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Inside the studio-showroom of fabric-dye artisan Genna Shosbree

From this light-filled space in Cape Town, Genna uses ancient, organic techniques to create unique, hand-coloured pieces

By House & Garden South Africa | January 10, 2022 | Innovative

When a lifelong love of textiles led to an early career in the fashion industry, Genna Shosbree found herself thinking about unconventional ways to colour fabrics, and later developing a fascination with ancient methods of extracting pigment from plants.

Letting her mind wander was one thing, but when an opportunity to learn more presented itself at a market in Stanford she jumped at it, becoming the student of a botanical dye guru who had been using these practices on homespun wool for years. What followed was a considerable amount of experimentation with various methods and materials. Using fallen plant matter, Genna plans her work based on what's available from nature, using what's available to be transformed in her hands into their new guise of artfully dyed garments.

Picture: A botanically dyed linen Sable shirt adorns the showroom wall above stairs to the dyeing studio. Photo by Greg Cox.

Half a decade later, Genna has built a business, Beagle + Basset, around these techniques and the exceptional pieces that they produce. On the entrance wall of the Woodstock showroom are swatches of fabric that display the results of some of her experiments, and demonstrate the versatility of her raw materials. From one kind of plant matter can come any number of surprising colours, from pale and soft to bold and saturated. If you didn't think pecan nut shells could produce a beautiful pink, you would be mistaken.

The shop space is downstairs from the studio, and while upstairs is arguably more fascinating with its giant pots, drying fabric experiments and jars of intriguing powders, there's no shortage of beauty down here. The dominant texture is Genna’s fabric of choice – linen. Derived from flax, a crop with serious eco-conscious credentials, it needs comparatively few pesticides or fertilisers, is also low on water consumption and creates little waste as all parts of the plant, from seeds and oil to fibre, can be usefully employed in the creation of materials: paper and soap, among many. Genna works with metal salt mordants and fixatives to achieve her colour ranges, and also works with other fabrics, such as silk and wool.

Picture: The Cape Town showroom-studio of natural fabric dye artisans Beagle + Basset. Photo by Greg Cox.

For Genna, the next step is not business growth as such, although she's sure to be expanding a little in the near future. A few additional pots to increase the capacity of her dyeing operation will be useful, but her sights are set instead on growing knowledge: learning more about her craft, and then finding ways to share her skills. Having benefited from the mentorship of many who have significant experience in natural dyeing, she's been giving extensive thought to how she can in turn teach others to appreciate and use the craft. She notes that it's not the kind of skill that can easily be imparted in a couple of evening sessions: the dyeing process needs to take place over a few days, so it may be necessary to dream up a course structure that allows for participants to gather in a retreat-style setting.

Picture: Showroom shelves hold Newton Wild Clay candles; plant-dyed silk and linen pillowcases, Okra Gear candles, and handmade ceramic candleholders. Photo by Greg Cox.

After a few years of working alone, Genna has taken on a business partner who has a mutual love for slow fashion and considered quality. Collaboration, meanwhile, has brought out new facets of her creativity. Working with brands who share her values and ambitions of shaping a more conscious industry, Genna has shown off the beauty of plant-based dyes in an array of settings. From textiles and homeware to custom scarves, and a bright, sunny T-shirt appearing in the collaboration range by Sol-Sol and Sealand Gear, Beagle + Basset's plant-based pigment has begun to make its mark on the work of some of the country's best-loved creators.

For this budding industry to thrive, a closely connected, supportive ecosystem will be necessary. But for many of her working hours, Genna can be found alone with some gas burners, giant fabric ‘teabags’ filled with plant matter, and a pair of 50L pots filled with rainwater – just the way she likes it.

Written by Cayleigh Bright.