We met with Babs Behan, the botanical artist and textile designer behind Botanical Inks, to find out more about her journey and practice. Alongside well sourced exotic natural dye extracts, Babs harnesses environmentally sustainable colours (from the local landscape, organic produce and recycled farm and food waste) that are used in her natural dyeing and printing process.
An expression of a feminist, nature loving and anti-capitalist perspective on life, her work is also helping to spread awareness about the use of toxic synthetic chemicals in the textile, fashion and creative industries whilst offering clean, non-toxic and wholesome alternatives.
After a warm welcome in her home and a refreshing cup of herbal tea, we made our way to her studio, where Babs kindly offered us a live demonstration of bundle-dyeing and indigo dyeing techniques while sharing with us stories from her time spent in India and her thoughts on the Bristol community of creatives. Embracing the rain, we ventured on a foraging walk learning about the exciting Bristol Cloth project that challenges the Fashion and Textile industry to consider what a more resilient textile economy may look like, and about Babs’ dreams for the future and her ideal creative space.
Who is Babs behind Botanical Inks and Babs Behan Botanical + Mineral Artist?
Babs Behan behind Botanical Inks and Babs Behan the artist? Well, we are both the same person! My work with Botanical Inks allows me to express my passion for ecology - changing our current systems to become more environmentally sustainable. This means offering alternative solutions to the creative industries and creatives in general. I hope to inspire individuals and organisations to make radical changes to how they create work, by inspiring them with beautiful imagery and intentions - showing working closed loop models on a commercial scale - with my Bristol Cloth project - a clean bioregional cloth using locally grown and sourced natural materials and manufacture. And providing training in natural dye and print techniques via fun, beautiful, sensual, interactive workshops across the UK.
As an artist, my passion for nature connection runs much deeper. I explore the magic and sensuality of Nature more, with animism, mindfulness, nature bathing, herbalism, ceremony and ritual...
It's my whole lifestyle, my life is my art, not just the botanical drawings, paintings and textile/fashion designs... I believe in a plant-based lifestyle and economy. I eat organic living foods, spend time in nature as much as possible, practice yoga and meditation, self-awareness and conscious communication as well as I can. For my art work, I harvest wild plants to create mediums with which to draw, paint and print. I use organic British-grown silk, wool and locally recycled paper to work on. I use mindfulness techniques to allow me to sink into creative flow, practise gratitude and affirmations, self-love and ritual to connect with myself and a natural flow from which I feel I can channel beautiful art.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Sitting in the daffodils as a toddler, in the sunshine, in my grandparents garden in the summertime, watching the bees and bugs crawling about, enjoying the golden glow of the flowers on my skin and the gentle presence of being on the ground with the plants surrounding me and towering over me. Feeling safe and peaceful.
How was Botanical Inks born?
After graduating in surface design, I spent many years travelling to countries where indigenous communities still practice natural dyeing with local plants, and I was making ethical clothing in Northern India with cottage industries. I did an artist residency for 3 months in Summer of 2014, to focus my intentions on creating a local natural dye practice, using the techniques I'd learned from other cultures in India, Laos, Thailand, Peru and Indonesia. I developed a palette of colours from hedgerow plants and used plant based mordants to fix the dyes and to create a medium for printing with. I started teaching others what I had learned and looked for ways to reach more people, to spread the awareness of the toxicity of the textile and creative industries on our environment and also to provide an alternative.
Have you always wanted to be an artist and designer?
Yes, always! I still want this! I hope to find a way to spend more time being an artist and designer and start handing over more responsibilities for the teaching and admin side of things to others.
Tell us about your experience as a Design student at LCC, University of Arts London.
I was never that into mainstream education systems to be honest. I found school and higher education pretty uninspiring and dull. My time at LCC was disenchanting. I didn't enjoy the toxicity of the studio environment, the synthetic printing inks and mechanical style of the print applications. I took myself away to Northern India, to Jaipur, in the 1st year, to do work experience with a vegetable dye block printer, while my fellow students did placements in local print firms. I fell in love with the delicacy of the wooden block prints, hand cut and hand printed onto khadi cotton. It spurred me on to explore and learn other natural dye processes and human scale design.
As part of your Graduation Show, you presented works that explored the themes of sexual objectification, consumerism and imperfection amongst others. What inspired these choices?
At the time I was living in London, overwhelmed by the barrage of daily advertising from billboards to screens everywhere you turn. As a young woman, I was at odds with my place in society and feeling like I wasn't being granted the same rights as the dudes I hung out with. I felt drawn to the beauty in imperfection in my art work, the natural lines and organic forms that came with expressive, direct drawing and painting, the shapes my eyes saw in natural materials and things, the tree bark in the parks I walked through, the transforming shapes of clouds and swirls of smoke from my cigarettes.
I suppose all these things combined to lend me a feminist, nature loving and anti-capitalist perspective on life.
You travelled through India, Laos and Peru. What inspired these journeys and what were some of the most significant experiences along the way?
I love travelling. After Uni, I went to Thailand and Laos with two close friends of mine. We were all just finished our degrees and a couple of us our relationships too..It was a great time to take an adventure. I went to California later that year, I think it was 2004, to Burning Man and then stayed with friends in the hills in Northern California. I was buying vintage fabrics from thrift stores and making fun costumes to wear to festivals and fancy dress parties. I felt inspired to create a collection of ethically made, sustainable clothing for the creative festival scene I was a part of back in England. I decided to go to India later that year, and find manufacturers to work with, to bring my designs to life and help me create a business. I started selling my clothing in independent boutiques in London and toured some of the top festivals with my shop, at SGP, Wilderness, Glastonbury and others.
After a few years of selling ethical clothing, I went to visit my friend Emma in the Sacred Valley, Peru, where she had been setting up Awamaki - a women's co-op where they were re-skilling locals with yarn based skills and creating an international market for them to sell product to. We worked on some natural dye samples together for my brand, using local plants and wool to make accessories.
I had the honour of going to stay with their Master dyer in his home at 2000ft high altitude, where my friend Rose and I learned about the local plants, which we foraged directly off the hillside, and brewed up in huge cauldrons in the yard in his home, to make incredible pinks, turquoise and yellow yarns. It was incredible to experience that peaceful and simple way of life in such a remote yet homely place.
What made you decide to make Bristol your home?
I lived in London for 8 years and always missed the trees and green of my home town in Herts. I knew I didn't want to return to where I grew up but I didn't really know where else to go next. I was looking for somewhere more radical and interesting to be, and I needed countryside. I went to Bristol, because I'd met so many people at the festivals I went to, who were totally lovely, and from Bristol. So I knew it was full of good people. I felt like it could be a stepping stone to the countryside and maybe the West Country. I kinda saw Bristol as the Emerald City… Funnily enough, it was the Green Capital in 2015! It is also well located between a few cultural hubs which I felt drawn to - Totnes, Frome, Glastonbury, Stroud - and offered the opportunity to explore these places more and consider where I might head next, after feeling better acquainted with Bristol city. I wanted to feel like I had a relationship with Bristol and the textile/arts communities there, before locating myself more remotely.
What are the key concepts behind your approach to design and creative practice?
For my design work, the key concepts I begin with are sustainability, in terms of using a closed-loop design process, engaging a local economy, using organic natural resources and low-impact, chemical-free, manufacture. So my designs are very much lead by what is available in the immediate environment, in terms of materials and manufacture. In Bristol, and indeed in England, we have an abundance of wool, so it makes a lot of sense to be using wool to make cloth and garments here. The Bristol Cloth is my first project, utilising local wool from Fernhill Farm, just outside of Bristol, and the Bristol Weaving Mill, the first industrial loom in Bristol in 100 years, and natural plant dyes from Botanical Inks.
In my creative practice, it's really important to me to use only 100% natural fibres, with pure plant and mineral materials, and low-impact traditional and contemporary design techniques. I am conscious of the impact of production systems on the environment and people, so I try to create things which are non-toxic and actually go a step further, in creating a biological nutrient, which can safely go back into the ground at the end of its useful life cycle.
Some of the techniques I work with include woodblock and paper stencil screen print with natural dyes, bundle dyeing with flowers and herbs, and organic indigo dyeing with sugar and lime.
I use my practice as a means of connecting with Nature with the natural materials, by engaging with plants in a new way, being in wilderness places, and allowing for a natural flow in myself. I bring mindfulness techniques into my drawing, painting and creative process to really sink into flow and channel creativity.
What is your favourite dyeing technique?
I really enjoy bundle dyeing with flowers and tend to use this the most in my work. It allows me to work with beautiful fresh flowers, often donated as waste from floral designers who grow special varieties which are often hard to find. I like that I can use florals, which offer so much in terms of beauty, texture, scent and herbal qualities, to create incredible colours and kaleidoscopic patterns. Every bundle dye offers a delightful surprise and creates something unique. Its an endlessly enjoyable adventure.
Where do you source your materials from?
I like to grow my own plants for dyeing with and recycle waste plant materials from local organic flower farms, florists, food producers, cafes and the compost heap. I enjoy going for long walks in the beautiful natural places around Bristol and often forage a few things here and there.
As an artist, illustrator, designer and maker how do you draw the line between your own aesthetic exigencies and those of your clients?
As an artist, illustrator, designer and maker, I feel blessed to work with people who really admire and respect my own creative vision and process. I feel wholly supported in allowing my own aesthetic and creative flow to become. Knowing that, what manifests is born of an authentic process. I listen to and understand what my clients needs are and this is of course in my mind as I create. And it's wonderful to then be reassured that whatever comes is welcome and appreciated.
How important is teaching to your practice and why?
I love being able to share my knowledge and skills with others. My passion and drive is the pursuit of creating systemic change in the creative sphere of our culture, therefore it's vital that I share what I know far and wide. I hope to see the disuse of toxic synthetic chemicals in the textile, fashion and creative industries in my lifetime. And I believe that my work is helping to spread awareness about the problems around this whilst also offering the clean, non-toxic, bio-nutritious, beauteous and wholesome alternatives.
What are some of the most frequent questions that your tutees ask you?
I often get asked about the colour fastness of the natural dye colours. I let my tutees know that the colours I use are colourfast, to different degrees. Some last longer than others, and it's very much related to how well they are looked after. As with the commonly used synthetic chemical dyes, colours tend to fade a little over time, with intense machine washing or if exposed to a lot of sunlight. Think of that old black T-shirt you wore all last Summer and how it's now more of a greyish tone - it's the same with natural dyes. Treat them gently and wash them correctly, and they will last well. In many cases, they will last longer than ourselves.
When we look at historic buildings in this country, they are filled with naturally dyed arts and crafts: carpets, wall-hangings, paintings, upholstery. And they have lasted hundreds of years.
Its incredible to think that, in fact, all of our things were coloured with natural dyes, since antiquity, up until the invention of chemical dyes, only about 100 years ago, with the discovery of the first dye, mauveine and the intervention of the Industrial Revolution.
Tell us about intuitive herbalism.
Intuitive herbalism is a means of developing one's own intuitive awareness of plants and developing a relationship with them, based on direct experience, as a healing modality.
In my workshops, especially the ones where we harvest our own plants for dyeing with, I like to touch on the potential for using intuitive herbalism, to bring a richer and deeper meaning to the dye process. To allow oneself to be drawn to the herbs the body, soul and spirit may need for various ailments and energetic responses; that the relevant herbals may be infused into the textiles and they are transformed with botanical colour. These may then be worn cloth to the skin, the largest membrane of the human body, and absorbed and experienced in various ways.
What are some of the most exciting projects and/or collaborations that you have been involved with?
I am so excited about the Bristol Cloth project. This is a Fibreshed-inspired project, where we mapped out local fibre producers, designers and manufacturers in and around Bristol, and joined the dots, to create a clean cloth for the South-West, which prioritises local sourcing and manufacture, without the use of toxic synthetic chemical dyes/bleaches/detergents or finishing agents, to promote local economy and bio-nutritious design.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Inspiration comes to me from all kinds of places and situations. I don't really seek it out, it just happens. I suppose I feel more able to receive it when I am in a calm state, and I try to return to this place by taking time out to be in Nature, to be offgrid, going for swims and walks and spending time with friends and with my Self.
What do you do to relax?
I like to start the day with some yoga in my window and a little sitting in meditation, to create a good energy and intentions for the day. I try to follow a natural flow throughout the day, take time out to prepare and enjoy nutritious meals made with organic, living whole foods. I like to go for a stroll to break up work time, to the local shops, post office or around the park. I love going to ecstatic dance in the woods and in town, swimming at the Lido, and for longer hikes further afield whenever I get the chance.
What is your music of choice while working in your studio?
I like to have ambient music playing which is not distracting. For me, it's blues, jazz and a little folk, sometimes more glitchy dubstep goes down well...
What does a typical Friday look like for you?
I don't really have any typical kinds of days. Every day has its own character and vibe. Sometimes I'll be in the studio for the day or part of the day, making things, preparing for workshops, doing admin. Other days I like to work from home, where I can be more focused on writing. And I like co-working with friends from favourite little cafes around too. Some days I'll be driving off to London, Norfolk or Devon, to teach a workshop and the day will be given to the journey and the class. I love how the workshops take me to a range of beautiful and inspiring places, from incredible well-equipped university print studios, to organic flower farms, biodynamic sustainable education centres, and high profile art galleries. It's a trip!
What is your favourite dish?
Mixed organic salads, like a rainbow salad, a buckwheat salad and a roast cauliflower salad, with avocado, buckwheat flatbread and tahini dressing! Or maybe almond butter on sourdough and raw cacao and berry smoothie or green kale superfood smoothie. I think my favourite meals have probably been at Gather in Berkeley, CA, Cafe Gratitude in Santa Cruz and a range of amazing organic vegan restaurants in New York. The New Yorkians are so spoiled with their amazing eateries over there!!
What about your personal style? What can we find in your wardrobe?
I'm currently transitioning my wardrobe to a diet of 100% natural fibre, organic, naturally dyed clothing. It's quite a mission as it turns out, and taking some time! The issue is that it's really hard to find any clothes in the market like this, harder still to find ones which are my style. And more so, made in the UK. So, it really comes down to making my own, or buying and dyeing my own fabric and having it made up into items for me to wear. I currently have about 20% of my wardrobe that's there. I hope to do a big push this year to get things further along.
I like colour, and I like having lots of bright and fun colours to wear, in different textures. Layering up soft cashmere and silk with rustic hemp and linens. I love the feeling of botanical dyes and natural fibres against my skin, feeling safely enfolded in them and their healing qualities.
What other disciplines are you interested in and/or involved with?
I am mostly focused on dyeing and printmaking lately, however, I'm originally an illustrator and painter. I love to draw intricate toiles which are full of imaginative figurative imagery to get lost in. I also love to paint large scale abstract expressionist paintings with big swathes of colour on canvas. I have a few pieces dotted around my home and the studio.
Who do you admire in your industry?
India Flint for her poetic wanderings, collecting windfall eucalypts around her homelands of Australia, boiling up brews of foraged colours on sea shores and making the most exquisite layered silk garments, in which she is always adorned.
Cara Marie Piazza for her witchy artisan awesomeness and alternative New Yorkian vibe. I love her style, her paint splattered studio, feminine power, her excellent personality and sense of humour. She is a wonderful being who I totally adore and I love her style.
How would the future of fashion look like in your vision?
A World composed of local bioregional closed loop textile and fashion production systems, connecting small scale producers into collective cottage industries. Completely non-toxic materials and processes, which are in themselves also bio-nutritious, creating biological nutrients which go back into the natural habitat and offer nourishment, which is a big step away from the chemical polluting byproducts we are currently looking at in our Textile and Fashion industries.
I see bioregions in which the plant/animal fibre and dye plant growers are located near to the processing facilities and c+t units. The transport is run on electricity or bicycle power. And the products are providing for the local communities. In this map, everyone gets to wear clothing and have textiles in their home and lives which are made entirely from local resources, giving a new sense of identity and connection with the land.
Of course there can be some further trade and exchange with other communities in different localities. And international trade via slow shipping/wind sail transport.
Really, it's a return to how things once were. With the improvement of clean advanced technology and a greater perhaps and more interesting complexity of design.
What was the best advice that you have ever been given?
"Be Big and Bold"
What advice would you give to someone embarking on the same venture?
Research sustainable textiles and try to do things without having an impact on the environment or taking advantage of other people. Look at "conscious business" models.
The future of business is conscious business and looking at the triple bottom line. How does your outlet or offering serve yourself, other people and the environment?
The World does not need anymore plastic, synthetic or toxic things in it. We need bio-nutritious design and production practices and we also need less stuff. Consider how you can have a positive impact in the World and really consider every last inch of what you use in your supply chain and distribution channels. We each have the opportunity to choose to make a positive impact, and I believe we have the responsibility to do so. Consider your skills, resources and passion. What does the World need you to do? And how would Love do it?
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a book project and the first production of the Bristol Cloth. It's all very exciting! Watch this space...
How do you see your style and techniques evolving over time?
Over the Winter, when things are a bit less busy on the events front, I'd like to create some more space for creating some personal artworks with natural dyes. I'm keen to do more drawing and painting with foraged paints and inks. I'd like to get more and more low impact with the tools I use and perhaps make some of my own paint brushes with found materials too. I'm also keen to collaborate with other talented designers who share my vision for pure natural textiles and craftwork.
What are your dreams and ambitions for Botanical Inks?
Botanical Inks I see as part of a rurally located fibershed community. Perhaps a co-operatively owned piece of land with dwellings which we retrofit and transform into an eco-buildings, with biodynamic grown crops for fibre, colour and food. Spring water, woodlands to roam in, rivers to bathe in and space to be.
What about those for Babs?
I have a few more adventures up my sleeves, both here in the West Country and further afield.
I'd like to walk the coastal paths in Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, spend more time in California, Bali and New York and go and hang out in Oregon for a bit. Dancing and eating organic vegan food!
I dream of clothing myself and my home entirely with naturally dyed, locally grown natural fibres. I want to make this possible for others too. To help transition our economy towards a plant based economy, and to see the effects of ecocide start to be reverted and recovered.
I'd like to spend more time in beautiful, natural landscapes, with big ancient trees and swimming in rivers and warm, clear seas.
I want to find more ways to give back. Perhaps learn a traditional massage technique to offer as a healing modality to others. There's so many things I want to learn and do!
Can you recommend us:
A book: Wild:An Elemental Journey- by Rebecca Griffiths - I was completely mesmerised by the poetry of this book. Every single paragraph is a work of art and to be savoured. It resonates on such a deep level. I felt heartened, touched and inspired by her delicate and strong feminine words.
A film: In our Hands - a film by the Land Workers Alliance. It clearly spells out what is going on with our food system. What doesn't work and where change is due. It has a powerful voice. Gives welcome clarity and offers it with hope and inspiration - which is so important and empowering at this time.
A couple of songs:
La Vie En Rose - Louis Armstrong - I feel such warmth and lightness every time I listen to this song
Nessi Gomes - You Guided Me - Nessi has the most beguilingly delicate, fragile and yet powerful voice and sings from her soul, including all of the light and the dark within. Her songs speak to my heart and resonate on a deeply meaningful level.
Erykah Badu - I will never ever tire of her music. I've lost count of the number of ties I've listed to Baduism over the past 20 years! I love this Woman.