Reading Colour, Material Habitat Residency
During the lockdowns of 2020, Fashion Designer Hannah Cawley and Artist Gardener Rachel Jones-Jones began discussing relevant ways of introducing nature and locality in fashion. Their exchange materialised in early October in form of a five-day residency at Grymsdyke Farm where they reimagined the perception of seasonality in fashion by foraging plant material and using it to dye a selection of textile works. This exercise captured the colours of the surrounding ecology, a material representation of a time and a place.
We asked Rachel and Hannah to reflect on how understanding nature and allowing it to dictate the garment making process can shift the focus from aesthetics and function to symbolism and values, thus changing the meaning of fashion.
Advance Copy: Could you tell us about the starting point of your collaboration and how you came across each other’s work?
Rachel Jones-Jones: I came across Cawley through a mutual connection on Instagram and I remember thinking that it’s exactly what I would want a fashion brand to look like. One day Hannah posted her natural dying experiments and I knew I had to get in touch. Our exchange started slowly when I sent Hannah some of my home-made dyes. We ended up speaking more and more and generating ideas for projects.
Hannah Cawley: I was experimenting with different processes during lockdowns and came across natural dying at the same time as smocking. I saved a lot of avocado skins and used those to practice simple dying techniques.
AC: How did the idea of doing a residency form? It’s a concept mostly associated with artists and rarely applied to fashion.
Rachel: We started the initial conversation quite close to the beginning of the first lockdown and it was becoming clear that we would benefit from being in the same room in a situation where we could have condensed dialogue instead of these conversations being broken up. Being at Grymsdyke Farm is a really good opportunity to invite people to do these sorts of projects.
AC: Could you introduce us to Grymsdyke Farm?
Rachel: Set in the rural Chilterns, Grymsdyke Farm is a research facility run by Guan Lee for designers, architects and artists exploring the essential connections between processes of design and place making. It is a beautiful old farmhouse with workshops, a library, a walled garden and a lot of outdoor space situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
AC: How would you describe Material Habitat, the project at the heart of your collaboration?
Rachel: Material Habitat is a research project by Guan Lee and I at Grymsdyke Farm. The project investigates historical methods of converting plant material into colours for use in contemporary design. Material Habitat presents colour as an essential part of place making. The ability to read colour and see natural dyes as a representation of our environments has been largely lost. This research reconnects to knowledge that once would have been understood by everyone, knowledge that once would have been inherent in a location. Material Habitat facilitates and examines new possibilities for practitioners who want to work in innovative ways to connect to land and to knowledge that has been lost through time cultivating a deeper connection with place.
“The ability to read colour and see natural dyes as a representation of our environments has been largely lost.”
AC: How did your experience with Material Habitat inform the residency with Hannah Cawley?
Rachel: Through Material Habitat I investigate the past and potential future meaning of colours and plants. Working with Hannah is a way to explore what these meanings could be in a fashion context. What can it mean to wear these colours as a way of associating with the plants? I seek to understand what these colours can teach us about plants, histories and processes and what value they can bring to our lives in a contemporary context. I want to find out how we can reimagine our relationship with colour and re-establish ways in which we choose colours when designing. I imagine a process in which colour is chosen for its association with a place or a time of year as opposed to aesthetics or function. So with this residency with Hannah, I wanted to experiment with ways of telling the story of a place and a time through the colours we gathered on our walks that week.
“I’m not altogether that concerned with the outcome, what I’m interested in is the thought process.”
AC: When it came to planning the residency, did you design a detailed schedule or follow an instinctual method?
Rachel: Initially, we decided to do a time-specific and site-specific exploration and then it was getting into the planning of the day-by-day to the point where the structure was a little rigid so we decided to step back and loosen up the structure.
Hannah: We were talking a lot and had many ideas which we tried to apply to the residency but once I arrived at Grymsdyke Farm it became apparent that the most important thing was to not put pressure on having a garment or any ‘thing’ as an outcome. It was more about having conversations, going on walks and getting to know each other.
Rachel: When the final day came the work stopped, wherever we were at – that point was the natural end to the process. I’m not altogether that concerned with the outcome, what I’m interested in is the thought process. So while we were together neither of us were focused on the outcome, we were enjoying being in that space of thought and process without the pressure of a commercial outcome.
“It was important to get into nature and reflect on the way I usually work day-to-day.”
AC: Could you explain how the days of the residency unfolded and the documentation that took place?
Rachel: The method was to go outdoors coming back to assess what we’ve found, then doing it again and that process strengthening every time we did it. We used the OS Maps App to map the walk and label every dye material that we’ve found on the way without specifying where we found it. The idea being that if you do that walk again you would have to stay engaged in order to find these things. Hannah quickly took on the role of taking photographs that meant that I could be more focused on the plants. It’s interesting how two people with similar ambition for the process had slightly different focuses and without planning, we assumed different roles as a team.
AC: How did you experiment with textiles and plant dyes during the five days at Grymsdyke Farm?
Hannah: Rachel and I experimented with the different plants we collected by making various dyes from them. My favourite outcome was the dye made from Acorns, really it was more like an ink. We used this to paint stripes on the fabric dyed with sloe berries. The piece of fabric was then gathered and smocked. When smocking you need to mark out the lines for gathering with chalk. The Chilterns is known for its chalk which Rachel and I came across on all of our walks. We collected a couple of pieces which we then used to chalk onto the dyed fabric to prepare it for smocking, usually, you’d use tailor’s chalk. With the acorn ink, we almost used this as a replacement for the chalk, we liked the idea of the process being more permanent. The acorn ink, which is black, worked so well against the pale/neutral shade of pink, the two colours looked really special together, it is hard to believe it came from plants we’d found a couple of days prior.
“Taking a break from your regular routine doesn’t stop new ideas developing.”
AC: Hannah, as an independent fashion designer did you see commercial possibilities of using natural dyes for your brand Cawley?
Hannah: It would be difficult for me to apply natural dyes completely to the brand at this stage but it’s definitely an area that I could see growing in. During the residency, we spoke about applying this to a section of Cawley by doing a seasonal capsule that uses plants that are around at the time of the year. Even in the few days that we were together at Grymsdyke Farm, we came up with so many different projects to apply the dyes to. There are many different avenues and we are both excited to keep on exploring these ideas.
AC: Would you encourage others to engage with local ecology in this way? Did any positive reflections come up thanks to this time?
Hannah: For me, it was important to get into nature and reflect on the way I usually work day-to-day. It was so different being in the outdoors, walking and discussing different ideas with Rachel, it felt much more organic. Having only started working full-time on Cawley earlier this year and focusing solely on the brand, I haven’t yet got to grips with taking regular breaks. Being with Rachel for that week really taught me how important it is to immerse yourself in nature and how taking a break from your regular routine doesn’t stop new ideas developing.
“You can gather the plants from your environment to create your own time-specific, site-specific colour palette capsule.”
AC: How could our readers repeat your process?
Rachel: The process of the residency can be repeated by stepping out of your home, in any environment, urban or rural, going in any direction you please, and taking note of the plants you see, the time of year and the route you take. You can look these plants up on Google when you get home and see if they are useful dye plants. You are likely to find some, all sorts of plants can be used to make dyes, but they will be specific to where you live. Through thoughtful foraging, you can gather the plants from your environment to create your own time-specific, site-specific colour palette capsule.
AC: The global pandemic has highlighted the need to slow down and prioritise our connection with the natural world. Your collaboration is one example of how we can include ecology in processes associated with fashion in an uncomplicated, open-ended way.
Rachel: Sustainability is an inevitable by-product of this approach and it’s not necessarily the sole purpose of this research. But just knowing the names of the plants and what you can do with them can bond you to the greenery that you walk past every day whether that’s in the countryside or in the city. It’s one of the millions of ways to feel like you are a stakeholder and a part of local ecology. The more people can engage with their ecology locally, the more involved they feel and the more inclined they are to care and to take care.