Bringing Natural Dye to Armenia

Society has become more and more conscious of what they put in their bodies. What you ingest comes from somewhere after all, and every step of the journey it takes before it gets to you will affect you in some way. So why shouldn’t you be as conscious of that journey in regards to the items you put on your body as you are of what you put in it? This question is what led Sveta Khachatryan, founder of the clothing line Alice Blue, to use only natural dyes in her work.

After studying painting and video art at the University of the Arts in London, Sveta began making wearable art. The only problem was that people weren’t using her creations. They considered them so pretty they’d frame it or place it on the mantelpiece. “I wanted to change that. I like the idea of people wearing my art, my creations. It’s there to be aesthetically pleasing and it makes me happy to know that my pieces make others happy.” This interest in creating items that bring people joy is part of what has motivated her Alice Blue designs. “I treated my line as a form of artistic expression. I don’t pay attention to what’s in style or what’s fashionable at the moment. I want everything to be genuine.”

After moving back to Armenia, Sveta became the only natural dyer in the country. She didn’t start off knowing what the process entailed and taught herself from the ground-up. Through experimentation, and a lot of time spent researching and reading, Sveta learned that there are infinite ways to naturally dye fabric. She began with cabbage, turmeric and beets, items that were easy to find in Armenia, and expanded from there.

Natural dyeing is seasonal and each season brings with it new opportunities in Armenia. Winter is perfect for dyeing with pomegranates (the fruit is never used, just the peel). Fall is optimal for walnut hulls while in the summer you can find an abundance of eucalyptus bark and leaves. Spring is when you can get avocados which, surprisingly enough, produce the loveliest of pink tones, and also the madder root which is found in abundance in Armenia. Flowers can be used for dyeing year-round, the key there is to use them a few days before they expire.

The benefits of using natural dyes compared to harmful acid dyes are numerous, not least so because of the color produced. What can be viewed as a negative in the world of synthetic dyes is what gives natural dye its unique, nuanced look. The color does not sit with uniform consistency on the fabric and consequently changes depending on the light. Dyes will appear pastel hued on plant-based fibers such as linen and cotton and brighter on protein-based fibers like wool and silk. This gives a perception of depth that is lacking with acid-dyed fabric. But aside from the aesthetic advantages, there are the obvious ramifications on nature. “Once I started reading about how fabrics are treated and how that harms the environment, it set very heavily on my mind.”

To make patterns, Sveta employs the traditional Japanese Shibori technique. This resist dyeing method calls for folding or binding the fabric, then dipping it in the dye. The parts that remain exposed get dyed. She suggests using contrasting colors when making patterns in order to truly emphasize the result. Each foray into the Shibori technique will yield different results and you can never know how it will end up, which is what helps provide the final, singular appearance.

Depending on the ink, fabric and desired hue, the entire dyeing process can take upwards of 50 hours. It’s not for the impatient. “I think the slow process is important, I think we need to slow down as a society, in general, and really take every step slowly and understand what you’re dealing with. The slowness of the process allows you to build a bigger appreciation for the textiles. When you’ve gone through such a slow process, you also develop a greater appreciation for your clothes and aren’t likely to throw them away so easily.” Being more conscious of the clothes you wear and what they went through to get to you will help you take a more holistic approach to nature and your surroundings — and you’ll end up with some beautiful hues in the process.