Since being back in New York, I have been thinking a lot about developing sustainable artist cooperatives as a way to build emphasis around creating locally. I think that when people make an effort to know their community and what it has to offer, there is a natural inclination to support them rather than strangers working in a factory across the world. I set out to see what Portland textile artists are doing.
Today, I went to R.A.W. textiles to visit the owner, Rio Wrenn. She is an amazing inventor with interesting experiments that transform her work. When I saw her website, rawtextiles.com, I immediately knew that we would have a lot to talk about. For starters, she is a natural dyer, as well as a fine artist, and loves ornate fabric and detailing. Her studio is very inspiring.
She has built a composter using berries that she had grown in her garden along with rusted steel and copper to come up with a print that looks like this shirt in the picture.
It takes several weeks for the fabric to come out of the incubator before it is ready to be washed and sewn.
Rio is also a huge fan of upcycling. Her techniques and choices are unique. For example, the bra on this belly-dancing top is made from the netting of an orange bag, and rusted bottle caps cover the bodice.
The Concept of Rusting
Out of all of her styles, Rio’s artistry shines in her use of the rusting technique. She has a huge room full of various kinds of rusted, metal gadgetry. Her literal interpretation of the metal she uses makes a very bold statement. While her designs are beautiful and luxurious, I could not see myself wearing many of them because the juxtaposition between the silk and rust is too strong. Her unique applications actually prompted me to buy a book and research the use of metals in natural dyes. Most mordants are either metal or tannins and, while they are not all considered toxic, overexposure could pose problems. Consequently, I do not relish the thought of rust absorbed by the fibers of my under garments. Although I am very fond of her non-rust garments, I was surprised to learn that the market for her clothes was limited. Maybe the world is not ready for what she has to show.
Rio is a fiery woman, and, to me, this is important in understanding the story of her work. Rio is interested in sustainability in the general sense of the word. She has no inclination to talk about sourcing her fabric because she assumes only the best silks come from China. Her business is a labor of love and so her decision to buy from Asia makes sense on a personal level. When I asked her how she got into natural dying, I had the clear impression that the scientist in her likes the surprise and challenge of it all. Natural Dying is absolutely for process-orientated designers. Even in a green city like Portland, it seems that understanding and embracing the true meaning of sustainability is just beginning.