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The Alchemy of creating in Flow with Nature

Written by Frances Barbara, 3rd April 2023

Meet Akané. Gathering leftover flowers from temples as slow resistance towards fast fashion, Juhi and Janhavi Vyas are embodying the harmony and cycles of nature. Connecting ancient dyeing practices with experimentation, the sisters have an instinctive alchemy with natural dye to create unique colours summoning to be worn. 

Akané works with the natural flow of the seasons. Creation is in working without resistance to their environment. They don’t schedule or plan in the materials, they let rhythm and cycles affect what plant and materials they work with. Creation is instinctive, using what appears in their environment, rather than forced. There is a wealth and excitement that comes from each dye batch - it’s not an exact science, it is an artful one of colour that we end up wearing. 

There is a wealth and excitement that comes from each dye batch - it’s not an exact science, it is an artful one of colour that we end up wearing.

Unfading Roots & Dyes

Mumbai bustles and heaves, bubbling with smells, limbs and vehicles. If the humidity is too much it affects the chemistry of the dyeing processes. Indigo dye is sensitive to humid conditions impacting the quality and the finish on the fabric. Amidst these conditions and chaos Juvi and Janhavi have created a little studio haven to create timeless pieces. Mulberry silk pressed with leaves. Rose petals bleed into the water. A Burnt Orange (for a new Zazi collaboration) steeps in the background (and on their instagram stories!).

“It's all about going back to your roots. Going back to what our ancestors used to do and how they used to live their lives. For example, we use soap nuts to wash the fabric that we dye, which our Grandmother used to wash her hair while growing up. It feels like we are going back in time.”

We laugh together, but it becomes apparent that the timelessness that lies in Akané’s garments, comes from the richness that lies in the relationship between how they use the plants and natural materials together. It starts with Juvi and Janhavi’s curiosity in getting to know their heritage and place, as women. 

“A lot of different (global) communities have some kind of processes related to natural dying. In the ancient times this is how people dyed fabric and extracted colours from plants and nature. We are going back to our roots and living a sustainable way of life: doing things in a friendly way.”

Natural dyes are dyes or colourants which are derived from animals, plants or minerals. Dyes are sourced from biological matter - such as plants,  flowers, vegetables and fungi. As they are biodegradable, non-allergic and non-toxic they are said to carry hearing properties for our bodies and are in tune with nature.

A Love Story with Temple Flowers

Natural dyeing is not Janhavi’s first foray into Fashion. Discontent with the chemicals and fast fashion processes, she went travelling around India to discover several different methods. In Mumbai Juvi and Janhavi have a love affair with flowers. Flowers are a central feature of Akané’s dyeing practice. 

“March and April are a good time to source flowers and dry them out and then store them. This is the best time as it is very warm and there's no moisture in the air.”

They forage flowers from temples. At the full moon there is an abundance of left-over blossoms and petals. Each kind of flower honours a different God. Not by accident, Akané’s rhythms of practice align with the moon cycles. 

A beautiful feminine synchronicity that follows temple rituals and the natural cycles of life. Taking what would be disposed of and transforming it into rich expressions of colour. They say each type of flower or natural element alchemises through the dye-batch. 

“During Holi there is a flower called Flame of the Forest. Before chemical dyeing was normal, they would extract the orange colour from them during this festival. Marigold also has other uses - it is used in houses as an insect repellant. The flowers are malleable here.”

Annatto seeds give a beautiful orange colour and are also used for shoe polish sticks or for food colouring. Aster flowers, which dye a delicate purple, and the sisters' favourite flower, are used in skincare for strengthening skin.

“Each flower has ‘giving’ properties. So when we use them we get different results. We use our hands a lot - they  become so soft!”

In Harmony with Nature and Community 

There is a closeness between the sisters: reflective of the family spirit that is in the garments and their way of working. They shared a workshop with one of Zazi’s dear artisanal partners Kullvi Whims. Tucked into the mystical Himalayas, Kullvi Whims and the Akané women undertook some time to sink into the joyful experiments to turn local fauna to indigenous yarn. Winter is the time of year to use apples to dye. Warm, understated tones with songs spun into the wool and oh-so central to Zazi’s Winter Collection. 

Kullvhi Whims is an all female collective that lives in harmony with the cycles of nature. They hand spin the wool while singing, translating the cycles of nature, knowledge of the elders and the gifts of reciprocity that come through wool. Goddesses. The earthy tones: chai browns, warm reds, mustard yellows, are experimentations that are only continuing.

Janhavi shares that the joyful experiments that Kullvi Whims use different methods to what they delve into in Mumbai. 

“The pH level of the water was different over there. So that makes a change also when working on the fire. The women get some potatoes or corn or something and just throw it in the fire. They let it cook and then eat while dyeing fabric or wool.”

An Aromatic Experiment 

Natural dye is sensory - it’s a visual feast of colour but also of smells. Like magic with pots, steam, solvents, spoons. We ask the sisters to describe the fragrance of dyeing. 

“Red roses when we are steaming them smell like deep rose water. It is special and beautiful. Cutch is from taking the bark of the Acacia catechu tree and soaking it in hot water until a syrupy liquid forms. It leaves a brown colour that smells very strong. It smells a bit like coffee, but also not really! Each natural matter has a different smell but this one in particular is really weird. Also the soap nuts - they smell like socks.”

Embracing Difference as Strength 

We are in there with them, imagining our cheeks flushed from the steam, blushing from smiling, smelling a perfume of red roses they have gathered from temples. Juhi and Janhavi take us deeper into the process and alchemy of how they experiment with natural dyes that end up, for example, as whimsical Zazi dresses. 

“Even though we do the exact dye with the exact same recipe and use the measurements that we worked with on the sample… the colours still might turn out to be a little different. Pale yellows end up a little brighter than what we had died earlier. This happens with each batch of flowers.

“We have noticed this with the green colour, specifically the red marigold flower which gives our green dye. The greens were so different. It was because of getting different batches of flowers at different times. When you embrace these differences people might think of it as a mistake or as failure. Instead, we like to embrace them because it is what makes each dress unique. And each person is going to end up with a dress unique to them. We think of this as strength.”

This strength and unique-ness is felt in our collaborative pieces with Akané. Each garment is a different shade, even though they are cut from the same cloth and pattern. Juhi and Janhavi let us in on the secret working of colour batches they devise for Zazi. 

Green tones come from the dance between Iron and Marigold. Sticky ripe pears and dates are some of the fruits used as solvents for an effortless dye batch. Natural Indigo give those deeper blue hues. The herbaceous Alkanet root creates their favourite hue: purple. Safflower and Lac lay bare the earthy rich burnt orange. Watching the fabric dip into the dye-bath for the first time  is thrilling.

These colours will appear in the Zazi Summer 2023 Collection, flowing in fabric that has been so carefully tended to by the soft hands of nature.

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