Textile Artist Kiva Motnyk Shares the Beauty of Natural Dyeing—Plus, Her Recipes for Creating Stunning Colors
In a crowded corner of her downtown New York City studio, surrounded by oversize spools of baby-soft alpaca yarn from Peru and shelves piled with earthy fabrics, textile artist Kiva Motnyk is showing off one of her latest creations: a diaphanous, quilted panel stitched from scraps of linen, cotton, and silk. It glows with a range of sunny shades derived from goldenrod, turmeric, and other botanicals. Smack-dab in the center is a jagged cat scratch. "My kitty got to it," says Motnyk with a shrug and a smile. "But I'll probably patch over it, and that will create a whole new dimension. I always prefer pieces that have a story."
Many pet owners would have banished the little creature from the studio, but—happily for her two feline friends—Motnyk isn't bothered by the occasional rip or tear. In fact, her appreciation for imperfections is one of the qualities that drew her to natural dyeing, the process by which she infuses her fabrics with their rich colors. "It's always kind of an experiment," she says of tinting textiles with everything from onion skins and avocado pits to wild sumac, blueberries, pine needles, and flowers. "I can never make the same color twice, and I love that."
That uncertainty wouldn't fly in the halls of Calvin Klein and Isaac Mizrahi, where Motnyk worked after earning her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. She spent 15 years in the fashion industry before establishing Thompson Street Studio, her collection of textile-driven home goods, in 2014. "I was disillusioned by how clothes are created now: You send things overseas, and you don't get to feel the materials and have that connection," she says of her career shift. "I really wanted to get back to working with my hands."
Kiva Motnyk stitches her quilts and other pieces on deeply familiar turf: She works out of the same New York City loft where she grew up, as well as in her studio upstate. But she finds inspiration, discovers new-to-her techniques, and sources unique raw materials when traveling. On a recent trip to Guatemala, she learned traditional backstrap weaving, and how to dye fabric with carrots. And she returned from Peru with skeins of incomparably soft alpaca wool.
An Artist in the Making
These days, she has her fingers on everything, whether she's itching together quilts or pillows in her SoHo live/work space—the same loft in which she grew up, the daughter of a painter and a dancer—or dipping bolts of linen and swatches of washed silk into bubbling dye vats on the 24-acre property in the Catskill Mountains that she shares with her husband, an industrial designer. She's been refining her technique since childhood, when she began making naturally dyed stuffed animals and tackling other crafty projects with her mom. "It's actually very simple," says Motnyk, who sources her palette from kitchen scraps, foraged weeds, and her garden, where she grows marigolds, indigo, and other highly pigmented plants. She simmers the botanicals in water before adding fabrics that have been pretreated with a mordant, or fixative—usually a salt or vinegar solution—to help set the color. (For a step-by-step lesson, see the following slides.)
The effects range from subtle, such as pale neutrals produced by onion skins, to deeply dramatic. Beets deliver a shocking fuchsia. Red cabbage produces amethyst-like purples. For Motnyk, the process itself brings as much joy as the rainbow of results does.
"The natural ingredients smell and feel so different from chemical dyes," she says. "When I'm working with them, it's hard to keep my dog and cats away. These pigments, and the colors they produce, are so gorgeous that everyone just wants to be around them."
Motnyk grows botanicals for dyeing on her property in upstate New York, but she also raids her kitchen for produce and scraps (onion skins are a favorite) and plucks weeds and wildflowers, like the bushy goldenrod she carries here.
Simmer and Steep
For the best results, use natural fibers like cotton, linen, wool, silk, and hemp. Motnyk prewashes all textiles to remove any residue (she likes the concentrated detergent Synthrapol), and treats them with a mordant, a solution of either vinegar or salt and water, to help set the dye. Then she follows her recipes, which you'll find ahead. Aim for about a gallon of dye per pound of dry fabric, so the material can swish around. Here's what you'll need: A large stainless steel stockpot, strainer, mixing spoon, tongs, non-iodized salt, white vinegar, and rubber gloves (to protect hands from staining).
"Beet dyes make the most brilliant pink," Motnyk says. Treat fabric with vinegar mordant (you can find this as step one in Peaches and Rusts, ahead). Simmer one part chopped beets in six parts water for about two hours; remove beets from pot. Add damp treated fabric and simmer for another hour. Turn off heat and let stand until desired shade is reached, one hour to overnight.
Purples and Violets
To achieve purple and violet hues, Motnyk picks wild blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, but store-bought ones work just as well. In stockpot, simmer cloth in a solution of one cup salt to six cups water for one hour. Let cool and wring out. In a clean stockpot, mix berries (any combination) with water, using a ratio of two cups fruit to eight cups water. Add damp treated fabric and simmer with fruit and water to the desired depth of color, 30 to 60 minutes. Rinse, wring out, and hang to dry in the sun.
Peaches and Rusts
Sumac is a common roadside weed. In a stockpot, bring one part vinegar to four parts water to a boil. Add fabric; simmer for one hour. Let cool and wring out. In a clean stockpot, simmer sumac berries for about 45 minutes, using a one-to-one ratio of water to plant. Strain berries and add damp treated fabric; simmer for about 30 minutes. Finish as aforementioned.
Yellows and Golds
For the deepest shades, pick marigolds in late summer or early fall, and hang in a warm, dry place until the petals are dry to the touch (roughly three weeks). Treat fabric with salt mordant (see Purples and Violets step one, prior). Bring one cup dried marigold petals and two gallons water to a boil. Add damp treated fabric and simmer for about one hour. Finish as aforementioned.
Rinse and Air Dry
Motnyk hangs pieces in the sun to set the color. The shades lighten as they dry—something to factor in when determining steeping time. To launder dyed fabrics, hand-wash cold, or machine-wash in a gentle cold cycle.
Work of Art
"It's such a meditative process to work with these beautiful colors," says Motnyk of her textile projects. "Rather than sketch out a pattern in advance, I just start building and piecing things together. It's almost like painting."