True Colors of Plants

By Lin Hsin-Chen

Lin Hsin-Chen is the founder of Taiwan Art Quilt Society (TAQS). Born and raised in Taiwan, she is a fiber artist and an independent curator who has been devoted to creating, organizing exhibitions, and teaching for 20 years. She often leads students or groups to work together on large-sized collective works that reflect her concern with global environmental issues.


Taiwan is an island country. Paper mulberry, ramie and banana tree string are three common natural fibers we use for four centuries. They are weaved in red or its natural color to form very special patterns. It is not only an irreplaceable traditional technique, but also plays an important role in economy and trading. Dyed and woven textile products also witness the Taiwanese traditional culture and the value of preservation.

First, I would like to introduce the “shoulang yam”. Shoulang yam is a very important plant to Taiwanese aborigines. It is a traditional dyestuff. Why is it so important? Fibers dyed with shoulang yam are believed to ward off negative situations. It is also being used as mosquito repellents and it helps to strengthen the toughness of fabrics. Most importantly, it’s a beautiful red color. For Taiwanese people, red symbolize joy. Everyone wants to live a joyful life!


Atayal traditional groom costume

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The favorite color of Atayal culture is red.

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Shoulang yam is traditionally much used by Taiwanese aborigines as natural dyes.

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The tubers of shoulang yam.


My quest for Taiwan natural dyes began in 1998, which included the search for color agents in local plants as well as the understanding of the characteristics of various dyes in berries, branches, leaves, bark, roots and flowers. Pigment extractions from plants have also been conducted to create a diversity of fabrics and patterns. Revolutionary technology, surpassing the convention of uniformly dyed product, has allowed the natural dyeing process to succeed in creating a variety of colors in dyed fabrics.

This investigative study of the natural dyes is seen as the “Generative Order,” which is constructed as a transformation of prior order that meets the contemporary condition, and as a learning opportunity for possible future reforms. It is specifically applicable for the dyeing technology. What is the texture of natural dyeing? Different expectations between conceptualization and the material used often epitomize the complex and yet close relationship between creation and order. The logic behind chemical dyeing is “finding difference in divergence,” whereas natural dyeing would be “seeking difference on a common ground,” which is a goal extremely difficult to achieve.  Therefore, determining how to use natural dyes to create profound fiber art work is worth in-depth dialogue. It has been proven that certain creative concepts can unmistakably be translated by the use of appropriate materials. With biological evolution, the ideas of “derivative” and “renewal” have become unique principles of multi-material quilting.


Naturally Formed Pattern Creation

In addition to the excessive control during the dyeing process, the procedural standardization is another factor that runs the risk of undermining “natural beauty.” One must look back to nature for inspiration. As trees that endure seasonal changes and the harsh environmental conditions, the dyeing practice should learn from nature in order to create work that will ultimately touch viewers with its profound beauty through various levels of green and textures represented on each uniquely dyed product.

Following the flow and respecting all walks of life in nature with an open mind are part of the perpetual meaning of life. As an alternative thinking to the modern technological society, men, as members of the universe, must form a network uniting the external and internal realms.  Taking quilting as an example, the signs of imperfection, such as spots and irregular patterns, should be treated as part of nature, as they provide a rare opportunity to create work with an organic nature. These organic textures shown in my work represent an unpretentious gesture which is an honor and also a pride.


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Naturally, my works mainly focus on the exploration of “natural patterns”.

As we observe nature from a human perspective, we discover that everything has its own innate reason for existence. Every matter has its own natural form. From this natural form we derive a definition for aesthetics. Any naturally-occurring form would support the transformation of creative works without the use of force. Complicated logic would affect an otherwise robust creative space. Mystery links relationships together, forming a manifestation of mutual understanding. Artists have the privilege to voluntarily allow nature to guide every reaction when expressing their understanding of nature. Each natural reaction felt represents a wondrous transformation and model of beauty.

As I was thinking about suitable learning environments, I began to sit down in the woods without thinking, discussing what I’ve seen with the trees. I reminisced the days when I exchanged knowledge with trees, realizing how great it is to be with nature. Nature encouraged me to listen and observe with my heart. The sun acted like a search light, guiding me to every detail, contour and grades of color. It was so alluring that it tempted us to more selfish desires of acquiring everything before our sights. We need not hide our joyous benefits from nature. Nature is like a private classroom, giving us systematic instruction on creation from the very beginning. It is different from standardized and boring classrooms we go through. There are no fixed seats, tables or unending and cold corridors. We could sit anywhere we want on the lawn, using dirty logs as our tables to relive the ancient days where our ancestors acquired knowledge from beneath a tree. I tried to stick to the feeling of learning from nature, relying on my shallow understanding as I traced the contours of nature. The beautiful subconscious origin of my creativity is combined with my awakened principles of design.

Abstract imaginations in fiber design and design highlights of natural, regenerated or imitation fibers are either for human use or to provide abstract spatial decoration. It can be manifested in a conceptual form or intangibly, unrestricted by scale to expand its metamorphosing effects on space.

Contour designs we learnt from nature can be used to transform fabric, allowing our vision to leap between different emotions brought forth by fiber and contour. Creative visualizations emerge from the intersections of lines, giving a dancing visual where uniqueness appears from unity.


Exploring Nature in Life – the Tangible and the Ephemeral

Painters follow their own consciousness as they take the paint and brush to create colored patches on the canvas, transforming it into the likeness of the desired model. They can also rely completely on their own ego and creative styles without worrying about accuracy or preserving contour lines. Sculptors, likewise, have their own complete set of design freedom and autonomy.

However, those who compose designs using patterned fabrics are challenging a realm where no one had ventured before. The patterns on these fabrics already come with a strong force of interference. These patterns can turn bright daylight into gray, covering the clear sky with a blanket of clouds. The flowers cannot bloom, and the trees cannot stand. Fiber artists are seldom equipped with the artists’ freedom of changing the climate of their work. The issue lies clearly with the patterns already present on the fabric. As artists trying to express natural reactions of daily life through artwork, we need not dwell on the all-too-familiar visions we see every day. Rather, we accept this simple challenge of creating new visions of ordinary objects. This would not only create novel visuals, it would also augment what our eyes sense about our visual space.

Nature is a measurable texture in the world of tangible contours. The contours displayed in patterned fabrics and quilts are intangible, but it is beautiful in that it allows people to have visual and spiritual moments. Our spiritual realm originates from the existentialist egos in our senses and thoughts, requiring nature to create a form it wants. For example, when we think about the ravishing rose we would hope the flowers on our patterned fabrics transform into these roses. The natural rhythm and evolution of mankind creates a useful sensory realm that can excite our visual senses. This enigmatic atmosphere is a necessary route that we can create, a route which helps us create our works. However, all these follow a set of rules which inspire the basics required to recreate the patterned fabrics along the tenets of existentialism.


Natural Rhythms that can be Understood – the Protection of Contrasting Colors

Every contour in nature represents an emotion, an expression and a character. Patterned fabrics are the same thing. It is a very powerful representation of space and texture though it is limited to a surface. These textures give different people different senses. So how mysterious are the contours on patterned fabrics? They give specific authority and a spiritual guidance for design. They represent existentialism manifested in the patterns and multiple colors on the fabrics. They are components of design that insist on not requiring specific arrangements or calculations before incorporation. They provide a realm beyond the imagination of artists. Patterned fabrics are independent design elements malleable enough to be included in any display. Changes of its form can be used to inspire all sorts of use. This beautiful utilitarian spirit is the other advantage of patterned fabrics. Colors have an infinite combination of contrasts and grades. This singularly hints that color changes brought about by contrasting contours and colors of patterned fabrics can be used to improve adaptation of color and design.

As a quilter, I have always been fascinated by dyed fabrics with ever-changing natural textures, or beautifully designed patterns. Something unique and irreplaceable always attracts my attention. This is from fiber artists’ point of view. However, during my study, I met a variety of creators from different areas, such as fashion designers and craftsmen. They ask for fabrics that are evenly dyed and without color spots. It’s a demanding task.

I might have more struggling learning experience than others. I love natural dyeing, and therefore I enjoy doing research and paying hard works. Now I treat natural dyeing with more respect, because I know the preciousness of natural ecosystem. We shall cherish and preserve such uniqueness.





Quilts created by Lin Hsin-Chen


Tranquil Moments


100 x 64 (cm)

Materials: self dyed fabrics with natural dyes from native plants in Taiwan, wool yarn, cotton, linen, silk

Artist Statement:

Solutions to adversities often found in peaceful moments. From natural dyes, I learned that even splendid life ends in simple and solid colors. It is the profound nature philosophy. This work is my visual feedback after experiencing the earthquake.

Calming down and getting life back on track after experiencing disasters is a life issue. When I was creating this work, I experienced the destructive earthquake in Tainan. It is hard to imagine that buildings are falling apart due to crustal deformation and bringing fears to the tranquil life. For this reason, I changed my design to weaving instead of piecing, in hopes of finding stable latitude and longitude lines for my broken homeland and recovering from the disaster speedily. There is no specific horizontal sequence in my work. I wove it freely with curves to depict an alternative beauty of rebuilt buildings with cracks.

The reds on the water lily are lac insects. They absorb nutrients from the host plants and produce red dye. The red dye they produced creates gorgeous and rare hues on silk fibers. The composition of animal protein, lac insects and natural silk, make unique and precious colors.



Spirals of Thoughts


150 x 125 (cm)

Selected for Quilt National 2009

Materials: self dyed wool with natural dyes from native plants in Taiwan, commercial fabrics

Artist Statement:

One’s inner towards environmental impact is full of conflicts and complexities. Perfunctoriness is spinning and spiraling between time and space, untangling the twisted chaos. Perfunctoriness and the twisted chaos are connected to each other. They have been conducted, changed, and overtaken under the same time space. Keeping the dark away and let the bright curve flow… I chose plant dyed wool to transplant into fabrics and let them flee all over my work. I expect my emotion to be as gentle and the tender beauty of transformation as plant dyeing with moving effect.



Making A Wish


108 × 108 (cm)

Materials: silk, linen, wool, cotton; all fabrics are self dyed with natural dyes from native plants in Taiwan

Artist Statement:

I dyed silks with plants; hoping people who need the Poppy to comfort pains can recover soon. I paid quite a lot when creating Making a Wish. The story started with my son who had a surgery. The doctor said the surgery was very dangerous and my son required general anesthesia included different anaesthetics. At that time, I became so curious about anaesthetics and tried to search more information for it. I knew nothing except anaesthetic is derived from the sap out of poppy flowers. I hoped my son to recover soon so creating a poppy flower was the least I could do. The beauty and devotion of poppy flowers hold special conflicts; they can be used for drugs to hurt people and anaesthetic to save people. Poppy flowers are distinctive and I wanted to search for very special fabrics to stitch one. The most special part was to absorb different colors from plants which cost me 3 years finding dyes from plants in Taiwan. I chose silk to represent the color of uniqueness. I challenged all possibilities technically because of softness of silk. I hope people can maintain a better health by the devotion of poppy flowers.