Meet the Artist Series V: Sophie Holt

If you love growing your own dye plants or you are an avid gardener then you will love this month’s Meet the Artist Interview with Sophie Holt. She created ‘Pigment’, A social enterprise growing Organic dye plants on a commercial scale and supporting adults with learning disabilities into training and work, and lives down the road in Ashburton,  Devon.

Sophie has facilitated adults with additional needs in various settings across Shropshire and Devon. Sophie’s real passion is to offer a therapeutic environment, support, work experience and training in a productive and commercial space, to people that are often excluded from standard workplaces. PIGMENT considers its trainees to be within the fabric of the business, which supplies artists, dyers and the wider textile industry. 

Thank you for being part of our Meet the Artist Series.

Your flower farm and dye studio are based at Baddaford Farm. Can you tell us about this special place and the ethos behind it?

Baddaford Farm has 6 businesses based on it; Baddaford Farm itself, producing field scale vegetables for Riverford, and 5 members of the Baddaford Collective; Vital Seeds, Incredible Vegetables, Green Ginger Organics, Red Earth Herbs and PIGMENT Organic Dyes – that’s us! The collective was established to promote beauty, sustainability and social justice within an economically viable farm. It is a very special place; there are secret ponds, a stream, two reservoirs, diverse wildlife and a mix of woodland, grassland and cultivated agricultural land. We, as members of the collective, enjoy following the nature of the farm, its inhabitants and seasonal fluctuations – we are connected and committed to being guardians of the land and to connect with each other in order to promote cohesion and collaboration in business.

You have a level 2 in Horticulture. When did this love of working outdoors with plants start and what led you to growing dye plants specifically?

I worked on a couple of care farms whilst living in Shropshire and was helping to run a locally sourced, ethical café at the same time, meeting local food producers and learning about local food provenance. I knew immediately, when working outside with adults with learning disabilities in a horticultural setting, that the environment was magic, and so was the process in growing plants. I then undertook the course, and started to gain work in local Organic farms. I always achieved my highest grades at school and college in textiles, and reignited my love for fabric when I learnt upholstery, following my horticulture course. I have taught horticulture, upholstery and art techniques therapeutically at various care farms, but wanted to be more resourceful in my practice. I discovered natural dyeing through a weekend course in the Cotswolds, and realised my worlds could come beautifully together. PIGMENT’s aim is to grow high quality, natural and Organic dye plants that are suited to the climate here In South Devon. I want to increase the supply of natural dyes for designers, makers and dyers, and to reduce the use of toxic dyes one sale at a time – both wholesale and retail.

We love your knickers. Tell us what plants you used to dye them and how you did it?

I used Crackerjack African Marigolds to create the mottled golden yellow colour, and Scabious Black Knight for the green Shibori knickers; made by clamping wooden shapes to resist the dye in desired places. The Scabious needs less heat, so is only heated to a simmer then turned off for the colour to bond slowly. The marigolds simmer for half an hour. Both knickers were scoured using ecological, PH neutral soap and mordanted with local oak galls, aluminium sulphate and soda ash before dyeing. 

What do you love most about working with dye plants and natural dyeing?

I love the magic. I love the smells. I love the whole process, from seed, to plant, to flower or root, to the gigantic tea, the fabric and its end product. It just makes sense to me.

I have to ask but what is your favourite dye plant to grow and/or to dye with?

I really love Weld. It’s an incredible brassica plant, incredibly traditional, full of pollinators when in flower, one big harvest, smells like cabbage when you simmer it, then brings the biggest surprise when you reveal the fibre – bright yellow! People can never believe it’s colour from a plant when they see it. 

You mention on your website that you “facilitate social engagement with fashion and its sources” can you tell us a little bit about what you mean?

This highlights the connection of people to land, its plants and its final products. It’s about inviting people to be part of the project, to witness the circular system of the inputs into growing the plants, the bi-products from dyeing and the way in which the dyes and fabric can be used in micro-productions and on a larger scale in the textile industry. It’s sometimes hard for people to engage with fashion and its sources when it’s so detached from the land and our own landscapes. I hope that PIGMENT bridges the gap.

Why is working in a Regenerative system so important to you?

Because it considers the whole picture of agriculture, including people and local economies, while ensuring that we are improving the vital soil ecosystems rather than depleting them. In Devon there are so many ‘hedges and edges’, which has always made total sense to me – capturing water, retaining it, providing shade and edges for wildlife to travel and thrive. I personally think it’s so important for our soils to thrive from the result of carefully managed mixed farming systems and our ancient techniques and varieties to be shared in order to combat climate change as temperatures start to increase. I also chose to grow the dye plants Organically because I think it’s fundamental to increase insect populations which are being decimated with the widespread use of insecticides on crops. 

Have you got any top horticulture tips or book recommendations for those of us wanting to grow our own dye plants at home?

I have some key horticultural books that I have leaned on so far in my commercial growing, but none yet dye-plant-specific!:

  • The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman
  • The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman
  • Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzikein

You can follow Sophie and her amazing work @pigmentplantdyes

June 02, 2023 — Primrose Matheson