About natural dyes and material values – An interview with Elke Fiebig from STILL garments

Our author Guoda recently had the pleasure to take part in a special natural dye workshop by our inspiring friend Elke Fiebig from STILL garments. In this interview Elke talks about how everything started and expresses the core values of her work as well as the importance of re-learning traditional skills.


What is the story behind STILL garments?

Elke: There are multiple stories! I graduated from the Kunsthochschule Weissensee in 2014 after which I went to Bangladesh with the Goethe Institute. STILL garments was something I always wanted to do but at that time I wasn’t sure what exactly I should be doing. Then I received a scholarship from the city, which helped me to create this project!
Today it is not only about making garments or something that people could consume and buy. It is about creating an organic living and passing of knowledge about natural dyes, which is what I am doing with the workshops at the moment. I want to involve more people, create a community and a material culture full of values, something that would be worth caring for and something that we have unlearnt. I think that it is very precious to be a part of this community. It is really not just about garments.


When did you start working with natural dyes and how did you come to the idea to do it?

It evolved when I was still in university in 2011. What got me to do this is this – she shows a piece of fabric – a piece of linen that my ancestors grew, spun and wove. My grandmother had kept this fabric which was never used and gave it to me in 2010. I had it and I didn’t know what to do with it, it was so precious. I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of time my ancestors put into making this. The concept of time pushed me into working with natural dyes. That is when I started to experiment with natural dyes. It was really an experiment at first. Sometimes it involved mold, since I dyed in the cold and left the materials for weeks. Mold makes very pretty patterns but I avoid it these days because it’s very unhealthy. I just couldn’t stop after I started. The dyes were so nice. I started reading and researching everything on natural dying. The internet also helped. My family had not a background in this techniques, but they were farmers so they used the fabrics they worked so hard for to create for utilitarian uses – it is the opposite of what is going on today with textiles. The way they used to live and make these textiles feels like it was forever ago, it is so different that I can’t really imagine their everyday life. Attached to it there was a note, dating it to 1922. Which is indeed old, compared to the textiles we live with today. But then, really, it is only like four generations ago, it wasn’t the middle ages.



Do you mostly design on your own? Do you do any collaborations with other designers or companies?

Yes, I think about it and I am open to it. I have done freelancing collaborations where I was dyeing garments, and I enjoyed the experience. They were very different and very challenging jobs. One of them was for a rug designing company. The rugs were very thick organic certified wool rugs, not easy to work with. We got to travel to Romania for that which was an amazing experience.


How did you come to the idea of doing the workshops?

There were two different trains of thoughts that met and created the workshops. The first one was three years ago, when I got the scholarship from the city of Berlin for one year which allowed me to do what I wanted – go crazy and research. I was able to dye so much and with everything that I could find. After that year, I ended up with a huge pile of samples. I thought “what am I ever going to do with them?”. Even if I go on and continue with this dye journey, or make garments, I could never work with all of them. That was something that was at the back of my head.

There is this amazing German lady, Karin Tegeler, who grows woad (which is the German plant that contains indigo), and has done it for decades. I went to her workshop that year, where I met another textile designer and weaver from Stuttgart. She was watching me during those three days of workshops, as I was taking notes of everything and being very methodical. At the end of the week she approached me and said “Elke, I have been watching you”, which of course at first was rather weird. She said that she wanted to create a studio in Stuttgart and to invite other people to host workshops there. She asked me if I wanted to do that. I had never thought of it before, but I thought “yes, maybe?”.

Both of these stories merged and I decided to have workshops where I could show my samples to people so they could learn from my experience. And it turned out I really enjoy these workshops!



What does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability means many things to me. The most important part for me is to be holistic and to pay attention to every little step and process, which can be super annoying and why everything takes forever (with natural dyes). However, you just have to start doing it. That is how I feel about it. That also includes social aspects and environmental aspects, but also the longevity of the product or if it is possible to repair it. Sustainability for me is not just working with organic cotton and then doing it as usual.


What would be your advice for people who want to be more sustainable?

Be mindful, take a few steps back from buying for a little while. Take stock of what you own, of what you long to do… If you’re used to shopping as a hobby then you need to have a little withdrawal to freeze your mind and start thinking about things differently. Instagram and the internet in general are not always good, but there is so much information on there right now. You can google whatever you like about cosmetics or zero waste and you will find amazing people who are involved in it. It isn’t always easy to use social media for the good but it offers a lot of information.


Do you think we would be able to integrate natural dying into a bigger production frame?

At the moment, the scale of manufacturing and textile waste production is way too big, definitely more than anyone could ever need. There are companies who work with natural dyes only. They have palettes of shades that they can reproduce to a reasonable extent. It is possible to do it but it takes much more time than synthetic dyes. The plants have to grow which takes time, space, knowledge, skills – there are limits to dyeing with plants. I think it could be much bigger than it is now, but it requires to think differently about textiles and garments. That is something that is necessary in any case. The question that I receive the most is “do the colours last?”. Of course they last. Sometimes they change, but everything in life changes. I am actually very scared of things that don’t change, like plastic which doesn’t compost. We need to care for our clothes and launder them in a different way, or get used to change. It requires a different mindset towards garments than most people have these days.



If you are inspired from Elke´s view of sustainability and would like to join one of her workshops, here are the next dates:

  • 19th May 2019: Bundle Dye
  • 26th May 2019: Intensivkurs: Tages-Workshop Färben mit Pflanzen
  • 19th June 2019: Indigo Intro


For more information visit https://www.stillgarments.com/


About the blog author:
Guoda Treciokaite grew up in Luxembourg and studies Materials Science in Dublin, Ireland. She is passionate about textile design and sustainable garments. Her dream is to combine her scientific knowledge with her creative aspirations to make the world a better place.

Picture Credits:
Elke Fiebig and Daniel Eceolaza for BTTR Stories


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