FashionRemco Merbis

Liz Spencer

FashionRemco Merbis
Liz Spencer

Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Teri Bocko

Liz Spencer is the Dogwood Dyer. Mum of two, roamer, compulsive maker, green-fingered gardener, and all-around lovely person; Liz grew up watching the Carolina dogwoods bloom. She learnt that the arrival of their blossoms each year signalled the start of a new foraging season. Since then, she’s lived all over the world - France, the UK, Massachusetts, Oregon & Washington, New York… She’s currently living on a family heritage orange grove in Southern California with her husband and their two young children (one of whom stays strapped to her back throughout our interview).

Liz is a juggler: work, children, travel, learning, teaching… She is always adding new strings to her bow and despairs at the thought of having to plant roots in one place alone - just as she despairs at the thought of having to only make one sort of thing forever. This is an interesting standpoint for a lady who sees restraint as an important catalyst for her creativity. But perhaps, it is this very facet to Liz’s identity - her insatiable curiosity and love of learning, whether about new places or processes, that is the reason imposed restrictions are so necessary. Liz tells us about foraging on road-trips, why she is ‘jazzed’ about natural dyes, and her ambition to increase sustainable literacy within the textiles industries. Her life, like her dyes, is organic, unique and full of colour. The places that Liz grew in have made her exactly who she is - someone unrepeatable.

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There are so many different areas to explore and they are all connected.

How would you describe yourself as a maker?

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I’m really interested in process. My fingers always have to be doing something whether it’s weaving, spinning or dyeing… I love learning new textile techniques and I’m compulsive about making.

If I have to pick one thing though, dyeing is my main area of expertise. It has held my interest the most because so many different worlds are involved: botany, horticulture, chemistry, colour theory, history… There are so many different areas to explore and they are all connected.

You’ve lived in so many places. Can you tell us about how some of them have impacted you?

I’ve moved so much that when someone asks me where I’m from I can’t give a straight answer. Each place I’ve lived in has added something new to who I am. My earliest years were spent in the Carolinas, where I learnt the renowned southern hospitality; about politeness and saw how people there genuinely seem to care about each other.

Then I moved to New England, Massachusetts, to a city called Beverly, which is right next to where the Salem Witch trials took place. There, I gained a regard for history and tradition and got to experience four full seasons, which I loved.

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From there, I moved to Seattle. I did my undergraduate in Oregon and lived in Portland for three years after that. The Pacific Northwest gave me a real love for being outside. I did a lot of camping with my Dad who is a mountaineer. It was there that I became and living in Seattle and Portland really gave me a love for Nature. It’s so beautiful there, with the Cascade and Olympic Mountain Ranges surrounding the cities, and you just can’t deny how beautiful the world is there, and how important it is to be a steward of that.

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After that, I moved to London where I learned to garden. That really gave me a lot. From there, it was on to New York, where my fiance is from, and now I live here in Southern California but who knows how long we’ll stay!

Some friends have suggested that because I have kids I might like to settle down but I travelled around a lot with my parents when I was young and I think I gained more than I lost.

Someone told me that Mitchell County has, per capita, the highest concentration of artists in America outside of Manhattan! There’s a lot of wonderful maker energy there because of that, which is another reason I love to visit.

What’s your favourite place and why?

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That’s a hard one because all the places I’ve spent time in are important to me. But if I had to say, I think the place I resonate with most is my father’s family mountain house in North Carolina. Because I moved so much when I was younger, that place is one of the only ones that has always been a constant. It has a special place in my heart because of those memories.

The house was built by my grandfather for his grand-kids and it’s situated in such a beautiful place among the Appalachian mountains that stretch from Georgia to Maine. It’s very rural. There’s lots of history there and there’s also a renowned craft school just down the road called Penland. Because of the school, the area has attracted a lot of artists and makers. Someone told me that Mitchell County has, per capita, the highest concentration of artists in America outside of Manhattan! There’s a lot of wonderful maker energy there because of that, which is another reason I love to visit.

Is that where some of your own creative energy came from?

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Yes. A lot of my interest in making was encouraged and affirmed by my grandmother, who was an artist herself. We spent a lot of time in that mountain house one year in particular when my parents and I lived with my grandparents We’d moved from Massachusetts and my father was looking for work before we ended up in Seattle.

My grandmother always encouraged me and wanted to see what I was drawing. It was with her where we first explored the galleries in the tiny town of Bakersville down the mountain from our house. She had just got this cane then, and was far too spirited with it in potters gallery! She was so proud of me and would brag about me to every person we met. Her pride and excitement really helped flourish my interest.

Do you think encouragement is essential for a maker?

Absolutely. It can make such a difference. I’ve had times in my life where I’ve been encouraged but I’ve also been discouraged and that has an impact. I received my Bachelor of Arts from Linfield College where I majored in Art and Art History. It was there I started getting into fibres. I had a painting teacher who I was taking a portraiture class with. One of our assignments was to make a self-portrait in a medium of our choice. It could be anything, so I chose to knit mine! It took so long - twenty hours plus! I was really proud of it.

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However, when I showed my finished piece to my professor he laughed outright. I told him I thought I might like to explore fibres for my senior thesis and he replied: “we’ll see how that goes.” It didn’t put me off completely but it did keep me from pursuing textiles with full commitment until after college Luckily, that year a great Art History professor led me down the history path of textiles makers and inspired me that way. Encouragement is really important and I see that now when I’m teaching.

While I was making and using my hands, which was really fulfilling in one way, I didn’t really feel like I was making as much of a wider impact as I’d like.

How did you take that passion for fibres further after school?

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I went on Linfield to do a textile apprenticeship in Portland for a fibre artist. It was there I taught myself to sew and make my own clothes. I started selling dresses on Etsy and learned a lot through making lots of mistakes! I enjoyed it but I felt like something was missing. While I was making and using my hands, which was really fulfilling in one way, I didn’t really feel like I was making as much of a wider impact as I’d like.

When I was living in the Pacific Northwest I used to not really tell anybody about my love for fashion because I had such a high regard for ecology and I know that fashion can be a dirty business (although it is slowly becoming less so, as sustainable fashion becomes more mainstream). While I was working as a seamstress, I was looking for a way I could do fashion full time in a sustainable way.

And that was when you found the Fashion & the Environment programme at the London College of Fashion?

Yes! It was a perfect way to merge my interests in environmentalism, ecology, fashion and textiles. As I said before, London was where I fell in love with gardening. I collaborated with a local community garden and we created a natural dye garden where everything we grew was a natural dye plant. I met a great community and managed to get away from my computer and knitting machine and really connect with people. I found myself there on all my off-time! The process of gardening really helped me learn to slow down in an urban environment. It’s so important when you’re living in a city to have time to meditate and disconnect.

I realised that if I were to teach sustainable fashion I could have an influence on tomorrow’s designers through sharing sustainable methods.

The whole time I was in London, however, I was thinking: how am I going to use this degree to make a difference? It was then I realised that so many students are being churned out of fashion schools - especially in the UK where there are so many wonderful courses! - but sustainability is always an afterthought; it’s not woven into the foundation of fashion for students. I realised that if I were to teach sustainable fashion I could have an influence on tomorrow’s designers through sharing sustainable methods.

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So when I moved back to the U.S. to New York, I found some teaching positions and started to work my way up. That’s been on pause a bit lately because I’m a full-time mom right now but I’m hoping to get back to it when my children transition to school. I continued to garden and my love for natural dyes bloomed. In New York, my partner and I created something we called The Brooklyn Tree Guard, which was a great way to grow things in a tiny space, meet new people on our block and make the environment around us more beautiful.

What’s important to you about the way you make the things you make?

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When I make I like to give myself a challenge: How can I make by making as little impact as possible: How do I reduce my environmental footprint by only using natural fabrics, for instance, or only make things using materials that are landfill-bound? How can I start with something that already exists?

For me, it’s much more productive to work within restraints. When I have a multitude of choices at my fingertips, I feel almost handicapped. I think it’s great, as a maker, to outline your values and then work within that.

What place do you think makers have in the modern world?

Natural dyes are experiencing a renaissance in interest. There is tons of information online and so many recipes as well as great new publications and research. general interest in sustainable textiles and fashion is ten years behind the interest in sustainable food – so sustainability in the food industry could become a roadmap for sustainability in fashion in many ways.

Studies have also shown that our eyes prefer natural colour to synthetically created colour. I think this is because natural colours are so complex and subtle. In each colourant, like eucalyptus, for instance, there are four or five different chemicals contributing. It’s not just a single constituent creating the colour, there’s a flavonoid, a tannin... etc. Whereas, with a synthetic dye the colour is made up of carbon copies of molecular groups natural colours have subtleties that are visible to us which may be we prefer them to their synthetic versions.

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I don’t think traditional ways of making and modernity have to stand in opposition to each other. I see a bright future for modernity having an influence on what I do. Natural dyes are more sustainable but they still use a lot of water. It’s great that innovators are already coming up with ways to reduce that. Natural dyes also use a lot of arable land so, for that reason, I still think there is a place for synthetic dyes. But it’s important to pass the knowledge of making with natural dyes down, so that we have options for colour without petrochemicals (with are where synthetic dyes come from) for when oil runs out.

What place would you like to make the world?

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I just want to positively affect those around me as well as the environment.

I get so jazzed about natural colour and I want to get those around me as excited as I am about the wonder and mystery around natural dyeing processes. In natural dyeing the colour a plant produces is never exactly the same, it’s impacted from the particulars of the soil, water, sun it received that year, in that place. Even if you harvest a plant from the same place at the same time every year the colour will be different and unique each time. That’s what’s so lovely and charming about it; each natural dye colour is unrepeatable and takes on a life of its own. I would like people to recognise the value and the delight in that.

Being in South California is great because I can be outside year round. My garden is just around corner, planted between the old orange trees. That’s where I get most of my colours.
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The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove is Liz’s current home, although, as a lady who is used to roaming, she says she doesn’t know how long they’ll stay there. It’s a beautiful property that belonged to Liz’s fiancé Sam’s grandparents. When Liz and Sam were offered to look after the house while the family decided what to do with it they jumped at the chance. Liz loves the history of the house, from its orange grove to its occupants. A section of the original orange grove is still attached to the property. Liz’s dye garden is nestled between the trees. She grows indigo, hopi sunflowers, sulfur cosmos, coreopsis, and many other plants under the Californian sun. Liz and Sam collect oranges from the grove to sell within their community each year. Riverside is an important historic cultural landscape for the citrus industry and there is even a California Citrus State Historic Park close by which Liz, of course, has visited and could tell you all about. There is also a more personal history attached to the house: Sam’s grandmother was a painter and someone Liz felt a strong connection with. She now makes in the same indoor studio that Sam’s grandmother used to paint in, and she loves the sense of history and connectedness she feels in the place.

Where do you make?

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I have two make spaces. They are both in our home, which is important for me as a full-time mom as I can have my children around me while I’m working and I can stop when I need to.

My wet studio is outside, which is really wonderful as a dyer because dyeing is messy. I started my practice in a two-bed apartment in Brooklyn, so I can do things in a small space but it’s nice not to be so concerned about spills. It’s well ventilated, has a concrete floor, and a mess sink that feeds my natural dye refuse directly back to the grove. Being in South California is great because I can be outside year round. My garden is just around corner, planted between the old orange trees. That’s where I get most of my colours.

My indoor studio is special too because of its own history. The room has always been a room for making. Sam’s grandmother painted in there for decades and now I sew and make in that room and use lots of her original tools like her pinking shears and vintage thread and I have one of her sewing machines. There’s a play loft above for the kids too so I can sew while they play in their own special space.

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Jarred flowers

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I collected all the flowers and plants in these jars along our road trip last year. They’re all different plants from across America and have been solar dyeing for just over a year now. They are both meaningful and useful to me. I’m always curious when I see new plants and earths that are interesting colours and try to save them if I can to do some sort of experiment!

Sewing machine

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It’s actually out of commission now because my three year old has stolen the bobbin case and hidden it. I actually don’t know where it is! I have to get a new bobbin case soon! I’ve had that machine since I was seventeen. My mom gave it to me at the end of highschool It’s nothing incredibly special but it belonged to my grandmother. She inspired me so much. I used to watch her using that machine and she taught me some basic techniques on it. For that reason, I love working on it. I’ve had the machine tuned a few times and it still works like a dream!

Typewriter ribbon tin

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I don’t actually have a typewriter, I wish I did! When I found the tin it was empty, but it belonged to Sam’s grandmother. I love it because it has the name of the stationers where she bought it. It’s on 9 East 59th street in New York. I looked it up and the shop doesn’t exist anymore but I just love the tin: it’s so beautiful and hand-painted and is the perfect size for holding my needles and thread. I love the idea that Sam’s grandmother got this when she was in New York visiting Sam’s mother. I feel she and I had a kindred love of handmade things that are simple and beautiful. In those days, for even the smallest and most mundane things, the design was considered. There is less of that nowadays but I think it’s important and I like to surround myself with things that are lovely. It’s uplifting.

My dye book

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This is my portfolio. I will it bring to show people the possibilities with my dyes. I keep tinkering with the conditions I put plants under to alter the colours and I log all that in here. I’m constantly expanding and finding colours I like best to add to my book. I use it all the time and am always referencing it. I note: when I harvested, how I dyed, where the water came from, if it was alkaline or acidic, the temperature… as much information as I can so that I can get as close as possible to repeating a colour… although, of course, no colour will ever be exactly the same - that’s part of the charm!

Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.