A World of Natural Dyes: The ISEND Experience

Through a generous grant from the Textile Society of America, frequent-flyer miles and additional private support, I was fortunate to attend the International Symposium and Exhibition for Natural Dyes (ISEND 2011) in La Rochelle, France, in late April. Following is an overview I wrote with the SDA community in mind. – Elaine Lipson

Through many years of writing about and making textile art, natural dyeing has always seemed like a niche within a niche, the least likely of textile interests or artisan practices to succeed on a mainstream level. But the 3rd annual ISEND conference, in a new decade when environmental concerns are paramount and technology allows us to share, expand, and reinterpret even the most traditional cultural knowledge, painted a different picture.

Attendees from 58 countries came to La Rochelle—scientists, ethno-botanists, anthropologists, environmentalists, fashion designers, clothing manufacturers, authors, filmmakers, and many artists—to talk and learn about colorants made from plants, insects, earth, and seashells, for use with textiles, cosmetics, and food. The conference included five days of panels and sessions, artist demonstrations, an extensive exhibition of textiles and garments, a day of field trips, a lively marketplace, films, poster presentations, and excellent meals of local seafood with French flair. The breadth of activities was impressive—and a little exhausting—and great credit is due to the volunteer organizers, working on an international scale without the benefit of a trade organization to structure the event.

From the perspective of surface designers and textile/fiber artists and designers, ISEND was a feast of inspiration and possibilities. While the natural dye palette is different from the synthetic dye palette that we’re all accustomed to, it’s no less rich or varied, and many feel that the subtleties and variations possible with natural dyes offer a deeper color experience. For those whose exposure to natural dyes has been limited to indigo or onion skins on the stove top, it’s eye opening to see the full spectrum possible with natural colorants.

Many of the sessions focused on traditional cultures seeking to preserve methods of natural dyeing, often interwoven closely with other aspects of life in indigenous societies and to find new ways to market products dyed with these colorants. Issues of color stability and consistency, plant and water resources, standards and certification, marketing, consumer education and funding are of great importance to the market viability of naturally dyed textiles. There seemed to be a consensus that respect for cultural traditions and rights should go hand in hand with the expansion of the market.

While speakers focused on sociological, anthropological, scientific and cultural explorations, there was a very strong and vital presence of artists working as individuals or small-business entrepreneurs. To name just a few, Trudi Pollard of Australia, Charllotte Kwon of Vancouver (founder of Maiwa Handprints Ltd.), India Flint of Australia, Wendy Weiss of the University of Nebraska and many more exhibited work in the fashion/textile show. Others, such as Catharine Ellis, Jay Rich and Ana Lisa Hedstrom, sold work in the marketplace. Many of these artists also conducted afternoon demonstrations of dyeing and printing techniques. Though tantalizing, the set-up of the demonstration space wasn’t ideal; a more formal workshop sign-up system might have been more effective.

The final day of sessions included an education and marketing-focused panel with Sasha Duerr of Permacouture and Charllotte Kwon of Maiwa, among others. I would have liked to see this panel on the first day of the conference; it framed – in an interesting way – many of the contemporary issues that the natural dye community faces going forward.

With its global participation and its diversity, this was an event like none other in the textile world. Some suggestions for future ISEND conferences that would help to make the most of the passion for natural dyes that was evident in this gathering:

    • With such a wealth of information, identifying the sessions with tracks that guide participants to their area of focus—science, natural dyes in industry, art techniques, marketing, food and cosmetics—would have been useful.
    • As noted, a different setup for the demonstrations would have allowed more people to get their hands in dye.
    • A dynamic keynote speaker to frame the themes of the conference, identify the issues, and inspire attendees on the first day would be a great addition, as well as a closing keynote speaker to offer a summary of the phenomenal amount of knowledge and some take-away ideas.
    • More smaller-sized sessions to allow greater interaction between attendees and speakers.

The future of the natural dye community could go in many directions. Some vocal attendees felt that a primary goal should be attracting industry to using natural dyes on a commercial scale. For that to happen at a greater level, two things are missing from what I saw at ISEND: a clear, quantitative articulation of the environmental benefits of natural dyes compared to synthetic dyes and meaningful market research that shows evidence of significant consumer interest in naturally dyed products plus the willingness to pay more for them.

For textile designers, fiber artists and artisans, however, the good news is unqualified. With innovations such as an online database of dye products and methods on the way – and with more resources, teachers, dyestuffs, and experienced practitioners available than ever before – anyone interested in exploring natural colorants has no reason to wait. Indigo, in particular, seems to be enjoying a widespread renaissance, thanks to the work of artists all over the world hoping to preserve the magic properties and process of indigo plants. But indigo is by no means the only natural dye to present intriguing possibilities.

Knowledge from past traditions, together with the excitement of the contemporary world of the textile arts, will stimulate unlimited creativity in the use of natural dyes.

For more images from the conference (on the ISEND site), click here. The next ISEND conference is rumored to be planned for Hong Kong. For more information, check the ISEND site. A related event in Malaysia is also being discussed. Contact Edric Ong via www.edricong.com.

ARRDHOR – CRITT HORTICOLE www.critt-horticole.com
The Regional Centre for Innovation and Technological Transfer in Horticulture (CRITT) is composed of engineers and scientists. It has been active for 20 years in the field of ornamental horticulture and plant-derived colorants.

CIHAM www.ciham.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr
CIHAM-UMR 5648 is one of the most important research centers in France for the history, literature, and archaeology of the Middle Ages. Dr. Dominique Cardon [head of ISEND conference’s scientific committee] is co-director of Team 1 “Territories-Populations-Material Culture” and is involved in interdisciplinary collaborative research into the history and archaeology of textile techniques and into methods of dyeing with natural dyes and their possibilities for modern application.

Elaine Lipson is a book editor, writer, artist and long-time member of SDA. She originated the concept of a Slow Cloth philosophy of textile art, craft and entrepreneurship via her “Red Thread Studio” blog at lainie.typepad.com and moderates Slow Cloth community page on Facebook. She is also author of The International Market for Sustainable Apparel (Packaged Facts, 2008) and The Organic Foods Sourcebook (Contemporary, 2001) and has written feature articles for Surface Design Journal.


  • Connie Rose says

    July 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Great summary of the event, Elaine. Thanks!

  • Alison Daykin says

    July 22, 2011 at 7:39 am

    Hi Elaine this is really great, thanks for such a clear write up of the event. One thing though, I thought the next official ISEND was in Hong Kong in late December 2012. Best wishes Alison

  • Elaine Lipson says

    July 22, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Alison, thanks for that clarification. You may be right. I was going by what I heard at the conference, but Edric's event in 2012 might be something different than an official ISEND. That's good news, since the excellent TSA Symposium is in September of 2012. Do you have a web site or other info on the Hong Kong ISEND?

  • Hansie Armour says

    July 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Hi Great reading. I missed out being there and will surely go to Hong Kong Am a follower of work done by India Flint we just love the marriage of our eucaluptus with our pure merino wool. Regards Hansie and Thanks

  • Jane says

    July 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I think you are both right about the next ISEND! Malaysia has an ISEND event every year, and has given permission for those symposia that travel outside Malaysia to use the same name (it was their's originally). So there is an ISEND in Malaysia in 2012 and another in Hong Kong at the end of December/beginning of January 2012/13...though there are grumbles about the extra expense that will be generated by flying there over the Western New Year, when flights and hotel accommodation will be at their highest level. At least, that's what I hear...Jane

  • India Flint says

    July 24, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    small correction...Prof Kim in Korea coined the ISEND acronym some years ago and permitted the organisers of La Rochelle to use it. Edric Ong is also using it for his event in Indonesia. It seems that natural dyes are indeed burgeoning in popularity, as there will also be a Natural Dye Symposium held in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia in June-July 2012 kindly sponsored and coordinated by Beautiful Silks www.beautifulsilks.com thanks Elaine for your succinct summary of this year's event

  • anne de la sayette says

    July 25, 2011 at 4:00 am

    As manager of ISEND 2011, I would have appreciated receiving Elaine's comments straight from her as they are very interesting. It would have been fairplay also to have a very little description of the organizers team (CRITT Horticole and CNRS) and have explainations with the nice photos. However, your suggestions are very good ones. Best regards, Anne

  • Leesa Hubbell says

    July 25, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Captions for all photos on the newsblog POP UP as tags when mouse is rolled over them. If this does not happen, check your browser settings.

  • Elaine Lipson says

    July 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Anne, thank you for your comment. I have nothing but great respect and admiration for the organization of ISEND. It was a wonderful experience. I'm sorry if my post didn't clearly convey that. If the natural dye world wants to grow and expand, I think there are ways that ISEND can evolve, but that in no way diminishes your accomplishment and success. I apologize for not mentioning the sponsors of the conference. A blog post by nature is short and concise. Later tonight I will ask Leesa to add a more complete comment describing them. I tried to talk to several people at the conference about my perceptions but if there was a formal way to give comments to the conference organizers, I was not aware of it. The captions for the photographs are there, as Leesa mentioned. Finally, it concerns me that there is so little room for critique in the world of textile art and craft, and I think it's why textile arts are often given short shrift in the art world. You presented an excellent and impressive program, but I think I can be 100 percent positive about ISEND and still note that, for me, there were some key things that could enhance the next conference and help natural dye advocates to achieve some of the ambitious goals I heard mentioned at the conference.

  • Elaine Lipson says

    July 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Anne, I should also add that I've been a conference manager/producer, so I know how much work is involved. I have nothing but great respect for the enormity of the task and for your dedication, commitment, creativity, and the overall success of the event. It's to your great credit.

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