Natalie Busby is a Nashville-based textile artist producing sustainable clothing that’s easy, breathable and makes a woman “feel as good as she looks.” She utilizes a small batch production structure to create intentionally simple and classic pieces — all while eliminating the waste that mass quantities of unsold inventory may cause. Today we talk to her about her love affair with textiles and fashion, the natural dyeing process she uses, how her business has changed since COVID-19, and what’s to come this fall.
Tell us how you started working with textiles and fashion.
I have always been drawn to creative processes. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Originally I was really into painting, but in college, I shifted and became really interested in textiles and fashion. I loved the challenge of using my creative energy to also create something functional and practical.
After college, I worked retail at a beautiful, independently owned boutique in Austin, TX. At first, I was disappointed to have graduated with a degree in design and be working on the retail side of the industry, but that job taught me so much about fashion I didn’t learn in school! I learned about how women shop, how to sell, what practical needs women are looking for in clothes, how to merchandise, get a buyer’s attention, and much about the world of owning your own business.
Take us through the dyeing process.
It’s actually pretty intense! The natural dyeing process is very technical for something that seems so organic. There is a lot of research involved with each dye and how it takes to different fabrics.
I begin the process by looking through our remnant fabrics from production cuts, and I determine which ones can be dyed and what product the scrap cuts can best be utilized to create. Currently, our clothing fabrics live on as bandanas, large scarves, sarongs, silk hair ribbons, and lavender sleep pillows. After we cut and weigh out each fabric into the proper dimensions, it has to be scoured and cleaned thoroughly in super hot water to remove any oil residue, sizing, and dirt. Any little imperfections, even oil residue from your fingertips, can cause the dye to absorb irregularly. Once scoured, we move on to the mordanting process, which involves boiling the fabric with additives that assist in the absorption of the dye and improve color yield and lightfastness.
Now that the fabric is prepared, it’s time to move onto the dyeing. I always begin with swatch tests to experiment with colors and see how they take to each fabric. Different types of fabrics absorb the same dye very differently. Plant-based materials (cotton, linen, cupro, rayon) yield very different color results than protein fibers (silk and wool). There are also a lot of variables that can be used to create different shades with the same dye. Once we finish the swatch tests and settle on a palette, it’s time for the fun part.
Using strings and rubber bands, we tie up the wet fabric into different shapes to create the surface texture and toss the wet fabric into the prepared dye pots. Natural dyes require heat to set the dye, so we boil the fabrics for a couple of hours over the stove until the optimal shade is reached. Lastly, we let the fibers cool and then rinse and wash each piece to make sure all of the excess dye is removed. And voila! The end result is what you see on SB Shop.
How do you select your colors?
Natural dyes are a little unpredictable, but I love the element of surprise when seeing the final shades each color yields. Nature yields such beautiful hues, and the resulting shades rarely disappoint, even if they are a little different each time. For the current natural dye collection, we settled on colors derived from pomegranates (greens and yellows), madder root (reds, mauves and pinks) and wood from the cutch tree (peaches and terra-cottas).
Why is it important for you to use natural dyes?
I love relying on nature for our beautiful fabrics, and to continue using natural sources for colors is exciting. Finding new ways to make the line more sustainable and implement new practices that reduce the environmental impact of our brand is important to me. Natural dyes are derived from anything from fruit rinds, tree bark, flowers, nuts, onions, plant roots, etc. It is amazing the range of colors nature creates. I love the richness and complexity of colors created with natural dyes. They have an interest and depth that can be hard to capture with synthetic dyes.
Tell us about your focus on sustainable fabrics and small batch production.
One of my core philosophies for the NB line is a woman should feel as good in her clothes as she looks. Fabrics from natural materials simply feel the best. They are easy, breathable and have an incredible hand. Once you start wearing them, it’s hard to go back to polyesters. Plus, fabrics from natural materials are biodegradable, which means at the end of their life cycle in your closet, they will decompose much faster than synthetic alternatives.
I am also so proud to produce all of our clothing here in Nashville. We rely on a small batch production structure. This generally means manufacturing each style in quantities of 5 to 50 units at a time. This structure of smaller weekly orders allows us to refill as products sell-through and helps eliminate mass quantities of unsold inventory left at the end of each season.
I am sometimes surprised by the styles and colors customers love most, and working locally in this production style allows us to respond quickly to refill our most loved styles. We are also able to easily tweak or improve products based on feedback from our customers and keep a close watch on quality issues.
Can you define the “just enough” style you use to describe your line?
When I design clothes, my goal is to leave room for an individual to take each piece and make it her own. I don’t want the clothing to overpower or distract from the woman.
Editing is an essential part of any design process. I love easy, simple pieces that have “just enough” design edge to be interesting and modern but also maintain classic staying power in your wardrobe. I hope my pieces can be the foundation for many occasions, personas and outfits.
How have you had to shift your business due to COVID-19?
Like most other retail stores across the country, we have had to shift to an online-only model. We are fortunate e-commerce was already part of our business model, so our website was equipped to handle this shift since many styles were already available online. We are adjusting to our team working remotely and trying to get creative about new ways to connect with customers virtually. I love and miss the in-store experience of working with our clients, but I’m grateful we can continue to operate virtually while keeping our staff and customers safe!
I have also been trying to embrace a bit of extra downtime to return to the creative parts of my business. The new naturally dyed collection is a result of that downtime at home. I have also been prototyping new designs I’m excited to launch later this year.
Speaking of new designs, what new lines or products do you have coming up?
Currently, we are gearing up for production on our Fall 2020 line. New styles will launch in July, August and September. There are a few new silhouettes I am super excited about and a beautiful color palette that includes deep teal, bright chartreuse, and a rich burgundy threaded in with our favorite neutrals.
I am also in the development phase for a capsule collection of NB lounge styles I hope to launch later this year. Our customers love our super-soft fabrics, and I have been excited to rework a few favorites into the loungewear. I have been using extra quarantine time to pattern a robe, a silk slip and a couple of cute matching pajama sets.
Thank you, Natalie! It was such a treat learning about your creative process. Shop Natalie’s silk bandanas on SB Shop here (sarongs & silk scarves coming soon!) and her entire collection on her website here.
All photos courtesy of Natalie Busby.
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