Babs Behan from Botanical Inks - The Interview

Our passion for plant power led us to the wonderful work of artist/designer Babs Behan otherwise known as Botanical Inks based in Bristol.

Babs you are a busy lady. As well as running dyeing courses and consulting on natural dyeing you offer small scale natural dyeing, founded the Bristol cloth last year and have published an incredible book.

How old were you when your love affair with plant colour started and what was the catalyst?

I have always been a nature over. My mum tells me stories about being put down in a patch of daffodils and being perfectly content and at one with nature. 

Likewise I feel I have always been an artist, a painter and a drawer. 

At University I studied surface design which was about applying colour to different surfaces like glass and wood  – anything really!

I loved it and I was keen to find a way to turn it into a career. It was also when I was doing my BA in London that I found out how toxic dyes and paints were and how detrimental they are to our health and the environment. This was in the early 00s where there wasn’t much written about it. 

A friend had recently returned from India where they attended the Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival in Jaipur and had seen block painting done with vegetable dyes – they sourced local vegetable colours, local fibres, and used local teak wood to make blocks. The whole thing made so much more sense to me.

I eventually went over and stayed with a family in Jaipur and learnt the craft myself.  I wanted to keep on absorbing more so I went traveling. Everywhere I went learning about different artisan fabrics and dye techniques – all unique to the plants that grew around them.

How has your awareness and relationship with plants and the natural world developed since then?

I no longer live in London and since living in Somerset have progressively become more connected through wild camping, eating wild food and my fascination for herbalism.

Foraging for plants locally to extract natural colour has given me another opportunity to reconnect with nature.

In order to develop this further I began studying Intuitive herbalism at the School of Intuitive Herbalism. This is about creating an authentic intuitive connection with herbal plants. Putting aside what is written in books and truly feeling the plant, developing a relationship with it like one does with a human being, as we all react to one another differently. It has been a lesson in developing openness and slowing down. A meditation of kinds.

You describe yourself as a specialist in “non-toxic bioregional regenerative textile systems, and your passion for this led to the creation of Bristol cloth can you explain what you mean by this?

It is important to work with materials that are grown in a way that haven’t had any synthetic treatments – to create something that is truly non-toxic. Most of us don’t realise the level of chemicals used in fabrics, in the clothes that we wear. Even if they say organic it is not necessarily chemical free.

Chemical dyes have hormone disrupting chemicals in them and are carcinogenic. 

Regenerative speaks to the farming system we use.

Regenerative farming allows animals on the land to mimic natural grazing – they can wander and dig up the ground in a way that allows aeration and fertilization of the soil which encourages plants to grow larger and taller and be far more deep rooted. This is turn allows the plants to sequester far more carbon than in regular farm conditions.

Regeneration encourages “kind” animal husbandry that does not use any chemicals and therefore protects the soil and supports greater biodiversity, which in turn helps everything to flourish.

We hear the word sustainable a lot. Sustainable is sustaining what we already have. Regenerative is making what is there better. To rebuild the soil fertility so it is there for future generations to enjoy. 

Why is it such a passion?

I really believe in and want to stand up for the regeneration of our global environment. I feel intensely what is happening to the world and feel it is possible to regenerate if we educate ourselves and action new ways of doing things. 

Bristol cloth is providing an example that can be replicated.

Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. The amount of the land being polluted and destroyed to create the clothes we wear is awful.

A lot of people ask me in terms of Bristol Cloth – “But… is it scalable?”

It is yes but why would you want to? Why do you need to? 

I would far rather see a collection of small-scale artisan makers and creators. The main problem with polluting textile systems is they are all large, unconnected conglomerates. We don’t need to be producing at this scale. There is enough clothing in circulation to clothe the next 10 generations!

The other major problem with large-scale production is that it is assumed that everything has to be reduced in price as you are making more of it. This ironically takes away from the true price of making it. Rewarding every part of the supply chain fairly.

People should be paid what it takes to do that work. There has to be an end to fashion being subsidized by the Environment or people in the form of slave labour.

What is your opinion on the current chemicals being used in the production of textiles for our health and the environment?

The chemicals currently being used in our textiles are so dangerous and need to be banned in our country and other countries around the world. 

There are companies like Chemsec who are passing legislation, which is good, but it needs to end now. It needed to have happened yesterday.

There are over 300 chemicals being used in the textile industry that are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. This is not safe for the people handling the dyes, the soil or the water where it ends up or for the people like you and I who wear it eventually.

What is your favourite plant dye to work with?

I don’t have a favourite. I am currently working with Cutch a bark that grows in India. It is great to use without mordant which is my preference and produces tones of cinnamon, beige dusty pink just through exhausting the dye bath.

What is your vision for the future of fabric and dyes?

Fibreshed systems. Local regenerative farm to fibre chemical free systems. 

How do you wish to develop Bristol Cloth?

I would love to start using more local fibres when they become available. Sadly at the moment no one is producing plant fibres in the UK. 

There are pilot projects in nettle and hemp but it is not available yet so I hope it won’t be long until that changes!

Check out Babs via her website on the link below!

August 16, 2021 — Primrose Matheson