Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, child development sophomore Rowan Maze-Conway was used to being surrounded by artistic minds and creative spirits. Having a natural gift for the arts, Maze-Conway fills her free time with activities that allow her to express herself creatively, such as painting, glass-blowing or, in recent years, experimenting with natural dyes.
The use of natural dyes to color fabric has been practiced for centuries. The earliest documentation of the craft dates back to 2600 B.C. China.
Maze-Conway was inspired by her mom, who teaches workshops on natural dyeing and has been practicing the craft for years. Some of her mom’s friends, also expert dyers, have entire gardens of plants used for dyeing.
While using plants to dye clothing may seem like a tedious way of adding color, Maze-Conway said she wouldn’t do it any other way.
“I prefer natural dyes over store-bought synthetic dyes because it makes me feel more connected to the earth,” she said. “It serves as a reminder that the earth can provide us with so much, so we don’t always need to turn to store-bought materials.”
Maze-Conway started to dye fabric when she came to Cal Poly. San Luis Obispo’s rich natural environment aids Maze-Conway in her dyeing endeavors, providing her with plants of vibrant colors that easily transfer to fabric. Plants that are native to the Central Coast, like California Sage Brush and Toyon, are a few of her favorites to use in dyes.
“Living in such a beautiful place full of so much color inspires me to make use of the color and find different ways to do so,” Maze-Conway said.
After Maze-Conway finds the plants she needs, she said the dyeing process is pretty simple.
She starts with a blank canvas of cloth, usually neutral-toned clothing that she finds at local thrift stores.
She then soaks the cloth in a mordant for several hours, sometimes overnight. A mordant is a dye fixative that chemically binds to the cloth and later, to the dye. It’s used to ensure that the color will be long-lasting. Maze-Conway uses alum mordant, a white powder that she mixes with water.
In addition to this, Maze-Conway suggests washing the fabric with soda ash before dyeing to brighten the colors. The process, called “scouring,” removes all the impurities from the cloth.
Once she picks the plants she wants, either straight from the ground or in powder form, she boils them in water to extract its color and creates a liquid dye.
Once these steps of preparation are complete, Maze-Conway folds the fabric into different patterns. She’s a fan of a Japanese technique called Shibori, which uses wooden blocks and clamps to manipulate the cloth while adding dye to it, creating unique patterns.
Maze-Conway often wears her own designs, but admits that her collection has gotten a little too big. To clear some space in her closet, she created an Instagram page (@SorbusDesigns) where she sells some of the clothing she made.
However, Maze-Conway said she doesn’t sell her pieces solely for a profit. Most of the money made from her sales is donated to her friend’s organization
Gravity Water, which provides clean water for the citizens
With a simple process and readily available materials, Maze-Conway said that everyone could and should try natural dyeing. In order to spread the word about natural dyeing, she is currently trying to set up a table at the Craft Center’s Craft Sale, a two-day craft sale in the Julian A. McPhee University Union Plaza. The date for the Spring 2017 sale is to be determined.