On a perfect fall NYC day, we paid a visit to the Brooklyn studio of natural dye pro and textile designer Cara Piazza. "I like to call it my witch's lair," Cara laughs. "It's where I make all my potions." And after a tour around her space, piled high with purple dye-filled vats, with gauzy fabrics hanging all around and a lingering sandlewood scent in the air— this is a witchy world we can get into. Read on for a look into Cara's process of turning "floral trash" into wearable works of art, and her refreshing perspective on embracing the beauty that comes from experimentation and imperfection.
Photos by Francisco Marin
How did you get started doing natural dye and textile design? And how has your process and style evolved since you first started?
I first learned of natural dyeing at University in London where I went to the Chelsea College of Art and Design. I took a workshop there on using madder roots and turmeric and was instantly hooked. I was struggling with merging my want for sustainability with a career in fashion, and after that workshop a lightbulb flickered on. A confessed brown thumb, I started experimenting with food scraps to create dye and realized that not only is natural dyeing more environmentally sound, there is a whole untapped waste source that can be intercepted before going to landfill to make natural dyes. Since then it has been my mission to merge the food and fashion industries by creating viable and sustainable dye options with food waste sourced from restaurants.
My dyeing has evolved from only using food wastes when I started, to branching out to floral trash (I partner with florists to collect their waste and have a service for creating silk kimonos dyed with a bride’s left over wedding bouquets.), minerals, non-toxic metal salts, barks, and plants. Basically anything that comes from nature I will try to squeeze color out of it. I’m a hospice for plants.
My services include working with designers to realize sustainable and naturally-dyed fabric options for their collections, selling customizable silk kimonos to private clients, over-dyeing personal pieces, teaching workshops and running private workshop parties. I am also on the board of the Textile Art Center’s Sewing Seed program, which provides free innovative workshops and education on natural dyeing in community gardens around New York.
We imagine textile design and dyeing relies a lot on experimentation and trying out a bunch of different techniques: can you share any stories about experimentation or improvisation in the creative process led to unexpected (but positive!) results?
Many! I taught myself how to naturally dye, so my whole beginning process was one big messy experiment. I believe whole-heartedly in the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which is a comprehensive Japanese world view centered around the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
To love natural dyeing is to love and embrace imperfections and to realize the beauty and uniqueness in variance. Saying that, I will willingly admit my vegetarian roommates in London despised all of my squid ink experiments – but they were supportive and still loved me despite the fishy smell. Rust dyeing came to me as an accidental experiment too. While I was playing with bulldog clips and vinegar as a color-changing assist for one of my dyes, I absentmindedly left the experiment in the pot for a day and the clips rusted, altering the shibori pattern around where the clip was binding the fabric...[it turned into] a process I still use in my shibori work today.
On the flip side, tell us story about a time you made something that was an utter failure.
I’ve definitely muddled up colors and accidentally made brown many times. The key though, is to always test your pots with scrap fabrics before moving onto the final piece. All of the little failures I end up loving and using as ribbon for presents. So everything seems to work out in the end.
What are your favorite natural sources of color?
Rust, mallow blossoms, flower trash, and mixing metal salts.
What are the projects you're working on now?
Currently I am the in-house dyer and creative assistant to Alice Waese. I also have a handbag collaboration with Natalie Marie Gehrels of vegan, naturally-dyed totes and a bundle-dyed aromatherapy eye pillow collaboration with natural beauty guru Jessa Blades.
Do you have any suggestions or quick tips for readers who may be interested in trying out natural dyeing for themselves?
My advice for beginners is to have fun experimenting and not get caught up on making mistakes. Also to try to see the multiple purposes of materials and use them for everything they can be.
What are some other things you're interested in right now, not related to your work!
Haha my work is my life! I take a flaneuristic approach to seeking inspiration and find myself talking ambling walks frequently. I like to be as over-saturated as I can with artistic references so make sure I’m constantly seeing shows and wandering around museums and the art book stores in museums…I’m also really into my 90s R&B Pandora station and am currently trying to teach myself the tarot.
See more of Cara's work on her website and read our feature with her on UO Beauty about her daily beauty routine!