This oh so colorful interview, takes a look inside the inspiration of two natural dye masters, marigold lovers and plant foragers, Elissa and Mira. The wizards behind: Blue, Red, Yellow.
We couldn’t be more excited to announce our upcoming project with them: a series of hand-dyed bandanas. Coming to Nativen soon!
Prepare to be inspired by their journey, from California hippie town to Philadelphia swimming holes.
Nativen: First off, where are you both from?
Elissa: I’m originally from Minnesota. A small town, about an hour north of Minneapolis.
Mira: I am originally from California. I was born in San Rafael, but I grew up in Point Reyes Station.
Nativen: How do you think growing up in Minneapolis or Point Reyes influenced your choice to start doing dyeing?
Elissa: I was definitely influenced by the folk school I attended in Grand Marais Minnesota. It was there that I signed up for one of their natural dye classes and fell in love. I really enjoyed the color aspect of the natural dyes, and having the freedom to go and forage the plants on the Gunflint Trail; it’s really beautiful up there.
Nativen: That sounds fantastic. What a great way to explore that area and be able to go out into the wild and forage for things.
How about you, Mira? What influenced your choice to start doing dyeing?
Mira: Growing up in Point Reyes was a really beautiful and natural area. It was also known as the land where hippies went to retire. I went to an alternative education school called the Waldorf School for the first two years. Because my mom was a big plant lover, I started to really be interested in plants and I worked for the Park Service a couple of summers while I was in high school. I became familiar with all of the different types of plants and the natural dyes they would produce and ever since I was hooked.
Nativen: Oh, that’s great. Was there a moment where you realized that you wanted to pursue this as a career, or a specific event in your life maybe that influenced choosing this direction?
Elissa: I studied industrial design at the University of the Arts and so I had learned a lot about the product world of things and became interested in sustainable textile design.
After researching in depth the entire process, beginning with the plant source, the milling, the dyeing, the sizing and finishing, and then producing the piece, I realized that there was a disconnect of the color aspect. There’s organic cotton, of course, but it’s dyed with low impact dyes, which are usually just the same as any other synthetic dye. Just doing research and learning about the plants and dyes made me really want to do something that would make a bit of a dent in the textile field. Especially since it’s such a huge industry.
Nativen: Absolutely, that’s fantastic. How about you Mira? Was there a moment where you realized that you wanted to pursue this as a career?
Mira: I really came to this through Elissa. I was doing a project where I was trying to get people to grow marigolds all over Philadelphia, which wasn’t super successful
Elissa: It was for me, cause I got to meet you
Mira: Yeah, a mutual friend of ours knew that Elissa was interested in having lots of marigolds to dye with, so she put us in touch with each other.
Our original thought was that we would grow all of our natural dyes. We thought it would be easy since we had gardening experience and knew of certain places to do our own growing in Philadelphia.
While we did have some success growing, dying, and trying to sustain ourselves proved to be a bigger order than we anticipated. [laughs]
Nativen: You both met in Philly via this happenstantial marigold event?
Mira: Yes… And it turns out we graduated from the University of the Arts, exactly 10 years apart. It’s a small world.
Nativen: It absolutely is. The marigolds were aligned for you.
I guess then this is a twofold question for you. What do you love most about living in New York and how do you think that’s integral to your work?
Elissa: I think it’s been a really great opportunity to be in New York, which is a huge city compared to Philly. For all the people that are interested in natural dyes, or interested in sustainable textile‑related work, it’s that much more elevated here. I also think it’s a really great place to immerse yourself among other people doing this kind of work as well as a place to showcase the work.
Nativen: For you, Mira, how do you think living in Philly is integral to the work that you’re doing now?
Mira: Initially, when we were starting out, Philly has a really great growing community, like urban farming. That was something that we were really pursuing.
I feel pretty rooted there and I have some community there.
Nativen: That’s nice, because community, at least to me, when I think about all of this, and especially, with developing this business, community is a huge aspect of that, to be able to have what it sounds like you do, a community there that you can connect with, whether it’s through the dying or even just personal, is amazing. It’s really important to developing work, that’s exciting. That’s great.
So these are just a couple of rapid‑fire questions.
In New York, what is your favorite restaurant?
Elissa: I live in Ridgewood, and I definitely appreciate the Delight Diner around the corner from me. It’s just this cute little hole in the wall. [laughs] I’ve always been a fan of diners.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite clothing store?
Elissa: I don’t have a favorite, but I like stumbling into the little vintage stores throughout New York.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite park or outdoor space?
Elissa: I live near a little park where all the dogs go to play. I like watching them out there.
Nativen: Is there a hidden gem that you would recommend, or that’s a favorite spot for you in New York?
Elissa: There’s a little dive bar near me I like called the Tavern.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work, in New York?
Elissa: I work a second job at Parsons‑Meares, as their dyer, and I feel like that has been incredibly helpful for me in terms of learning color‑matching and getting to know color at a different level than I had before. It’s a very tricky thing because you’re dealing with plants and they don’t always behave exactly the way you expect.
Plants can be very unpredictable, time‑sensitive, weather‑sensitive, and pH sensitive. The dying process with plants is just overall more complex compared to using synthetic dyes.
They’re divas [laughs]
Nativen: It’s your turn Mira. In Philly, what’s your favorite restaurant?
Mira: Oh gosh. There are so many good restaurants in Philly, but one of my all‑time favorites is this hole‑in‑the‑wall Chinese restaurant called Tasty Place. It’s in the basement of this building in the corner of a supermarket. It’s really good.
Nativen: Those are the best. A diamond in the rough.
Mira: Yes. You don’t go for the atmosphere really, unless you like weird‑smelling basements.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite home goods store in Philly?
Mira: Well, there is a place that sold some of our stuff, called Meadowsweet Mercantile which is pretty awesome.
Nativen: Favorite park or outdoor space in Philly?
Elissa: We’d go to a swimming hole after we worked at the Schuylkill Center at the plot, it’s a secret little spot that we would go and jump in to. [laughs]
Mira: There are few people we told about it…
Nativen: That might be your hidden gem then.
What do you think is the greatest resource to your work in Philly?
Mira: Definitely the community there.
Nativen: This is a question for both of you: this might be asking you to pick your favorite child, but what is your favorite product or piece that you’ve made so far? Maybe it’s something you’re really proud of or just something that was creatively explorative.
Elissa: It’s so exciting every time we get an indigo vat ready to go because our indigo vat, as I mentioned, is a fermentation vat and therefore takes a lot of time. Sometimes, it doesn’t always look perfect, or there’s a smell it has, but when you get it right, that’s definitely when you feel the most proud of your work.
Nativen: That sounds time consuming, but it must be a great feeling when you have the final piece in your hands.
How about you Mira?
Mira: I died a bulk of yarn with some neon green lichen that I collected in California last year, and was able to make a hat with it. It’s actually lost a little bit of its “highlighterness” and is a little more muted now, but I still love the color. They dyes do change and they have a life, which is beautiful. Getting that exact color from this little, crumbly, lichen that you found on the ground is just so exciting.
Nativen: That’s so great, I like that story too.
What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Mira: Every time you hold up something that you finished. It may not be what you were going for, or it may be different than you expected, but it’s always beautiful.
Nativen: What part of the process is the greatest struggle for you?
Elissa: I would say consistency in the color, because they’re sometimes unexpected [the plants]. For us, building a business when we’re trying to do large orders can be a struggle. People like consistency and sometimes the plants don’t always give us the exact same colors. Nevertheless, they’re always natural and beautiful.
Nativen: I can see how that would be difficult.
What’s one thing that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet?
Elissa: I think it’d be super cool to be able to go to different parts of the United States, and learn about the local plant material and their dye capabilities, and then, create a swatch book of the plants that are most known in those specific regions, then make a map of sorts of all the colors that they would create.
That’s a dream…it would take a while to do around the world obviously. [laughs]
Nativen: I feel like you should get a grant to do that and publish it as an educational book.
Mira: That would be so much fun.
Nativen: What destination do you want to travel to and how do you think that might inspire or alter your work?
Mira: I actually know someone who’s from Honduras and she has experience doing natural dyes. It would be really neat to go and learn from them and see the differences in production.
Nativen: That would be incredible.
How about you Elissa? Is there somewhere that you’re passionate about traveling to right now?
Elissa: I’ve always been really passionate about the idea of going to Japan and learning their process of indigo, and just in general shibori techniques.
I feel like I would love to go to India as well for printing reasons because they’re masters at printing with natural dyes.
Nativen: Do you listen to music while you work at all? Is there a song or an artist that you have on heavy rotation or that inspires maybe?
Elissa: It’s different when we were together then when we’re apart, but usually, if we have something we have to work a lot, like a big order and we need to get it done “right now,” I turn on Black Sabbath’s self‑titled, [laughs] and we just dip to Black Sabbath.
Mira: Also to Fleetwood Mac.
Nativen: That’s fantastic. I want to come work in your office.
What are three words that sum up your work?
Elissa: Fun… So much fun!
Mira: Discovery, Vibrancy
Nativen: Is there anything you do with your work to specifically connect with your community?
Elissa: Yeah. We started recently doing a workshop series that we want to host in different art spaces where we utilize the space, and base all the content off natural dyes and the workspace itself.
Nativen: What’s the most helpful advice you’ve received and/or what advice would you give to creatives that are looking to develop their own work?
Mira: One thing that comes to my mind is don’t undersell yourself. Don’t sell yourself short. What you do is hard and has value.
Nativen: Yeah, absolutely. Elissa?
Elissa: Natural dyes are such a holistic form of color that if I get stressed out, I’m like, “Why am I stressed out about this? It’s beautiful color." I want to be one with the color and take it in.
Nativen: That’s an amazing headspace for anyone to be in no matter what the circumstances. You can’t change what actually happens, but you have a choice about how you interpret that experience. To focus your energy on the joy rather than on the stress around your work is a hugely valuable life lesson to work towards.
You can check out more of their work here.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Assistant Editor: Emily Murphy (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images copywright of Nativen