Flora Obscura was born from the plant life of designer Alison Dahl Kelly’s Brooklyn, New York backyard. Sustainably sourced plants provide their painterly touch to versatile kimonos, tunics, and wraps. The garments are purposefully accessible to many shapes, sizes, and tastes – whether you dress to feel out of this world, or you’re looking for a statement piece. Mysterious and demure, moody like a dark sea, and startling vermillion hues are all found among the line of high fashion silk pieces.
Ancient, all-natural dying techniques are an enduring craft in Alison’s Brooklyn and Cape Cod studios. Born in Vermont, she studied fashion and metal smithing around the globe, before settling back in the North East to create collections of her own. Inspired by her life-long love of nature the artist approached plant life to create prints. Wildly harvested, homegrown, and rescued from the florist, each plant has a personality of its own. Alison found that some leave a mirror of themselves on the silk, other finicky specimens transfer little or not at all. Still, other plants possess a natural compound that makes them extract the color of the fabric instead, providing a ghost-like effect. From Alison’s mastery of these dyeing techniques Flora Obscura became a line of truly unique pieces. They can make you feel like a fantasy novel heroine, or update your urban wardrobe with an unexpected, sweeping touch.
Learn more about Alison and her fascination with flora and design in our Q&A below:
Where did you grow up? Did that influence your work as an artist?
I began my life in the mountains of Vermont and then we moved to Cape Cod. Cape Cod was a beautiful place to grow up and I spent much of my childhood outdoors. I was a total hippie as a teenager, an “artist in the making,” sewing my own clothes, eating vegetarian, painting the seascapes, taking artful photos in nature. The coastline varies dramatically across the Cape, and it’s covered with ponds, marshes, gardens and lovely woods to walk in. The native flora has always been a source of inspiration and I’m thrilled to be using it directly in my work today.
How did Flora Obscura come to be?
Before F.O. I had a wedding and bridesmaid dress line called Dahl. I did this for about 7 years, my own wedding having been the catalyst for the first collection. Eventually I began aching for something new. I ended up getting pregnant and was so sick that I had to spend the first few months in bed. I had A LOT of time to think. During this time, I decided that I wanted to create my own prints on fabric. I wanted to make a simple garment that was uniquely printed or hand-dyed that many different people could wear, hence the kimono. I took a dye class and then read as many books and online sources I could find about natural dyeing. Slowly, I built a collection and quietly created a website and Instagram account.
What were your early experiments like?
I immediately dove into bundle dyeing, a process where plant matter is laid directly onto fabric, then tightly bound to be steamed or immersed in a hot dye bath. The heat permanently transfers alluring imprints & colors from the flora onto the fabric. It can be wonderfully mystical or totally disappointing – but I had to try. It was Springtime in Brooklyn and I had collected flowers from my backyard and rolled them up in silk and waited for the magic to happen. The very first item I made was a silk dress to wear to a friend’s wedding. I was so encouraged by the positive comments I got from it, it all just seemed so right, so it became my next adventure.
What inspired you to use natural dying techniques? How did you learn about this?
An interest in natural dyeing came to be while I was pregnant and experimenting with synthetic dyes – there are so many dangers and precautions one must take into consideration when using synthetic dyes. Textile mills are some of the top polluters in the world because of the dye and dye processes that are in use. I wanted an alternative, and thankfully there were a few pioneering women, like India Flint and Irit Dulman, sharing resources and experiments for natural dyeing. I started experimenting myself and was thrilled with the results of my first try. From then I was hooked.
Describe the steps of your dye process:
Flora Obscura items go through a multi-step process. The plain white silk is first hand-dyed with a specific color in mind with dyes made from plants, then the silk is imbued with flora through an alchemical steaming process (which we call bundle dyeing or eco-printing). These steps may take place again until the desired color palate is achieved. Finally, my favorite part, the silk is cut and sewn into a garment.
How are the beautiful plants sourced?
Dye materials are harvested wildly, homegrown, attained from certified organic vendors and salvaged from florists. Some come from walks I take with the dog in Brooklyn, many come from harvesting the natural flora of Cape Cod.
My assumption is that each flower dyes the same color as it’s petals. Is that true, or is there room for variation?
If only! I know many natural dye artisans who, like me, become disappointed when a vivid color fades or doesn’t transfer at all. Some flora does indeed imbue the natural color it possesses, but many don’t or need the help of mordants or modifiers to achieve a certain color. Hibiscus is an example of a plant that gives quite a literal imprint that is true to the natural color. Then there are plants that “discharge” or remove color from the fabric, such as sumac leaves, leaving their imprint in place. There’s a lot of trial and error and there’s no one way that something will work every time. Each experiment is unique. So, when you get something good you’re thrilled and hopefully took notes.
You’ve studied in the US, Italy, and Mexico. Were these experiences similar, or did each one teach you something different about art?
My college experience was tailor-made to suit my desires: to be a bohemian and an artist, and somehow my parents were okay with it. My first year of college was spent at the Instituto de Allende, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as a Fine Art major. I fell in love with silversmithing and mainly concentrated on that. Then I spent 2 years doing the Fashion Design Intensive Program at the Lorenzo de’Medici Scuola de’Arte in Firenze, Italia. I ultimately came back to the states and earned a BFA in Fashion Design from Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston.
How do you re-charge when you hit a creative slump?
It can be quite depressing when one isn’t feeling inspired or excited to get to work and I struggle to find balance as a wife, mother and artist. Unless I have to, I try not to work when I’m not feeling it, otherwise I tend to be lazy or make poor decisions. To recharge I try to get out in nature, read inspiring books, look at art.
What do you like to do when you are not designing textiles?
I’m a mother of a 2-year old and she takes up a lot of my time. However, I practice yoga every day, like to take walks with my Shiba Inu Sargent, drink coffee, read about the latest natural dye techniques and experiments, take art classes and eat good food.
What is your favorite plant and why?
Staghorn Sumac. You can make a delicious cocktail with the berries, which in turn are glorious eco-printers, both the berries and the leaves.
See more of Alison’s work at floraobscura.nyc
All images courtesy of Flora Obscura