This month, I’m extremely honored to interview Keith Recker, someone I have long viewed as an inspiration and mentor. I used to work with Keith as a contributing writer for HAND/EYE magazine, an online publication focused on craft, culture, design and global art that’s guaranteed to inspire. In his role as founder, publisher and editor of the magazine, Keith has developed a vast understanding of the global craft and artisan sector. He’s also spent years working at WGSN and Pantone as a trend forecaster and color expert. He also works as a pro bono Creative Director for various organizations, including the International Folk Art Market. Marrying his appreciation for artisan work and his fascination with color, Keith recently published a book titled True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments.
For those are not already unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about your new book and the inspiration behind it?
True Colors profiles 26 accomplished natural dyers with a look at their motivations, the cultural traditions they draw upon, the innovation and exploration they bring to their work, the difference their work and their leadership brings to their home communities, and of course, the truly beautiful colors they make. The book blends my commitment to color, to artists and artisans, and to strong storytelling in both words and images.
The inspiration for the book came when I started to think about how the slow food and farm-to-table movements have changed so much about our perceptions around the sources of our food. We are so much more involved today than we were 25 years ago in what we eat, how it’s grown, what the inputs and nutritional values are, and what the heritage behind many varieties is. I began to wonder why we didn’t have a similar awareness about the things we touch and live with every day.
After taking this colorful journey around the world to interview these 26 artists, what surprised you the most?
I was struck all over again by how little most of us know about natural sources of color. Since the 1856 discovery of mauveine – an accidental phenomenon that happened in the lab of British teen chemist William Henry Perkins – easy-to-access synthetics have flattened our perceptions of color. We no longer see the magical transformation from green leaf to yellowish dye vat to blue fiber that results in a spectrum of indigo blues. We no longer appreciate the at least 300,000-year-old hominid fascination with red ochre — something that seems to predate humankind itself. We know nothing of the deep, ancient histories of woad, madder and weld, let alone the hues they make or the techniques needed to unleash their colorful potential. In just 163 years we’ve forgotten almost all of this in the name of…what? Is it really ok that color looks like just another property of disposable goods whose job it is to please us? Is it really ok that when that ephemeral task is finished, they are thrown away?
As in all things human, the similarities among the stories I explore always outweigh the differences. Most natural dyers are linked to the cycle of nature, to the earth, so there’s a respect and a sense of care that infuses their practices. Their expertise though, usually grounded in tradition, often gives rise to an adventuresome exploration of the frontiers of their discipline. How can a specific shade of, say, blue-green, which they saw once in a museum, be rediscovered in their workshop? How can an invasive plant doing damage to the local environment be harvested and turned into color? How can food, flower or plant waste be transformed into beautiful dyestuffs? As with all really good artists, the questions of what next beautiful thing to make, and what next intriguing story to tell, are being asked. And answered!
What do you feel is being ignored when it comes to the topic of natural dyes?
Natural dye expert Michelle Wipplinger first opened my eyes to the potential of natural dyes a couple of decades ago, when she told me that she could make any Pantone shade using combinations of natural dyestuffs. At first I didn’t really believe her, but when she arrived in my office with four cases filled with sample yarn hanks, all skepticism vanished. She was right: the visible possibilities are truly astonishing.
What’s also astonishing is the storytelling that accompanies so many natural colors. Whether it’s centuries of history, or regional variations, or culture-specific meanings and beliefs, or individual creativity, or endangered culture, or something else again, the tales associated with many dyestuffs and/or the hues they make are compelling. I think we humans crave that depth. We want to be more involved in what we touch every day. We want to invest in people. We want to sharpen our sense of belonging, of fellowship, of positivity. We want to invest our consumer spending in goods that give us some hope of progress rather than destruction. Embracing natural color and its practitioners can do all of that for us.
I know many designers that want to work with 100% natural dyes but often struggle to find access to a clean and honest supply chain with a large enough supply to buy in bulk. Where do you suggest they look?
I think that it would be unwise to just show up on the threshold of an atelier and start demanding that people switch to natural dyes. The supply chain available to an artisan or an artisan group has to be explored. Costs need to be looked at. Expertise has to be nurtured. Time for experimentation needs to be allowed. Evaluation of the beauty and performance of the results needs to happen. Same if you're an individual: it’s a thoughtful process!
Here in the US, my favorite source is always Earthues.com — founded by Michelle Wipplinger, a real pioneer in the field, with decades of sound sourcing and instruction. Kathy Hattori at BotanicalColors.com broke away from Earthues a while back, and they do good work too. Charllotte Kwon at Maiwa.com is world-famous for her work, and a great source of material and inspiration.
There seems to be a bit of controversy around natural dyes. When meeting with various artisan groups, they tell me that from their perspective it’s more harmful to use natural dyes because of the excess water usage required. What is your response to this?
Honestly, there is no one-size-fits-all orthodoxy that’s a perfect solution to every scenario in this complicated world of ours. I wonder, though, what their basis of comparison is, and whether they are taking into account what they’re putting into the water table when they dispose of their wastewater. They may not be taking into account the supply chain that brings the synthetics to them, often based in petrochemicals and energy-intensive manufacturing scenarios. Many groups, after such a long period with synthetics, may have forgotten how to get the most out of the dye pot. Allowing the delicate shades of the discharge phase to emerge, for example, helps to make every ounce of water count.
Part of the challenge here is that most people on both sides of the supply and demand relationship are in a mindset that is a reflection of mass manufacturing: every product is supposed to be the same as the one that was made before it. Maybe instead of finding so much virtue in a stack of uniform products, it’s time to let the natural variations of natural materials unfold, each with their own beauty. Maybe we need the more varied, more exciting, more nuanced experience of diversity in product instead of numbing sameness?
Considering you have built a career around trend and color forecasting, I’m curious to know what it is about color that fascinates you?
Color is a precious gift. We perceive it with 6.4 million cone receptors in our retinas. Each cone is tuned to a particular range of wavelengths of the visual spectrum with a particular light-sensitive protein-enzyme relationship activating our perception of color in the presence of a fraction of the rainbow. This delicate “machinery” is a source of an important data set of information which we rely upon to an important degree. Pantone says that 85% of our consumer decisions come from color information. And yet, like all machinery, we can be fairly sure that there are subtle variations from machine to machine so it’s almost certain that my visual experience is not exactly the same as yours. Each of us is probably seeing in our own way and I find that exciting. How can I communicate with you and your experience? How can I learn from what you are seeing? How can we enrich each other with these differences, deepen our stories, make more vivid our sense of what it is to be alive?
As a true color expert, can you tell us what we can expect to see a lot of in 2020?
The Age of the Internet has changed the idea of trends to a phenomenal degree. The torrent of information available to all of us is a constant roar, signifying volume and intensity and never-ending variety. Do trends even exist anymore in this noisy, high-volume, high-speed content? I would argue that we are in a post-trend world, with much more flatness in the trend curve. The upside of this: more individuality infuses our decisions. We more easily explore self-expression rather than feeling a need to conform. Sure, Gilet Jaune can emerge as a “thing,” just like Pussy Hat Pink before it. Collective anger and frustration is an area where large groups still cohere. But on the whole I would say that consumers are not especially eager to get on any particular bandwagon these days.
All the same, I see a lot of potential for shades of green. They carry with them references to nature, a certain sense of groundedness even in their brighter levels, and a wonderful flexibility to combine with other colors. A couple of years ago I was talking about an urge for “biointimacy,” an intense desire to ally ourselves with the intelligence and beauty of nature. The green phase that’s coming is part of that.
What are some tips you can offer artisans, designers, and all of us who share a passion for the field to make it stronger?
We may have reached a point where the key to making the sector stronger hinges on the customer. How do we communicate the values we express with our product in such a way that we’re part of a steady, inexorable movement rather than a series of discretionary single-product decisions? Most designers and makers in the sector treasure the independence, the "alt-zeit" and “fringy-ness” of it. Me too! But if we are looking for the social and ecological revolution that’s needed at this fulcrum-point for people and planet, we’d better band together.
For more information about Keith’s book, please visit:
And to purchase a copy:
To view Keith’s beautiful site, visit: