The last time I saw Liz Spencer, her fingernails and hair were tinted blue, evidence of a recent Indigo dye vat. Liz, aka The Dogwood Dyer, works with plants, minerals and other natural materials to create color on textiles. She also happens to be a bright, inspiring woman who is as excited about sustainable fashion as she is about her adorable toddler, Dalton; who shares his mother's wide smile and big, sparkly blue eyes.
I met Liz within a month of moving from California to New York. I was instantly welcomed into her space and treated as both a peer and a friend. I am so appreciative of the continued support and passion that I receive from Liz, and ever since meeting her, I have been dyeing (ha!) to dive deep into her experience as a natural dyer, a female entrepreneur, and a modern, sustainably-minded human. Ironically, The Dogwood Dyer recently relocated herself and her family from New York to Southern California, where she is loving life. Her Instagram feed is filled with toddler Dalton, foraged plant life and coastal California adventures. Lucky for you, we were able to carve out an hour of phone time as she and her family drove through San Francisco’s hilly streets on their most recent roadtrip adventure.
While speaking with Liz, I was in awe of her positive, excited attitude and inspired to appreciate the beauty of the unknown. This woman’s sense of adventure, love and excitement is seriously infectious! I hope you enjoy reading about her challenges, work and dreams and that you, too, can see that The Dogwood Dyer is an excellent example of a woman with a healthy, sustainable outlook on life.
*Edited for length and clarity.
How long has The Dogwood Dyer (the business) been around?
The Dogwood Dyer brand has been around since New Years 2013, but I guess I had been dyeing for friends and thinking about the business for 6 months prior to that.
Had you planned on launching The Dogwood Dyer for a long time? Or was it something that happened more unexpectedly for you?
I didn’t actually think that I would be launching a brand because I thought I would end up teaching full time. I was, and still am, teaching part time, but I suppose I never gave credence to natural dye as a business or to being a business owner because I am an artist at heart. But I realized there was a financial opportunity in turning this into a business model. I spent a few months really thinking about what the name of the business would be, whether I would identify myself with it or if it would be more open ended. As far as financials go, I didn’t plan too much. I put everything I could into it; I sold my car, and it’s still that way now as a business owner, everything that I make I put back into it.
How does The Dogwood Dyer generate income in order to sustain itself financially?
I started off doing production dye work for designers, but after being at the BF+DA, with the business mentorship as a fellow, I realized after doing a few workshops, that those were more financially beneficial. I was already teaching and can make more money and have more fun as an educator. My son also takes up a lot of my time so if I could spend a weekend teaching a workshop rather than spending two weeks doing a production run for a designer, that works. I have some workshops scheduled in Brooklyn for May (be sure to read follow on Instagram for workshop announcements!). Funnily, I’m still teaching more in New York than in California. I am still in the process of settling in and planning some things for the Summertime.
It seems that your business is closely intertwined with your lifestyle. How does that affect you, your family, and your business? Do you see the three parts individually or as more of a holistic one?
Oh, definitely a holistic one. Which is why I continue to find interest in natural dyeing - I’m the type of person who likes to dip my toes into different techniques. To have had 5+ years of experience in natural dyes is kind of a lot to keep my interest for that amount of time! That probably is because it’s intertwined with my lifestyle and I could do it while I was pregnant and while my family is growing. As the business grows, it’s nice to have that fluidity to let it rest for a while, to think and steep instead of having that pressure to have to grow exponentially in a certain amount of time. It is definitely intertwined.
What are some challenges and benefits of running The Dogwood Dyer?
I think the biggest challenge is that natural dyes are not like chemical dyes. Most designers come to me not having used natural dyes, only knowing what they’ve worked with, which is chemical dyes. I do my best to let them know what the plant gives, communicating that natural dye color is always different. It's also one of the best things, but it has been one of my biggest challenges, too.
Another challenge, probably similar to a lot of businesses, is cash flow. Having the money you need to be able to invest in the things your business needs to grow. Working in an industry that has a specific calendar that may or may not work with your income is a challenge. But it’s great to see more and more designers, especially this season, being amenable to opening up their minds and calendars to alternate modes of production.
Advantages of doing what I do are, I think the constant surprise - it’s an educational journey that I’m also on! I’m educating others, I know a lot, but still there are so many plants that I can work with, the infinite possibility, the surprise and mystery behind what I do is I think one of the greatest things. You can also lump play and discovery into that, I love to play. Another great advantage is working in fashion. I have the opportunity to work with other creative individuals and collaborate. Also, working with people who are interested in sustainability already. Like-minds, being exposed to incredible design and, I suppose, just being in a really, hopefully growing, creative niche of fashion which is sustainable design.
Have you ever experienced self doubt in running your own creative small-business? If so, how does that come up for you, and what do you practice in order to deal with it?
Yea, definitely, I think we all do in our personal lives and also in our professional lives. For me, I wouldn’t categorize myself as a master dyer, like I said, one of the most interesting parts of what I do is continually learning. That’s one of the biggest instances of self doubt, someone coming to me with a question and I don’t know the answer. And wanting to always say yes. Also the fear behind financial ebb and flow, which is aligned with challenges, is the biggest area of self doubt for me; the unknown.
To deal with self doubt, I slowly grow. I haven’t been under the pressure cooker of needing the business to grow at a certain rate and I’ve been alright with the slow and organic growth while other things in my life happen - like my son! I think with The Dogwood Dyer I’ve been able to take breaks; that’s great. I think also, too, just having an incredibly supportive partner, I’ve been really lucky. I’ll bounce ideas and experiences off of him so he’s very grounding in that respect. Sam and my son have been a nice stress relief when things get crazy and I have self doubt - it can become a swamp of negativity and being able to cut all of that with family has been amazing.
You just moved from NYC to California - how do you feel about the creative, entrepreneurial communities on the two coasts?
Culturally I think I really love each for their own, and I don’t try to compare or say one is better than the other. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, they are so different! I am still kind of getting my feet wet in California, so I can’t yet give you the most accurate creative understanding, but they’re both really rich and there’s a lot of opportunity in both. So far, creatively it’s been really exciting to be able to work with local plants from a different ecosystem and that’s really pushed the breadth of my knowledge, pushed me to further experiment with local botany. I still have more work to do in the coming months, exploring the social and business aspect of Southern California. I think there is more quantity of work in New York, but that’s probably because I’ve been there more accumulatively in my business.
How would you define success for The Dogwood Dyer in say, 5 years?
I’d like to employ others. Up until now it’s been myself. For me a big sign of success is to create jobs in America. Right now The Dogwood Dyer is really a part-time gig which grosses around 50k, income around 25k. To sustain anyone else I’d need to quadruple that number. I’d like to be financially stable with my business, of course!
Success, ultimately, would be creating an expectation of the reality for natural dyes. They are very different from chemical dyes so I’d like to have a broad educational aspect. I’d like to create an economic flow around natural dyes in America, because currently 99% of natural dye work is being done outside of the US. I want to contribute to fashion having a realistic expectation of natural dyes, which cost more because you are paying for an organic, safer dyestuff and also the well-being of the person doing the dyeing, in the country, with complete transparency.
Who are two female entrepreneurs or creatives that you look up to/have been inspired by? They don’t have to be natural dyers.
One actually is a natural dyer, Jane Palmer, she’s in LA with a business called Noon. She has a natural dye house in LA and has been collaborating with a local weaver to make really beautiful, luxurious cashmere, natural dyed home goods. She’s also been doing really wonderful scientific work in the natural dye world; she now has a grant to investigate biological resources for color in a lab, that aren’t necessarily grown traditionally, but are still biological. So less reliance upon arable land but still natural. She’s been at it in the natural dye world for 10 years + so she’s an inspiration for sure.
Another is a really wonderful business in Portland, where I lived right before going into sustainable fashion, called the Portland Garment Factory. It’s a lady-owned business by Britt Howard that is bringing fashion production back to America. They’ve created their own line, called House Line, with a clean, modern aesthetic, all made in America. I’ve seen their business grow since 2007 and it’s great to see that model, that it’s possible to make clothes in America and give all of their workers a living wage - especially outside of LA and NYC.
What natural color are you currently experimenting with or excited about? You can only pick one!
Oh no...hmmm. Well, I’m doing a lot of indigo. It’s not local because I’m using an organic, sustainably sourced indigo that I didn’t grow myself, since we are in February. I’m doing this really beautiful color that’s a combo of dyestuffs; oak gall as a base, which gives a tan buff color, then overdyed with indigo to get this soft, dusty teal color.
Which CA destination has been your favorite so far? And which one is next?
I don’t know, I mean, this state is so amazingly gorgeous! It’s hard to visit anything that is more gorgeous than Big Sur...but so is Yosemite and so is Sequoia! OK, Sam agrees, he’s saying Sand Dollar beach in Big Sur, because of the surfing. My gut says Big Sur.
We are driving south from San Francisco right now, it just started raining. Sam wants to surf so we will probably go to Santa Cruz next, even with the rain. One of my favorite memories from a previous road trip was on Mt. Tam. We thought it was raining but the fog was just condensing onto the trees and when we got out, we realized ‘Oh my gosh! It’s not rain, it’s fog.” It’s so beautiful here.
Thank you so much, Liz, for your inspiring work and beautiful words!
I highly recommend taking a class with The Dogwood Dyer if you get the chance - they are always casual and fun. First-time dyers and experienced artists alike are more than welcome. You might make some new friends and you will definitely come away having made something beautiful, so don't pass these up!
For information on upcoming workshops, sign up for The Dogwood Dyer's newsletter or follow her on Instagram. If you'd like to learn from Liz about natural dyes that come from food, check out her class on Skillshare!