Skip to content

Circular Podcast with Lauren MacDonald

In the eighth episode of Series 01, Katie Treggiden talks to artist, designer and director of textiles studio, Working Cloth, Lauren MacDonald, about dying clothes using food waste. Lauren explains why she finds the term ‘natural dye’ problematic, how a box of penises put her off studying art (yes, you read that right!), the magic tricks she performs with red cabbage, and why avocados will turn your clothes pink not green.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m Katie Treggiden and this is Circular, a podcast exploring the intersection of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the thinkers, doers and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear take make waste model of production and consumption, and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about waste.

Lauren Macdonald 

I was working in fashion, which was kind of where my interest in sustainability really peaked, because I was working in luxury, I was making or helping to make – I worked in production – really, really beautiful clothing, and you get them in and you’d be really excited about them. And then three months later, they’d be like, 60% off, and no one can shift them.


Katie Treggiden 

Lauren McDonald is the founder of Working Cloth, a creative studio founded in 2016, with the intention of bringing together an appreciation for textiles, processes, and craft practice to a wider audience, through a combination of workshops, gallery shows, and commissioned textile works. She carefully crafts each piece she makes in the studio, reusing waste for smaller projects, and increasingly using food waste as a colourant. Lauren, I’d like to start where I often start in conversations like this and ask you a little bit about your childhood, your education, your background, and sort of how all that led to you being so involved in creativity and sustainability. I’m particularly interested in your training as an anthropologist.

Lauren Macdonald 

So I first became interested in art and design, I think, because my mom is an artist. Although that led me when I first sort of signed up to go to university, I signed up for Biological Sciences. I think just kind of as a rebellion because growing up there’d be – she went back to university to do Art education in her 40s, when we were sort of early teenagers. And I think, because she was older and had more of an income, bought the work a lot of younger student friends. So our house was filled with like weird student art pieces. And I remember kind of like taking friends over home and she had this sort of wooden box and out of it was like squirting loads of penises, and concrete on our landing and on stairs and just being like 14 and absolutely horrified that that was in my house. And there’s naked sculptures in the garden that she had made and put out. And now as an adult, it’s wonderful. But as a teenager, it was like art is not for me, this is not. So I’m gonna do science. But I had started sewing sort of, in my mid teens, mostly through, because I couldn’t get the clothes that I wanted sort of, in the shops at the time, I couldn’t afford the things that were, that I really wanted to wear. And lots of them just weren’t kind of available. It was sort of Midwestern Canada, so I started sewing to kind of learn to make myself as things. And it translated into an interest in design sort of more broadly, and materials more broadly. And then, through university and kind of learning about the material culture of clothing and objects and the science kind of fibres. Looking at those things kind of more structurally, I guess, and how those kind of affect us culturally and socially. My anthropological training was through a Masters programme that I started in 2018 and finished last year at UCL. I had an earlier education in Human Ecology, focusing around textiles, which was sort of a Midwestern Canadian adaptation of what used to be a home economics degree. So it was textile science and sort of pattern cutting and material culture and this weird sort of mishmash of weird and wonderful things, but all things kind of textiles. And then I moved here, and I was working in fashion, which was kind of like where my interest in sustainability really peaked. Because I was working in luxury, I was making or helping to make – I worked in production – really, really beautiful clothing, and you’d get them in and you’d be really excited about them. And then three months later, they’d be like, 60% off, and no one can shift them. And people would want to return them to you. And it’s sort of quite heartbreaking when you’ve kind of worked hard to realise something. And even at that sort of luxury price point where you’re not sort of making things that are disposable, they kind of still are in their own way, which the seasonality of it was quite sad for me. So I stopped that in 2016, and started focusing on making quilts, which is sort of an heirloom practice where you’re trying to make things for generations, which is quite wonderful in its own way, and sustainable kind of in a very different way than I think people talking about how to make circular product design, because even that sort of shifts a little bit.

Katie Treggiden 

And then you set up Working Cloth.

Lauren Macdonald 

Yeah, so I set up Working Cloth in 2016, which I started because I really love all the sort of idiosyncrasies of textiles and clothing, and I wanted to share that and educate people about them and sort of spread my love of that, in a way, that I didn’t feel like I could do through fashion or another kind of output.

Katie Treggiden 

So you work with what I’ve previously called natural dyes, but I know you struggle with that terminology. So could you expand a little bit on on why that is?

Lauren Macdonald 

I think calling something natural is quite tricky, because our ideas of nature are quite complicated. And often when we think of something natural implies a kind of morality, or a sort of like betterness, almost. And it’s used a lot for marketing. And I think it really oversimplifies both the history of natural dyeing, which prior to sort of the 1850s encompassed all dyes, so any colour that we had, which was a huge industry. And it was a huge industry, and one that was implicated in a lot of labour injustices and social injustices, a lot of issues with class, and race. I think there are all these sort of structural problems of labour that follow textiles and dye technology, regardless of whether or not the dyes that you’re using are natural or synthetic, or now biological, because that’s like fermenting colour with bacteria, and things like that are starting to become more common. And I think kind of natural ignores the toxicity of some of the processes. So for instance, there’s a colour called Turkey Red, and it’s called Turkey Red after Turkey, the country and the Levantine Empire. It was bright and beautiful, and Europeans couldn’t copy it, they couldn’t figure out how it was done. It was 200 years of searching for this colour. And it’s, the recipes vary, but it’s a four week process that includes things like ox blood and urine and dung and like running the yarn through like systems of blood, and dung, and soda ash and lye. So on a visit to a Greek village called Anabelakia – their village was known for Turkey Red, and its production. And when this sort of explorer went to kind of visit, the explorer, potentially just to spy, looking for how to make this colour, found that the dyers were the only ones who could live in a village. That was them and their families because the stench was so bad that no one else would live there. There’s that and there’s things like Indigo was the first slave crop in Haiti. It’s sort of relationship to Bengal in India and that economy, it was the second biggest export out of British India bar opium. So there’s things that when people are like, oh, natural dyeing, I think it sort of covers that for these industrial histories in a way that maybe should be made more common, because the systems of production are complicated whether or not they’re agricultural or petrochemical based.

Katie Treggiden 

So tell me a bit about the hyper localised dye gardens that you see as an alternative to these sort of big industrial international processes.

Lauren Macdonald 

One of the beautiful things about botanical dyes is that the colour so greatly reflects the land that it was grown in, and the soil. So whether you’re growing, it’s a bit like wine, I guess, is really celebrated in that way with the concept of…. So you’re looking at sort of what soil was this grown in? Did it face north or south? How was it picked? When was it picked? Was it picked early or late and I think those kind of things really resonate with botanical colour, because plants can make minerals from the soil bioavailable, and the absorption of that can change the way that they colour. And so just speaking really beautifully and kind of in a really romantic way to place. I also think it’s despite its like huge industrial past, there’s also great links to natural dyeing and localised economies to indigenous knowledge and valuing that indigenous knowledge, to craft production, and to really valuing the craftsmen and the artisan. So I think it’s kind of got these two points and finding somewhere that fits inbetween is key to creating colour that’s both beautiful and sustainable.

Katie Treggiden 

And I think some of that, some of that storytelling that you’re able to do through those colours in terms of where they’ve come from and who’s created them, I think is really important as well, isn’t that?

Lauren Macdonald 

I think so, yeah. I also think it’s a way to get people actively involved in production in a way that isn’t necessarily monetised. So it’s the same sort of, if you grow a potato in your garden, and even if it’s the sort of smallest, wonkiest, saddest potato, you’re like, kind of weirdly proud of it. And I think it’s the same with colours. You sort of get this agency and this, it’s a really rewarding thing as well to grow your own. Whether it not it’s food or colour?

Katie Treggiden 

We’ll come on to the, the kind of role that the amateurs can play in, in dyeing in a little bit. But first, I wanted to talk to you about using food waste, because obviously, this series is focused particularly on waste. So I wanted to ask you about using food waste as a natural dye stuff.

Lauren Macdonald 

I think I was first attracted to using waste because of its accessibility, not just for me, but for people that I teach. And it’s a really good sort of gateway drug into the world of dying. And it has all the same components of sort of growing your own colour, and terms of that agency in terms of sort of being surprised and seeing beauty in something that you might have thrown away. And it’s, I think, the relocating of waste products on a domestic level, and on potentially a more industrial level, like looking at sort of processing of things like onions, of walnuts of looking at that even at a bigger level, it’s just could be a real game changer in terms of economies, in terms of like regenerative agriculture, and the sort of way that we see ourselves as participants, and structures of production and consumption.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, I think that’s a really important point, this idea of bringing about change. And you mentioned the term game changer. Tell me a little bit more about that and how food waste could be a game changer in colour?

Lauren Macdonald 

I think there’s scope to kind of start small, and that I think, even personal agency, like understanding that you can get colour from these things and these things are valuable, can change minds on a really local level, and just help to reduce individual waste, which I think is great. I think also, there’s the power of repurposing things that you may have kind of lost interest in, in terms of textiles, or we talked about the waste being thrown away. But also people have life clothing right now has quite a short lifespan. So sort of reinvigorating the life of that as well. So in a really small scale, I think that works. I also think there’s real room to elevate it, elevate the scale through collective personal action, which I would also like to say that I think that for regenerative agriculture and things to get like a real grip, we need sort of widespread policy change and differences in lobbying. And I don’t think this is the answer, but I think it’s a really great way to introduce people to the idea.

Katie Treggiden 

We’ll be back after a short break when Lauren’s going to tell us about magic tricks involving red cabbage trimmings, why avocados won’t turn your fabric green and what she calls the Velveteen Rabbitiness of using natural dyes.

Katie Treggiden 

I might have mentioned I’ve got a new book coming out. Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure published by Ludion, is available to pre order on Amazon now and in local bookshops from 8th October.

Katie Treggiden 

And you mentioned when you were talking to me about this process, when we were sort of chatting in preparation for today, that using food waste as a way to colour textiles is both really accessible for beginners and really challenging for experienced dyers. So I was interested to understand the process – what do you have to do to food waste and to use it as a dye, and how is that process both accessible and yet challenging?

Lauren Macdonald 

So there are things that will dye really easily and if you’re just looking to sort of give your a T shirt a bit of a cheer up or kind of make some nice coloured tea towels, it’s quite easy. It’s so for instance, for onions or for avocados or for pomegranate skins, you put them in a pot, you’ve covered that pot with water, you turn the heat up to let it simmer and you simmer it gently like a tea. So you’re thinking like of gently extracting the colour and not sort of like boiling it. You let that hang out for an hour, it’s kind of the longer the stronger, so if you leave it for longer, you will get a brighter colour. You scour your things and scouring is the process of washing them. So you’re getting out any like leftover detergents or residues from fabric softeners, etc. And then you mordant them, you can mordant them with alum, which is a substance that’s found in most deodorants. So I also had the student like at home, try and recreate it and she was like, ‘I didn’t have alum, so I ground up my deodorant and it worked.’ I was like, ‘that is very resourceful of you. I love that so much.’ But you can also use iron, there are different plant substances you can use to mordant. I’ve seen like the leaves and the roots of rhubarb used which seem to have quite a strong effect. And the mordanting effect of plants can also depend on how they’re grown. So there’s a very famous dyer called Michel Garcia, and he talks about going to this village in India and having them use this plant from the mountains to dy their clothes. The exact same plant was grown in the village and none of the white people could understand why they went to the mountains to get this plant, but there’s aluminium in the soil in the mountains and not….even though it was same the same plant they dyed very differently, the results were very different. So I think there’s that kind of element as well which if you are a more advanced dyer, and you’re growing things yourself, or you’re experimenting with different food waste, or different mordants, this kind of, it’s a really wonderful way to experiment. There’s also this sort of molecular science of it, which is quite incredible and also something to get lost in for years.

Katie Treggiden 

And are the colours fairly obvious, you know, does onion make your clothes go brown, does avocado make your clothes go green, or are there some surprising outcomes of different food wastes?

Lauren Macdonald 

So there are some surprising outcomes. Avocado, because you’re using the skins and the stones give you a really lovely sort of rosy pink. Onions can give you sort of anywhere from browns to oranges. If you’re using red onions you get a sort of more pink. Loads and loads and loads of plants will give you yellow; there’s a lot of yellow plants. There’s also things like an iron modifier, which is made by getting into vinegar and putting some nails in it or some other sort of rusty objects, waiting a couple of weeks, then if you add that to any dyebath, it sort of deadens the colours. So you get from pomegranate, you might have a yellow and then you add your iron modifier, and you get like this khaki and grey.

Katie Treggiden 

What’s your favourite colour so far that you’ve made with food waste?

Lauren Macdonald 

I was gonna say Juniper, but that’s not food waste. That was really nice, because I was quite surprised by it. I think, and this is not a colour that sticks around so it’s not actually a great dyer, but I love it as it’s a demo that you can do for kids and it’s so fun – it’s red cabbage. If you use lemon juice, so the red cabbage dye stays sort of red, purple and if you put a little bit of baking soda in it, it goes this sort of turquoise blue, and it feels really incredible and it’s really fun to watch people react to it, especially kids.

Katie Treggiden 

Is there something, I mean, obviously if they fade very quickly it’s not necessarily going to work, but is there something appealing in colours that aren’t necessarily 100% steadfast? Is there something about working with natural dyes and food waste, and the transience of colour that has value?

Lauren Macdonald 

It definitely can do. I think it’s that aspect of care that we put into our clothing and there’s sort of a movement towards mending at the moment. And I think this kind of comes into that where you’re looking at a piece, not just as a piece, but as something that sort of gains life and patina and to the Velveteen Rabbitness as it goes. And I think there’s something really wonderful in that. I think it’s that thing as well of being totally fine for domestic production in use, but more difficult to scale. And then there are, it’s a sort of misnomer that natural dyes aren’t steadfast, and colorfast. But it’s the sort of techniques of production that make it more tricky to get that in your home. So even things like scouring properly, and having a big enough dye vat and moving them around the vat, keeping them there for long enough, mordanting correctly, sort of following the really sort of boring scientific process of it that makes you get kind of more repeatable colours. Whereas, if you’re just playing around at home, and you’re just being like, I’d like something to make an avocado pink thing, it’s quite satisfying to to bung it in a pot and see what happens. Which is, I guess, comes back to why it’s interesting both for those who are experienced and those who are just kind of playing around.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, and as you say, I think that gives people real agency, and one of the things I’m really interested in is the power of craft to bring about positive change. And I think a lot of that is putting the means of production in the hands of the people. It’s kind of enabling people to understand how things are made, understanding how they can be repaired, understanding how their lives can be extended through, as you suggested, changing their colour or mending textiles. I think there’s a huge power in that.

Lauren Macdonald 

I do, too. I think it’s, it’s one of the things that scares me. I’m not a luddite at all. I love the internet. But I’m also – it scares me a little bit how, and maybe I’m speaking to my own shortcomings rather than anyone else’s – but the digital world is sort of so, in so many ways, not tangible and not something you can kind of fix yourself. Except that I’m sure that there are loads of people like 10 years younger than me being like, yes, you can. You just don’t know how, which is also fair.

Katie Treggiden 

But there’s certainly a tangibility I think that’s lost when so much of our lives are lived via a screen rather than absorbing all five senses.

Lauren Macdonald 

I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that’s why I love gardening and dyeing and making things, but I also love that you can sort of type into YouTube: ‘How do I do this,’ and then it shows you how, so I think it’s kind of a double edged sword where it’s an incredibly useful tool, but it’s also something that is kind of overwhelmingly omnipresent.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah and there’s also that, you know, you can share your work on Instagram and connect with people and, you know, there’s upsides too. You mentioned kind of showing kids the incredible colour transformations of red cabbage, aside from small children and what sounds like a magic trick, how have people reacted to this work? How have they reacted to the idea that kind of food waste can be used to colour textiles, both in sort of workshops, but also in seeing the end product and in seeing your sort of bespoke pieces?

Lauren Macdonald 

I think they’ve reacted quite well. I’m one of many who are kind of doing this at the moment. So there are lots of people kind of interested in natural dyeing, I feel like it’s sort of Zeitgeisty at the moment and in a number of different ways. And certainly, like digital platforms have helped that, in terms of discussing craft on a larger scale. Generally in workshops, people have been really positive, they’ve been quite excited, I think, to see what comes out at the end result. And because often, they’re invited to bring their own textiles to dye, they sort of start to understand more about the fibers, because they see how theirs reacts differently to other people’s. Like silk and wool are protein fibres, they take colour much more easily in a different way than cellulosic fibres, which are sort of things like cotton and linen. And then synthetic fibres are very difficult to dye with natural dyes. So there’s that as well, where people kind of I think start to understand what and look at more what their clothes and what their textiles around them are actually made of, which I think is really cool as well.

Katie Treggiden 

And how do you feel that opinions are changing towards using wastes specifically, so people could find it a bit disgusting. You know this is food that we would normally put in the bin and all of a sudden, you’re boiling up on the stove and putting clothes that you’re going to wear in it? How are people handling that recategorization. One of the things I talked about in the book I’ve just written about waste is this idea that waste is a category not a fact. So how do people feel about that recategorization of something that was one minute waste and now you’re saying actually, this is a useful, valuable resource?

Lauren Macdonald 

I really like the idea of recategorization. I haven’t really thought about it in that way, specifically but I think that makes a lot of sense. I think that’s a real challenge, as well, because it’s so ingrained in us what is good and what is sort of garbage. And even things like Best Buy dates, and people can get really caught up on looking at sort of what the packet says, as opposed to what the food actually is. I don’t know, my opinion was changed when I got this little worm farm, just like a home composter. And I think the process of putting things in that and watching them being transformed from waste to like really powerful fertiliser, and you got like a little spout at the bottom and it comes like incredible plant food comes out the bottom. And watching the effect that that had on my garden and my houseplants like, ‘oh, there’s something powerful in this, this can be really wonderful.’ So I think it’s that kind of thing of personal agency, and experimentation that can help recategorize it. I think people’s attitudes also shifted by the fact that we have so much stuff. I think in some ways, our society is increasingly split in terms of income, and quality of life. We’re all kind of a lot more materially wealthy than we would have been in previous generations, because stuff has become so cheap. And you think there’s only so much cheap stuff you want. And that means you have to kind of figure out what things are valuable to you in your life, what kind of processes and objects you want to make time for. And the repurposing of waste can be a really exciting way to do that.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, definitely. What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material and something that we can increasingly recategorize?

Lauren Macdonald 

I’m kind of, I’m quite optimistic about this. I think there are so many people using it in so many different spheres. Like there is like company called Chips Board that’s making sort of an MDF out of potatoes, potato waste. A friend of mine in Sweden is working on using like mineral dust from mining operations and baking it with gluten to make new materials, which is incredible. I think there’s a lot of people kind of looking at this being like, what can we, you know, what can we do with this? I think it feels like the focus and design education is really changing on that as well. Once it hits the sort of education stage where people are thinking about it from, you know, the age of 19 or 20 or whenever you go to university, it sort of really hits home as an idea that should be stuck with or that it is even a concept that you would… I don’t actually think I would have even have thought of it as a sort of possibility.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, and I think that’s, I think the word possibility is a beautiful way to wrap up and that idea of optimism, and I think if we can get these sort of things increasingly into design education, then there’s hope for us yet.

Lauren Macdonald 

Absolutely. And I also think, into design education and into the world more broadly. Because there’s a lot of us designers coming out of school, but it’s also fitting that we’re the people who aren’t necessarily interested in these things or don’t know about them or wouldn’t experience them directly. And that’s kind of exciting as well, I think.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah. And I think the workshops that you’re running, particularly the ones with kids are a brilliant way to start.

Lauren Macdonald 

That’s really fun.

Katie Treggiden 

Brilliant. Cool. Well, thank you so much, Lauren. It’s been absolutely fascinating talking to you.

Lauren Macdonald 

Cool. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Katie Treggiden 

If you enjoyed this episode of Circular with Katie Treggiden, can I ask you to leave a review and perhaps even hit the subscribe button. Those two actions really help other people to find the podcast, so I would be very grateful. Thank you. Thank you to Lauren MacDonald, Gordon Barker for the edit, October Communications for marketing support, Sound Compound for the music, and of course to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to circular with Katie Treggiden.

P.S. I am recording Season Two of the podcast now and the theme this time is repair. I really believe that people who make and mend with their hands hold the keys to helping us move from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ model to a more sustainable ‘circular’ economy. If you do too, I am looking for likeminded brands to help bring the meaningful conversations I know I’m going to have on this season of the podcast to a larger audience. Email me and I’ll send you more info on how you could get involved as a sponsor.