When dyeing becomes your living
“When life and work becomes one.” That’s how Lucila Kenny looks at each day in her Amsterdam lab-studio where she colours textiles with nature’s crayons what nature has to offer. Born in Argentina in 1980, she may have grown up in the streets of Buenos Aires, but in the back of her mind she knew that one day she would eventually live in Amsterdam. The Mind’s Eye is no stranger to her. Today she indeed finds herself in Amsterdam surrounded by young, energetic students as well as experienced, passionate colleagues.
How did your journey into the World of textile dyeing begin?
My childhood was really nice, I studied Textile Design at the University of Buenos Aires and after I graduated I started a small silkscreen printing studio with a friend. We were designing patterns and printing per meter. We did it for two years while we still had other jobs. We had so much to learn. A few years later I decided to travel to Ghana where my mother used to live. In Africa they produce a lot of Batik, which is an ancient technique of printing with bees wax. You print and stop the dye from going through. A Ghanaian lady taught me the technique during my first months. I lived there with a French-Dutch speaking family, which was such a great cultural mix. Being from South America, living in Africa and hearing so many different languages everyday — mixed with African music, the sun, the warmth of people. It all inspired me so much.
What eventually lead you to Amsterdam?
When I was young and still living in Argentina, I travelled several times to Amsterdam. And after being in the city several times, I started to see myself biking there to work, or to a studio and living comfortably in the city. I really saw myself. In the meantime I made friends in the city and stayed with them when I travelled to Amsterdam. It was every time so eye-opening to see how open minded this city is. I learned a lot about the culture with every trip. And at a point I decided to move to Amsterdam for an internship with the artist Claudy Jongstra, who makes felted monumental wool tapestries for museums, buildings and private spaces. She has a studio in a tiny farm in Friesland which she started about 25 years ago. I joined her there for two months and learned how to dye with plants.
How was it to work with Claudy Jongstra?
Assistants would bring the wool of the sheep in one fleece into the studio and I had to wash and colour it, I became the dyer of the studio for 2 years. The colour had to be very precise. Claudy let me explore everything, and didn’t teach me directly but let me learn the craft myself with trial and error. The process started with testing the correct colour, and once I found it I had to upscale it to kilograms of wool that where waiting on me. I did this entire process sometimes for three days in a row. Four days out of the week I would be there and the other three days I’d be in Amsterdam, usually the weekend. I travelled back and forth for two years. It was hard but amazing and I learned everything the craft has to offer, and on my own. So a two month internship turned into a two year collaboration and adventure.
Is that when you transitioned to starting your own designs?
Yes! I got some pigments from Africa and was thinking, whenever I make a piece of textile myself, it should be a scarf because with everyone biking here in Amsterdam that’s a very useful piece of clothing. Everybody wears it. So I thought, let’s make scarves in my own colours, with a beautiful soft textile. I had €500 saved and bought fabric with it. On a little balcony in Amsterdam North I started making the scarves and I went to local markets to sell them. It wasn’t easy to make a living out of it but I was determined to succeed. I reduced all of my expenses, rent, food, no travelling, less going out, and focused only on this project.
So you started your business back then with a practical idea and $500. What are you doing today?
My first big client ordered 80 scarves for her store, I was very excited and worked on it very hard for the first months. Last year I also started holding workshops to spread this knowledge. Not to convince participants of what I believe but at least to open their eyes. I realised that I like to teach because I learn so much in the process. Students were asking me questions and many times I didn’t have an answer. So I have to research more, I thought. Then I started a project about collecting barks during winter from the trees in the Westerpark with a colleague and friend who studied biodynamic farming. He knows everything about plants and I miss that knowledge. I always worked with extracts from plants or dried stuff but never grew them.
This is an amazing building that you have your lab in by the way. Are there a lot of like-minded people working here everyday?
Absolutely. Last year for example I heard that there was a 86 year old Dutch biologist and artist working here in the same building like me who has a Botanical “tinctorial” garden where she grows plants specifically to make ink for printing on paper. I volunteered on her project Blauwe Maandag and suddenly my studio became very busy, with workshops every two weeks, designing scarves, and a lot of students coming from Design academies and Art schools. They come over looking for information and I tell them my experience. I try to inspire them in how to dye their fabrics as well as how to start a business from scratch, or better yet from €500 like I did.
Sounds like you are enjoying every minute of every day.
I do, but every day I meet someone who asks “How do you make a living out of this?”. That’s clearly such an important question to a lot of people. It made me wonder how many people are doing a job that they don’t like. Now, for me, my work is my life. I don’t see or feel a difference between when I’m working and when I’m not working. That’s just how it feels, and yes, I’m at a point in my life where I’m completely fulfilled. And on top of that I’m in Amsterdam, a daydream that came true. In a few years I’ll be 40 and I’m considering leaving the city to the countryside so I can have a garden. But that’s later. Something else I’m working on now is the research for a city guide booklet called The Colours of Amsterdam. I just had a meeting with a publisher to help us with the content. Everyone who proposes to help me by the way does it in a very spontaneous way and I am very grateful for that.
That’s a beautiful story Lucila. At ZOTEYE we approach everything in more or less that same way. Opportunities present themselves or not, there’s no need to chase them. Have faith in what will come.
Exactly. That’s how it works. It’s not that hard. We are all too dominated by our mind. I started doing Yoga and I try to meditate every day for a bit so I am learning so much about embracing what we have and don’t try to force things in a specific direction. If something or someone doesn’t come to you then don’t force it. It won’t work.
What is Amsterdam to you in one word?
What is your HeadSpot, EyeSpot and MouthSpot?
The Westerpark is my HeadSpot. I live next to it and it’s a blessing that I can bike through the forest. I love hearing the trees. The architecture in Amsterdam is my Eyespot, all of it. (big smile) The typical old part of the city. It still looks exactly the same as in the 17th century. Amazing how they are able to keep it intact. I love being catapulted back a few centuries when I walk and bike here.
How does that compare to Argentina? Is there a lot of old architecture too?
Argentina is a huge country, and I was raised in Buenos Aires which is a very European-inspired city. It can give you the feeling that you’re in Paris, Barcelona or London when you go from one part to another. Once you leave the city you can also find a lot of farmers and indigenous people. More south you’re close to Antartica. It’s so different. Holland doesn’t have a lot to offer on landscape level. It’s all the same, very flat. But Amsterdam is different, it inspires me every day in another way. There’s something exciting to see, feel or experience on every corner. For four-and-a-half years I didn’t go back to Argentina. Last year I did and it was a shock becoming a very emotional trip for me. It made me realise that my life is here. This is my home now.
And your Mouthspot?
De Kaskantine is my favourite place now, it’s located inside the Westerpark. They grow their own food. They are vegan focused and have a beautiful greenhouse made out of wood. They work with a lot of volunteers. The food they gather each day then goes into delicious meals that they cook fresh that day. I love to go to this kind of place that’s helping the Planet, building community. The food you eat there is more honest. It’s like a ritual, a ceremony and in line with my own beliefs.
What is a beautiful experience or event that happened to you in the past years linked to working with fabrics and dyeing?
I think it was starting the project which lead me to what I am doing today. It’s not a company or a business, it’s me, who I am. My life now has much more sense to it, and if I die tomorrow my knowledge will keep living in the students I teach every week. I regret how people can sit on their knowledge, not wanting to share it with anyone. The knowledge I have has brought me so many connections and so much information in the past years. Starting it all from scratch was very powerful. Almost all of my energy goes into it every day, but it gives me an enormous amount of energy in return.
When you go back in time to when you were growing up in Argentina, what pulled you to study textile design?
I’ve been drawing with crayons since I was a little girl. I was always colouring and very crafty. I had no interest in technology, at all. I always liked to touch and work with my hands, sit on the floor, collect things. The study-based career is called Fashion and Textile design. The first year you do Fashion and Design, but the second year you have to choose either Fashion or Textile design. Two-hundred-and-fifty students choose Fashion, and 20 choose Textile design. From which I was one of them. When I heard this I knew that I was going in the right direction. It was going to enable me to dive deep in the fibre. Take a microscope and study. I could study one-to-one with the teachers and develop my skills. There was no competition like there sometimes is in the very cold Fashion world. We didn’t look at trends, this was craftsmanship. I would love to travel the World more in the future to learn how people do the same thing in India or Thailand. That would be so inspiring. The same as how chefs want to learn how people cook in other countries. You learn so much with studying textiles. History, geography, the state of the soil, the seeds, the process. You learn how slow the plants grow and it gives you insight into why “fast fashion” is destroying the environment.
(This was a beautiful moment in our conversation, as in the silence of this pause the wind interrupted us as it blew audibly through the garden we were talking in…)
What are positive trends that you see in textile design, on clothes production?
The natural dyeing process is reviving. I see it Worldwide, everywhere, not in one country more than another. You have natural dyers everywhere. Apart from the species, the soil is also different from country to country, region to region, and continent to continent, which makes it interesting as a Global trend. The production of the textile, the industrial process, is mostly done in China but I want to look for something as local as possible. I found locally resourced hemp in Belgium. They ship the fibres of hemp to China and over there they have the technology to weave it and then bring it back here. There is unfortunately no technology to weave it industrially here in Europe yet. I see that they are trying to grow more hemp here because it was kind of pushed out of production with cotton mass production. Hemp is the best fibre that we can use nowadays, it has all of the best qualities for clothing, better than cotton, it is very resistant, but most of all the cultivation is healthier. To grow cotton a lot of pesticides are used and a huge amount of water is needed. Global changes are only possible with local changes. If we start to be more conscious about what we eat and buy from local farmers, and we produce textiles locally instead of in China, it can also become a Global change. That’s why I don’t stress about Global changes but focus on my own life here and what I can do, what I can bring to the table as a change.
Keep it local and support each other. Very powerful message for the future.
Yes, it’s the only solution, and it’s a power that we all have in ourselves. That’s why I started yoga. I needed more space in my mind and yoga helps me with that. It’s my mind, my body, my thoughts. We have at least 60.000 thoughts every day, conscious and unconscious ones combined. If we don’t make space daily for new thoughts, we start suffering. Making space with meditation and yoga helps us also to have more space in our body and soul to connect with nature, which on its turn leads to another connection. The reasons why I want to make this book and teach workshops is also to help people to love nature and show them that hugging a tree is not abnormal and that there is a message the trees wants to tell us. I did a ritual under a Willow tree at the Unseen Festival some weeks ago for a Berlin based photographer who did a walk around the Westerpark. We made tea from the Willow bark, and when I told the participants about the properties of what I brew I realised that this is what I want to bring to them. Stand close to the tree, drink the tea, smell it, look at the tree, listen to it. You can see so much, hear so much , feel so much. I love bringing people closer to nature.
Do you feel we should be concerned that as a species we’re losing contact with nature?
Yes, we are going so fast through life. It can’t be good. I’m now reading a book called “The hidden life of trees”. This man talks about how the trees communicate with each other and have a social life. They take care of each other and inform each other about threats. Amazing, yet we have no idea that this is happening around us. People are flying on their bikes past the trees and sometimes even looking at their phones. Help! (laughing hard)
What is your Amsterdam song?
X This conversation had place in the fall of 2017
X Interview and photography by Johan Bockstaele
X Images captured with a Hasselblad 501c, Carl Zeiss optics and Kodak film
X Interview conducted in English and edited by the clever ZOTEYE minions
*a place in the city where the person being interviewed goes when he/she needs a place to get inspired, contemplate about life or think about what to eat that evening (HeadSpot), a place to look around and give the eyes a blast or a meditative session (EyeSpot) and a place where he/she keeps going time after time to eat and/or drink something because it is ri-di-cu-lous-ly yummie. (MouthSpot)