Cara Marie Piazza is a textile designer known for using natural fibres – and for creating beautiful designs with sustainably made botanical dyes. Based in New York, she explains the inspirations and methods behind her process

as told to Johanna Derry

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Can you describe your work in one sentence?
Alchemical plant hospice.

Where does your commitment to sustainable and ethical production come from?
I started working with natural dyes during my final semester in college. I’ve always felt a certain sense of guilt for wanting to work in fashion, knowing that it was one of the top-polluting industries. Working in natural dyes was a sustainable way to enter the marketplace and produce a product that has a beneficial impact on the environment. It’s been an inherent responsibility I’ve felt since I was young.

Is it harder to work with natural products than with synthetic ones?
Much harder! The process is very labour-intensive but, selfishly, I find it very meditative. Flowers are a very delicate material to extract dye from and it is important to treat them with care when extracting the colour. I use temperature changes in water to work with my flowers alongside different pressing methods to extract the colour. Everything good in life takes time and is about the process, and the journey to get the right result. Like wine, whisky and cheese, the longer you leave it the better it becomes… Natural dyes follow the same principle. 

Studio-Wall (my photo)

You use “shibori” techniques. What are they and how do you use them?
Shibori is a Japanese term that refers to a variety of ways of embellishing textiles by shaping cloth and securing it before dyeing. The word comes from the verb root shiboru, meaning “to wring, squeeze or press”. There are many different shibori techniques, but I particularly love to use origami-inspired folds while binding my fabrics.

What is it that you particularly like about using natural dyes with fabrics?
I love the idea that I’m just a conduit for nature to make a pattern. I once read a Yoko Ono interview in which she said that no ideas were hers, they were all just downloaded into her head – I’m probably misquoting – but I love the notion that nature ultimately has the control and I’m just the middle man for nature to meet the fabrics. I think I do get effects that would be possible otherwise but I think they rest in the randomness and the fact that I have little control. The happy accident, I think, is what differentiates my hand from the next dyer’s. It will always be completely individual to me and my process in that moment.

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Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or a school of thought?
Definitely both. Natural dyeing was the way dyeing happened before the industrial era. Colour was based on local natural resources and almost had something of a terroir. We associated colour with health and healing, status and commodity because there was effort in bringing it into our daily lives. Now, forgive the pun, we’re oversaturated with synthetic colours, which I think definitely contributes to a collective anxiety. Thus my point that natural dyeing is an ethos as well as being a traditional technique.

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