Dyeing and the Dead: Colouring Clothes with Flowers
Flowers aren't meant to live forever. Yet, their decay is always somehow tragic. In this month's recollection: an experiment to make mallows, and memories, last.
When my boyfriend and I came back from a two-week holiday, there were hollyhocks everywhere in the neighbourhood. They had pushed through the narrow spaces in between sidewalks and facades, their thick, soft-green stalks blocking doors and windows. They swayed in the wind, heavy with yellow, pink and purple flowers. Walking from the tram to the front door of our building, I noticed their best days had already passed: some flowers had begun to fade and the pavement was scattered with flower buds baking in the warmth of the sun.
We heaved our suitcases up the stairs to our apartment, opened the door, and stepped into the living room. On the dining table, in an old wine bottle, stood the white rose my boyfriend had received at his graduation ceremony the day before we went on vacation. In two weeks, the stem had grown thin and its neck had bent under the weight of its head, which was no longer white and smooth, but golden brown and wrinkled like aged skin. On a side table we found the garden bouquet my mother brought to the celebration dinner after the ceremony. The colours of the foxglove, mallow, cornflower and sneezeweeds were still as vibrant as they had been, but their leaves were stiff and placid. The mallow had dropped its tiny blue petals. It looked as if the bouquet had emptied a bag of blue confetti all over itself while we were away. A private goodbye party.
Although it is natural and it happens all the time, there is something sad about flowers dying. Partly because they are simply so beautiful when in bloom, but also because fresh flowers usually recall good things: warmer seasons, birthdays, graduation, a family dinner. At more difficult times, for example during illnesses or at funerals, they are reminders of the affection of others, and of the beauty of nature in spite of its cruelty. It’s no surprise, then, that they are usually thrown away once the first signs of decay occur. Would it be different if we could keep them alive?
In October 2020, I interviewed Dutch designer Ilfa Siebenhaar for FashionUnited. Ilfa is co-founder of Living Colour Collective, a biodesign research project exploring the possibilities of natural textile dyes as alternatives to more environmentally harmful synthetic dyes. I spoke with her about her latest project, a series of silk scarves she made to raise funds for breast cancer research and foster awareness around the disease among younger women, like herself. About a year before the interview, Ilfa had been diagnosed with breast cancer after a long process in which her symptoms were repeatedly trivialised. A tough year of research and treatments followed. Offering comfort and consolidation at that time, Ilfa recalled, were the scarves provided at the hospital to cover bare shoulders during research. ‘It’s like: you’re here for examination, but you’re still a person, perhaps you like having a scarf around you’, she said. ‘I found that so sweet and inspiring.’ She decided to make a collection of scarves herself in order to stress the importance of humanity in healthcare, and to pass on that particular feeling of comfort to others.
During the period of her illness and rehabilitation, she was sent ‘many beautiful flower bouquets’ by friends and family. ‘They would be on the table for a week, and then wither,’ she said. ‘I thought: I should do something with those.’ Her prior experience using flowers and plants to dye textiles suddenly acquired a new meaning: it provided her with a way to ‘eternalise all these small gestures of love and support’ on fabric. She ended up bundle-dyeing the scarves with flowers, which resulted in stunning, cloudy patterns in blush pink, yellow, and purple. These were combined with a graphic print of fourteen moons, signifying femininity and the number of months passed since Ilfa’s diagnosis. The scarves were auctioned via her Instagram page. Another option was to buy a printed but undyed scarf, which was delivered with a manual that explained how to dye it with flowers oneself.
I think about this interview often, imagining the owners of these scarves walking around town, the soft silk wrapped around their heads, necks or shoulders, somehow comforted, supported. Clothing is capable of that, through its shape and materiality, and as a carrier of memories and experiences. Ilfa’s project, titled ‘Emerge’, demonstrated the possibility to transfer memories from dead material that would otherwise be thrown away, to clothes – so they can be worn close to the body and be kept for years, or even decades, to come.
Two days after our return and with the consent of my boyfriend, I peeled the leaves off his graduation rose. I dismantled my mother’s bouquet, swept up the mallow confetti, and put all the petals on a plate. I collected more dead flowers outside, picking up papery hollyhocks from the street and fallen petals from bushes of wild roses during walks. Eventually, I began to look out for flowers on my bike rides into town, stopping at the side of the street to slip some dried-out blue, orange, or yellow into a bag. I found puckered petunias in the flowerbeds across my office, and red trumpets under the vine next to a friend’s house. The resulting collection of flowers was as much a miscellany of memories as a map of my daily life.
I found a few manuals for bundle-dyeing with flowers online. According to most, dyeing with flowers would work best on protein fibres, such as silk or wool. Silk seemed to be the best option, as the fabric needs to be steamed in the process and wool would likely shrink. Looking for a second-hand silk white shirt online, I found a deadstock one from the eighties on a resale platform. I realised only later that using a deadstock shirt meant I would be dyeing with the dead, on the dead.
I ended up using this dyeing manual as it included some good suggestions for amateur dyers not in possession of a steamer pan or materials such as iron or alum to use as mordant. For a period of two days, our apartment became a makeshift dyeing atelier, with fabric heating in water and vinegar on the stove and flowers and copper coins everywhere. After having prepared the shirt for dyeing, I laid it out on a table – it smelled strongly of pickles by then, as did the rest of the house – and arranged the flowers in a stripy pattern. I rolled the fabric up tight and twisted some thread around it. Instead of using a steaming pan to steam the cloth, I inserted a sieve into a regular pan and secured the lid with tin foil.
What emerged, twenty-four hours later, was a frumpy purple-and-yellow package. Unfolding it felt like unwrapping a present. As the author of the dyeing manual wrote: ‘The beauty of bundle dying is its complete unpredictability; you never quite know what shades or patterns your petals might create.’ The result was as surprising as it was beautiful. Some flowers had left their mark more strongly than others, and several colours had changed. The blue cornflowers and mallow, for example, had turned pink. Either way, it is nice knowing they're part of these silk fibres now, the mallow and cornflowers, the graduation rose, the summer sun on the hollyhocks, the rides into town. I will wear the shirt, and remember.
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