Ellie Beck is a textile artist and creative maker, working primarily with natural fibres and an instinctual process. She works with botanical and natural dyes, finding inspiration in and from nature. We fell in admiration with her art and started an exciting conversation. Through this interview, we invite you to discover her textile arts practice, to learn more about the power of botanical and natural dyes, and to be inspired by her eco-conscious lifestyle…
Hi Ellie! You use delicate natural FIBREs to create beautiful pieces of textile art.
How do you come across these materials? What’s your biggest challenge when looking for the right material?
I use natural fibres in all my practices, from loom weaving through to my stitching work and botanical dyeing. These come from a combination of new sources from sustainable indie businesses I like to connect with, as well as second-hand materials; op-shopped or vintage such as the kimonos I use. I have some friends in Japan you sent me a giant box of vintage kimonos that I unpick to re-use the fabric.
I suppose my biggest challenge is keeping within my minimal-living ideals, while still purchasing new materials. It’s a combination of using what I have, hoping to source just the right thing second-hand (which doesn’t always happen when you need it), and balancing that with making sure that the new materials I purchase are honoured and treated with respect, rather than sitting in a box not being used.
The fashion and textile industry is one of the very biggest contributors to waste in our planet, both in the pre-consumer and post-consumer sectors. I would love to be able to partner with a textile or fashion house to use their waste pre-consumer materials, but as yet haven’t moved towards that. In the meantime I use small pieces in a meaningful manner, considering each purchase before buying.
In my workshops and teachings I aim to educate people about the materials as well, and hope that we can all look at what we use, how we use it. Something that is sustainable and a new product still has environmental impacts; so to make sure we are caring for our materials to give them longevity is one way to offset this.
Your art is unique and beautiful. What inspires your art and how do you choose the colours for your pieces?
Often my art is inspired by my materials, and by the thoughts and emotions of when I sit down to work. One piece will spark something for a new piece, a simple mark across my fabric from a leaf print, or a shape that evolves in my weaving guides the next piece of work.
I’m inspired by the quiet moments of my days, where I settle into my practice and allow it to share its own story. The more deeply I immerse myself into my making, without judging or over-thinking I find that I’m on a clearer path of sharing the creative visual voice that feels right to me.
I live surrounded by nature, in the forest, where the colours of the trees and leaves, the sky and wildlife are close every day. A fallen leaf or mossy stick, the grey of the clouds or the light that shines through the trees. All these things drift into my head. They don’t come out in visual representations, but more as an emotion or version of interaction with tiny moments of life.
In terms of my botanical dye colours – I work with the seasons and what’s around me. The colours of my landscape… which, from a natural dye pot aren’t always what you can see. Red flowers sometimes give yellow colour on fabric, green leaves might give orange or red or brown. I do use natural indigo (which I don’t grow, but purchase) as the blue speaks to me in a way I can’t quite describe, but combined with other colours from my environment makes up the colours of my life.
Often I work with blues and pinky hues – from reds, peach, pink, dusty rose, muted browns. Mostly because these are just the colours that best talk to me. But really, I’m open to exploring different colours, depending on what my dye pots give me.
The wonderful thing about natural dyes is that they mostly always seem to work beside each other. The hues harmonise in a way that commercial chemical dyes might not.
I also am learning that I need some white space in-between all the colour. A spot for my mind to soften and rest.
You use natural & botanical dyes. Why are these dyes better compared to the traditional type of dyes used in fabrics?
In my practice I do use plants, leaves, kitchen supplies and compost scraps for making the colours on my fabric, yarns and threads. Working with natural dyes is exciting, yet also elusive – the beauty is that the colour is often different, even with the same recipe because you can’t replicate the way a flower, leaf or bark grows – they take up different amounts of water, have different responses to the environment each season.
I love this aspect of using natural dyes – that each dyeing session is a bit magic, without easily replicated results. That’s part of my process of making.
Commercial chemical dyes are full of hazardous toxins, that can be devastating for our environment and for the people creating the dyes, weaving the yarns, making the clothes, and also for those who wear them. Traces of those chemicals can be found on finished clothing that you buy.
I live in a beautiful environment, and it seems counter-intuitive to me to pour waste commercial chemicals into my garden, simply so I can dye cloth. There are many in-depth articles about the use of chemicals in our textile and clothing; I don’t go into too much depth in my writings except to say that I aim to live low-waste in my daily life, and my arts practice is similar.
Talking about all of these natural materials, how did you begin your journey into the eco-friendly art?
I grew up in a family where we considered our way of living, and naturally lived a simpler less consumer lifestyle. Living immersed in the beauty of nature guides me on how to slow down and live a simpler life as an adult.
I must admit I’ve come along this journey quite naturally, but slowly over time it’s evolved to be more obvious about how I live, rather than in smaller ways. Now I deliberately choose this way of living and practicing my art, whereas 15 years ago it was a little less deliberate or conscious and perhaps wasn’t quite as eco-friendly as it is now.
By looking at my arts practice, writing about it and sharing with others I’ve been able to clarify what is important to me in an environmentally sustainable and a creative manner.
We read on your website that you organise online workshops and social gatherings. That’s such a lovely way of spreading your knowledge with other artists. What do you enjoy most about doing them?
I love sharing and connecting in workshops and creative gatherings. Spending time with other people who enjoy what I enjoy is such a pleasure, while also being able to share what knowledge I can and watch their eyes open to a new way of working.
I think I have always been a natural teacher, even as a child, but it took me a little while to realise that workshops and gatherings where the best outlet for me. I’ve been teaching for close to 12 years now, and find that each class or gathering I learn something new, and become a better teacher because of it.
Having these full days of teaching is also a fabulous way for me to fully immerse in the practice that I am sharing. Often in my daily life, as a mother and creative, I don’t have the chance for a full day like when I’m teaching. To have this set-aside day for connecting with the creative work that I love is inspiring and propels me along the days when I’m deep in motherhood.
As you work with natural materials, do you find that your passion for environmentally friendly products expands onto other areas of your life? For example, do you find that you are more eco-conscious when it comes to living? If so, in what way?
For me this co-exists. My everyday life is possibly more ‘eco-ish’ than my creative practice. Many things I simply do without in our daily life, whereas sometimes in my practice (particularly for workshop participants) I find that I have to ease up on my environmental rules. I’m working around ways of solving this…. I often don’t buy new materials for my own creative work, unless very strict sustainable fibres, but for my students. I allow them to come to their own conclusions; and sometimes the new materials give more scope for learning and experimenting, whereas second-hand materials are harder to come by, and aren’t always as ‘perfect’ for someone else expectations.
The way I work through this is to educate my students, both online and in real life, and talk about the materials we’re using.
Lastly, if you could give one life advice to an audience striving for a more conscious lifestyle, what would it be?
Only one piece of advice? I suppose the biggest thing for beginning a more environmentally or sustainable conscious lifestyle – both in our every day and in our creative practice – is to decide what is important to us. Remember that you have the choice to make changes, that you don’t have to follow along what someone else – your family or society – dictates.
If you want to begin the journey, it isn’t hard at all. Start small and simple and slow, don’t feel you have to do everyone or give up everything at once.
I also suggest learning to breathe, deeply mindfully to your stomach, through your nose. This, for me, guides me through moments where I need clarity as a mother, an artist and in my daily life. By changing our breathing habits we can find our moments are less wound-up with busy, anxious, overwhelming thoughts, and we can guide ourselves on the direction we want to go, rather than bumbling along the well-trodden path. Being courageous to live the life you want is about taking a breath and beginning one step at a time, trusting in yourself and listening to your own voice.