One of the most fascinating gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show this year may have been “A Textile Garden for Fashion Revolution.” Created by horticulturalist Lottie Delamain, this unique garden featured only plants that can be used to make or dye clothes. At a time when most of our wardrobes are overflowing with synthetic fabrics and colors, it’s important and refreshing to be reminded of the power of plants to clothe us.
“A Textile Garden” fit into a new category at last month’s annual flower show called “All About Plants,” which is meant to tell stories about plants. Delamain, who used to be a fashion designer before retraining in garden design, is well-positioned to be this storyteller.
She told Treehugger, “The crossover between these two disciplines had always interested me. While trekking in Vietnam I came across families growing the plants to make their clothes and was so inspired by the close proximity between what they grow and what they wear, and how intimately they understood the provenance of their clothes—a far cry from where we are in the west.”
With funding from Project Giving Back, Delamain chose Fashion Revolution to be her charitable partner, since its #whatsinmyclothes campaign echoed the key message of her garden design. She explained, “The garden was made up entirely of plants that could be used as dye or fiber and designed to look and feel like a textile, with a large-scale textile installation within the garden to illustrate the link between plants and textiles.”
This was achieved by planting in distinct color blocks to give the impression of woven fabric. Shallow reflective pools were meant to look like dye baths, some with fibers or fabrics soaking up natural dyes. Plantings were separated by a series of paved “seams” on the ground. The overall goal was to help viewers “re-establish the connection between plants and textiles, reveal the beauty to be found in plant-based dyes and fibres, and sow a seed of curiosity about what we wear.”
Readers may be surprised by the colors released from certain plants. As Delamain told the Guardian, “Willow makes a lovely pink colour, which you wouldn’t expect.” Tulips produce a bright green. Others are more logical, like marigolds making orange, onion skins making yellow, fennel flower heads making sage green, and cornflower heads making blue.
Dyeing with plants isn’t hard, either. “You literally get some leaves, chuck them in a pot, put the T-shirt in and off you go. Some plants are permanent by themselves but for others you add a mordant, which fixes the dye to the clothes” (from the Guardian). This, Delamain said, is really fun and adds interest to an otherwise generic piece of clothing. “You’ve invested the time to dye your own top, you’ve got a bit of a story about it and it’s so nice. A bit more interesting than just buying something from Zara.”
Treehugger has written before about the awful environmental impact of conventional textile production and dyeing methods. The fashion industry accounts for just under 35% of global microplastic pollution, with roughly 700,000 microfibers being released with every load of laundry. Despite this, a mere 21% of fashion brands have a concrete plan for reducing microfiber pollution. This, of course, could be alleviated in part by consumers avoiding synthetic fabrics and opting for natural ones such as flax, which Delamain’s garden illustrates.
As for dyeing, a shocking 25% of chemicals produced globally are used to make clothing, and many of these go toward dyeing fabric. An estimated 60-70% of dyes contain heavy metals like cadmium, mercury, tin, cobalt, lead, and chrome, and various energy-intensive processes are required to fix these dyes to the material. Any molecules that do not get fixed are flushed into waterways, creating visible pollution in many rivers, particularly in Asia, where communities are suffering the effects of exposure to these chemicals.
Similar to microplastics, there are minimal efforts from brands to resolve this. A press release provided to Treehugger states, “More than 15,000 chemicals can be used during the textile manufacturing process, from the raw materials through to dyeing and finishing, yet only 30% of brands disclose their commitment to eliminating the use of hazardous chemicals from our clothes.”
We asked Delamain how we got to this point, how the shift away from natural dyes to harmful synthetic ones occurred. She explained:
“Synthetic dyes have been around for about 150 years, starting with William Henry Perkin in 1856 who accidentally synthesised a mauve dye while trying to make quinine. However, it wasn’t for another 50 years that synthetic dyes became industrialised and widespread, along with the discovery of synthetic fibres like nylon which were harder to dye with natural dyes. It was in widespread use by industrialists like Thomas Wardle, who collaborated with William Morris, at the peak of the Arts & Crafts movement.”
When asked if natural dyes are a realistic option for commercial production, Delamain said yes, they can be. “We know of various commercial studios who are natural dyeing for commercial use—for example, Cloth Collective who have recently done a collaboration with Edward Bulmer Paints and Anna Mason London.”
There may be less consistency in the appearance of natural dyes, but Delamain doesn’t view that as a deterrent. “There is variation in colour, which can be approached two ways. Either celebrate it! Or experienced dye masters like Kate Turnbull, who is the head of studio at Cloth, have the knowledge to mitigate this. On a commercial scale, consistency is achieved with very strict and detailed dye recipes.”
Mordants are substances required to fix dyes to cloth to prevent them from washing out. Even these can be eco-friendly. Delamain recommended several natural mordants, including soya beans, rhubarb leaves, oak galls, staghorn sumac leaves.
“There is a huge growing community of dyers and creatives with so much energy and expertise working in this area at the moment, it is so exciting to see,” she told Treehugger. “What I would love to see is a university take on some research into natural dyes to take it to the next level—work out a way to synthesise natural dyes the same way they have done for natural compounds used in the pharmaceutical industry, so that they can be rolled out on a much wider scale.”
In the meantime, her textile garden at the flower show has surely gone a long way in educating visitors as to what’s possible in their own backyard gardens. A press release outlines the garden’s goals as (a) helping people feel inspired by the many plants that can be used to make natural dyes and fibers, (b) encouraging them to try DIY dyeing at home or even create a mini dye garden, and (c) getting them to think about the plants they may or may not be wearing and ask #whatsinmyclothes? Clearly the approach was effective, since the garden won a Silver Gilt Medal at the show this year.
Delamain’s dream of furthering research will come true, as the Textile Garden is being relocated to Headington School in Oxford, where Kate Turnbull, the aforementioned expert dyer and head of fashion and textiles design, has developed a new syllabus to use it. In an article for Fashion Revolution, Turnbull explained, “[The garden] will become a permanent feature in the school and also have a working dye garden where students can forage for dye material for the Eco Textiles course as well as learn about gardening.”
In an era when more people are asking where their food comes from, it only makes sense that they’d begin to ask where their clothes come from. These too exist in close contact to our bodies for prolonged periods of time and come with a significant environmental footprint. Like food, it is possible to choose clothes that cause less harm to the world. To quote Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed, a U.S.-based organization that advocates for local fiber systems, “Fashion is an agricultural choice.” Every time you buy something, you choose between the biosphere (agricultural production) or the lithosphere (the Earth’s crust that provides fossil fuels for synthetics).
Delamain’s textile garden is a reminder of the same thing—that there are much better, healthier, and more beautiful options out there for clothing ourselves than the cheap, plastic garments available for sale everywhere we look. Choose wisely. Think of the plants.