Genna Shrosbree has always held an experimental interest in textiles and dyeing; in the rich history of natural, plant-based dyes, and the colour-making techniques that have slowly been making their revival. This interest has evolved into Beagle + Basset, a natural dye studio in Woodstock, Cape Town. Here Genna uses seasonable foliage and plant extracts to conjure up a rich palette of colours.
We first met Genna whilst she was on a work trip to Plettenberg Bay, and soon saw space to experiment. After sampling various fabrics from our mill at her dye studio, we decided to collaborate on a range of organic cotton baby blankets. Using natural dye extracts, she has created a colour series in a warm, autumnal palette.
We chatted to her about her process, and the craft of natural dyeing.
How did you get into natural dyeing?
I have always been a tactile person with a bit of an obsession with soft natural fibres that breathe. With this being said, working with textiles became an interest of mine and various different ways to colour the raw fabrics followed suit. I once met a lady who harvested and spun her own wool and then coloured it with what she had in her surroundings. This utter emersion in nature and being resourceful with using only what was sustainably around her completely inspired me to start experimenting on my own. It was very much an experimental interest that has turned into a career. It’s something I wish to grow upon, and knowledge I hope to be able to pass on to others as time goes on.
How do natural dyes compare with synthetic ones? Why are they preferable?
Natural dyes and synthetic dyes don’t even compare. It is very much about taking from and giving back to the earth in a similar state to how you found it, which is exactly the nature of natural pigment. I harvest or gather only what is in abundance, or has fallen on to the earth’s floor. This colour is extracted and once the dye process is complete, the dye bath can be given straight back to the ground without any concerns. Natural dyes have character and depth, and the lack of machinery used in this process really highlights a ‘hand-made’ element. It’s a technique, or some would even call an ‘art form’, that has been practiced for centuries. Even with developments in technology, many natural dyers find the best way to do it is by hand, in pots, over a flame. Like anything organic, the colour won’t naturally hold for as long as synthetics, but that is very much part of the story, and the beauty of this hands on process.
Any mishaps during your early experiments?
Even after 3 years, I am still experimenting and learning. I have learnt which plant materials yield the strongest colours, which are sensitive to light, and which last the longest in the wash. Mishaps in the beginning could be the fact that colours change when exposed to the elements. I didn’t know this at first and had to make sure to store dyed goods correctly. Every time I dyed, whether I followed the exact same recipe as before, it came out slightly differently. This may have been due to the change in season, when the bark fell off the tree, when the fynbos was harvested, how long the pecan nut shucks had been lying on the ground… There are so many elements that affect the dye. I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a mishap though, but possibly a new discovery.
What have you found to be the best natural materials for dyeing?
I think dye extracts have proven to be the best for consistency, colourfastness and wash fastness. Extracts are 100% finely ground up natural pigment that has been used for centuries to dye textiles. Local matter such as fynbos is wonderful to work with and yields a strong yellow dye – however it does tend to darken when exposed to the sun. Pecan nut shucks are also one of my favourite dye mediums to use as the colour it leaches all depends on the season and freshness of the fruit. They are also only harvested once a year which makes the dye quite special as we only have a limited amount to last us the season. Hopi Black sunflower seeds are another dye medium that I have recently started working with and love. It produces a strong thick dye and can colour fibres anything from purples to greys and sometimes even dark greens.
What’s the most unusual matter you’ve used for dyeing?
Probably Marijuana leaves. It’s not unusual but I really didn’t expect any colour to be produced. It actually dyed a subtle acid yellow and the colour has lasted relatively long. It’s not a dye I would do every day as it absolutely stinks and becomes a thick stodgy soup whilst the extraction is happening, but it was a fun experiment.
Which fabrics take the dye best?
Definitely protein based fibres such as wool and silk. Linen, cotton and hemp also dye quite nicely, however wool and silk takes the cake.
Talk me through a normal step-by-step of the dyeing process.
It is a very patient process and each time we dye it is different depending on the plant matter used and the fabric needing to be dyed. The basic method is a 3 step process. Firstly the fabric needs to be cleaned of any oils or impurities. This method is called scouring and various different natural substances can be used. The next step is called mordanting. This is a timely processes that requires heat and the use of metal based solubles or natural tannins. This step opens up the fibres to allow the pigment to attach. Many natural dyes don’t easily bind to fibres so mordanting is always required to allow the colour to hold and last. Dyeing the fabric is the fun part. If we are doing our own extraction, we steep the plant matter in a large pot of rain water for many hours, usually overnight – heating and cooling the water as we go to get as much pigment out of the plant. We then strain out all the bits and add our fabrics to the dye pot. Dyeing can take one hour or it can take 24 hours, depending on the deepness of the colour we hope to achieve. The items are then removed from the dye pot, rinsed and hung to dry before going through a final wash and softening cycle.
For any readers wanting to experiment with a bit of natural home dyeing, could you provide a bit of advice?
Take your time. Best results are achieved when time is spend nurturing each process. Another tip would be to try and try again and experiment with different methods, plant matter and fabrics until you are happy with your final results. Keeping a dye journal is also something I have enjoyed doing over the years as it is something you can look back on, add your notes and keep track of your different projects.
How did the collaboration with Mungo come about? And where did you see spaces for synergy?
Absolutely adore Mungo! It has been such an inspirational brand of mine for many years. We were officially introduced in 2020 on a visit to Plett, and since then have been chatting about the possibility of working together. The fact that Mungo adopts traditional weaving techniques and still uses ancient machinery to produce their products, that it’s all done locally, the yarns are sourced responsibly, and the quality of each and every piece that comes out of the mill is flawless. I think we share similar values throughout the production process.
What materials did you use to dye the Mungo Baby Blankets?
Madder root, Black wattle, Cutch (Acacia tree bark), Oak galls.
How pleased are you with the overall result?
Absolutely love them! The slight inconsistencies and variations in tone from blanket to blanket shows that each one was dyed individually by hand and I hope everyone appreciates the organic nature of each one of them.
Which of the colours is your personal favourite and why?
Oak gall. It is such a wonderful dye extract to work with and has such an interesting story. An oak gall, or gallnut, is formed when a wasp stings an oak tree. The tree reacts to this and develops a hard ‘blister’ around the sting to protect itself. This ‘blister’ is the gallnut, and is ground down in to a very fine powder. It is very high in tannin which produces strong dyes and beautiful neutral tones. I love the greeny/beige colour we have been able to achieve here.
Any care instructions to share with customers?
The biggest pointers would be to hand wash this blanket in warm water using only a dash of pH neutral detergent, and hang to dry in the shade. Direct sunlight will alter the colour. Please do not spot clean or spray your blanket with any strong chemical cleaners or tumble dry. Bleaches and acidic substances will alter the colour substantially.