Founded in 2010, Honest Alchemy is a sustainable textile and accessory design company that uses 100% natural fibers and plant-based pigments. Handmade by Philadelphia-based artist Elizabeth McTear, each piece is made with a deliberate consideration for tradition and timeless style. Drawing inspiration from the elements and nature, she strives to create goods that reflect her vision of utilitarian art for the everyday. Elizabeth’s reverence for her craft is unmistakable — her indigo stained hands tell the story of a maker who doesn’t compromise quality or cut corners. On any given night of the week, Elizabeth is at her studio feeding her living artwork. Perched over a bubbling cauldron of organic natural indigo dye, she meticulously feeds the live bacteria that ferment her dye bath a regimented diet of wheat bran and sake. Fermenting her dye, feeding it, keeping it warm–the continual care required of her craft is exemplary of her devotion to sustainable textile design. Be sure to pay the shop a visit, and check out her gorgeous designs at Anthropologie!
explain your business and the idea behind it.
I make utilitarian art for the everyday. My work is meant to be enjoyed by the average person while being ethically and environmentally responsible.
at what point did you decide to make your passion a business, and what inspired you?
I’m an artist, first and foremost, and will always be an artist. Whether it is being a full time designer and artist for my living or doing it in my spare time, my work will always happen. However, as I spend more time in the studio and start gaining more attention for the work I’m doing, I’m taking serious steps to eventually segue this into a legitimate business. I’m enamored with the idea of waking up and spending my days in the studio, connecting more fully with the incredible community of creatives in the city, and building relationships with businesses and shops that I admire.
as you’ve developed your business/brand, what has surprised you most?
I’m regularly surprised that I’ve enjoyed the success I have thus far. I’d do the work anyway, be it for the masses or for myself. But the fact that people are responding so positively to the point where they are willing to buy it for themselves is something I didn’t initially anticipate. I cannot express how thankful I am for that.
when did you know you’d “made it” as a creative entrepreneur?
Ha! I suppose that depends on your definition of “made it”. I thought I “made it” when someone first bought something I’d made with my own two hands. Then I thought I “made it” when I got accepted into various markets and events. Then, when I upgraded my studio and operations, I thought that I’d made it. And then when Anthropologie called me in for a meeting and ordered 150 scarves, I thought “ah-ha! I made it!”. So, I’m not sure. I think that as each new challenge or goal is met, I sort of make it, at least to a new level. Maybe “making it” just means taking on challenges and doing your best to succeed, learning from your mistakes along the way, and challenging yourself to doing better each day.
what projects are you most proud of?
I have a degree in Textile Design, but my education was with synthetic dyes for natural fibers. I never worked with natural dyes, which has a completely different chemical profile. Indigo in particular is a beast who’s nuances and moods take a lifetime to understand. Though I’ve only been working with the natural indigo for about two years now, I’ve learned a great deal (and am fully aware of how much I do NOT know). I’m really proud that I’ve taken on the challenge of working with indigo and have started expanding into other natural dyes. I hope to pursue it for the rest of my life, and maybe, as an old lady, I’ll finally have mastered natural dyeing.
where do you work from? tell us about your office and/or studio.
I have a shared studio in South Philly, at 1241 Carpenter Street. I LOVE IT. I have an excellent studio-mate (Lisa Haskell – look her up!). My building is full of wonderful artists and designers (Giant Dwarf, Sarah Louise Davey, Made by Hank, Miss Millie Ceramics, Works by M. Morton, Heavy Bubble, Pink Bike Ralph and many more). It’s inspiring to be in a place so full of creative energy and part of such a lovely community of artists.
how has social media helped to further your business?
Social media has been instrumental in furthering my business. Platforms like instagram are perfectly tailored for visual artists to show progress, catalog their work and connect with their potential customers as well as other creative people. I’ve been very lucky to be a featured instagram user, which garnered my 18K followers. And recently a photo of mine was featured on Etsy’s IG feed, thus growing people’s awareness of me and my work. Additionally, social media has been really helpful in connecting me with like-minded businesses and the people behind them, giving me a space to talk shop with people, build relationships, and further my reach. I’ve even been lucky enough to make real friends through social media and build my business with great people.
what is the most challenging aspect of running your own business?
Juggling all the various aspects of it. I love the studio work, but there’s a lot of tasks that aren’t fun or sexy or exciting, like accounting work and the nitty-gritty of business logistics and such. These aspects are completely imperative to take care of though. If you want a business, you have to take on ALL of the business, not just the fun stuff. Otherwise you’re just enjoying your hobby, which is fine if you’re not aiming to make a real living off of your creative work. But my aim is to eventually make this a lucrative venture that I can do full time, so I have to put in the work for that to happen.
what drives you most as an independent creative?
I’m fueled by the work. I often have trouble sleeping because my brain won’t shut up. I have too many ideas and won’t get to all of them in my one lifetime, but at least I’ll never be bored. But with the time I do have, I’d like to explore as many of my ideas as possible–I’m always excited to get into the studio and push a little more on things I’ve got rattling around in my head.
Every act of creation is first an act of destruction – Pablo Picasso
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe – John Muir
Knowing these two things helps me understand the nature of what I do, the responsibilities I have when it comes to doing it, and how my work is connected to much larger things, thus my desire to be ethical and environmentally conscientious.
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