Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with Samantha from Tinctoria designs. I have seen her company’s frocks in a few small. After nine years, they have decided to open a showroom in Portland, OR. Samantha was happy to share every part of the process comprising her entire business model from production to customer service.
In the beginning, she and a friend had the lofty idea of starting a clothing business, which they knew nothing about, and soon found themselves investing $5,000 in fabric and dyes. Slowly, they expanded through trial and error yet, over the years, they have remained a Portland produced brand. They experimented with natural fabrics, such as woven linen, but when too much time was spent on ironing, they transformed into an exclusive knitwear line. Today, they use hemp, organic cotton and soy. Samantha is a huge advocate of hemp. She explained that it gives off more oxygen than trees, uses less water to produce than cotton and has very long strands making it one of the most durable fabrics made. “It’s such a shame that the pharmaceutical companies feel threatened by the medicinal use of the plant, and hemp is not allowed to be grown in United States.
In the DIY spirit, Samantha and her partner figured out how to make all of their own patterns and outsource the sewing to a local Vietnamese woman with an American dream. After the garments are made, each one is hand dyed in a combination of natural plants and insects. Looking around the room, I took in the wide range of color she was able to achieve. Although, to me, it looks as though she was able to reproduce the same burgundy color in in each garment, she warns me that it has sometimes gotten her into trouble with wholesale accounts. “Often, they are inflexible and too controlling to allow for slight variation and extra time,” or, as I think of it, ample lead-time for a beautiful one-of-a-kind surprise. The natural dyes can be very unreliable, but that is the fun!
Together, we discussed the unsustainability in designing a collection for every season and having garments produced in large quantities. As the bell-bottom left fashion mags, she carefully preserved her lot until now, when 70’s inspiration returned. Where did all the bell-bottoms go from the large fashion companies? They went to Africa to compete with their indigenous textile traditions. We joked that pretty soon with the resurgence of the tribal fashion trend, we will eventually be selling them back their textiles.
Samantha’s father had pushed her to consider the possibilities of an account with Nordstrom’s, but the thought of selling her hard work for less moneyper unit, defragmented the joy and inspiration for doing Tinctoria. She is in love with the story behind the clothes. To her, it is of the utmost importance that the story is conveyed to all her customers, and mostly that is through direct contact.
Sometimes, she has to remind her customers that she is a small shoestring business because it seems that they forget. For example, someone spills olive oil on a shirt and proclaims that they need a new one free of charge. “It’s companies like Nordstrom’s that train people on what customer service is about. To them it is replacing anything at any cost. I think it is about the consumer being more responsible for themselves.” In my mind, we need to get out of the corporate motto, “ the customer is always right,” unless we truly want corporations to continue running the show.
Samantha has a great relationship with her customers and a huge following, but the natural dying has gotten her into a pickle on several occasions. One time she was selling at a festival to a woman at a lemonade stand. At the end of the day, the woman walked by with two pale orange handprints on her butt. “That’s when I found out that citric acid acts like bleach.” Another woman was returning pants because the crotch was fading quickly to pink. “The natural dyes are very sensitive to Ph, and sometimes, but very rarely, someone will have a very acidic sweat, and it will change the colors.”
Throughout our conversation it was impressed upon me that Tintoria was mostly a labor of love. When I asked, “What kept you going?” She replied, “I am doing what I love to do, and it brings me so much happiness. I do not need to be paid for every hour I work because to me it is fun. Of course, if I were working in an office, watching the clock go by, I would think differently.”
As I was leaving, I marveled at the clothes again. The colors had a liveliness that seemed to jump off the fabric. Although they are dyed very evenly, they have a rich texture. Somewhere, Samantha read that the molecules of synthetic dyes appear flat (on a microscopic level). For example, if displayed in a photo, each pixel would be the same color; however, in natural dyes, each pixel is a different shade allowing for subtle variations that the eye perceives as harmonious, but cannot necessarily detect.
This phenomenon is summarized in a quote from Rita Buchanan’s book, A Weaver’s Garden;
“Dyes from plants are not pure and refined but are blends of different colored substances. This impurity, I think, is what gives plant-dyed fibers such appealing richness and subtlety of shade. It also explains why plant-dyed colors ‘all go together’. One color will dominate, but it contains hints of other colors.”