It’s a super time-consuming process. I find it very meditative and cathartic but it is very, very physical.
Alex Mill Editions: Natural Dyed Shirts & TeesShare
Alex Mill Editions are made in small batches with reclaimed materials. For our very first Edition we tapped Maddie Provost, a New York-based natural dye artist, and asked her to rework our men’s overstock button-downs, tees and sweatshirts. The results are one-of-a-kind, botanically-dyed pieces that possess a depth of color that’s impossible to replicate. We visited her in her studio and watched her create literal works of art, dyeing only a few shirts at a time. We’ll let her tell you about it…
AM: First things first: What is botanical dye?
Maddie Provost: Botanical dye is an alternative to conventional synthetic dyes that are currently used by the apparel industry at large. It’s a kind of blanket way of saying “anything derived from nature.” So a botanical dye could be created from a plant, a root or even an insect. They’re non-toxic and are far more eco-friendly. Plus, some are believed to have medicinal properties. So some people believe there are actual wellness benefits to wearing something botanically dyed. Most obvious, though, in terms of benefits you can see, is the warmth you achieve with botanical dye that you can’t achieve with synthetics. The subtleties and nuances are impossible to replicate.
AM: How did you get into it?
MP: I first started using them as an undergrad at Parsons. My senior year I focused on sustainability, so I explored dyeing. I wanted to understand mass production versus artisanal, and what our expectations are as consumers. How can we start to embrace imperfection, ultimately appreciating the things that make clothing special? After Parsons I took several workshops through Textile Arts Center (TAC) and FIT on botanical dye. There's so much to learn, it requires a lot of patience. It’s a super time-consuming process. I find it very meditative and cathartic but it is very, very physical. You’re lifting wet garments, dealing with very heavy five-gallon pots, transferring batches from heat.
AM: Let’s talk about patience, since so many of us have so little of it. Can you speak more about that in the context of botanical dye?
MP: The labor-intensive process forces us to reconsider our relationship with our clothing—I personally think our clothes should look aged, like they’ve evolved with us. Over time [botanically dyed garments] will shift and fade differently than conventionally dyed ones which is what I love about them. They change and become something new.
AM: What about care? I feel like many people may think they’ll end up with dye over everything in the machine if they wash these pieces.
MP: You need to wash them with like colors—so essentially you have to slow down a bit and think about how you’re caring for your clothes. It doesn’t have to be a disruptive or overly wrought process, but it’s nice to think about this step instead of just throwing something into a wash. But other than that, they won’t bleed over everything! Definitely not! The dyes are PH sensitive so it’s fascinating but where you are washing it (what the PH in your water is) will affect the ageing of the color. If the PH is slightly more acidic the color will become warmer and if it's more alkaline it'll get slightly cooler. Machine wash it inside out or wash by hand. Hang dry or lay flat out of direct sunlight ideally. But you can also not do any of those things and I think each piece will still age beautifully. It’s meant to take on a life of its own. One small tip: If you get lemon juice, baking soda or white wine on these pieces, it can strip some of the color. But the effect is something you might embrace. Who knows?
AM: What dyes did you specifically use for Alex Mill? Why’d you choose the ones you did?
MP: I wanted to use the juiciest colors—Madder, Logwood, Cochineal, Osage— because it's spring and it should be vibrant! I particularly love Madder, the range of colors is so beautiful and it smells so earthy. It’s comforting.
AM: Would Maddie the 5-year old be surprised to see what grown-up Maddie is doing now?
MP: I've always been in love with art in every way, particularly with color and shape. That's how I got into fashion in the first place. I started in couture evening wear. I guess there’s a respect for clothing that comes with working in couture. I’ve just always been interested in special garments, my dad would travel internationally constantly and he'd always bring back things and a lot of the time it was clothing. I'd have a gorgeous batik-dyed caftan from Africa or a hand-painted kimono from Japan. These things played into my obsession with shape and color. Yellow is, and has always been, my favorite color. It’s happy, cheerful and warm.
AM: That’s how this entire Edition makes us feel! Thanks Maddie!
As told to AM February 27th, 2019
Photographed by Lucy Laucht at Maddie Provost's Studio
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