A colourful story of natural, plant-based dyeing in Hong Kong

As we refresh our closets with the season’s hottest colours, we need to remind ourselves that textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water in the world. Though it seems unrealistic to completely replace the highly cost-effective chemical dyes with natural ones derived from plants, it’s time for us to think about the individual actions we can take to lessen our impact on the environment with the aim of driving sustainable consumption. Choosing naturally dyed garments is always a good start.

Surprisingly, there are a number of natural dye workshops in Hong Kong where speed is everything, offering a valuable opportunity for city dwellers to get a closer look at the true, beautiful colours of plants. To explore the possibilities of natural dyeing in the city, we paid a visit to two dye workshops showcasing different styles and approaches.

Dyelicious House

Turning food waste into dye while growing indigo for a self-sufficient operation

Large quantities of food end up in landfills every day in an affluent city like Hong Kong. Instead of throwing it away, people like Eric turn food waste into dye. As the first natural dye workshop making use of leftover vegetables, Dyelicious House insists on using 100% natural materials despite the fact that natural dyes have a hard time binding to fabrics. Eric, the founder of Dyelicious House, spent six years experimenting how to get a variety of colours from vegetable waste collected from wet markets and supermarkets.

A university graduate of environmental studies on top of his science background, Eric set foot in the fabric dyeing industry with a focus on environmental protection. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the collection of food waste has become limited. With less raw materials to use and more time to spend, he decided to grow indigo on his own attempting self-sufficiency for his indigo dyeing profession.

To ensure colour consistency, it is essential to keep stirring from time to time as the indigo sediment sinks.

From learning the history of indigo planting in Hong Kong and the traditions of indigo dyeing, rolling up his sleeves to plant indigo to making the blues, Eric gets involved in every single step as he believes it is the only way to make the best indigo dye and to strive for improvement, backed by a thorough understanding of the whole process and in-depth knowledge. Located in Sheung Shui, the indigo field produces three crops a year with each about 600 kilograms. The harvest is enough to produce dyes for the workshop’s own use and also for sale as dye kits and packs.

Many processes are involved in turning indigo plants, which look no different from ordinary green leaves, into dyes.

At present, Dyelicious House pushes forward dyeing with indigo and food respectively at the workshops in JCCAC and PMQ. The two workshops offer a range of dyeing experience and artisan certificate programmes, passing on the knowledge of natural dye in a systematic way.

Bring the experience of natural dyeing into your home with this DIY indigo dye kit.

Giants Tie Dye

How a Hong Kong-Taiwan couple leaves it all to the destiny, from stilt walking, tofu selling to dyeing

It all began with the love story of Siu from Hong Kong and Josh from Taiwan which had nothing to do with dyeing or art. They met in New Zealand and kicked off their journey as companions. Later in Taiwan, they earned their livelihoods from performing stilt walkabout and selling tofu snacks, while falling head over heels in love with dyeing and practising hard despite their busy schedules.

Eco Prints usually showcase clear silhouettes of the plants, while Siu’s artistic works are infused with a sense of abstraction.

The snack stall was shut down after only four months of operation as this couple found a common goal – a passion for the art of dyeing – and established Giants Tie Dye in 2014. In the earlier days, they participated in all kinds of artisanal markets in Hong Kong and Taiwan, laying a strong foundation of their skills thanks to repeated rounds of dyeing. With Josh’s exceptional craftsmanship and experience in crafting large-scale installations and Siu’s eye for detail, this couple went beyond dyed products, putting on their first installation exhibition two years later and working on many multi-arts projects afterwards.

Dyeing solutions made with different materials at different temperatures in different time periods have their own characteristics. Experiments are necessary to test the look and feel of the finished products.

During that time, Giants Tie Dye made use of chemical dyes for a wider array of colours and created many signature pieces. In early 2016, they tried using coffee grounds and other natural dyes. Since then they have been deeply moved by the vitality brought by the connection of natural dyes and the earth, making a complete shift towards the use of natural materials. As these two types of dyeing techniques are totally different, the couple once again embarked on a journey of learning and explored the various possibilities of natural dyeing.

Chestnut shells are food waste in many people’s eyes but they are in fact the best material according to fabric dyeing artisans.

Lately, they even took on the challenge to use locally grown indigo to make dyes, creating a deep, intense blue in their wooden dyeing vat. Siu’s recent masterpieces are Eco Prints which transfer the veins of leaves and petals onto the fabric with the use of dyeing techniques. A sense of the wholeness of life is conveyed through the abstract and poetic aesthetic of her work.

Since making her own blues, Siu deeply understands that each and every drop of natural dye is precious.