats of indigo dye sit heavily in the corner, a sewing machine lives near the window, and a large cutting table resides in the center of the room. It is wildly apparent that he passionately cares about each step in the creation process. Read on to hear from Graham, himself.

How did you first fall in love with the art of natural dyeing?

I had actually been dyeing for a number of years before I fell in love with it. I liked exploring the plants and processes of natural dye and I appreciated the results, but I really only fell in love a few years ago. I was playing with a plant called Lady’s Bedstraw, a cousin to the more famous madder plant. I spent an afternoon with a pitchfork, on a dog day hot afternoon of Vermont summer, turning over soil and ripping out long red roots from the sod. I dyed a piece of fabric with a really simple block-printed pattern. When the most beautiful peach and lavender tones that I had ever seen emerged from the dye bath, I realized, with joy, that I could have that piece of fabric until I died. I felt comfortable and committed to the act of working with plant dyes forever.

Where did you learn how to indigo dye? Are you self-taught?

I’ve pieced together my knowledge of indigo dyeing through dozens of books and hundreds of experiments. I have never studied under anyone, but have poured over every bit of practical, historical indigo information that I can find. I’m also not afraid to try new processes and methods. As a result I’ve failed in every way that I can imagine! Over the course of years, I’ve amassed a knowledge and understanding of the process and materials that let me create, without incident, nearly anything I can dream up!

What is the most challenging about the natural dying process?

Tidyness! I’m naturally slovenly. I’ve paid the price for not maintaining fastidiously cleanly surfaces. Dyes can easily contaminate each-other and I’m constantly struggling with my own inability to keep my zones clean!

What are three things we should know about natural dyes?

1. They’re versatile. Some way, some how, you can extract the color that you need.
2. They’re accessible. I often just walk around my neighborhood and harvest plants I find on the roadside and get wonderful results!
3. They’re fun! The commercial natural dyeing that I do can be very controlled, precise and repeatable, but much of the joy of dyeing comes from the wonder of seeing a color emerge from a dye vat for the first time. Without having a sense of expectation or understanding, the process is magical and surprising. Plus, you get to create a beautiful piece of fabric.

Can you bring us through the process of making an Old Glory Flag?

Are you sure!? I’ll be as brief as possible! These flags are dyed with three different plants (indigo, acacia, madder) in three different styles (shibori, block print, open yardage), each of which requires a number of steps! The dyeing, washing and fabric preparation happens over the course of a month or so. Each star and stripe of the flag is then sewn together in my workshop here in LA!

Where do you find inspiration for your designs and colors?

Colors and patterns come from very different places! I let the plants dictate the colors. Each plant offers a range of hues and tones to work from. I have extraction swatches that I’ll dye when first working with a new plant that tell me the range of colors available. I’ll then pick and choose which tones to extract for each pattern. The patterns are almost always something from nature. I’ll see a shape: a brick, a leaf, a flower, a crystal, a bug and work from there!

What is next for you? Any future plans you can share with us?

I recently launched a line of products called “Natural Dye Kits” (naturaldyekits.com). The first of them is an indigo kit, and I’ll be expanding the offerings over the next couple years to give people a variety of all-in-one packages to learn and explore some basics of natural dyeing with colors from red to gold to black and of course, more indigo.

I’m working to promote and expand the understanding of natural dyes. I’d like more designers, clothing lines and brands to be able to work with natural pigments. Most natural dye methods have been little changed in the last couple millennia. I’d like to modernize the processes of natural dyeing by integrating these historical processes with contemporary technologies, engineering and renewable resource management. This project doesn’t have a name yet, but I’m looking forward to developing a series of lectures, research projects and experiments that will expand the bounds of natural dye possibilities over the coming years.

Thank you Graham, we will catch up with you soon!

Check out Graham’s website and follow him on Instagram.

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