Is Natural Dyeing the Future of Sustainable Fashion?
Earlier this year I visited Maria Elena Pombo's studio—an airy warehouse loft with large industrial windows nestled in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Decorated with mementos from travel and thrift store trinkets, the space felt like a second home yet was also obviously a place to create. A large work table sat in the center of the room, a cart filled with reams of gauzy fabric was pushed off to the corner, painter's buckets full of avocado seeds were stacked by the window sill, and a steel-frame shelving unit was lined with mason jars filled with various red and pink liquids. At play were the contrasting practices of structured, measure-twice-cut-once craftsmanship and curious, uninhibited experimentation—a perfect union of Maria Elena's Parsons training and new-found love for plant-based dyeing. From this narrative and Maria Elena's endless sense of curiosity came Fragmentario, a creative studio through which she explores and preserves the centuries-old practice of plant-based dyeing.
I spoke with Maria Elena about her natural dyeing process—from the organic materials she works with to the many elements that can be manipulated to alter the hue of a final product—and was fascinated by the results she was able to achieve. She explained how different waters from around the world yield different results and how this practice preserves a piece of her Venezuelan history. Maria Elena typically works with small quantities, but I couldn’t help wonder what the world could look like if the fashion industry adopted plant-based dyeing on a larger scale. It's commonly known that fashion is wasteful—the textile industry is the second-largest polluter in the world—but the environmental repercussions of chemical dyeing often are dismissed, yet equally alarming. In a city like Tirupur, India, for instance, groundwater is undrinkable due to the chemical dye runoff that's poured into the local river from factory wastewater. That's a city of over 350,000 residents left without a safe source of drinking water.
Could adopting a natural dyeing practice, similar to Maria Elena's, be the future of sustainable fashion? Maria Elena suggests that when amplified on a larger scale, plant-based dyeing (unless carried out incredibly responsibly) can take other environmental toles like deforestation. For her, more than anything, it is a profound way to connect with nature and revive a traditional cultural practice. Read more from my conversation with Maria Elena and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Tell us about your background and how you ended up studying design at Parsons. Was fashion always a part of your life?
In a way I was always interested in fashion, but the road to Parsons was not straight forward at all! I am from Venezuela, where it is very common to have clothes made-to-measure. My grandmother herself is a seamstress, so I grew up having some of my clothes made by her. When I was very young, I had this computer game in which you could design clothes for Barbie. I would spend most of my free time playing with it and designing clothes for me, for my friends. I got into fashion history also very young, through books my parents would get me. But I realized adults reacted in a negative, or worse, condescending way, whenever I said I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I decided I would be an engineer instead. Many people in my family are engineers and while I didn’t know what that meant exactly, I had the idea that it involved math and computers. I was good at math and liked computers, so it sounded good (and got the adults off my back). Also, my favorite designers growing up (Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin) had trained as engineers or architects. I figured I could transition like them.
I ended up studying Industrial Engineering in Venezuela, and going to France for an exchange program in my last year of school. Being away from everyone I knew, made me question many things and I realized pleasing other people was not a way to determine what you would do with your life. I applied to Parsons while finishing my engineering degree and moved to New York soon after graduation. I am naturally a very risk-averse person, so this was a terrifying move. But I figured I would try and if it didn't work out I would still be able to get a job as an engineer afterwards.
How do your cultural roots play a role in Fragmentario and in your design processes?
Due to a mix of political reasons, I have not been back home in over four years. Ironically, or maybe not, the more time I am away, the more Venezuelan I feel. Maybe I just spend more time thinking what does this identity means and make my own interpretation.
Something that I feel is very important though, is the fact that access to capital is more limited in Venezuela than in the United States for example. For this reason, there is a defacto circular economy taking place in most households. As a child you “inherit” clothes from older cousins or siblings, and then these go to the next generation once you are too big. I still have some special items that I got when I was a teenager passed-on by my cousins and grandmothers. I feel then very uncomfortable with waste and thrive on being resourcefulness. The fact that I use deadstock fabrics and avocado seeds for color, is such a Venezuelan move.
Before dedicating yourself full-time to Fragmentario, you worked for a few notable designers in New York. I imagine those environments were very different from the one you are in now—from vision and structure to pace and quantity. What was the most valuable lesson you learned designing for someone else before designing for yourself?
I learned so many things and I always stress to young designers the importance of working for other people. Especially companies with an aesthetic that differs from your own. That way you can really focus on developing technique and develop your own style and references in a separate context than that of your work.
But to be honest, my biggest takeaway came from the fact that I worked for companies whose founders were still involved and who I could humanize while I was there. Their circumstances might be different than mine, but they were still people, just like me, who one day decided they wanted to create their own world. If they could, so could I.
When and why did you start experimenting with avocados for dyeing?
In 2013 I was helping my husband make a line of bags. He didn’t like the colors we found for organic cotton and proposed we dye them… with onion skins and nuts. I had never heard of dyeing fabric with plants. I was initially skeptical, but very curious and started researching with him. After a year of reading, we did our first experiments with onion skins and avocado seeds, using the plants only. The results were incredible. It felt like magic. I became obsessed with natural dyes and started doing many experiments with different plants, wondering what colors were hidden in them.
The fact that avocado seeds yielded a pink hue was so unexpected. It made me think a lot. I had an avocado tree in my home in Venezuela and they were an important part of my day-to-day life, yet I didn’t know that you could dye fabric with them, much less dye fabric pink. I became very curious about avocados in general. If they had these secret color properties, what else was there about them that I didn’t know? A lot actually.
Walk us through your dyeing process—how do you manipulate certain elements (water, heat, avocado seed) to alter the color of the dye? How long does the entire process take?
My process is very slow, at least 5 days to dye any piece of fabric or garment. I have found that the best results in color comes when I give the plants time to color the fibers.
Just as water quality affects our hair and skin, it has a significant effect on the colors obtained using natural dyes. Water from Paris for example, is hard (high in mineral content), while water from New York is soft (low mineral content). If you boil an avocado seed with each of these waters, the one boiled with water from Paris will yield somewhat of a magenta hue, while the one using water from New York will create a soft pink. The alkalinity of the water and other properties will also affect color, which creates infinite color possibilities. For the past year I have been collecting water samples from around the world and testing the colors I can get from them using avocado seeds and exploring how water quality varies in different cities around the world and also using household items like lime-juice and baking soda to shift the pH of my water and obtain then different colors.
The conditions of the soil where the plant grows affect the color; plants that grow in dry areas yield the most intense hues. Last year in a workshop in the south of Italy we used seeds from Israeli avocado seeds and they yielded an almost bubblegum pink.
Have you experimented dyeing with other natural elements? How does your process differ?
Yes, I’m always experimenting with different plants and different processes depending on the project. I use avocados for my personal projects and other plants for commissioned work or workshops.
The dyeing process is somewhat similar, but what differs the most is the reason to choose a plant over the other. For my commissioned work, I prioritize using plants that are high in tannin, as they yield the best, most stable colors. This includes bark from different trees, walnut shells, pomegranate skins and avocado seeds. Flowers for example, don’t provide very stable colors, so I use them only for workshops, where process is the focus, not a finished product.
For workshops, I prioritize using plants that are well-known, like avocado seeds, onion skins, walnut shells, pinecones, turmeric and flowers, so people can truly connect. In this instances I also look for different angles that allow exploring the rich history of natural dyes and will help people see them for the cultural relevance that they provide, not only as a shortcut to sustainability.
After a year of reading, we did our first experiments with onion skins and avocado seeds, using the plants only. The results were incredible. It felt like magic. I became obsessed with natural dyes and started doing many experiments with different plants, wondering what colors were hidden in them.
Community plays a large role in what you do: You lead workshops around the city where you teach others about the natural dyeing process, you host Parsons design students in your studio weekly to expand their understandings of design and natural dyes, and last year you partnered with A/D/O, a collaborative workspace and gallery in Greenpoint that hosted your first presentation. How has your community helped you grow as a designer?
One of the things I feel the most satisfied to have built with Fragmentario is the community around it. Since the beginning it has attracted people with a radical curiosity that transcends age, socioeconomic status or line of work. This diversity has helped me understand what are the core ideas that are crucial to my work while also challenging me to be more creative and look for different angles that might be engaging depending on each person’s particular life experience.
Where do you seek inspiration for your work?
I don’t consciously seek inspiration, but I am a very curious person so I end up finding inspiration everywhere. I’m very process and material driven, so all my ideas develop from there. A lot of the times I feel I have the pieces of a puzzle without knowing how it will look like, until one day I do and it comes together very naturally. That moment is always very exciting.
Ahuacatl, my first collection, started from wanting to explore avocados as if I was not from Earth and was learning about them for the first time. This was inspired by my initial experience with natural dyes and realizing plants had many secrets. And then, while I was working on that project, I was doing a series of workshops in Europe using avocado seeds. Since the water quality was different in each place, the color shifted each time and made me think about water, which then inspired Rosa Terráqueo. Both these projects have already informed what’s next.
If you can talk about it: Tell us about your current collaborations and what you have in store for the future.
I recently spent a month in Japan where I had an exhibition at Yamamoto-Seika, a former rice cracker factory turned project space/space project. I was showing there the works from Rosa Terráqueo: clothing, videos, photos, music, inspiration, etc. I also did a performance that allowed for a more intuitive approach than the regular workshop format. Exploring these ideas of natural dyes, water exploration and all their ramifications, but without language. The team behind Yamamoto-Seika really challenged me to explore new angles to tell the stories behind this project and to stay open about the type of work I can do with Fragmentario.
I have been working very slowly on a project that will be the final piece of a trilogy along with Ahuacatl and Rosa Terráqueo. It’s using core elements from those two projects but in a different way that it’s taking me longer to understand.
I have been working for the past year doing research and color development for two projects that will use natural dyes at a larger scale than I am used to. I feel they would reimage how natural dyes can co-exist with current times, so I’m excited!