Interview with Flora Arbuthnott - Natural dyer, forager and gardener

Interview with Flora Arbuthnott - Natural dyer, forager and gardener

If you are into natural plant dyeing then the name Flora Arbuthnott won’t be unfamiliar to you.

Daughter of fabrics and interior designer Vanessa Arbuthnott whose floral prints bring the outdoors into your home, Flora too has been inspired greatly by the natural world and has made it her work. Living in South Devon she regularly runs a range of courses helping us reconnect to ancestral wisdom and the natural world.

Can you remember the moment you first fell in love with plant dyes? I can remember when I first did some natural dyeing with my friend Babs in 2014. It was a dark cold winter evening. I can remember taking the fabrics out of the dye pots and being amazed with the beautiful soft colours.

What was the first dye plant you learnt about? I started working with food waste and wild plants. We made dyes with bracken, nettles, red cabbage, onion skins, and coffee grounds, using rhubarb leaves as a mordant. Now I know that coffee and red cabbage aren’t really dyes.

What is your favourite plant to dye with and why? I love working with tagetes marigold flowers. I love the mustard yellow colour and the smell the flowers give off. I also enjoy the colours you can create from over dyeing marigolds with iron or indigo.

Why are plant dyes better than current chemical dyeing methods? Practicing and sharing plant dye techniques is a reaction to the dyeing industry. The synthetic dye industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Globally, the textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye into water systems every year. This cocktail of polluted water and chemicals, causes the death of aquatic life, contaminating soils and poisoning of drinking water. ( like to show how we can produce vibrant and varied colours through plant based processes. Natural dyeing is also a practice of nature connection. A process for getting to know locally growing wild plants. I also grow plants to create certain colours such as orange, red, blue, green, and purple. I love how every colour has it’s own alchemical process. In art classes at school, we were taught the colour wheel and the logic of mixing colours. However with plant based colour, each plant and colour has it’s own particular recipe and process.

Can you tell us something about a wild plant dye plant growing in England that we might not know? Fruit tree bark gives beautiful pinks, oranges, and yellows.

What do you feel is the most important thing about the work you are doing? I see that a lot of the social and environmental issues that we face today are caused by our disconnection from the natural world around us. Natural dyeing is one way through which we can start to reconnect. Reacting against disposable fast fashion culture to create objects of use that we have a deeper relationship with, that we endure, care for, and repair. Connecting with nature through foraging and growing our own materials. Empowering ourselves through learning and practicing whole processes of crafts from raw local materials through to finished usable objects.

Why is it important we return to our ancestral ways?  Personally, I have found that incorporating practices that are connected with nature have massively improved my quality of life. They create a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with the land. They also foster connection with community and kinship through sharing skills and processes with others. Natural crafts are part of our cultural heritage. All around the world, we have been working with natural dyes and inks for thousands of years. It is only in the past 200 years, that we have started to lose this knowledge as synthetic dyes became popular. It has become evident that synthetic dyes are harmful to the environment. Causing health problems, killing wildlife, contaminating water and soils. So it is important that we keep our ancestral skills alive as these are our means to create our own crafts and culture independent of polluting industrial processes. To create our own culture woven from the materials of the land where we live, rather than taken from the exploitation and poisoning of other lands.

 For those at home wanting to start exploring with plant dyes where would you suggest they start? I would suggest that you start with looking around your garden and local area and learning about the plants there and what you may be able to use. Perhaps there is staghorn sumac, oak galls, buddleia flowers, dandelion flowers, rose petals, or nettles. Try using food waste such as onion skins or avocado skins and pips.  Choose yarn or an open weave fabric made from wool or silk. This will take the colours easily without too many processes.

What books or teachers have been most influential to you?

I am influenced by the work of Michel Garcia.

Jenny Dean’s book ‘Wild Colour’ is very useful.

I find ‘Make Ink’ by Jason Logan and ‘The Organic Artist’ by Nick Neddo inspiring.

What are you most excited about this year? I am excited to start working in my new studio and garden in Devon. This will enable me to take on more projects, and to develop my printmaking processes. I will be focussing on printmaking with natural dyes and modifiers, as well as running workshops and online courses from my studio.

Learn more about Flora from her website :