Discover more from Root: Historic Food for the Modern World
Unplated: An Interview with Elliot McNally
On the intersection of past, present, and future through textiles, color, and archives
Elliot McNally and I met in my other life in rare books and archives, during an artists’ books reception, though we had known each other before through her work with natural dyes and my work with fermentation and with historic books (like my rare books + beer pairing event) with the Homestead Atlanta.
I was immediately struck by Elliot’s passion, her curiosity, and her ability to see the interconnections of seemingly unrelated practices. It was the making of a cherished friendship that has lasted for nearly a decade.
Here, we talk about Elliot’s practice as an archivist, her work with textiles and natural dyes, and the roots of her creative practice.
JS: First of all, tell me a bit about you and your work. How did you come to be interested in natural dyes?
EM: I was introduced to natural dyes in undergrad and worked in the dye lab maintaining the space, chemicals, equipment. I went to school for "Fiber Art" which gave me a lot of skills and friends and means to explore my never ending curiosities, but really probably shouldn't be a college degree! I started teaching bookbinding and dye classes while still in school because they are way more portable than say weaving, and more instant gratification than say knitting or quilting.
Ends up, I absolutely love teaching community classes. Everyone is there for a different reason with a different point of view and starting point - a lovely low stakes way to meet people and do something with your hands. I always learn more than the participants I think.
I started teaching classes for The Learning Kitchen here in Atlanta shortly after moving here and food waste was a perfect theme. Most of my public facing work is going to be about accessibility and trying to honor the traditions and folks who have been doing this work for generations.
I love the intersection of necessity and craft; women's and indigenous work and "art"; who is left out of the text books and conversations and why. My personal work always starts with a question. How is this made, why, what are the traditions around the world, how can I make this from absolute scratch? (Googles how much broom corn I need to grow next spring.)
JS: We met years ago and bonded over our shared love of cooking and crafting with natural materials, and I feel like I’ve met a lot of people in libraries, archives, and museums over the years who share our interests. Why do you think that is? What’s the overlap between these two spaces?
EM: It really is funny isn't it? As I sit here between my knitting project and my cat. The last library I worked in we would crack up at the finance guys because they all looked exactly the same down to their too short suit trousers and no socks in their dress shoes. Someone quickly pointed out that we, the librarians, were no different in our cardigans and glasses, clogs and vintage neck scarves. A lot of the students truly couldn't tell us apart and were shocked there was more than one librarian when we were together.
Joking aside, my guess is that you have to have a deep curiosity and hunger for finding answers and doing new things -- with all the meticulous math, science, detail, repetition, patience AND breaking all the rules, intuition, finding mistakes beautiful, and a healthy dark side that underpin both the LAM professions and cooking and crafts.
I used to tell my grad assistants that being an archivist is the professional equivalent of untangling jewelry or weeding a garden - if that sounds horrible then I put down money that you wouldn't enjoy the daily archives work. Crafts and cooking follow the same kinds of formulas -- following recipes/patterns until you know how the rules work enough to make your own or break them in interesting ways. Reference, processing, cataloguing, etc. in LAMs [libraries, archives, and museums] is also very similar -- follow the rules and formulas and know when to break them (and which ones you can't!)
JS: For you, how does your work as an archivist shape your creative work with textiles and dyes?
EM: I think both of these have made me better at the other - or at the very least have impacted my approach to both. I love the thought process of planning for every thing that could go wrong and balancing for the reality of the situation and intended use. Archives, like textiles, are meant to be used, but it is important to understand how use impacts the materials to best create and house them with their intended future user in mind. Both are "borrowing from the future" everytime they see light.
The archives, my garden, and studio all have integrated pest management plans - my studio could definitely use a collection development policy. And on a more granular level, I get so much inspiration from archival materials I come across. I still think about these envelopes from the Wormwood Magazine Collection.
There was one for each issue (120+!!) and every individual purchase was written meticulously and so tiny on the envelopes - color coded by check, cash, subscription. The envelopes filled with the invoices. They look like weavings! They are an incredible body of work and they are just financial documents. The creator/editor of Wormwood was a biologist by day, so to see his career impact his creative work was incredible and I guess exactly what we are talking about here.
Being an archivist has also helped me see how others view, interpret, and use primary sources and such personal collections, like correspondence and journals. I am rarely thinking of how my work will be perceived now, but always how it will be viewed out of context -- maybe at my final estate sale one day.
JS: I want to talk about your work in both these spaces and their connection with food, too. How do both practices shape how you think about the food you cook and eat, and what can we learn about food by considering it in the context of archival records or in the context of natural dye making?
EM: When cooking and dyeing I am often asking these questions: How has this historically been done? Where and how has this been grown/cultivated? How has it changed over time? And, how was the "waste" traditionally used? -- which are basically the same question.
The best kitchen dyes are the "food waste" - pits and skins, barks and roots. Learning the properties of the foods, like what parts are high in tannins/acid/alkaline, also gives me a good idea of what would make a good dye or modifier. This part is not edible? Well then what was it used for?
Learning crafts that have been around forever gives you a whole new perspective on how precious and finite our materials and ingredients are. For example, learning more about wool has led me to learn about lamb and I am lucky to be in a position to get lamb meat as often as I can from a local hair sheep farm which is supporting the farmers, a healthy flock, and my yarn habit.
When my wool sweaters are beyond repair - and they've been dyed with plants - they become compost for my garden which could potentially feed the sheep (a life goal of mine!) We are so industrialized and removed from not only the process, but the people behind the process that it is easy to take so much for granted.
I think the biggest impact archives have had on my relationship to food and cooking is knowing that there is often a story, a history, a tradition or routine or process that fascinatingly varies by region or family.
I love collecting old recipe boxes and local church recipe books - especially from places I've worked in, like Utah and Buffalo and Pittsburgh (estate sales, not the archives themselves!!) I love seeing the connections to the community and the local traditions that present themselves in archival collections - which are often so personal.
It is eerie and emotional how much I feel like I know a person after seeing their correspondence and what they kept dear to them. It is rare you find an archival collection of a person or family that doesn't have recipes in it.
Recipes are a whole archival record in themselves! Cook me your family recipe! Tell me about your childhood, your grandma, what do you think about and remember when you smell and taste your childhood. It is magical.
Archives and cooking are that same magic. My favorite family food story is just Oreos. I bet all of my siblings and cousins all keep Oreos in the freezer and secretly eat them with orange juice when they're feeling nostalgic for grammie.
JS: Can you tell me a bit about how natural dyes with edible materials work? Do people need anything besides the dye itself?
EM: Natural dye can be as simple or sciency as you want it to be. You can throw some onion skins in a pot and simmer until you get color, then throw your fabric in and stir it when you walk by for a day or two, or if you want to get the same results at a different time with a different water source, then you need to be a little more calculated and weigh your materials and test your water ph.
Some of my favorite kitchen dyes that are easy and don't need anything else are avocado pits and skins, onion skins, walnut hulls, pomegranate skins. These are all high in tannins so they come with their own mordant which helps the dye molecules bond to the fiber.
You can simmer them in a pot for a long while and then throw your wet fabric in - the longer you leave it, the darker it will get, but take it out before it gets moldy!
Rhubarb and sumac leaves are great mordants if you need or want one - mordants basically make the dye stay when you wash your textiles. Vinegar, salt, baking soda are also used in dyeing to help the dye be more light and color fast. With natural dyes you have to use natural fabrics too. technically viscose fibers (bamboo, tencel) are "natural" but are so processed and often mixed with plastics that they are not usually successful.
Silk and wool, which are proteins, take up natural dye the best and will be darker than your cellulose fibers - plants like cotton and linen which will stay pretty subtle.
A good rule of thumb is if it gives up its color too fast, it probably isn't a good dye for fabric (but an awesome easter egg dye!) Red cabbage, beets, turmeric, berries, rose petals, black beans will all wash out after 1-2 washes, but are fun to play with.
Red cabbage and black beans shift color dramatically with a little baking soda or vinegar which can be a fun experiment to see how your surface designs might turn out before you use that expensive dye.
Amaranth and calendula are fantastic edible dye plants... hibiscus and lavender, coreopsis and cosmos, and even daffodils make great easy dye, too. There is so much you can do with natural dyes, I am constantly learning and trying new dyes and techniques.
My favorite dye book is Wild Colour by Jenny Dean, and I am obsessed with Julie Beeler's Mushroom Color Atlas. She has a website and it really shows beautifully how the mordants change the colors. It is an absolutely amazing resource! And the Dogwood Dyer has some lovely resources that are very beginner friendly. All my friends send me her instagram posts and I love it.
JS: When we think about dyes using food plants, I get especially excited about how we can repurpose our food scraps into our creative projects. How do you use food scraps in your dye practice or other creative practices?
EM: I love natural dyeing because it mostly uses the scraps. I rarely seek out materials for dye projects and tend to save the scraps or abundance as they come to me whether that be black walnuts in the fall, or avocado on everything for a week when they are on sale until my need for freezer space forces me to use them.
I have used cherry pits and dried beans as resist tools inspired by kanoko shibori.
I am excited to get into koji one of these days to take my scrap game to the next level.
JS: Anything else you’d like to tell me?
EM: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about archives and dyeing and food! all of my favorite things!