Muricid shellfish (click on picture to enlarge)

I’m a lifelong textile artist that recently moved to Gent, Belgium from the US. I moved to Flanders because of it’s long and fascinating textile history that has included the finest of the finest in tapestry, lace, linen weaving, knitting, and of course, fashion design. While I enjoy working on my own clothing and textile designs, I am also busy  making fijnKNIT‘s brand of natural dyes, natural luxury yarns, and textile workshops available to the European community.

Takako Tereda: Hand painted kimono closeup with Muricid shellfish dyes

In later posts, I will begin to show you some of my work, but for now I would like to share with you my most recent experience of attending the ISEND (International Symposium and Exhibition on Natural Dyes) conference in La Rochelle, France.   This conference sponsored a gathering of enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable lecturers from 60 different countries from around the world who specialize in the art of Natural Dyeing.  From the first day on, I didn’t meet a single soul who wasn’t overwhelmed by the magnificent stage decorated by beautiful, golden silk, floor-to-ceiling shawls dyed in the natural materials collected from the fauna in the region of La Rochelle, or by the scientifically oriented lectures that focused on the sustainability issues of natural dyeing and the revival of cultural practices through natural dyeing.  For example, the above picture from the exhibit at the Aquarium in La Rochelle is a sample of the natural color that is produced from the Muricid species of marine mollusks off the coast of La Rochelle, the “royal purple” of Antiquity.  In this sample, the dye was artfully squeezed out of the mollusk to show the variety of colors that spill out of this rare, complex pure dye.,263,en.html

There is so much to tell about this conference that I’m finding it difficult to find a starting place, while everyday since returning home I am filled by the memories of being in the company of devoted and passionate natural dyers.  Together with a dear friend from the US, Kathy Hattori (proprietor of Botanical Colors), we traveled by train to La Rochelle where we stayed in an apartment with 4 other textile-loving women from Flanders (Lieve, Marina, Moniek, and Marina).  We had perfect, warm, spring weather for 7 days.

Trudi Pollard, Australia

From 9 am-3:30 pm everyday there were lectures presented every 15 minutes in English or French in a beautiful lecture hall.  The majority of the lectures were given in English, while head phones were provided for translations in both English and French.  The list of lecture topics are so extensive that I provide you with the link to see for yourself:,259,en.html  There was a beautiful exhibition of artwork and fashion done by well known natural dye artisans of our time.

As I moved from one exhibition to the other, how could I not make the connections between the world of natural color and form swaying in the aquarium or found on the coast near La Rochelle?

Coral from the Aquarium La Rochelle

It became a seamless experience that fed our enthusiasm, our passion for color, and our growing need to communicate to the world how important it is to once again remind ourselves and each other from whence our inspiration, our life and joy comes from.

These are some colors I was inspired to replicate after the symposium

Do you think my newly dyed colors pictured above are somewhat close to the picture of coral above?  Or are those sea anemones?

Luz Medina Bonta, Honduras

Natural colors from the Aquarium La Rochelle

Ma-Li CHIA, Taiwan

Turkish Cultural Foundation: Reproduction of 16th Century Brocade using exact same materials, techniques and dye sources

Rarely do you see a whole dress made of felt, yet this one drapes beautifully and carries itself with such dignity, creating a couture, formfitting shape, painted with swirling, muted tones to embrace the softness of the felt.  I was so inspired by this dress that when I returned home from the symposium, I enthusiastically put a couple of partially felted knitted fabrics and one loosely woven shawl 200 x 300 cm, in the washing machine.  After 2o minutes, I took out the shawl and it was only 75 x 25 cm!  OOOPS.  But it was beautifully shaped such that it buckled up in places resembling the floor of the ocean, giving me a lovely landscape to paint my aquarium-inspired piece that I had originally taken these pictures for.

The transparency of this large indigo silk shibori  (below and to the right) that allowed all of the images behind it to blend into the landscape of its presence, reminded me of the blue water images taken  from the aquarium the day before.

Who said natural dyes are  NOT COLORFAST?  Well, of course, the competing industrialists who first developed the aniline dyes in the mid-1800’s because they were cheaper to produce and easier to obtain.  So, why then, do we have 1000-year-old museum pieces all over the world that have retained their colors magnificently, only to have slightly faded in the most compatible of colorways?  Is there anything dull about the above pictures?   Who said natural dyes do not produce brilliant colors? Hmmm, I wonder.  Several of the pieces in this artist’s exhibition are already donations from museums or soon will be in the treasured collections of museums around the world.  Their colors will glow and continue to delight peoples of the world for many years to come.

At the Aquarium La Rochelle

Above and below to the left are two samples of handwoven, naturally-dyed fabric from Turkey.  An up-close examination of the incredible handwork that is barely being preserved around the world tells us how much work we have to do to keep these arts alive. There were demonstrations of elaborate backstrap  weaving  and ikat, but I found these few woven samples especially exquisite because I am a color-and-weave effect weaver with a 24-harness loom.  I am not sure whether these were done on a jacquard or draw-loom.

Turkish Cultural Foundation: Reproduction of 16th Century Brocade using exact same materials, techniques and dye sources

The beautiful symbolism in this piece, combining natural forms that seem to melt into human forms create the archetypal design patterns we associate with the orient.  Can you see the ancient story of “east meets west” in these shapes and colors?

At the Aquarium La Rochelle

These pictures just beg to be close to each other.   What a beautiful color scheme to inspire us.   All of the colors in this photo are available to us in the natural dye color pallette.  Do you see hints of shibori on this anemone?  Madder, cochineal, logwood, and quebracho red?

Judy Hardman, England: homegrown shetland wool, natural dyes, hand knit Fair Isle. I dyed the cotton/silk shawl draped under the vest with fustic and a touch of quebacho red.

There was also a fabulous market place open to the public everyday from 3:30-6:30 pm.  It featured natural dye artisans and purveyors of natural dye products from all over the world. The products were of exceptionally high quality and there was no shortage of ethnic clothing directly sourced from the many textile co-ooperatives from around the world.  On the final day, I couldn’t resist and bought a hand spun, hand dyed, hand knit Fair Isle vest made by Judy Hardman of England.  She raised the Shetland sheep herself and grew some of the natural dyes that she used for coloring.  My husband is the lucky new owner of this lovely vest which looks very fine on him or me.  And I have a fully fashioned Fair Isle vest to study when I get ready to make my own version from my personal stash of naturally dyed yarns this winter.  I counted at least 15 different colors sampled in no less than 27 different color combinations!

Another shawl I simply had to have was this one made by the Aranya dyers cooperative and supported and sold by Maiwa.   It’s 100%  silk, hand painted with natural dyes,  shibori.

Maiwa/Aranya: silk shibori, natural dyes

As part of the symposium,  we had  delicious lunches provided everyday to go along with the opportunity to chat with our fellow dyers from all over the world.  We were ushered into a hall with beautifully set tables that included bottled water and red and white wine.   We were served a starter salad entree, a main dish, desert and coffee.  Everyone remarked how wonderful the lunches were and we gave the chef and his staff a standing ovation on Friday.

What was so striking about this symposium was the intentional good will and interest by presenters and participants alike, in using natural dyes as a way of life that promotes healthy living, healthy cultures and an opportunity for us to make a difference in healing the damage, that we as human societies have done to the earth.   We take for granted all the convenience that modern textile production affords us, without really understanding the full impact on our dear planet earth, the destruction of beautiful textile cultures and the exponential loss of complex textile techniques and heritages.  It was a common heartfelt experience amongst the participants  that the organizers of this symposium, who are indeed very high ranking in knowledge in the natural dye community, communicated an egalitarian and passionate desire to help us all further this discussion about how natural color can bring us back to our natural selves who long to live in harmony with nature and live peacefully on earth.

We arrived home late Saturday night, and by Monday morning I was busy trying out new dyes that Kathy had brought for me from the US.   It was so much fun to have a whole week together to talk about the technical aspects of natural dyeing and the different results that we had, considering the different water that we used.   I couldn’t wait to try and replicate the beautiful gold-yellow that I had seen on the stage at ISEND, even though I never thought of myself as a yellow-loving person.

Then I tried these new liquid indigo dyes for machine dyeing with a new vegetal  mordanting process that does not involve aluminum or a vat to dye with.

fijnKNIT: new indigo dyes on 100% merino wool

This month while I’m developing a website to sell these yarns, natural dyes and supplies for natural dyeing, I will be introducing myself, my portfolio, my line of products, and workshop dates for the remainder of 2011.

Dyeing for naturalcolor,

Catherine van Laake


About naturalcolor

Passionate about textiles, threads and color. I began knitting and sewing as a little girl and found spinning and weaving via my experience at Marygrove College in Detroit for Waldorf teacher education. Learning to spin, first on a drop spindle, then on a spinning wheel, made me feel as if I had done this in another lifetime. It seemed effortless. Since then, my passion for threads, yarns, color and weave effect, knitting and natural dyeing has led me into the rich world and cultures of textile design. Through the study of weaving, knitting designs and natural dyes, I have learned the archetypal connection we as weavers, knitters and dyers have to each other around the world and the richness of our art as we express our cultures through our craft. Ultimately, my passion is to preserve these life-giving arts through the connections we make with each other and ourselves with our craft, the information we store in our minds and hearts, and the stories and techniques we pass on to the next generation.
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2 Responses to From fijnKNIT….HELLO WORLD!

  1. Hans says:

    thank you for your wonderful report on the conference. It’s inspiring!

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