Cristina Gaitán - Una Ice Dye

UNA launched in 2020 and is a creative project by professor, designer, mother and wife, Cristina Gaitán. She has been dyeing garments for her family’s wardrobe for years. She enjoys giving garments a new life and experimenting with this age-old tradition. For Halloween 2020, during the global pandemic, she and husband Rafi Ajl (of The Long Confidence) wanted to do something fun with their infant son, so they dressed him up as an astronaut and she dyed sweatsuits for them to be the literal and figurative galaxy to their space voyager. Like a rocketship these celestially dyed sweatsuits took off -- friends and family clamored for one of their own. Cristina began making custom garments to order and UNA was born. 

We are so fortunate to have some of her hand ice dyed pieces available for sale. 

Mother’s Day 2021 Interview

Where is your creativity rooted?

Rafi and I are both designers. We met at graduate school at California College of the Arts where we both earned an MFA. A central aspect of the program was learning to approach all problems as design problems - what are the inputs and the outputs, what is the process, the unseen aspects that interconnect and intermingle with systems. I’m also a landscape designer so my creativity is very much rooted in nature and the natural order. This is apparent in the more organic and free approach I take with my creations.

Can you tell us about the ice dye process?

I love it - you have a certain amount of control but also have to let go to a certain amount of chaos. I start with textiles that are plant based cellulose like cotton or bamboo - shirts, socks, bandanas are what I made for Broc. The first step is to submerge the garment in a fixative, soda ash, then put it in a tray and layer it with ice on top then sprinkle on the dye which comes in a powder form. The dye mixes with the water as the ice melts and reacts with the fabric underneath to create dynamic patterns that almost look like watercolors. If you use pure primary colors like cyan, magenta and yellow, the effect is the same color with various saturations. If you use a mixed color like green, grey, beige or purple the actual 'composite' dye splits into it's 'pure' colors as the ice is melting and creates unexpected combinations with vibrant multi-color effects. My favorite dye is a moss green, it breaks into yellow, blue, magenta and you watch how out of the dark muddy green comes these vibrant colors. 

What kind of dyes do you work with?

For Broc and the clothing I sell on UNA I use low impact synthetic dyes because they are more vibrant and stable. But my passion is working with natural dyes. They are so fun but are very tricky.  When you get a garment that is naturally dyed it’s like a living piece. If it gets splashed with lemon juice it will change the garment, if it’s showered in sunlight it will change, the person that buys it and wears it becomes a steward of the garment. Some natural dyes I like to work with are madder root which makes a deep red, osage orange wood which makes deep yellows and oranges, logwood which is a vibrant purple, cochineal which is a bug and makes bright red pink or eucalyptus leaves or wood that make the most amazing browns and greens. You can distill almost anything into a dye and use other materials to shift the colors - add more iron and make colors sadder or more muted, add acid and it makes colors brighter and more vibrant.

How did motherhood change your relationship with your work and your art?

Oh my god, in a huge way. In two ways that seem contradictory. Becoming a mother made me less selfish in every way. In relation to my creative process before I had my son, Isa, I was going through a very encumbered period and experienced immense creative block. Part of that is having all the time you want to do whatever you want. When I was pregnant I was in the flow. I got freed up from the over thinking. Priorities became different. Now it is much easier to take creative risks. I have a new relationship with time. If I have 30 minutes to create something I just go for it and get it done. 

How do you work on your ice dye while you’re also caring for Isa?

I have this little stool that he stands in and watches me. The process is such that I can do it with him while we spend time together. During the process, there’s a very tight window of concentrated time followed by lots of waiting where I can check in with him, play with him, feed him... And, he loves watching the process, especially when I break up the ice and add the dyes. 

Is he walking?

Not yet, but he’s cruising and extremely fast. 

Do you do custom work for anyone?

I will but it depends on the timing and the project. I just finished an amazing project for my mother-in-law, Elaine Smith, who is also an artist and colorist. She has had a beloved chair for decades that was upholstered in plain canvas. She flew out with a big piece of fabric and we dyed it my original Supernova colorway - deep dark blue and purple, with some deep yellow and red. It turned out gorgeous. 

The world has changed. How have you changed? 

Covid and becoming a mother are layered. I literally had Isa a few days after we went into lockdown, a home birth. So we’ve been at home this whole time. It clarified a lot of things and prioritized a lot of things and made clear how we wanted our lives to be. We were allowed to double down on our creative practice. Berkeley is a crazy expensive place to live and be, so it takes a lot of hustle to make your creative practice your main practice. Our creative work and lives are intermixed and we refer to it all as a tripartite life -- we are professors, have our own creative work, and have client work. It’s the intermix of our jobs balanced with our family life that fulfill our lives.