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DIY dyes from your kitchen & garden: magic of living color

Sasha Duerr uses just about anything to dye clothing: from kitchen waste (coffee grounds, avocado pits and onion skins) to invasive “weeds” (wild fennel, oxalis) to the leaves, fruit or petals of nearly any tree or plant (maple, pear, cherry, fig, acorn, fern, dahlia, poppy, lavender, etc).

Inspired by permaculture, Duerr believes in a slower approach to textile dying- she founded the Permacouture Institute to help advance Slow Textiles- both as a way to respect the environment, but also because she believes that plant-based color is more beautiful, and truly alive.

“Natural dyes harmonize with each other in a way that only botanical colors can,” she writes in her book The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes(*). “A natural dye, a red for example, will include hints of blue and yellow, whereas a chemically produced red dye contains only a single red pigment, making the color less complex… The unique qualities of naturally dyed textiles can often make the color vibrate or glow, which is truly magical.”

The colors produced by plants may be magical, but the process to create them- believes Duerr- is really quite simple. To prove just how accessible the organic botanical color really is, she helped create the Fiber and Dye Walk at the California College of Arts and Crafts (where she teaches). In a simple walk through the campus, there are over 30 plants and trees that can be used as dyes, including, apple, aloe, bamboo, cherry, eucalyptus, fig, ivy, olive, juniper, lily, rosemary and wisteria.

This isn’t new information, as Duerr points out, during World War Two our grandparents were using things like red cabbage as a dye, but quickly the knowledge is becoming lost. When Duerr began to educate herself in organic botanical color sources, she turned to farmers and indigenous communities in an attempt to catalog what was once more common knowledge.

Duerr doesn’t want to teach the world to create color from our surroundings- in a sense Slow Color- simply so we’ll all become better stewards of nature and our shared culture, it’s also for us as human beings. “Much of what has become problematic in our modern lives,” she believes, “is related to our having forgotten how to connect with simple rhythms of nature”.

In this video, Duerr takes us for a tour of all the dye plants in the garden of a home she happens to be housesitting; she brews up a few batches of natural color from the leaves of a fern and fig and loquat trees; she gives us a tour of her natural-dyed wardrobe (including pieces from her bioregional knitwear collection Adie + George, created and run with partner Casey Larkin); and finally she dyes a secondhand silk shirt for that evening’s event using the loquat leaves from the tree outside the house.

* Her book’s complete title is The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes: Personalize Your Craft with Organic Colors from Acorns, Blackberries, Coffee, and Other Everyday Ingredients.