The Wisdom Of Natural Dye: Q+A With Özge Horasan of Sat-su-ma
Have you ever wanted to find out more about natural dyes? I have! So when I got introduced to the plant-dyed organic clothing line Sat-su-ma, I used my chance and asked label founder Özge Horasan everything that I had ever wanted to know. And I was lucky as Özge is an expert in her field. Before she started her own clothing brand in a small town on the Aegean coast of Turkey, she studied botany in Ankara. But it is not just her knowledge of the art of natural dye that Özge shares with us in this interview. We talk about what it takes to build a sustainable wardrobe, and discuss how to envision a life that fulfils our emotional needs and is in balance with nature.
Özge, you started experimenting with natural dyes in 2013 when you moved to the Aegean coast of Turkey. What initiated your fascination with natural dyes?
When I first came to Seferihisar, which is a small town in the rural zone of Izmir, I had no idea what I would do in this new place that was such an unusual environment for me. Actually, there was nothing unusual about it, but I simply wasn’t used to it. I was spending a lot of my time on my own, on the internet, taking short walks, and I slowly realised that nature is a vast source of inspiration.
I knew that I wanted to work with my hands but I didn’t know what to do yet. Then one day - I was scrolling through Pinterest - a simple natural dyeing recipe popped up out of nowhere. The next day, I already had my to-do-list and the materials for my natural dyeing experiments ready. It happened so quickly because I instantly knew it was my thing. Also, I was in the perfect environment for natural dyeing. I had a garden that I could use for my witch craft, and an endless source of wild plants that I could create my dyes from.
Anatolia is a great source for natural dyeing. In some villages, people still make carpets out of wool that they naturally dye. The plant diversity is huge here. I heard from some people that are my age, that when they were kids they had watched their grandma’s natural dyeing. It is an artisanship that can still be traced back. I kind of feel like I’m channelling an ancient wisdom into modern times. So maybe my fascination dates back thousands of years ago, I don’t know.
Most people don’t know much about the negative impact of synthetic dyes. Could you explain to us why synthetic dyes are harmful? What are the advantages of using natural dyes?
I was baffled when I first realised how quickly synthetic dyes had replaced natural dyes in the textile industry. It was only in the late 19th century when the first man-made synthetic dyes started to be used. Nowadays, we don’t even recall that once all dyes were obtained naturally. Like many other industry inventions, synthetic dyes have managed to dominate the scene so quickly, because they were cheaper, easier and faster to apply and stronger than their natural counterparts.
But despite them looking like the ultimate solution for our growing demands, it turns out that they are actually costing us more. Today, the global textile industry discharges 40.000 to 50.000 tons of dye into the water systems every year. There are more than ten thousand synthetic dyes commercially available, and experts estimate that 12 to 15 percent of these toxic dyes are emitted as liquid waste or sewage during the dyeing and finishing processes. These effluents leach into the soil and they stay in the ecosystem. One more statistics to add, 20 percent of all fresh water pollution is caused by textile treatment and dyeing. If we consider that millions of people don’t even have access to clean water, such an act of destruction can’t be rationalised.
This is just a quick summary from an environmental point of view. There is also the impact on individuals. Textile workers working with synthetic dyes show skin irritations, respiratory problems, allergic reactions and these are just the innocent diseases. Synthetic dyes have carcinogenic implications. I can’t say anything about how wearing a piece of synthetically dyed clothing affects our body because I haven’t read any scientific papers about it. But I guess we can imagine the potential risks.
On the other hand, with natural dyes, none of the above happens. Natural dyes are genuinely organic, no toxic chemicals are needed in the dye process, and they biodegrade. And I think they look amazing.
You mentioned that natural dyes have healing properties. Could you give us some insights?
First of all, natural dyes can be obtained from plants, fungi, lichens, invertebrates and minerals. I’ve been mostly working with plant dyes so I’ll be referring to them. Natural dyes are organic compounds that often function as secondary metabolites in the plant body. It means that they have actual roles in the plant metabolism. They can be antioxidants, anti-pathogenics, antiseptics or they enhance survival through tough times. So, imagine when you wear naturally dyed clothes that you basically carry those molecules on your clothes and skin. Not only are they a product of nature that has been very well designed through hundreds of thousands of years, but they are also really badass. I believe they positively affect our emotions, too, but I can’t prove it, of course.
Once you start working with natural dyes, you soon realise that you need to grow self-discipline in order to be able to commit yourself to an artisanship. As modern folks, we depend on the ready-made and don’t really know the labour behind the things we consume. And, I think, this creates an emotional numbness. Committing yourself to a craft, on the other hand, is a way of teaching yourself about patience, concentration, practical thinking, as well as listening to your intuition. It’s a kind of meditation. When you work with natural dyes, it connects you to nature, and you start looking for colours everywhere. It takes you outside, to the park, to the woods or to your garden. You become curious about which colour you can obtain from a tree’s bark, from a plant’s root, or that gorgeous flower in your garden. You learn the names of the plants around you, and you might start growing them, as well. Natural dyeing connects you to an aspect of nature whilst letting you create beautiful colours, patterns and artworks. I guess this is why I find it healing, as well.
You hand-dye your garments in your studio and now use an innovative new method called cold dyeing. How does cold dyeing differ and what makes it especially environmentally friendly?
The traditional method of natural dyeing involves hours of fabric boiling. And this requires a lot of energy - you have to burn coal, wood, or gas. If you are natural dyeing as a hobby, it’s okay, but for making products, it’s not. So it was bothering me for a while and I was looking for solutions in order to reduce my carbon footprint. One day, I was talking to my organic indigo supplier in India to make an order and he mentioned their patented new method for natural dyeing that involves no heat. I was instantly interested, as you can imagine. So I made an order for their GOTS certified plant dyes such as pomegranate, madder and cutch, along with the indigo, and the auxiliaries that are used in the cold dyeing process.
In the traditional method, mordants, that are mostly non-toxic salts (alum for example), are used to fix the colour on the fabric. In cold dyeing, you use organic polymers. The results are slightly different but still beautiful. Cold dyeing doesn’t involve boiling and the whole process lasts for only a couple of hours, which makes it more sustainable and more suitable for large productions. Personally, I would say that traditional natural dyeing is a work of art. Cold dyeing with plant dyes, on the other hand, is great for producing larger quantities. That’s why I keep them separate in my natural dyeing practice.
How does a natural dyeing day in your studio look like? Could you describe me your work process from plants to colours?
Sure. I start a natural dyeing day with an oatmeal & coffee breakfast in the studio, because I need a lot of energy. The first thing I do is picking the colour (or colours, but I usually just pick one) that I’m working with on that day. For my latest collection, Earthly Delight, I used four colours that I call straw, sand, dusty rose, and sky blue. They are made from pomegranate peels, the bark of an Acacia tree called cutch, and indigo.
After specifying the colour, I weigh each piece that I am going to dye and I note down the weight. I make all the necessary calculations, such as how much dye and water I need to use and how long each step will take. I keep notebooks in which I write all the details about each dye session and the experiments that I make. And I only use a pencil for that - it would be suicide using a pen since I work with water (yes, it’s a tip!). After I’ve planned each and every detail, I start with the process. The process involves five steps and each one takes 20 to 45 minutes. It starts with the pre-treatment in the morning, followed by dyeing, and it ends with the soaping and softening.
In total, it nearly takes all day and I prefer doing only one batch of dyeing in a day. It’s an intense process, you are in charge all the time and must control every tiny detail, which makes you feel exhausted at the end. So in the evening, after hanging the last piece on the rack for drying, I try to reward myself with a glass of wine, a good meal, good company, or a session of yoga.
I read that you grew up in Ankara and that you studied botany. Could you tell me more about your background and how your studies influenced your path?
Yes, I’m from the Turkish capital in central Anatolia. I studied biology in college, which gave me a vast amount of insight and fascination with nature. Then, I took my master’s degree in botany, in plant physiology to be more specific, which is basically about working with a plant’s metabolism and its inner chemistry. For my thesis, I worked both in the lab and on the field, and gained the skills and the methodology of a controlled experiment, reading scientific papers, analytical thinking and interpreting the results.
I would definitely say that without this prior knowledge, I would be lost in natural dyeing. In order to understand the dynamics of natural dyeing, not completely but at least to a certain degree, I made controlled experiments and read anything that I could find on the internet, be it DIY blogs or scientific papers, anything. After six months of work, I became capable of obtaining a rainbow of colours from the plants around me and from around the world, and of successfully binding them onto fibres such as cotton, linen and silk. I guess, without my scientific background, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it in the same way.
Do you remember what triggered your environmental awareness?
As far as I remember, I was a caring and thoughtful kid but I would say that my environmental awareness has grown gradually. The first thing that I learned when studying biology was that I’m not the one and only, the most precious child of the universe. I’m just one of many and I have to act accordingly. This has established the basis of my environmental awareness, I would say. Also, in college, I’ve learned about the magnificent harmony of nature, which is an evolutionary masterpiece, and how we destroy it recklessly. I don’t want to be a part of this destruction, and not just because it will destroy us eventually. Nature simply doesn’t deserve it, and I don’t have the right to it. After I started working with natural dyes, I’ve also become more aware of the impacts of the textile industry on nature and on people.
What or who inspires your designs?
I’m a bit obsessed about the future, actually. Not in my own daily life, not in a practical sense. I am obsessed with our future on Earth. I have fantasies about how we will be living, eating, working, thinking, feeling and of course, dressing in the future. They are probably too idealistic, and I won’t be able to see any of them in my lifetime, but who cares. They are my motivation.
I make clothes for a woman who has an agenda of her own and follows her ideals. Who is seeking or has achieved inner peace and self-reliance that she lives with her own codes. Who has an active daily life, not only, or necessarily, in a social way, but especially physically. She creates, she loves and nurtures, she is strong, courageous and compassionate, she touches feelings and knows how to deal with them. To be more precise, she has recognised the goddess in herself and knows how to honour her. She is my inspiration and I know that she is everywhere. And in the future, I believe she will be manifesting herself more freely.
Do you have some advice for building a sustainable wardrobe? What is important to consider?
I think the most important thing to consider is your own conscience. Because the ultimate sustainable product does not exist and there isn’t one perfect sustainable wardrobe formula that fits for all. It’s a multifaceted concept. I’m saying this because sometimes it becomes paralysing if you try to do the one best thing. You may end up exhausted and unmotivated and give up entirely. Instead, doing the best you can is always enough.
I think, in order to form any kind of new habit, knowledge is key. Without truly knowing why you should build a sustainable wardrobe, how your clothes are produced, where all those materials come from, and the true cost of one simple piece of clothing, you just can’t comprehend the necessity. It’s not a trend that all the cool kids do. It’s too much effort for a shallow approach. Any attempt that is not focusing on the facts will eventually fail.
So, at the beginning, I would recommend a good research, that will serve as a strong basis for your own rules. Once you’ve done this, you will realise that even when you have a crush on an item of clothing and it doesn’t meet your sustainability criteria, you just won’t buy it. You will feel like it’s not worth it and this becomes your norm.
When you are building your sustainable wardrobe, you need to start with those items that you no longer wear. Those items will be like a mirror of the person that you once were, but no longer are. In order to be a conscious consumer and avoid garment waste, refining your sense of style is crucial. And this part is very personal. I’ve been building my own sustainable wardrobe for a while, as well, and it takes time. You can’t just dump all of your clothes and buy new sustainable ones. I’ve re-evaluated every piece I own. Then, I either decided to keep the item or find a way to reuse, recycle or donate it and replace it with a new one that meets at least one of my sustainability criteria and that I’m completely comfortable with. I say ‘at least’ because as I mentioned, there is barely a perfect product. For example - you love a t-shirt and it says that the company will donate half of the price for helping refugees. Okay, this is great. But it’s not organic, which means that some pesticides have interfered in the process. In this case, I would advise you to trust in your own criteria and just do what feels best for you. You’ll be serving a good cause either way.
What materials do you choose for your collection and why, and where do you source them?
I use Aegean-grown organic cotton that I supply locally. Although cotton is natural and biodegradable, its impact on nature becomes pretty dirty, if it’s not organic. Pesticide and insecticide usage for conventional cotton cultivation pollutes our water and soil, damages ecosystems and kills farmers. Organic cotton cultivation, on the other hand, involves no chemicals. So, I think it’s crucial to choose organic for cotton.
The fabric I used for my latest collection, Earthly Delight, is a super soft cotton jersey that is a 95% organic cotton and 5% lycra blend. Cotton is a great natural fibre that is absorbent and breathable, but garments, especially pants, that are made from combed cotton jersey can lose their form and start to look old and weary through time. Adding lycra prevents this from happening for an extended period of time, which means it improves the durability and prolongs the lifespan of the garment. And I think this makes the product more sustainable.
Where does your production take place, and what is your relationship with your producers?
I work with a prestigious local company that accounts for fair wages and standardised safe working conditions. It is 40 km away from my studio. This is a great advantage because, during the production stage I need to visit the factory several times. Throughout these visits, we have developed a close relationship and I’ve received their supervision several times. They like my project since a piece of garment that is plant-dyed and made of organic cotton is like the ultimate organic piece of clothing that can be produced.
Where do you see Sat-su-ma in the future? What are your plans and your dreams?
I’m not sure that I’m able to render my dreams into a realistic business plan yet since I’m not originally from the fashion industry. But, I want Sat-su-ma to suggest a solution for good garment making. I don’t really feel the need to satisfy any materialistic desire. I simply intend to create garments that are beautiful and honest and there to keep. I also hope I can pave the way for naturally-dyed clothing. These are my dreams.
In the future, I would like to work with more plant colours, new sustainable fabrics and more sizes. It would be great making clothes for men and children, too. But to accomplish that, I first need to reach more people in the world. So, basically, this is my plan for the near future.
How could you imagine a way of living that preserves the ecological balance of our beautiful planet whilst it fulfils our emotional needs?
Well, I think, there is only one answer to that: we consume less but wise. We don’t really need most of the things that we believe we do. It’s a kind of misconception between our emotional needs and how we can meet them. Our planet doesn’t have endless resources to support our emotionally unstable consumption habits forever. So, we have two options here. Either, we keep on ignoring and denying emotional growth, by not caring and destroying, until we go extinct. Or, we take on responsibility, identify our true needs and search for new ways to fulfil them. New ways that involve giving as much as taking. When we observe nature, we can easily notice that this is the number one principle of its harmony. So, I basically imagine a future that is more connected to nature, mentally, spiritually and practically.
Our daily lives would probably become more autonomous by producing solar energy, growing food, creating household consumables, clothes, art, etc. and more interconnected with our fellows. I believe, this is how we could reclaim our creative force, where the true emotional fulfilment lies. If we have any future on this planet, I think it depends on this.
Thank you so much for this truly inspiring interview, Özge!