Scottish color specialist and educator talks about her journey to developing plant-based dyes with health-beneficial pigments based on pH level alteration
Cavan McPherson: I grew up on the west coast of Scotland, right next to the sea. When I moved away from that environment to study in Manchester and then London, I missed the water, the climate, the light. I didn’t realize that these non-material forces were part of my creative process. During my master’s degree, I focused on color within textiles and garments and how, as part of the industry, it is not confronted. The water system and the chemicals from the dyes are infiltrating into people’s water stream. I worked for three months in China in a manufacturing hub supplying brands that would be sold on fast fashion websites. I became vegetarian and started reading more about how much land the cattle take and the environmental impact of animal agriculture. I was working in that manufacturing hub, seeing the quantities that were getting produced. I was talking to the pattern cutters or the fabric team about my designs, saying I prefer them to be made from cotton, and they always refused, citing the cost. Everything I was designing was getting changed into synthetics.
I won the ArtsThreads Design Challenge competition and I got sent over to San Francisco for a work placement at Levi’s, the design-focused and striving for longevity brand. Working with natural fibers and being exposed to environmental initiatives, I started considering water consumption in the industry. I spent some time in the dye lab where they do indigo dyeing and tests. That was my first exposure to working with indigo. You can keep the same indigo vat for years, you have to rebalance the chemical reactions to keep using it, adding salts or lime, keeping the same litrage of water.
That was my introduction to natural dyes. I started my master’s degree in Knitwear at the Royal College of Arts. Knitwear is a way to create pieces with no waste, as you can engineer the piece on the machine. I spent the first year exploring how to design elements into one piece, and then, in the final year, I delved into making my own pigments and altering them by their pH level. If you make it more acidic or more alkaline you can get a whole sheet of colors from one plant matter. It’s sensitive to every single element, so if the water is a few degrees hotter or has a little bit more aluminum in it, the color can totally change. I was writing down every detail of what I’ve done. I even influenced the dye technician to start inducting students onto natural processes, because at that point at school you were only taught about acid dye, reactive dye, and synthetic dye.
I do workshops now. They were small at first, a basic introduction, as it takes years to understand the essence of natural dyes. I’d start with teaching the difference between fugitive dyes like turmeric or red cabbage, which are stains, and permanent natural dyes like indigo or logwood. Then we’d get hands-on and dye different fibers. As you change the pH levels with vinegar and lemons you can see the color of the dye change. I’ve done a sock dyeing workshop at the start of the year for Nike. That was the highlight of the year before Covid-19 hit and I could no longer do workshops for forty people.
I’m involved in a platform called Reture.net: a pool of sustainable artists that can upcycle a garment in some way. There are artists and designers on the platform that can make a dress into a top or skirt or they can make a duvet cover into a puffer jacket. As a client, you go on and browse the artists, then you pick someone and go through a consultation process. I’m on there for fabric dyeing and garment dyeing. I’m scaling up the processes that I work on. I’m in conversation with biotechnologists about algae dye and marine dye, there’s going to be a few projects related to that next year. Dyes that I’m working with at the moment have additional health benefits when they’re next to the skin. It’s linked to aromatherapy. You can get dyes that would be good for sensitive skin, as they calm irritation and help with blemishes, and then you can get dyes that can help psychologically with calming and soothing. Some dyes have antibacterial benefits as well. Pangaia has just brought out a peppermint fiber, it’s actually SeaCell and peppermint. SeaCell is a mix of seaweed and viscose, and the fiber is coated in peppermint before it gets woven. It means the pieces stay fresher for longer because peppermint is a natural antibacterial.
For the actual fibers, to ensure it was all ethically sourced, I worked with silk. The silk was from the only silk agriculture and mill in the UK. I had all the yarn, all the woven fabric, in its raw state in ivory and white, and for every single piece, I created the pigment and hand-dyed it all myself. I made about six looks, some of them wearable and some more sculpture-based. I wanted it to be pastel shades and very tonal, and I wanted it to look as flat as if I bought the fabric pre-dyed. That took a long time as well, it means that you have to strain the dye through a lot of very fine silks, so there’s no grain in the mixture. The inspiration came from non-material forces. The core of it was where I grew up: the Scottish seascape and the ever-changing light and atmosphere. Olafur Eliasson uses different mediums but the foundation of his practice is the environment, lights, water, and chemical reactions. It is about either the precipitation or reflection of the light, color-focused as well. When I did my final campaign for that photoshoot, I went to the beach in Scotland across from my parents’ house. I went full circle with my final point of education right back to where I grew up. We shot all the looks during sunset over two hours, so for each look the story of light is different. I realized going forward I didn’t want to produce garments anymore, I just wanted to focus on color and natural dye.
Cavan McPherson is a Scottish color specialist and educator committed to sustainable methods of fabric dyeing. Determined to change people’s minds about the possibilities of natural pigments, she is working on developing dyes from algae and dyes with aromatherapeutic properties, dedicating her time in lockdown to technical innovation.
Master’s degree in Womenswear Knit from the Royal College of Art in 2018. Sponsorship from the British Fashion Council, Dewar Arts Award Scotland and the Society of Dyers Colourists.
She resides in London working on projects with keen interests in natural colour pigment, education and biodiversity within fashion.