Kat: Today we are talking with Meg Nelson the owner and creative mind behind Circle Moon, a southern Utah clothing and accessories brand that uses natural plant dyes and focuses on the idea of slow crafting, Meg is also a Pisces and one of the most energetic people I know so lets start! Hey Meg...
Meg: Hi! Thanks for having me here.
Kat: Give us some info on your background and what inspired you to start Circle Moon?
Meg: I studied textiles in college, I was not sure what I wanted to do but I knew I liked color so I started taking interior design and sewing classes. I started at Dixie State and finished at Southern Utah University. All of my classes were within in Family and Consumer Science but I got my final degree in Interior Design. My senior year I had some extra classes to fill so I took a clothing design class and I really loved it. I finished school, went on to work and worked for Anthropologie for years and then ended up being a mom. As my kids were getting older I started thinking about what I should do and I wanted to step back into the textiles and the clothing, but I wanted to do in a sustainable way. I knew that if I was going to be producing something I wanted it to benefit the community and be more connected to the land.
Kat: And that desire to create something more sustainably was triggered by working at Anthropolgie right? When you got into making, you decided not only did you want it to be sustainable, but you are hyper focused on wanting it to be as local as possible.
Meg: Yes! So when I decided to step back into it, my whole goal was for it to be as pure of a source as possible and as close to home as possible. Its based on growing your community and strengthening it that way. A lot of that was based on working for Anthropologie. We were getting hundreds of boxes of shipment a day from all over the world. What I really loved about that company was the beautiful displays we were creating within the store so I started wondering what if we were producing items in that way? Like by creating teams that are locally producing the item. They also produced beautiful things and are incredible company and I have always felt honored that I got to work there but that was kind of my thinking.
Anna: How do you go about executing having it be local and finding the purest source? What does that look like?
Meg: Another reason I started doing the natural dyes is because I have always loved nature. I grew up in Utah, I grew up outside, hiking and spending time in the national parks. So thats something that feeds my soul. I was actually a hiking guide and I was learning about the plants and I was messing with dyes a little bit but wanting to learn more so I just thought I should combine these two loves I have. I have this love of nature and land in Utah and I could bring in the textile piece. So I started out just really open to playing with the possibilities. I started playing with cotton and silk and staying away from synthetics because part of my goal is stick with natural fibers because the synthetics can be really harmful to the environment.
Anna: So you're thinking about the full life cycle of your products. You're trying to follow the idea of producing items that go from cradle to cradle where they can degrade and return to the earth instead of cradle to grave which is where it ends up in the landfill, can't decompose and becomes a toxic hazard.
Meg: Yes! And I am trying to implement other things into my business as well like having my products be guaranteed so if the color fades or it needs mending you can send it back to me and I will fix it or re dye it for you. So that is really important to me. I've always felt really connected to my great grandparents when they had all these heirloom items and they would hold on to them for forever but they had fewer items. So I am trying to create things that people will purchase meaningfully with more intention.
Kat: So did you just start sprinkling pieces of plants into boiling water?
Meg: (Laughing) So I went up to Salt Lake and did a weekend intensive workshop. I had messed around with it on my own but I wasn't really having much success on my own. I took that workshop and that was really helpful but even then it took some time after that because I started hiking guiding and learning about the plants and that helped me step into it on the local plant end of it. I teamed up with a friend of mine who also wanted to learn how to plant dye so then I put it into a practice where Tuesdays and Thursdays were dye days.
Kat: Thats so cool! How did you come up with the name Circle Moon?
Meg: I just like the idea of the circle because it represents an never ending cycle or at least that you're thinking about the wholeness of it and then I am really into astrology so thats where the moon part came in.
Anna: For people who are not familiar with your brand, what kind of products do you have?
Meg: Right now I am offering plant dyed silk kimonos, pouches, and scrunchies.
Kat: You're planning on expanding that right? You have been partnering with a local pattern maker, so you're going to start making more and more clothing and all the patterns will basically be locally invented, they will come out of your mind and she will make them for you right?
Meg: Everything is made here locally, I am not sewing everything, I have a group of women that sew for me, then I have a pattern maker and then I do all the dying. That is the whole base of the company is growing that local industry here.
Kat: Every time I here you talk about your business that is what you focus on is that its a women's industry, so talk about that!
Meg: So its an industry thats gone away from here and I just think there is such a need for women to have access to an industry type job. The textile industry is beautiful with room to grow! If my business continues to grow I can have people who dye for me, who grow the dye plants for me, people who make patterns, people who sew. Why not utilize our natural tendency towards beautiful things and why not let women find purposeful meaning and self sustaining value in that by learning skills and developing them. I guess a lot of that goes back to college when I first got interested in the clothing side of it, I didnt think there would really be jobs in it but when I started looking I realized there are a ton of jobs and so many different skill sets needed that go towards making these things successful.
Kat: I love how you said that women have a tendency to make beautiful things. We can be craftsmen and artisans and we're good with our hands and we can create and bring back that industry here.
Anna: its very ancestral. We were making our clothes for thousands of years and it was usually the women.
Meg: It doesnt have to women, but for me its more about encouraging people do what aligns with their true self or what makes them feel like they had a good days work.
Kat: I love that you focus on women, I get it lets all be inclusive but its also cool to empower women and create the opportunity for a woman to make a living wage. If a woman wants to grow dye plants she can do that or earn a living sewing or weaving, she has that opportunity.
Anna: I heard rumor that you are going to be expanding into wool and making yarn, is that true?
Meg: Yes. Right now I am working with an alpaca farmer here in southern Utah.
Kat: You also have a focus on teaching these things too right?
Meg: Yeah, I just think having access to education is really empowering for a community.
Anna: Are you teaching classes right now?
Meg: Not right now but I would definitely love to.
Kat: You talked about how this all started in college but was there any indication in your childhood that you would end up working with natural dyes and textiles?
Meg: As a child I really did love flowers and plants and I really liked colors, that might sound weird but I would spend hours sorting colors.
Kat: You also see things and feel things in color so no wonder you are very hyper focused on color right?
Meg: Yeah, it influences me a lot. In home economics in 7th grade I am pretty sure I had my friends sew my shorts for me so I did not expect that in college I would want to spend all of my time in the sewing lab. I wish I could have found out earlier that I wanted to go in that direction, but its alright it all works out. I never would have thought of getting into textiles without just trying those classes.
Anna: What does slow crafted mean? We mentioned it in your intro but for those who arent familiar with that idea how would you define slow crafted?
Meg: Slow crafted is about being very connected to the process. One of the ways I describe my company is a process based company. The environmental aspect is very much a focus, but so is who are the people and how are they being treated. So paying close attention to the entire process and making sure it has a positive impact on the people and the land and not just making it about the end result. The people aspect is really important, like when I go visit my seamstresses, we're laughing and talking and they love this work, it makes them happy and thats what I am looking for. I dont want someone to be doing something if thats not really what they want to be doing.
Anna: You try to incorporate whats now called the triple bottom line, where it includes people, planet, profit instead of just only focusing on profit as the bottom line. Also the idea with things being slow crafted is that you would buy less right? Making the choice to buy fewer, higher quality items, they will last longer and you will enjoy them more versus buying a lot of cheaply manufactured stuff.
Kat: Its like the minimalist wardrobe, going back to having a wardrobe full of heirloom items. These are meant to last and for some reason if they don't, send them back and Meg will fix it!
Anna: I like the idea of them being re-dyed. People might be concerned with it fading but then if you re-dye it, you now have a completely new thing and it will be unique. With natural dye you don't have a 100% guarantee that the color will come out the same each time, right? So thats a guarantee that your product is going to be unique.
Meg: Im glad you brought that up because that can be an interesting part of the process when I am working with customers, its about educating them on how natural dye works because they are not always predictable with color.
Anna: The pH balance of the water makes a difference with the color too, right? You can add things in like salt and baking soda to change the pH balance to get different colors. Its all chemistry! I love it!
Anna: What kind of plants can you use for natural dye?
Meg: Locally you can use prickly pears, brigham tea, rabbit brush, goldenrod, juniper berries, sunflowers! Pomegranates are also popular here and you can dye with those.
Kat: I had Meg come over one day and we dyed together and she went out into my front yard and just started grabbing all sorts of stuff. I had one of my "old lady moments" where it feels so connective to our roots and I think about how we were doing this a hundred years ago, it felt like such a familiar moment, like deja vu! I know you try to stay local, but if you could dye with anything what would it be?
Meg: I really love working with sunflowers! Ive gotten so many different variations from it, like from celery green to mauve! The rabbit brush is cool because I have used it at different stages and it gives a different color at each stage, like if its young and fresh versus dried.
Anna: What about plants that maybe don't naturally grow here but can be grown here, do you have a few that you would recommend if people wanted to start their own dye garden?
Meg: Madder is a really great dye, that gives a red, marigolds are really great too. If you check out www.grandprismaticseeds.com they are a company up in Logan and they grow dye plants and sell the seeds. They are a really great company. Hollyhocks are another good one, and daffodils, you can use roses to dye, lilacs. You can even dye with carrots and blueberries. A lot of plants give off dyes but their color fastness will differ, meaning some will fade faster than others. I want to try apple bark from apple trees to create a dye, I have used the bark from my plum tree and I have gotten a really pretty peach color from it. The way I work with dyes is very experimental.
Anna: A lot of these plants can be really good companion plants in the garden too, and they will attract beneficial insects like pollinators, so its not like you have to plant something separate from your vegetable garden. Marigolds are something that I grow everywhere in my garden.
Kat: You are actually taking this to the next step and creating a dye garden that will benefit pollinators, so do you want to talk about that project?
Meg: I am teaming up with a local butterfly and bird farm up in Pine Valley. I am helping him plan and plant what goes into the garden so that I can then use them for dying at the end of the season when they have served their purpose for the pollinators and attracting the birds in the area. He also has a bee farm right next to it so we'll be increasing the bees as well. We're doing a lot of research to make it a highly functioning dual use farm. I am also wanting to extract scents from the flowers and use them for essential oils. He said if you are up there at 7:30 in the evening in summer its chuck full of blue birds. We're working to attract luna moths and we have a whole list of visceroy butterflies.
Kat: I think thats something that speaks so beautifully to your process too. You're delving into growing so you can help the pollinators and other species and then at the end of season, use the plants for dying.
Meg: Yes, like I said the process is super important to me and thats how I came up with idea for garden. I had been dyeing for over a year and in the fall I was starting to think how I needed to deepen this and I drove by a garden and thats when I thought of my friend up in Pine Valley who I had meant when I bought some of his plants so I went to visit him and he asked me to help with the planning and planting.
Kat: You've even thought about bringing in silk worms right?
Meg: thats a very experimental thought at this point. I am a little hesitant just because of what I know about the process. I would love to increase the production of fabrics here like if we were growing cotton or making silk locally, I would love to help develop the textile industry here that way.
Anna: Have you ever tried dying with Hemp? I've heard it doesnt take color very well.
Meg: The hemp that I have tried is mixed with silk. What I have found is that when I do plant with plant, like a plant dye on to a plant fiber source like cotton, its harder to get the depth of color. Thats why I have started working more with silk and wool because when you go from plant to animal, the protein helps deepen the color. I would love to experiment with that more though and try to get a deeper color on the cotton.
Kat: You're a vegan right?
Meg: I am not exclusively vegan, mostly vegetarian. I might eat meat once or twice a year.
Kat: The reason I am curious about this is because someone who is a vegan wanted to know why you choose to use wool or silk, what would you say to them?
Meg: I think its more about going back to the pure forms and pure process.
Anna: There are humane ways to shear sheep and alpacas, etc. its more about the care of the animal.
Meg: Right. I am big believer on trying to find the purest source and ensuring the sustainability of it versus using synthetics because of the negative impact that has on the environment. The more natural it is, the less of problem you have.
Anna: It matters if you do it in a really mindful way. I think thats where people gets stuck is when they see the PETA videos and think thats how all animals are treated. I get why vegans want to stay away from animal products, but then when you see the people who are taking care of the animals, managing them in a sustainable way, using them to regenerative degraded land. Those animals probably have a better quality of life than most people.
Kat: I love to wear wool! I just think its an interesting topic and I wanted to address that because there is stuff out there that people are presenting in an eco friendly way and that its a better alternative, but then you think about what goes into making all of those synthetic substitutes.
Meg: Its so interesting because I was so drawn to this textile industry and I never really understood why. Even when I was thinking about going back to work, I didn't really want to but I kept feeling pushed that I needed to. I started researching my family and I have always felt really strongly pulled to one side of my family, my moms side. My great grandmother grew up on a sheep farm and I knew that but I never really thought about it but I kept digging and digging and that family sheep farm is still functioning and its one of the largest sheep farms in America that functions in a very sustainable way. We had kind of gotten out of touch with that side of the family but I reached out to him and he said he would help me! Hes on the textile board for the american association. I just felt like she was pushing me to discovery this whole thing and that its all connected. That great grandmother is Bessa, so thats where the name comes from that I use on Instagram.
Kat: That is so magnificent. I knew you used a different name than your married name but I never knew the story behind it. Thats so cute.
Meg: That actually connects back to the women thing because she ended up being a widow. Her dad actually sent her to college, so in family line its been a focus for us to go to school and be able to support ourselves because her husband died when she was about 40 and she ended up being able to support herself.
Kat: did you know that spinster was a term originally given to women that were so good at weaving they became financially independent.
Meg: I love that!
Anna: For people who aren't as familiar with the topics we are talking about, could you talk about the difference between natural dyes and the dyes that are conventionally used?
Meg: The conventional dyes that are used are synthetic and some of those can be toxic. So when you're looking the way our clothing is being produced, the fashion industry is a big polluter (its in the top 5). A lot of that pollution has to do with the dying process, they can be toxic, they are not directly made from natural materials (they are synthesized from chemicals derived from coal and petroleum). When they wash the clothes or even get rid of the dye water, that goes back into our water ways. Using natural dyes is a way to start pulling out of that cycle. People are really familiar with the slow food movement or buying organic and how that takes out the pesticides and removes a part of the toxicity from our bodies and the environment.
Anna: Our skin is our largest organ, right? So what we put on our skin can be absorbed into the bloodstream and can impact your health.
Kat: The clothing company that I worked for, when we would open the boxes, every single item would be wrapped in plastic and each one of them were damp and they smell really weird. We would have to air the clothes out for days in the back of the store before we put them on the floor. If we moved them straight out people would comment on the smell. So then if you go home and either put that shirt on straight away, those chemicals get on your skin, or you wash it and those chemicals end up in the water ways, thats the concern. Sometimes I feel like the more you learn about this stuff the more hopeless it feels because everything thing feels bad.
Meg: I know, but thats why I think its important to share. I am not perfect at what I do in my business, its a process, but the food movement is such a good example because that felt really overwhelming and now people are more away, there is still room for improvement, but its about moving in that direction the best that you can.
Anna: Things are changing quickly too, I started looking into all of this about two and half years ago and I remember thinking there was not that many options for stuff and now I see new companies popping up every single day that are based on sustainable practices, using natural dyes, using natural fibers, compostable packaging material. Things are changing and its all consumer driven. So if you feel hopeless, vote with your dollar because what you pay for is what gets produced.
Anna: Something I have seen as I have gotten into natural dyes is peoples concerns about foraging for natural dye plants and the impact that can have on habitat for animals. If people are taking berries, leaves, nuts, whatever it may be, those animals depend on that for food and building nests, etc. so how would you address that concern if people are interested in foraging?
Meg: Well when I forage, I try to be conscious and gauge the amount thats available and think about where its at in life and in the season. In the future my goal is to have a 100% dye garden so I can produce all the color. Just be aware! Like taking the bark off my plum tree is actually good for it if its done at the right time and in the right way, so just being aware of the cycles and fitting yourself into that. I also think its important to use whats available, like if you pass someones house and they have a pomegranate tree and its not being used, go ask and see if you can take some of their pomegranates. You do not need a whole lot to get color.
Kat: I was shocked at how little we used when Meg came over to dye with me. Always be conscious and mindful but it also goes back to the concept in Braiding Sweetgrass where they did tests on the sweetgrass and left one patch untouched, another patch was harvested using traditional methods, the patch that had the human interaction did better than the one that was untouched by humans.
Anna: I think we can absolutely play an important role, we just have to be mindful of that role and be conscious about what role you are playing in regenerating your local ecosystem.
Meg: I do think thats important, but lets say you see a bunch of walnut shells on the ground, which you can use to dye, its better to make use of those. I think thats a really great concern to bring up though.
Anna: So lets say people either go out and forage or pick something from their garden and they want to dye with it, can you go through the steps of how they would do that?
Meg: Its a little bit like recipes right. You have to treat your fabric, or mordant it somehow, its sort of a process. You either have to add something to the dye bath or pre treat it. Before that you have to wash your fabric, its called scouring, you can get a scouring detergent specific for dyeing, or rub your fabric under cold water so you can get off any of the residue on the fabric that could prevent the dye from setting. So after you wash it, pre treat it or mordant it, you cook your dye and then put it your fabric and then after it gets to the color you want you need to rinse it.
Anna: If someone had pomegranates, how would they use those for natural dye?
Meg: You would take the outer shells and boil them. Sometimes people do it to a certain temperature or sometimes they add in different ingredients. You also have to use specific pots, some can actually help mordant. Its very scientific and theres a lot of variables that can happen. There are a lot possibilities but I like to be open to those possibilities, so if you have a copper pot, copper actually interacts with the dyes, you can even add pennies into your pot to see what they do to the color. Copper is also a mordant so it also sets the color. You can add alum as a mordant, but not everything will work together. And if you use a pot for natural dye you don't want to use that same one for food.
Kat: I just want to stress that Meg is not hiding anything, she doesn't have a recipe, she just keeps adding or changing it up. Thats what is so cool about Meg's process, nothing is past saving, nothing is a screw up, its all just different. I always thought natural dye was very intimidating and I am in the textiles, I do weaving and spinning and all that, but when I tried natural dying with Meg it did not feel scary at all.
Meg: If someone did not have success I would ask, did you scour, did you pre treat your fabric? Also, if you do it in the wrong kind of pot it wont work, I think aluminum pots works too. If someone wanted to try dying, avocados are really easy to dye with, you can use the skins or the centers or use both together and it turns pink!
Anna: You can use the water from soaking black beans too and coffee.
Meg: Onions skins, yellow and red work too.
Kat: If you could start all over, whats something you wish you would have known before starting with natural dyes?
Meg: I am glad I got in to the mindset I did because I starting getting into a process based mindset and not attaching to an outcome, like expecting a specific color. It was really intimidating to me as well. I just let go of any expectations and just be open to doing the work, so if one day I didn't have success the next day I would just try again. That really helped me get through it but the workshop was also really helpful, I dont think I would have been able to step into it the same way.
Anna: So we have talked about how everything is slow crafted and it takes time but have you kept track of how much time goes in to one specific product?
Meg: I think of a design for a product and then work with my pattern maker, so giving her my design and going over it takes about a day and then it takes her a couple days to come up with a prototype and then she shows it to me and usually there are a few adjustments to make so that takes a couple of days. After that I order my fabrics, it takes me about a week to dye and then I take it to my sewers and it usually takes them about a week to sew things. So in total about three weeks but that doesn't include the time it takes to come up with the design in the first place.
Anna: that also doesn't include the time it takes for the plants to grow for the dyes and the plants to grow for the fabrics.
Kat: I love everything about your process and how you allow time for life and dont let things feel too rushed. Most people would be thinking of how they can make things go faster and you make sure your seamstresses are having fun and if you shorten the time frame it would be imbed on their lives. Thats so cool.
Meg: Everything (laughing)! Its all the things I have built it upon, its community, its women, its the land, the colors, the animals that are involved. A huge thing that motivates me is creating connection in my community like with working with my friend on the butterfly and bird garden, thats a whole other level of connection thats being created.
Kat: I think there is something so wonderful about having a community and building that connection and strengthening that in a society and a world that thrives on disconnect.
Anna: You mentioned that you are going to be expanding your product line, will that possibly include kids clothing?
Meg: Yes! I have talked about that a lot.
Kat: Whats something you have failed at and what did you learn from it?
Meg: I failed at stating for years. I had all these ideas and energy and didnt do anything about it and it was actually causing me to not be in a good place. I was really struggling with perfectionism, I had this grand vision for the end, so I had the vision but starting seemed impossible. I did some therapy to help me with my struggle with perfectionism and thats how I came up with it making it more about the process, I am not attaching to the end result, I am focused on the process. Thats what got me through it, I told myself that I was going to work and nothing else matters except that I am doing what I feel like I need to do. Whatever that is for anyone, go and do it, start experimenting! You're going to start out at a beginning spot, you are not going to start out at the end, we don't get to go to Z we have to start at A just like all of us do, so just let go of that and be proud of your A, B, and C. Even now my business is not completely perfect where I want it, but because I have let go of that attachment, its kind of in a cooler place than it would have been able to get to without focusing on the process.
Anna: What do you think has been your biggest success?
Meg: I feel like getting to where I am now is my biggest success, I a happy with my dedication to my values and finding my sources here and not giving in and outsourcing those. It took me a lot longer to find them but they all ended up showing up.
Kat: You are living in alignment with all of your values in your company and I think that is something you should be super proud of.
- What makes Utah special?
Southern Utah is incredible, the landscape is pretty out of this world. I think thats what makes Utah so special is the landscape and the scenery and the access to the outdoors.
- Whats your favorite part about the farmers market community?
I really want to tap in to working with the farmers more. I love the idea of how can we all work together, going back to the idea of the circle, to create a healthy environment for us all. I am a huge believer in strengthening your community. I read this astrology book written by a social activist, which I actually base a lot off of, but she goes and works with communities all over the world. She said if you go into the richest community a dollar doesn't leave that community until its gone through seven people, if you go into the poorest community and it leaves at .87 cents so if we aren't strengthening our community, what are we doing?
- What is a favorite book, publication or social media account that you find inspirational or profound?
I kind of hyper focus in my own world, but I follow an artist on Instagram who is very inspiring and influential to me, here name is Susan Cianciolo and she teaches at Pratt in New York.
Why should people buy local food and support local farmers and makers?
Its much more sustainable, if you are caring about the cycle of any part of your life, its a great idea. Its about the connection and sustaining people around you and benefiting the earth so why not do something thats better for everything?
If listeners want to learn more about you and your products where can they find you?
They can find me on Instagram at Meg_Bessa_ and my business account is Circle_Moon. I am also offering local pricing so if you are local its at a different price than it would be elsewhere.
Music for this was episode created by southern Utah local, Jake Shepard