Garden features Plants for making or dyeing clothes

Perhaps one of the most fascinating gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show was ‘A Textile Garden for the Fashion Revolution’. Created by a horticulturist Lottie Delamain, this unique garden only had plants that could be used to make or dye clothes. At a time when most of our wardrobes are full of synthetic fabrics and colors, it’s important and refreshing to remember the power of plants to dress us.

“A Textile Garden” enters a new category at last month’s annual flower show called “All About Plants,” which aims to tell stories about plants. Delamain, who was a fashion designer before converting to garden design, is well placed to be this storyteller.

She told Treehugger: “The crossover between these two disciplines has always interested me. While trekking in Vietnam, I met families growing plants to make their clothes and I was so inspired by the closeness between what they grow and what they wear, and how intimately they understood where their clothes came from – a long way from where we are in the west.”

Thanks to funding from Project Giving Back, Delamain chose fashion revolution to be her charity partner, as her #whatsinmyclothes campaign echoed the key message of her garden design. She explained: “The garden was made up entirely of plants that could be used as dye or fiber and designed to look and feel like textiles, with a large-scale textile installation in the garden to illustrate the connection between plants and textiles.”

This was achieved by planting blocks of distinct colors to give the impression of a woven fabric. Shallow reflecting pools were meant to resemble dye baths, some with natural dye-absorbing fibers or fabrics. The plantations were separated by a series of paved “seams” in the ground. The overall goal was to help viewers “reconnect plants and textiles, reveal the beauty of plant dyes and fibers, and sow a seed of curiosity for what we wear”.

Readers may be surprised by the colors given off by some plants. Like Delamain told the Guardian, “Willow does a beautiful pink color, which you wouldn’t expect.” Tulips produce a vivid green. Others make more sense, like marigolds in orange, onion skins in yellow, fennel flower heads in sage green, and cornflower heads in blue.

Dyeing with plants is also not difficult. “You literally get leaves, throw them in a pot, put the T-shirt on and off you go. Some plants are permanent on their own, but for others you add a mordant, which fixes the dye to the clothes. (from the Guardian). This, Delamain said, is really fun and adds interest to an otherwise generic garment. “You’ve invested time in dyeing your own top, you have a little story about it and it’s so nice. A little more interesting than just buying something from Zara.”

Britt Willoughby Dyer


Treehugger has previously written about the terrible environmental impact of conventional textile production and dyeing methods. The fashion industry accounts for just under 35% of global microplastic pollution, with around 700,000 microfibers released with every load of laundry. Despite this, only 21% of fashion brands have a concrete plan to reduce microfiber pollution. This, of course, could be partly mitigated by consumers shunning synthetic fabrics and opting for natural fabrics like linen, as Delamain’s garden exemplifies.

As for dyeing, 25% of the chemicals produced in the world are used to make clothes, and many of them are used to dye fabrics. An estimated 60-70% of dyes contain heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, tin, cobalt, lead, and chromium, and various energy-intensive processes are required to attach these dyes to the material. Any molecules that are not fixed are released into waterways, creating visible pollution in many rivers, especially in Asia, where communities suffer from the effects of exposure to these chemicals.

As with microplastics, brand efforts to address this issue are minimal. A press release provided to Treehugger states: “More than 15,000 chemicals may be used during the textile manufacturing process, from raw materials to dyeing and finishing, yet only 30% of brands disclose their commitment to eliminate ‘use of dangerous chemicals in our clothes.’

We asked Delamain how we got here, how the transition from natural dyes to harmful synthetic dyes happened. She explained:

“Synthetic dyes have been around for about 150 years, starting with William Henry Perkin in 1856 who accidentally synthesized a purple dye while trying to make quinine. However, it wasn’t until 50 years from now that synthetic dyes became industrialized and widespread, as well as the discovery of synthetic fibers like nylon that were more difficult to dye with natural dyes.It was widely used by industrialists like Thomas Wardle, who collaborated with William Morris, during the height of the Arts & Crafts.

When asked if natural dyes were a realistic option for commercial production, Delamain said yes, they could be. “We are aware of various commercial studios that practice natural dyeing commercially, for example, Cloth Collective, which recently collaborated with Edward Bulmer Paints and Anna Mason London.”

There may be less consistency in the appearance of natural dyes, but Delamain doesn’t see that as a deterrent. “There is color variation, which can be approached in two ways. Either celebrate it! Or experienced dye masters like Kate Turnbull, who is head of the studio at Cloth, have the knowledge to mitigate it. On a commercial scale, consistency is achieved with very strict and detailed dye recipes.”

Mordants are substances necessary to fix the dyes on the fabrics in order to prevent them from washing out. Even these can be eco-friendly. Delamain recommended several natural mordants, including soybeans, rhubarb leaves, oak galls, staghorn sumac leaves.

“There’s a huge growing community of dyers and creatives with so much energy and expertise working in this area right now, it’s so exciting to see,” she told Treehugger. “What I’d like to see is for a university to take research into natural dyes to take it to the next level – find a way to synthesize natural dyes the same way they did compounds natural products used in the pharmaceutical industry, so that they can be deployed on a much larger scale.”

In the meantime, her textile garden at the flower show has surely done a lot to educate visitors about what’s possible in their own gardens. A press release describes the garden’s goals as (a) helping people feel inspired by the many plants that can be used to make natural dyes and fibers, (b) encouraging them to try DIY dyeing at home. house or even create a mini dye garden, and (c) having them think about what plants they do or don’t carry and asking them #whatsinmyclothes? Clearly, the approach worked, as the garden won a silver medal at the show this year.

Delamain’s dream of continuing research will come true, as the Textile Garden is transferred to Headington School in Oxford, where Kate Turnbull, the aforementioned expert dyer and head of fashion and textile design, has developed a new curriculum for the ‘utilize. In a article for the fashion revolutionTurnbull explained, “[The garden] will become a permanent feature of the school and will also have a working dye garden where students can source dye materials for the Eco Textiles course and learn about gardening.”

In a time when more and more people are asking where their food comes from, it makes sense that they’re starting to wonder where their clothes come from. These also exist in close contact with our bodies for long periods of time and have a large environmental footprint. Like food, it is possible to choose clothes that do less harm to the world. To quote Rebecca Burgess from fiber shed, a US-based organization that champions local fiber systems, “Fashion is an agricultural choice.” Every time you buy something, you choose between biosphere (agricultural production) or lithosphere (the earth’s crust that provides fossil fuels for synthetics).

Delamain’s textile garden reminds us of the same thing: there are far better, healthier and prettier options for dressing ourselves than the cheap plastic clothes on sale everywhere we look. Choose wisely. Think about plants.

About Lucille Thompson

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