Amy Taylor holds a freshly hand-dyed fabric. She used a shibori technique in the dying. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo
“Natural” is a word that might evoke wholesome feelings, but also blandness. Just think of a kid’s reaction when they hear they’re getting fruit for dessert. The same rationale is often applied toward natural dyes—that they are good for you and the environment, but a bore to the eye. According to fashion designer, natural dyer, and educator Amy Taylor, 35, nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s a really common misconception that natural dyes can only yield pale colors. They can yield pale colors if you want them to. But if you think about all of the [brightly colored] garments and dresses in your favorite Renaissance paintings, they all came from natural pigments,” she says. Taylor explains that synthetic dyes were only discovered in 1856, and that prior to that natural dyes were the only way to dye fabric. Would anyone daresay that a glam rococo queen like Marie Antoinette would settle for dull, hippy-dippy textiles?
Currently a designer-in-residence at the Chicago Fashion Incubator, Taylor stumbled upon natural dyes almost by chance, and never looked back. She now owns a brand called Ms. Amy Taylor, dedicated to selling natural dye kits and naturally dyed garments. The natural dye kits cost $54.99 each and include five different dyes, a scarf made with 100 percent silk, and all the materials and instructions needed to dye the scarf. Taylor also sells “wedgie-free” briefs ($45), other hand-dyed garments, and naturally dyed hair scrunchies ($8).
In addition to running her online shop, Taylor also teaches courses about natural dyes. “Education is a huge part of my platform, and I love teaching people of all ages and experiences,” she says. Taylor’s love for the subject makes her uniquely suited for the task. While talking about natural dyes in an approachable and captivating manner, she touches on the chemistry, history, technique, and philosophy involved in the process. Things can even get metaphysical, such as when Taylor mentions indigo dye baths. “Indigo baths are living baths. And if you take care of them and feed them, they can last years and years. I once asked my mentor, Akemi Cohn, for the recipe for her indigo baths—the most beautiful I’ve ever worked with. I wanted to know why my indigo baths didn’t come out as good as hers. And she said that she talks to her baths. And it’s true! It’s like talking to plants. You have to thank your indigo bath, you have to talk to it. You have to treat it like the living thing that it is,” Taylor says.
Ms. Amy Taylor natural dye kits, garments, and instructionmsamytaylor.com
Taylor’s natural dye kits come with instructions, a silk scarf, and twine. Credit: Isa Giallorenzo
An enthusiast of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that promotes the acceptance of transience and imperfection, Taylor is all about the one-of-a-kind quality present in natural dyeing. “Looking at these pieces that we make, there are always sections that one could argue are blemishes or defects. But what I really like to tell my students is that we have the technology now that if we want a piece that’s free of all imperfections, it’s cheaper, faster, and easier for a machine to do it. One of the really nice things about doing it by hand is putting your thumbprint on it,” she says. Though Taylor’s work is highly connected to humane and environmentally-conscious practices, she’s not an eco snob. “I would say about only 50 percent of my closet is handmade or hand-altered in some way. I think it’s not so much about excluding store-bought clothes, but about changing our psychology and thinking about our clothes more permanently and in less disposable ways. For example, one of my favorite jackets is from Forever 21. I bought it in 2015, and it still looks brand-new just from taking care of it,” she explains.
Taylor also suggests a homemade dye bath to give new life to items such as an old white T-shirt made with natural fibers (synthetic fibers won’t absorb natural dyes). “It’s all about buying garments with the intention of wearing them until they’re unwearable, and then mending and fixing them whenever we can,” she says. Taylor wisely asks, “Has shame ever changed people’s minds about anything?”
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