Walking in front of me on a single-file footpath between an orchard and a paddock, Ros Humphries is suddenly miniaturised by a tunnel of towering cow parsley. “I love how it can make you feel so small,” she says, glancing back over her shoulder. As we make our way up and over the corn field behind the village church, she gently scuffs a plant that has inserted itself into the sun-baked path. “This is all chamomile,” she explains. “I never liked the taste, but I do use it in my sleep sachets.”
As founder of The Natural Dyeworks, Ros is a maker of small-batch, slow-crafted, hand-dyed ribbons, accessories and homewares, produced in her garden studio using exclusively plant-based dyes and natural fibres. Her raw ingredients are foraged from the paths and fields surrounding her home in east Kent, grown in her dye allotment or sourced from local food waste streams.
Listening back to our conversation, I realise that Ros gives a continuous commentary on the surrounding plant life. The cow parsley, the chamomile, a fierce-looking cardoon, the stickyweed and heritage hops – all get a mention as we wend our way to her allotment where, alongside “the gnarliest of pumpkin varieties”, Ros grows marigold, goldenrod, comfrey, hollyhocks, nettles, weld, coreopsis, lavender, rosemary, poppies and hops. It’s obvious that, for Ros, the connection to her immediate landscape – the fields and footpaths and sparse, sludgy shoreline – is all-encompassing. It is both her work and her pleasure and her thoughts are never far from it.
Ros moved from London four years ago and founded The Natural Dyeworks shortly after. I ask what prompted the move: “I love London for the culture, the arts – for everything it has to offer,” she replies. “But having lived in the city for 25 years, I realised I had become quite seriously disconnected from nature. As I got older – and especially after having my daughter, Poppy – I realised I was spending more and more time escaping the city.”
After her father died, Ros spent more time either at her London allotment or exploring the Olympic Park. At the same time, she started to read more about the natural world and the climate crisis. “With a daughter to bring up, I wanted to lead by example,” she says. “It’s all very well reading about it, and talking about it on social media, but you have to live your values. Moving to Kent has enabled us to do that a lot more.”
The move precipitated a career change for Ros who had worked as a senior buyer for a high street furniture retailer for two decades. “My work was all about trends and we worked 18 months in advance,” she explains. “There was a rigidity to it, but also a complete disconnect with the seasons. It was about having an idea, making it happen and selling it, whereas now, nature, the plants and the rhythm of the seasons dictate my work. That’s what I find inspiring and creatively challenging: the fact that my palette is dictated by something that’s so much greater than I am.”
Initially, Ros admits that she struggled with the inherent unpredictability of her craft. “I would spend a hideous amount of time, effort and energy trying to match a shop-bought, chemically-dyed dress,” she recalls. “Now I've got the confidence to say that I can't colour match. And, to be honest, I don't really want to because that's what I spent 20 years doing as a buyer and that just doesn't tick my boxes anymore.”
What does tick her boxes is working “in tandem” with nature, creating luminous colours, tones and textures according to what’s available. “It helps me to focus on that moment and puts things into perspective,” Ros says. “It’s comforting because – regardless of what’s going on in the news – you know that the cow parsley will be there, and soon after the elderflowers, followed by the elderberries, which will mean I can make those blues again.”
Ros’s acceptance of the vagaries of the season and the dye pot have concurrently given her the “grit, determination and confidence” to live life by her true values. “I’m not perfect by a long shot, but if The Natural Dyeworks can be a standard bearer for living life by those values and showing people what’s possible, then that’s a good thing.”
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Maria Bell.