Through her work as textile artist and eco dyer, Karen Williamson of Nuku finds a spiritual connection to the land and its changing seasons. Using only natural resources, foraged from the local Kaipara landscape, Karen infuses prints of leaves, petals, seeds and bark into natural fibres to create a unique range of scarves, clothing and gifts. The name Nuku comes from te reo Māori, meaning earth. Karen lives in rural Kaiwaka and is building a sustainable lifestyle on a half-acre section with her husband, Luke.
What do you make?
I create luscious silk and merino scarves, hand dyed with organic colours and leaf prints, using natural botanical resources. I also use the eco print process to redeem preloved clothing or create lengths of fabric to sew into new items such as dresses, cushion covers and bags. My designs are sometimes confused with screen printing or painting but eco printing is very different and a relatively new art form.
How did you get into your craft?
Several years ago I belonged to a group of creative book artists. We played around using leaves to make marks on paper and this led me to discover the work of India Flint, an Australian eco printer. Her ethos about sustainability and working with natural resources completely resonated with me. I loved the idea of creating with found natural objects. Once I became confident in dyeing, I began to sell scarves at markets, then I picked up my first retail shop in Matakana and it all gained momentum from there. Now my craft has become a full time job. Three years ago I gave up a nursing career in palliative care and became a dedicated artist – from dying to dyeing. I’m very grateful to my whānau for supporting me in that decision – it was huge change in direction.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
None at all. Although natural dyeing has been around for centuries, eco printing is a relatively new extension of the artform and there just wasn’t much, if any, training available in New Zealand. It is possible to do workshops overseas or online with experienced master dyers like India Flint but I chose to self-teach through experimentation and observation. I wanted to focus on the potential of New Zealand botanicals and develop my own style. Now I’m one of a few Kiwis teaching eco print to others.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
Of all the natural fibres, my favourite is silk. Silk takes up natural dyes beautifully, resulting in luminous colours that pop off the fabric and you feel like a goddess when you wear it. I love it when I have bundles steaming in the studio because the space is filled with fragrances and it feels like therapy, especially eucalyptus leaves. Dyeing is an artform that doesn’t require expensive equipment – pretty much all my ‘tools’ are from charity shops. I like the idea that they bring their history with them and it fits with my eco philosophy. Working with New Zealand natives gives me a connection to this land and I find that really rewarding.
“I borrow tikanga from rongoa Māori when foraging – conserve resources and use only natural materials. I choose to dye, for the most part, on preloved clothing, in support of a circular economy. Thinking about the environmental and human damage caused by fast fashion cements my resolve to stick to this ethos.”
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
Eco printing involves creating a good contact between leaf and fabric, rolling a tight bundle and binding it with string. Steaming the bundle extracts the natural tannins and pigments from the plant into the fibres. There’s a lot more to it but that’s it in a nutshell, I guess.
My designs can be really classic, although I am becoming more complex with them by building up layers of dye, one over the other. I love creating a simple Shibori on the fabric. This is a Japanese technique where you clamp, tie or fold the fabric to create a resist which stops dye getting into selective parts. The result is an interesting pattern or layer that adds another dimension to the piece. I get annoyed when people call it tie dye, though. It’s similar but somehow Shibori seems more elegant to me.
I have a fabulous tin can of vintage rusty work tools that my Dad gave me. I keep them on hand for making interesting marks on fabric. I soak the material first, then wrap it around the tools and weight it down with bricks and leave it for one or two days until rust marks appear. The resulting coppery orange colours look great in combination with other dyes.
What inspires you?
Papatūānuku inspires me. She is my art director. Every plant has potential to make colour or prints so I’m constantly looking around my immediate environment for inspiration. In the garden, on walks, at friends’ houses or during car rides, I always carry a pair of secateurs, ready to harvest a few leaves. These gifts from mama earth bring their own mauri, or life force, to the work.
We are so lucky to have an abundance of botanical resources here in Aotearoa and I want to try everything! I’m also nourished by the process itself – every time I open another bundle to reveal the results, I just want to make more. It’s an addictive process because every morning is like Christmas!
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Absolutely. My whole enterprise is about treading lightly on the planet, and striving to be as sustainable and ethical as is possible. Anyone who works with textiles makes a compromise because most fabrics are produced overseas and imported, increasing the carbon footprint. But there’s a lot you can do to offset this such as adopting a zero waste approach to work and lifestyle. I borrow tikanga from rongoa Māori when foraging – conserve resources and use only natural materials. I choose to dye, for the most part, on preloved clothing, in support of a circular economy. Thinking about the environmental and human damage caused by fast fashion cements my resolve to stick to this ethos.
“I wanted to focus on the potential of New Zealand botanicals and develop my own style. Now I’m one of a few Kiwis teaching eco print to others.”
Describe your creative process:
Natural dyeing is an amazing mix of science and serendipity. At the beginning, I tried to understand the science part but there are so many variables it’s impossible, for me at least, to fully grasp them all. I found myself so focused on trying to figure out the chemistry that I risked losing the creative spark. So, I’ve learned to let science take a back seat and embrace serendipity, not to have expectations but allow the process to include an element of risk, accepting what nature delivers me. There are never any failures because everything can be overdyed until you reach a result that is divine. Happy accidents are blessings. Magic reigns.
Describe your workspace:
It’s organised chaos but I’m OK with that. My studio is actually our carport, closed in with recycled building materials. It has a dirt floor so I can spill whatever and no one cares, and gaps in the walls mean that ventilation is no problem! Jars of dye baths line the shelves and blackened pots hang from racks. There are buckets everywhere, some full of branches and some with spent leaves waiting for the compost. Windows line the entire wall by the work table with a view to dye for over neighbouring paddocks. Fantails like to visit me.
“Papatūānuku inspires me. She is my art director.”
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
When a customer returns to my stall wearing something they bought from me weeks, months or years ago. Then tell me it’s their favourite and they ‘wear it all the time’. Priceless.
What are you currently listening to?
Cicadas and birdsong outside the window, and the wind in the poplar trees.
Recommend an album:
‘Seldom Seen Kid’ by Elbow, a group from Manchester. I have all their albums but this is my favourite. They’ll be playing this at my funeral.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
I remember a friend and I being obsessed with a book called ‘Jennifer, Hecate, McBeth and me’ by e.l. konisburg. It’s about a girl whose friend claims to be a witch. We played for weeks at being apprentice witches, making spells and potions. Ironic really considering where I’ve ended up!
What are you reading now?
‘Boy Swallows Universe’ by Australian author Trent Dalton. It’s a fabulously well written story about a young boy who becomes involved in a world of crime and drugs in suburban Australia. Dark but also delightfully humorous.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Gosh, it’s really difficult to name any one but I’m pretty impressed with young Greta Thunberg right now. I admire any mana wahine, strong women and activists, who are passionate about a cause and change the world in a positive way because of it.
A favourite quote:
“Tell the story, tell it true, charm it crazy.” – Sam Hunt.
Tell us about your pets:
I have two cats. Sylvie, a grey tabby who thinks my sewing room is hers. She ‘helps’ me while I’m working. Then Che Guevara, a big black tom who looks scary but is really just a kitten in big skin. I have also recently become mama to 5 week old Orpington chicks which will supply us with eggs in the future.
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
I’d be the EcoPrintcess and I would repair degeneration of forests by magically planting trees that grow really fast.
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Stay focused on your goals. We creatives tend to become distracted by our abundance of ideas. Stick with the plan until you are in the best position to diversify. Also, keep good boundaries between work and play. When your work is something you love to do, it’s easy to just keep on working and, before you know it, the balance swings away from playtime. So take as much care of yourself as you do of your business. Oh, and never lose that spark of madness.
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
I think it’s important to redefine our concept of value. Mass production makes us think that value is a good bargain or saving money. It shouldn’t be like this. Value is found in great design, longevity, quality and, most of all, narrative. Buying handmade or local means you know the story, appreciate the craft and pay the maker what it’s really worth. Shopping becomes a meaningful experience and you stop thinking, ‘what’s in it for me?’ and instead think about what is the benefit for the buyer and the artist.
What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
I feel honoured that somebody wants to own a piece of my work. I get a real buzz seeing things go off to new homes.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
I bought a sweet little hanging ceramic planter from Cemetery Road Collection. It’s cone shaped, white with black dots and hangs in my kitchen. I love the simplicity of white ceramics. Cemetery Road is a local artisan business created by a friend. It’s great knowing who made my things.
What’s in store for 2020?
I’ll keep building the Nuku empire (lol). Over summer I’ll be making items for Felt and the Mangawhai Tavern Market. Winter is a quieter production time for me so then I’m focusing on some commission work and volunteering for Intercept Fabric Rescue in Whangarei. They give me preloved clothes which I dye for charity. I’m also looking forward to joining The Reinvented Project market series. I’ll be continuing my research on dyeing with NZ natives, and learning about rongoa Māori. I enjoy sharing my skills at workshops so the intention is to do more of those, for both adults and children. I am also working on launching a new and different product in the near future. I’m keeping it under cover until I’m ready but I can say it’s a naturally plant dyed item destined for an entirely different market than the fashion sector.
Karen has very kindly offered a beautiful prize for one lucky Felt reader of this gorgeous Nuku scarf (see below). Pure silk, this unique scarf is dyed with the imprints of summer leaves – maple, casuarina and grevillea. It measures 148cm x 29cm. To be in to win just leave us a comment below telling us what you like about Karen’s story and her mahi.
The draw closes at 5pm Monday 16 March 2020 and is open to New Zealand residents only.