Natural Dyeing: The Beautiful Afterlife of Food Scraps

There are natural rhythms that many of us are out of touch with in modern society, whether from fear or inconvenience. The seasons are kept at bay with artificial heating and cooling; work hours are perpetual as we stare at backlit screens long into the night; and decay and death are seen as unsightly and relegated to nursing homes (people) and bins (stuff).

But decay and death are inextricably linked to rebirth, and it is in this sometimes rotting, pungent and colourful, and always sensuous, world that Jo Broederlow of Inside Jo.B crafts her trade. She is part of a quiet army of foragers and makers picking overripe berries, collecting old onion skins and gathering used coffee grounds. But unlike the foragers of old, who were propelled by the need for nourishment, Jo and her kin are propelled by an additional desire – to create.

Eco-dyed silk by Inside Jo.B. Photo by Lisa Haymes

I came across Inside Jo.B, a tiny textile and fashion design studio based on the Central Coast of NSW, while researching ethical fashion for a new project. I was immediately entranced by the delicate, dancing patterns and surprising colour palettes extracted exclusively from natural materials. Sunny yellows and oranges are the gift of turmeric, deep purple stains the hallmark of ripe mulberries and dusty pink the surprising offspring of avocado. “The raw materials come from my garden and local neighbourhood, and from our kitchen as food scraps,” Jo reveals. “I was raised in New Zealand and foraging is in my nature; gathering flowers and other foliage is an intuitive extension of that.”

The fabrics Jo uses are also all natural — a cacophony of rough raw silk, filmy silk organza, hemp and cotton. As well as these (sourced locally from within Australia), Jo also looks for resources in op-shops to up-cycle and repurpose.”

Jo chooses extremely simple cuts and shapes for her clothing designs — so as to avoid wasting any of the fabric she has so painstakingly dyed —while scrap fabrics become panels and pockets. “My Mum and Nana taught me to sew from a young age and I have been making my own clothes since I was a teenager,” Jo shares.

After she finished high school Jo studied fashion at East Sydney Tech, now Sydney Fashion Design Studio at Ultimo TAFE. She didn’t like fashion as much as she thought she would and left the course to travel, before returning to Sydney to study shiatsu, macrobiotics, nutrition and Oki yoga teaching. Jo eventually went back to New Zealand to raise her three young children on Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland. It was a simple and stress-free life, but they all had eczema and back then, “There wasn’t much in the way of organic cotton kid’s clothes,” Jo recalls. So she started her own business, retail store and brand called Impish.

Things came full circle as Jo and her family returned to Australia and she went back to study textile design and screen printing at the Fashion Design Studio, this time with a slightly different lens. “I already had an interest in organics and good food, which led to my curiosity about skin health and how much and what the biggest organ in our body absorbs,” explains Jo.

Flowers Dyed Here Culottes eco-dyed by Inside Jo.B. Photo by Lisa Haymes
Flowers Dyed on Me Raw Silk Top eco-dyed by Inside Jo.B. Photo by Lisa Haymes

Experiments in natural dyeing progressed from here. “My Nana was a florist and avid gardener,” Jo shares. “She taught me to love plants and, having grown up during the depression, not to throw away anything. My heritage is German Samoan and Dutch Sri Lankan, and growing up in New Zealand with no shoes on beach and bush, I had very grounded roots. My Mum and Aunties wore Lava Lava (sarongs) every day, hand-painted or screen and block printed, and I was always interested in tapa cloth from my Samoan heritage. I think these influences led me to be curious about more traditional methods of decorating fabrics. Having also experienced eczema and having worked with synthetic dyes, ink and paints, I knew how very toxic they could be.”

In contrast, natural dyes can be found in food, bark, flowers, earth, bugs and leaves.”

They can be sourced in powdered concentrated form online, “But you can create so much colour variety from your own kitchen cupboards and local environment, which is more sustainable. Then it’s really about cooking with colour!” Jo enthuses.

Jo’s method is simple. She advises spraying a water and vinegar solution on clean dry fabric (silk or wool is best) and then sprinkling with raw foraged flowers, leaves, tea, coffee, and colourful materials like onion skins and herbs, pressing or banging with a mallet to spread the pigment. You then fold, roll and bind the fabric and submerge it in rusty water and/or steam to infuse, giving these ‘scraps’ new life. The colours are absorbed by the cloth, as well as our skin — “This is a powerful kind of medicine,” Jo believes.

The natural process has its idiosyncrasies. For example, the dyes fade over time, but, as Jo points out — this is the perfect excuse to re-dye them. Patience is required, as well as an open attitude. “Surrender the outcome,” she suggests. “The organic nature [of the process] is full of surprise, which is such a joy for the creator in me. However, it’s time consuming as the fabric needs curing and special care before it can be sewn into finished garments.”

It encourages Jo to work slowly and thoughtfully and makes it impossible to duplicate too much — “Quite opposite to how the [mainstream] fashion industry has been formed with the idea of sameness,” she comments.

Instead, Jo aims to create clothes for women who are looking to have pieces they cherish “like good old friends who love and protect us”, as she charmingly puts it. The slow fashion movment resonates completely with her own philosophy of quality, ethically, locally made. “We are all different shapes and sizes and off-the-rack fast fashion often doesn’t measure up,” she says.

And with something as simple and grass roots as natural dyeing, we can all be creators. “Learn to make something, no matter how small — even a card — that feeds your soul,” Jo urges. “Don’t stop learning and sharing.”

To find out more about Jo’s gorgeous textiles you can visit her WEBSITE, INSTAGRAM or FACEBOOK.

All images supplied by Jo and shot by Lisa Haymes and Jess Noble.

Nicky would like to thank Jo and The Commune for having her at Jo’s recent natural dyeing workshop.

An assortment of foraged natural materials ready to be eco-dyed in Jo's workshop. Photo by Jess Noble
Photo by Jess Noble
Transferring colour. Photo by Jess Noble
Photo by Jess Noble
A final piece from the eco-dyeing workshop catching light in the window. Photo by Jess Noble