How would you describe your work?
I’m a natural dyer, colouring ribbons, homeware and accessories using botanical ingredients such as leaves, barks, flowers and berries.
How did The Natural Dyeworks come to be?
I worked as a homewares buyer in retail for years, but over time became disillusioned with consumerism and became frustrated with the slowness in which companies were willing to address sustainability and the climate emergency. I’ve always been obsessed with colour and textiles, and was interested in horticulture and floristry. I read an article in which botanically dyed ribbons were used alongside a British grown bridal bouquet, and the sustainable floristry movement captured my heart. I began investigating how to colour textiles with plant-based ingredients.
I lived in East London with my partner and baby daughter at the time, so the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was my foraging ground. Over time I started selling to florist pals. It grew organically from there. We moved to Kent to be close to the sea and surrounding countryside, and about two and a half years ago I left my buying job to pursue botanical dyeing full time – a huge leap of faith, but I was so ready for a change.
What did you do before setting up your business?
I worked in retail as a buyer for Habitat focusing on lighting and textiles, and prior to that, my degree was in furniture design. I’ve always loved interiors: colour, form and texture. It informs much of what I do now.
Where do you find creative inspiration?
Foremost in the natural world, but in everything really – from the mundane to the sublime. Colour is my obsession – the juxtaposition and layering of colour specifically, and the British landscape provides constant inspiration for this – the landscape paintings of Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash, and the work of contemporary garden designers such as Dan Pearson, Sarah Price and Piet Oudolf are always in my thoughts.
How would you describe your style?
Pared back, honest, earthy.
Are there themes that run through your work?
The natural world, seasonality, sustainability, slow living, modern buzzwords I know, but they are truly at the core of everything I do.
Describe a typical working day…
After school drop off, I walk my border terrier Polly, foraging along the way. I always have one eye on what’s coming into leaf, flower or fruit and have a mental map of what grows where in my local environment – buckthorn for sloes, willow for leaves, the alder trees for cones – these things inform my route… I take a huge linen bag and some snips.
Once at the studio, I usually spend the morning dyeing. There are multiple steps to dyeing something, first scouring, then mordanting, making the dye bath, dyeing, then washing, so it’s a cyclical process, in which every step must be followed. Every day I’m working on every stage, progressing multiple projects. I have a loose dye plan on the wall which I write on a Monday, it helps to keep me on track. I work only with natural materials so there is usually wool, linen and silk at various stages of development in the studio. The afternoon is generally for making orders, sewing, product development and admin.
What kind of space do you work in?
For the past five years I worked from my kitchen, bubbling pots on the stove, sewing at the kitchen table with linen, silk and socks stored in every room of the house – it was pretty chaotic. We’ve just built a garden studio, so I’m working from there now, sharing with my artist partner David Cyrus Smith. It’s great to have a separation from home, even if it’s 10 paces up the garden.
The studio is a large ply lined shed, with big windows looking onto the garden. It reminds me of a bird hide and I have to work hard not to get distracted by the wildlife. I have a kitchen along one wall – sink, electric cooker and a kettle. When the weather is good, I dye outside on a gas hob. The space is flexible so I can move around depending on the project – in spring there are suspended branches ethereally draped with silk ribbons, in autumn there are damp socks just everywhere.
Where are you located?
I live in Faversham in Kent, an ancient town famous for its market, hops, the creek and long ago, its gunpowder. The creek runs into the town and connects us to the sea. It’s a special place. The north Kent coast is filled with creatives – artists, illustrators, writers, stylists, designers, printers, quilters, florists and bakers. We moved here from east London a few years ago and have never looked back.
Has your work evolved since you began?
I started out making only silk ribbons and am slowly expanding my range to include homewares and accessories. The biggest shift has been to accept that dyeing with plants has its own characteristics and that the perfection of mass manufacture isn’t achievable with plants. This is something I struggled with for ages, having come from a background in retail where consistency is key, but has now gone full circle to be the thing I celebrate and most embrace.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
Critical. Every sale, connection and collaboration I have done has stemmed from the Instagram community.
What are the joys – and challenges – of working as an independent?
I love it. I’m an only child and have always been comfortable in my own company, so it suits me well. The main joy comes from having the autonomy to shape my working week, to have the flexibility to work around my family, and to be able to adapt and react. Being free to experiment and try new ideas and opportunities without the rigidity and limitations of working for a company is so refreshing after years of corporate life. The biggest challenge is getting it all done on time and finishing one thing before starting three new ones!
What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?
Without doubt, it’s time. I work within school hours with the odd early start, and try to keep weekends free for my family. It’s tempting to work all hours because there is so much that I want to do, but my values come first and if that means it takes longer to get there, then so be it. All in good time, right?
How do you approach marketing and PR?
I’m afraid I’m rather spontaneous – it’s how my brain works, for better or worse. I post on Instagram most days but never plan ahead. It’s probably not good advice, but for me it’s authentic to share what I feel or see that particular day. Authenticity is something that is hugely important to me, especially in a glossy world of social media. I’m more intrigued by imperfection than perfection.
What have been your business highlights so far?
Here are a few: creating bespoke ribbons for Frida Kim’s floral installations for Toast; making ribbons for Ridley Scott’s upcoming film, The Last Duel; having my work featured in Anna Jones’s new book One Pot, Pan, Planet; collaborating with Retold Vintage on an A/W knitwear collection; and teaching Sarah Raven to dye with plants. Workshops have been such a rewarding part of my work – the shared experience and connection with like-minded folk is always special after periods of working alone. Also, seeing my work used by florists I adore, it’s like Christmas when I see a great photo.
Where do you show and sell your work?
I sell through my website and through selected independent retailers. I’m slowly dipping my toe into wholesale – it‘s not easy when my creative process is slow, but I enjoy working with people I admire and whose values I share.
Which part of your work do you enjoy most?
It’s the thrill of dyeing with a new plant that is the most exciting thing for me. There is always a degree of the unexpected, which is fun when you see a colour develop in the pot. Experimenting with nature gives infinite possibilities – the time of year, the water you use, the length of time on the stove, the temperature – each variant can affect the results, so the end result is often a surprise.
Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?
There isn’t much time for separate pastimes, but working on the dye garden (I have an allotment), foraging, and watching the landscape change as the seasons turn are things that I love that are intrinsically linked to my work. When you work for yourself you’re never not working – but doing what I love is never a chore.
Any good advice for makers who are just starting out?
It’s a cliche but be true to yourself – the less you focus on what others are doing the better. You don’t need all the money, all the courses or a studio to work from to validate what you’re doing – make do with what you have and just start. Put your whole heart into it and be authentic.
What does the next six months hold for you?
I’m looking forward to returning to hosting workshops this year. I’m planning some brilliant ones at the moment and will be able to offer one-to-one workshops at the studio for the first time.
Describe your work in three words? Colourful, natural, considered.
What are your making rituals? Music – ALWAYS. I have a wandering mind and music helps me to focus. It’s the first thing I put on when I get to the studio and the last thing to turn off. There’s always a Bowie album at some point during the day, my constant companion.
Tea or coffee? Coffee first, then tea – chai mid-morning, Earl Grey after lunch, herbal in the afternoon. It’s a ritual I can’t break from and oddly adds structure to the day.
Mountains or sea? Sea – I live on a creek and am 10 minutes from the sea. It’s the most humbling thing I know of, and puts everything into perspective.
Night owl or early bird? Early bird. To miss the dawn chorus is frankly a tragedy.
I wish someone had told me… That it’s easier to change career than you think, if you pursue something you really love.