BY KATRINA RODABAUGH | It is such an honor to bring you today’s interview with India Flint, aka @prophet_of_bloom. India is an Australian-based natural dyer, fiber artist, visual artist, costumer, teacher and author, best known for creating the “ecoprint” dye technique. Her natural-dye methods lead to eco-friendly, plant-based, biodegradable and locally foraged color for cloth and yarn, allowing the maker or designer to reduce the toxic impact of synthetic dyes while also gaining traditional skills and connecting with the land through foraging, gardening, or even using food scraps like onion skins or carrot tops before they head to the compost.
I first came across India’s work when I started my fashion fast in 2013 — her books Second Skin and Eco Colour were instrumental in my natural dye experiments. Second Skin is also a great book for considering how to thoughtfully care for our clothes, including some thoughts on mending, repairing, enlivening and ultimately honoring our wardrobe. When I started focusing on using quality secondhand fibers like denim, linen, silk and wool in my wardrobe, natural dyeing and mending became instrumental ways of repairing, rejuvenating and otherwise adding meaning or connection to clothing I purchased secondhand.
But more than her natural dye recipes or techniques was the visceral impact of India’ work and her ethos — this hard to describe, palpable modification of the cloth and wool as if to receive not only the imprint of the dye object but also the imprint of her passion for the environment. There’s a confidence and complexity to her work that I find to be the mark of a lifelong process — the journey to the core of one’s individual aesthetic that can only really be defined as self-recognition and confidence. It’s as if the journey of experimentation and surrender to the process is as much about gaining intimacy with her materials and with the immediate environment as the resulting finished object.
Technically her work might best fall into categories of fiber art and natural dye, but her dye method results in printmaking and surface design while her work with choreographers, galleries, and publishers pushes it further into an interdisciplinary practice that defies genre. I categorize India as a leader in the Slow Fashion movement as much for her dedication to natural fibers and natural dyes—more specifically local Australian wool and native eucalyptus — as for her ongoing experimentation with eco-friendly processes, slow fashion community-building through teaching and writing, and her attempts at harmoniously living with her environment. I love the term “regenerative design” in sustainable fashion and I see India’s work as regenerative and rejuvenating—to the actual cloth but also to the approach of adding color to our fiber.
India regularly travels to teach workshops around the world. If she’s coming to a workshop near you please attend one for me.
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Your book Second Skin is something of a revelation for me. I think it really embodies the ethos of the contemporary Slow Fashion movement — the way you gracefully move between origins of fiber, caring for our clothing, and sharing your own intimate connection with your wardrobe through natural dyes. Do you consider this work part of the Slow Fashion movement? It seems so intuitive to you, but how would you encourage readers to make this connection in their own wardrobes?
It’s the way I was raised, really, and just makes sense to me. I develop warm relationships with my clothes (no pun intended) and like to have them last as long as possible. So I wash gently, air and mend as required. Sometimes I re-dye. I don’t follow fashion trends and couldn’t give a hoot what people might think of the way I dress. My family practiced slow gardening and slow cooking well before such terms were used. As a child I stitched tablecloths while my mother knitted our sweaters. I’ve always chosen to wear natural fibres (synthetic ones itch, I find) and I’d rather wear things that are naturally dyed than have my skin come in contact with synthetic dyes.
Tell us about your journey to natural dyes. I know you’ve done extensive research on eucalyptus — the variations between species and the resulting variations in natural dyes — and that you’ve collaborated with choreographers and shown work in various visual arts contexts, but I’d love to know how natural dyes became the center of your work.
Not only did I grow up in a family of dedicated gardeners, I also spent many hours with my maternal grandmother, a thrifty woman who from time to time refreshed faded garments in naturally prepared dyebaths. As I was finding my path in my work I was for a time seduced by synthetic colour, but I returned to natural dyes when it became clear to me just how dangerous these products were. Research into various means of ‘natural dyeing’ led me to the conclusion that the traditional metal salt mordants used in natural dye work should also be avoided, and so I began to investigate less toxic means of coaxing colour into cloth.
You’re the founder of the ecoprint dye method — using steam dyeing and bundle dyeing to wrap the leaf or plant material inside the fabric and gain the actual print of the leaf on the finished dyed cloth. I’ve tried my hand at this method a number of times and I’ve yet to yield results anywhere near as distinct as yours. Can you talk about your work with this particular method? How you were interested in conserving water? And how you developed this method as something of a form of printmaking or surface design on the fabric?
For most of my life I have lived in places where water was a precious commodity that we actively harvested from the environment. Traditional dyemaking with eucalypts (as explored by Jean Carman in her book of the same title) uses large quantities of water and leaves. When I first discovered the ecoprint I thought it a useful technique that would allow dyers to easily assess individual eucalypt species for their colour potential, as the print showed what the dye outcome would be if pure water were used to make the substrate. It did not take me long to realise that quite beautiful patterns could be made by combining different species of eucalypt. And then venturing into other genera, I found that the eucalyptus frequently had a contribution to make as a co-mordant.
The simple trick to making distinct prints on both cloth and paper is to remember that the key word is “contact.” Tight bundling to ensure contact is the answer.
Your books and your Instagram feed have this connection to the land — this interweaving of land, art, plant and fiber that feels holistic and profound. How do you communicate your connection to the natural world in your work? Or is it just so inherent for you at this point that you just continue that dialogue in your images?
It’s simply such a deep part of my makeup as a human being that I cannot imagine working in any other way. My love of the land feeds my work, and the work itself (in whatever form) becomes in turn an ode to the whirled/world.
Your books are gorgeous. I use them often in my studio and in my workshops. I love Eco Colour for the way you explore mordants and dye techniques from so many angles. You don’t just offer one-step solutions but various techniques. Do you still experiment with multiple techniques in your own dye work? Or have you found what works for you and you stick with it?
I am always playing and experimenting. In recent years this play has led to new book folds, new patterns for garments and to the discovery of more techniques for dyeing (many of which have not yet been published yet). I’m particularly pleased with one of my mordant ideas for cellulose fibres, shared with a couple of workshops so far but yet to go into a book. And I’m working on making naturally derived paints (for paper). Of course when I am dyeing cloth that needs to be resilient I stick with eucalyptus, but it doesn’t mean I cannot play with other things.
As I mentioned above, you work across arts platforms in collaboration with performing artists and choreographers, visual arts institutions, and you also work as an author and teacher. How do these various aspects of your work inform each other? I find that leading workshops actually strengthens my creative practice because students ask difficult questions or share their challenges and I have to respond to their needs. Do you find this to also be true? Is there a synergy between your work for stage, exhibition, books and the classroom?
Absolutely. I love creating exhibitions because installing them allows me to manipulate space as much as simply showing my work. I teach and write primarily because I need to earn a living. I’ve been a sole parent for over a quarter of a century and though my children are all independent now, I still need to earn my living. There is no safety net. Travelling and teaching allows me to work with a broader spectrum of flora and to experience the influences of different water qualities as well as new environments. Making things that dancers are able to leap about in requires a different kind of thinking to making things that will hang on walls. I delight in taking up residencies from time to time, as they allow me to gain a deeper experience of place. And frankly, maintaining a diverse work practice offers the safety of not having all of one’s eggs in the same basket.
Who are three of the biggest influences or mentors on your creative work?
It’s hard to limit the answer to three. My late great-aunt, master bookbinder Ilse Schwerdtfeger continues to be a huge influence on my work. I think she would be quite proud of some of the folded books I have invented in recent years. American architect Roger Buckhout has been both friend and mentor to me since I was ten years old, and continues to be a light in the darkness. And lastly I must pay tribute to my late father, climate scientist, writer, musician, adventurer and consummate polymath Prof Emeritus Peter Schwerdtfeger who passed on to me an indefatigable curiosity about the whirled and a deep appreciation for nature.
Favorite dye tools or materials you can’t live without?
I have a couple of large cauldrons that have done sterling service over the years, and my favourite materials would have to be wool and eucalyptus. That’s a match made in Heaven.
Your work, your wardrobe, your surroundings and your photographs have this continuity and strength. When you post on Instagram your images are instantly recognizable. When do you feel like you hit your stride, so to speak, with this consistency in your work? Was there a surrender or “Ah-ha” moment when you felt aligned and had an added or increased momentum?
I cannot really put a finger on it. I decided to reject synthetic dyes completely in 1998 (the year I turned forty), was grateful for the development of digital photography because it allowed so much freedom compared to film (though I do miss those long nights in the darkroom) and will confess I love the magic of the iPhone as recording device. I think I am still learning, though, and I have a lot yet to learn — the vocabulary is growing and at the same time consolidating into a language that’s beginning to make sense to me.
Advice for the novice natural dyer just starting out? In my experience you just have to begin and be willing to experiment but it can seem so intimidating at first. Any suggestions to quell the fears?
‘Do not be afraid.’ Play, it’s how I learned most of the things I know — at the same time, read. Inform yourself about the properties of the plants you choose to work with. When interesting results happen, consider all the elements that have played a role and try and repeat the process while they are fresh in your mind. Keep notes. And have fun.
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Thank you SO much, India. It’s really a pleasure to share this space with you. Your work has been so instrumental in my own slow fashion journey and I applaud you for all your efforts to lead the rest of us towards a more meaningful relationship to our wardrobes and to our textile arts practice.
Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Jaime Jennings and Amber Corcoran
Photos © India Flint, used with permission