Babs Behan, artisan dyer
Babs Behan is the founder of Botanical Inks, the natural dye house, which uses environmentally sustainable ways of extracting colour from natural products to create dyes for textiles, clothing, paper and other materials. Her clients include Saatchi Gallery, Tate Museum, Soho Farmhouse, and the Barbican Centre. Behan is also the author of “Botanical Inks Plant-To-Print Dyes, Techniques and Projects.”
From the outside natural dyeing looks like potion making – do you feel like you’re concocting something?
It can feel like white magic at times. By taking a plant and extracting its colour, it’s a way of making that plant live longer, by transmuting the colour into something else. But I liken it more to the process of cookery. In most cases the process is essentially like brewing a cup of tea – it’s an infusion.
What do you love about working with plants?
Growing and harvesting plants is a very beautiful way of getting out into natural spaces. The more I get into different plants, I realise that they evoke different experiences. Indigo creates such a still space, it makes people very grounded and present, which is an important and beautiful quality to bring into our lives these days. Then, something like bundle dyeing with roses is a whole other experience. Roses are so beautiful and decadent that you can’t help but have a sensual experience. They feel very loving and accepting.
What do you grow in your own garden?
At the moment I’m very excited about growing woad; it’s the most bonkers plant which starts with a very small rosette of leaves on the ground, then sends up this huge stalk which explodes into a frenzy of yellow flowers like a firework. It’s such a strong presence and I’ve been quite amazed by it. I haven’t planted my own indigo-producing plant before, so I’m excited to see its whole cycle.
You’re also studying intuitive herbalism, how has that deepened your understanding and connection with plants?
Part of my practice is to make a commitment to a plant for a month, be with it every day, write about what it offers and what its healing capacity is. At the moment I’m with nettle and I’m deeply enjoying everything about it; it’s one of the most important herbs in this country and historically it’s a very sacred plant. The Romans brought nettles to this country to keep themselves warm in our cold island – they would flagellate themselves with nettle to produce a rash that warmed the body. But it’s also packed with vitamins and minerals if you imbibe it; if you take nettle, say in tea, every day from the very beginning of spring, it makes you very resilient and able to fight off illness. I have learned a lot from it about energetic boundaries, too. I’m someone who hasn’t in the past had strong boundaries, but thinking about nettle’s sting, and how it teaches us to be aware of our physical boundaries, I’m treating myself with more self-respect. It also makes a very beautiful dye; yesterday I made a very deep olive-y green that I can’t wait to use.
You obviously feel very connected to nature – how far back does this go?
My mum says she remembers putting me down in a daffodil bed as a toddler and that I was content for ages, looking at the flowers and bugs, and enjoying the light. I do actually remember feeling blissed out by the experience. When I got a bit older, I was given a wild patch of the garden that was just for me to have as a nature reserve – it was something I really needed.
So what lead you to study surface design at university?
My background was in painting and drawing, and I went to uni to study fine art, but the surface design course, which involved essentially learning how to apply colour and pattern to any kind of surface, seemed like a good route to make a career out of being creative. But I found it quite toxic; we were in the print room all day, breathing in the vapour, working with big metallic devices. It didn’t feel human to me. In retrospect, I think I was craving something more nature based, more holistic.
How did you then discover natural dyes?
A very good friend was travelling in India and when she got to Jaipur, she met people who ran a natural dye block printing house. She wrote to me saying “This will light you up”. And it totally did. I went there in my second year of my degree, in 2004, and saw the natural and locally sourced fabrics, the wooden blocks carved by hand from local wood and the colours made from vegetable dyes. There was such beauty and unique character in their work. It felt so natural and full of goodness.
How did you then translate those techniques into your own practice?
I went back to Jaipur after I graduated and studied with the family business for a few weeks. They had lots of ends of rolls of their beautiful fabrics, and I was attracted to the idea of recycling what was already in existence, so I made clothes from them to sell in the UK. I did that for about six years, but fell out of love with the business side of it. I went back to square one and started making my own natural dyes.
While they are less common now, natural dyes obviously have a long history in the UK as well as in India – what did you learn about it?
The history of natural dyeing in the UK goes back further than we have records of; before the industrial revolution, when chemical dyes were invented, every building from grand palaces to cathedrals to people’s homes would have been dyed by pigment from nature from the carpets to the upholstery to the bed linen and the clothes. The big houses would have had kitchen gardens which included a dye garden where they would grow things like weld, madder and woad. People think that natural dyeing is just for hobbyists knitting socks, but William Morris was mass producing wallpapers and textiles using natural dyes. Natural dyes, and the craft behind it, deserves more respect than it gets.
There is now a resurgence in people being interested in natural dyes. Why do you think that is?
There’s lots of different reasons why people come to natural dyeing. For some, it’s a way of coming back to nature and interacting with plants. For others it’s more of a medicinal practice; literally wearing your medicine. But it also connects to a slower, more mindful way of life. Natural dyeing invites mindfulness and meditation. It’s about enjoying the simplicity of life. One of the beautiful things about craft in general is that it can be a very solitary, mindful experience, but it also acts collectively as a social glue. You see that from sewing or knitting circles, where people sit together, practice their craft together and chat and bond. It can be whatever you need it to be.
Tips: How To Start Natural Dyeing
To make a basic nettle dye, chop nettles into a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave overnight. Strain the plant leaf out, keeping the coloured water. Add a pre-wetted fabric into the dye bath and bring to a simmer for 30-60 minutes. For a deeper colour leave overnight.
A basic rule is to use the same weight of plant fibre as the fabric that you want to dye.
You can use all kinds of things; onion skins are very accessible, as well as coffee grinds, and squash peelings, or avocado skin and stone, which produce a beautiful dusky pink colour.