Before asking Ellen to be part of New Maps, I spent a few days documenting the process of her (and our friend Franny) creating hand-dyed beeswax wraps as part of In Seasons kickstarter. She boiled down vegetables to extract their natural dyes and talked about the science behind each color. Indigo dyes are her specialty, so a few weeks later I spent some time documenting Ellen's process with Indigo.
Q: Talk to me about your creative journey. How did you start doing this and how did you end up where you are now?
Ellen: I started printmaking in college where I majored in art and art history, with a focus on printmaking and photography. Throughout school I made tee shirts for my friends, and continued to do so over the past few years. I have always been interested in textiles and natural dyeing. Last summer, I dove into the indigo world and ordered an entire setup to make my very first vat. Now, this is where I’m at! Lots of blue.
Q: So from day one to where you are now - and you can pick where you want to go with this either Indigo or art as a whole - what has changed the most?
Ellen: From day one, I think my patience level and level of effort going into everything have changed the most. I used to feel really rushed. I don't know why. I think now I am more conscious of planning things out and making sure that I am being eco-friendly in my decisions. By slowing down the process to small batch days, I am able to really enjoy the process, and my products have come out richer and higher in quality.
Q: What is your favorite part of working for yourself/having a side hustle?
Ellen: Being able to work with my hands is major. A lot of what we do these days involves staring at a computer, and that makes me antsy. I am more productive and focused when I'm doing something physically, so this has been really great for not only my mental health, but my spirit in general.
Q: What's your least favorite part?
Ellen: Oh, that's a good one. I don't like charging my friends, and most of my customers are my friends. Defining that stern line was critical for profit, like okay, this cost x amount, otherwise I end up losing money. I still have a hard time with it, because I want my pals to rep my brand! But I’m not in the green zone yet where I can be handing out indigos. Soon enough. <3
Q: Tell me about your thoughts on social media as an artist.
Ellen: It’s a love/hate relationship. I think that it's really good for organically growing your brand and the fact that it’s a free platform is huge. So it's a super easy way to get out there but at the same time, for personal use, it can be really harmful to your mental health in terms of FOMO and comparison. I think a lot of people are seeing that these days, so I try and keep it light most of the time.
Q: So, walk me through your process with Indigo.
Ellen: I buy my shirts from a company called Alternative Apparel, they're a sustainably harvested organic cotton brand. Since I am in a consumer-driven business, I try to do what I can to limit the negative effects of production. Sometimes I get all in my own head about the fact that we shouldn’t even be producing more clothes because of all of the toxins and waste involved, but I love them, so the trade-off is being responsible.
After I buy them, I throw them in the wash to take off any glues or residues from the factory. Still wet, I fold them up into patterns - Shibori style, which is a Japanese method of resist-folding for particular patterns. I then put them into my vat, which is pre-prepared with natural Indigo powder, sustainably harvested from South America, soda ash and thiorea dioxide, which is a bleaching agent. That basically removes all of the oxygen from the vat and allows for richer tones of Indigo. After all my clothes are folded, tied, and ready for dying, I put them in the vat.
I let them sit for about 15 minutes and then they come out green if my pH balances were correct and the oxygen was properly removed from the vat. When they come out, the oxygen from the air reacts to the fabric and turns that slime green into rich indigo tones. I then let them dry on the line, rinse them in the sink, wash them in the washing machine, dry them again, and finally stamp my “Stryker” linoleum block onto them; branding. Finally, I heat set them with an iron to hold their colors.
Q: What is your favorite part of that process?
Ellen: Taking them out of the vat and seeing how they turn out! Indigo is so experimental, at least with my loose process; you never really know how rich they will turn out, or where the dye has been resisted. It’s super cool.
Q: If you could have your audience or potential customers know one thing about you before they go to buy a piece what would it be?
Ellen: That this is a passion project and I don't know if I ever want it to really blow up. Small batches are fun, and I like to have my own freedom of patterns. Some of them are really hard to let go, they’re my babies!
Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice what would it be?
Ellen: Just chill because it's still art and it's still fun and sometimes it's not going to come out the way you want it to and that's so fine. Really, just slowing down and enjoying the process is huge, ‘cause that's everything that it is for me. When I rush to get stuff out, the quality sucks and then I feel bad about it.