30.10.22 Plant People

Georgia Hilmer: Can you explain what you do and when you started doing it?

Cara Marie Piazza: I'm a natural dyer, somewhere between an artist and an artisan. I work with designers, artists, and interior designers to naturally dye their goods, everything from one-of-a-kind wedding gowns to 300 pieces of solid-dyed garments. I also teach online workshops and in-person classes. I've been doing this for about eleven years and I would say successfully as a business for about six. 40% of my work load is production for other brands, 40% is educational workshops – in-person and online (I also do internal workshops for more corporate clients) – and then the other 20% of the time I'm making my own products and focusing on selling those.

Can you give me an overview of what the natural dye world is like right now and how it has changed in the last ten years in terms of the size and the scope and who's making what?

It has grown exponentially in the last ten years. There are some heavy hitters in the natural dye community, like Maiwa and Botanical Colors, that sell natural dyes and also teach. There's Winona from Green Matters Natural Dye Company who runs a natural dye facility that has the big equipment for large scale dyeing that you would also see in a synthetic dye house.

I would love to see synthetic dye houses becoming more hybrid. NJL, a standard dye house here in New York, was super generous and let me work out of their space during the pandemic. That really opened my eyes to what the possibilities are for retrofitting the industry to work in a more sustainable way. I think that sometimes in the sustainability movement there's this really terrible purist mentality. People get lost thinking that things need to be 100% sustainable or they shouldn’t do anything at all, you know? I'm hoping as the demand for natural dyes grows, we start finding solutions that are a bit more hybrid. How can we use what we have and reimagine it in a way that's a little bit more holistic?

I can hear in my mind the kind of language around sustainability and purity that you’re talking about. I think it alienates a lot of people and makes them feel so guilty about not overhauling their entire lives that they end up paralyzed with anxiety or anger, doing nothing. Did you feel like a purist at one point and then you came to the hybrid position or have you always been a little bit mix and match?

You know, I am going to be honest with you, I think I wanted to be a purist. But there’s this idea that it’s always the person that's up on the soapbox who probably needs to listen to their own message most. That “he who throws the first stone thing.” I'm glad that you're asking me this. Because I work with natural dyes, there are a lot of assumptions placed on me: that I'm vegan, that I was born in a grassy knoll. No, I was actually born and bred in New York City. Sometimes I wear an acrylic nail. I will drink Coca Cola from time to time. Do you know what I'm saying? I would love to be fully transparent about that. I think that's what helps actually push the needle forward.

We should be trying to make better consumer choices — but the truth is there aren't that many consumer choices that make a huge difference. We have to attack the megalith, the huge industries. Change has to come from all angles; you make as many incremental changes as you can. If you really want to change the world: don't buy clothes. There's no such thing as “ethical consumerism.” It's an oxymoron. But we love clothes; we’re not, as a whole population, going to stop buying them. It's silly to think that that's going to happen.

Can you talk a little bit about education and educating the consumer both in terms of the workshops you teach and helping people understand how clothes are made, whether they're the ones you're selling or other people's products?

You have to tell people about the the nuances of how pH can change color, how so many different variables go into making a color, the ingredients that are used to make color, explaining the terroir of natural dyes and how colors can be different when the dye stuff is grown in different places. All of that creates this new world around what it means to make color and that is really exciting for me.

I think it honestly comes down to storytelling. As humans that's one of our greatest capacities: we love stories. I think that's part of the magic of having a brand or being an artist: you're communicating a story. What I see teaching classes is the stress relief on people's faces when they are playing with the plants in a creative way. That has been really rewarding. From an educational standpoint, I think that we're so caught up in feeling that when we are creative there has to be a financial outcome attached to it. Or an outcome at al! As if the creativity needs to go somewhere. I think giving people the opportunity to just play for three hours with plants and not be graded is really healing and rewarding.

What's one of the major things you wish people understood about the clothing industry and the natural dye corner of it?

I think one of the really important things that needs to be spoken about is the concept of scaling natural dyes. Corporations are monopolizing entire industries. Natural dyes really shouldn't be applied as a sustainable solution in the same inherently toxic and capitalist framework.

Like there just isn't enough natural dye capacity in the world to replace all the synthetic dyeing that happens?

It's not that there isn't enough. It's that the tool shouldn't be applied in the same way, if that makes sense. For me a dream would be if there were local dye houses all over the US that were run on local watersheds. Kind of like the slow food movement: if you eat local, you dye local. There's an amazing woman called Rebecca Burgess who created something called the fiber shed where she made all of her clothes within her watershed. We're not going to apply that to the entire industry but you could figure out a way to do something like a hybrid, or capsules of clothing that were New York drops, for example, or LA drops, or maybe even like South Carolina drops.

Natural dyeing right now is a cottage industry. I think most people think of it existing on the “craft” spectrum. What does that mean to you? Do you have an opinion about the value that the term “craft” signifies? As in craft vs. high fashion or craft vs. art?

Oof. Yeah, I do have opinions. I feel like the theme of this conversation is the hybrid. I'm really trying to break out of the stereotype with natural dyes. When you think about this “sustainable” or “craft” cottage movement, you think about the forest and little mushroom toadstools, burlap bags, crunchy granola. Those things are all awesome and have a place but I think that we’re starting to see that natural dyeing belongs at all price points, even up into the high end realm. The truth is, if I were to hand dye tons of yarn, that should command a couture price point because that’s a highly skilled art form. If something is not beautiful, it inherently is not going to be sustainable because nobody wants it. We don't need to flood the market with 100 naturally dyed burlap bags, right?

That’s a very interesting point: the thing that someone does not want to buy is not a sustainable thing, no matter how it's made.

100%. Humans are attracted to beautiful things. If you make something that isn't a hit, you just accidentally created a bunch of inventory that’s not gonna get used. And then what was the point of that?

I think the things you're hopefully trying to triangulate are: What do I want? What do other people want? And what is good for the world?

And like, is it necessary? Honestly one of the reasons why I stopped making my clothing under my own “brand” was because I was like, “Why am I doing this?” I had to sit with myself and really ask myself. I realized that if I do want to be participating and making things I have to have more impact. And that can be by helping other brands become a little bit more sustainable by naturally dyeing their clothing. I think that collaboration is really where you start seeing new technologies emerge.