Meet the Artist Series - Series I - Rebecca Desnos
For our meet the artist series we engaged 5 talented natural dyers/natural colour artists to naturally dye a pair of our unbleached organic cotton underwear for a unique pair of undies! Whilst inspiring us along the way.
Meet Rebecca Desnos. I am sure many of you have come across her on Instagram with her engaging and beautiful content.
Creating a business from a passion for natural dyeing at home is a dream for a lot of us. Rebecca has made it a reality.
Now an experienced natural dyer, writer, published author, mother and plant lover she is at heart a maker and a story teller.
We want to hear how she got on with her challenge and find out a little more about Rebecca and what makes her tick!
Rebecca thank you for taking on the knicker challenge and letting us learn more about you and your passion for natural dyes.
First of all, as our first artist we gave this challenge to. How did you find dyeing our knickers, what do you think of them?
I really love them! The fabric and shape of the knickers are beautiful. It’s lovely to have unbleached fabric rather than stark white.
…. and tell us most importantly what you did you do with them?!
I hammered sage leaves over them to make a pair of herbal knickers! I felt like making a pattern, and sage leaves print so nicely onto fabric. I pretreated the knickers in soya milk which is a method that I’ve continued to use and love for many years. Then I hammered sage leaves onto the fabric one by one. The leaf goes onto one layer of fabric (make sure the fabric is spread out so there isn’t another layer of fabric behind), then lay spare fabric on top of the leaf. Hammer carefully and methodically so you can see the print of the leaf come through to the surface. Then peel off the leaf. Keep going until you’ve finished the design and allow to dry. Then you can iron to heat-set the dye, or dip into a pot of boiling water, then dry, and iron.
Your work is beautiful. Can you tell us a little about your background? Did you have any creative, artistic experience prior to delving into natural dyes?
I’ve spent my entire life making things with my hands and learning new skills. I spent my childhood and teenage years making a lot of greetings cards and weaving with paper. Then in my 20s I enjoyed collecting men’s shirts from charity shops and turning them into skirts and dresses to wear. I had a very old blog where I shared my step-by-step instructions and people all over the world were making them and following my guides. It was so much fun!! And I loved wearing these simple skirts and dresses so much. They were stitched entirely by hand. A few years later I took some pattern cutting classes to learn the ‘proper’ way of doing things, but I still love doing things intuitively and learning as I go.
How did this journey start for you?
I studied Linguistics at university which was fascinating, but I was always a bit frustrated that I wasn’t doing something more creative… Whilst I was working as a PA in London, I discovered an interior & spatial design course at Chelsea College of Art & Design for graduates who had previously studied different subjects. I was accepted onto this Graduate Diploma course and it felt like a stepping stone into a more creative life. I loved the course and went on to do a Masters in interior & spatial design. Then I got a job the following year as a junior designer, but realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. I didn’t enjoy sitting in an office all day and found it so draining and miserable. I didn’t enjoy the commute into London at all. Around the same time, I was dabbling in natural dyes for the first time and continued to write my blog.
The following year I had a baby and stopped working in London. When I was at home with my baby, I used the nap times each day to make things. My first baby would have really long naps (as he didn’t sleep that well at night) so suddenly I found myself with a big chunk of time each day. This is pretty much how I’ve continued for 9 years now: I do a little bit of creative work every day, squeezing it into the week however I can. Over time, these little chunks of time really add up and I can complete larger projects. The fact that I have such little time makes me extremely focused. I have detailed lists of what I want to do and always have my next task lined up ready. I love crossing things off my lists and then being able to move onto my next project!
Congratulations on all your publications. Our readers might be most familiar with your first book Botanical Colour at your fingertips which was first an e book then published in paperback. Tell us about the self-publishing process? Would you recommend it? If anyone at home wanted to go down this route, have you got any tips?
Thanks! My first eBook was a “nap time” project and I think it took around 3-4 months to complete. My DMs on Instagram were always flooded with questions about how I dye with plants, so it felt natural to put it all into an eBook. The eBook was so popular and I was inundated with requests to print it. I’d never considered it before this! So I looked into how I could turn it into a paperback and had 100 copies printed. They sold during the first week, which was quite a surprise. For a couple of years, I continued ordering them in batches and sending orders to customers. Then eventually I switched to print-on-demand where a customer can order a book on Amazon or Book Depository and the orders are printed and shipped for me. This is the only sustainable way to continue self publishing with children and a busy home life. The other option is to work with a printers and find a fulfilment company, which I did for about a year, but ran into some complications. However, I do plan to look into this again, with a new fulilment company. There are so many pros and cons of each method, so I think it’s just a question of choosing something that works for you. Then keep reassessing things and adapt over time.
There is a rising trend for natural dyeing. How is your style of natural dyeing different to some of the dyers you have come across in the industry?
My focus has always been to create “healthy” fabric.
About 10 years ago, I read the book called Killer Clothes. I learnt how seemingly innocent materials can endanger our health. It connected a lot of dots and was a big wake-up moment.
My take-away point was that I wanted to make my own healthy clothing and fabric. Plant dyes seemed like the perfect choice and I'd been meaning to experiment with them for years. I began with packets of plant dye extracts (madder and indigo) and learnt how to dye in the conventional way by following books.
My focus has always been on creating healthy fabric, and this is why I gradually moved away from using the metallic mordants that are typically used in natural dyeing. I still use alum from time to time, especially with bundle dyeing to get clearer prints, but I much prefer using soya milk as a binder, as it’s a food grade ingredient. This is just my priority as someone who is very health conscious, and also someone who has young children in the kitchen all the time.
Along the way, I fell in love with the rainbow of colours that nature offers us. After the birth of my first baby I started foraging for my own dye plants. We'd return from walks with our pockets stuffed full of alder cones and acorns, and after storms we'd bring back branches of eucalyptus balanced across the hood of the pram. Together, we’d pick dandelions, learn how to identify different tree leaves, and then I’d make the dyes during nap times. Every day I started a new little project, and it gave me something positive to do during those first few sleep-deprived years of motherhood.
What do you love most about the process?
I enjoy working with seasonable plants and exploring my local colour palette. It’s a perfect reason to get outside and explore new places. Natural dyeing has also encouraged me to grow a wider range of plants. It overlaps with so many other hobbies and interests.
What is your favourite natural dye to work with and why?
This changes all the time. I always say that my favourite plant is the last one I dyed with. At the moment I’m still in love with the yellow African marigolds (Tagetes erecta) that I grew last summer. They make the most beautiful green colour on fabric. I can’t wait to grow more next year!
What is coming next?
I’m working on an avocado dye video workshop that I hope to finish off fairly soon. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for me as it’s the first time I’ve worked with long-format video. The file sizes are so big!
Also I have two eBooks in the works that will also be released in paperback, in due course. I just need a few more months to finish them off. They are lovely projects to work on in the evenings when I get a little bit of time to myself! I can’t wait to share the ideas with others. It’s always amazing to see people try out my projects with their own local plants!
On a personal level, I intend to learn more about herbs and herbalism over the next year. I’ve enrolled in an online course to learn how to make really potent oil infusions. I’m going to dip my toes into this next week and make my first oil. I’ve been growing and drying calendula flowers and will use these! There are some similarities with plant dyeing, as we’re essentially infusing plants into a liquid! Also, some of the same herbs can be used in herbalism and natural dyeing. If we go back to the herbal knickers, sage is one of these plants! There’s a lifetime of plants to explore.