Saturday, January 14, 2017

Natural Color

Originally published October 2016 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Sasha Duerr’s new book, “Natural Color,” poses a difficult question and provides some thoughtful answers. The question is an ever-present, global one: What more can we do to help our planet? The answer is: Rethink where color in our fabrics comes from.

My napkins soak up the pink dye after
 the avocado pits have simmered for an hour on the
Duerr says that natural dies are often more
 complex than synthetic dies. A natural red dye, for
 example, will contain hints of blue and yellow,
whereas chemically produced red dye contains
 only a single pigment.
Duerr says that although we don’t eat our clothing and textiles, the process of dyeing them is nevertheless poisoning us and our planet. She provides these startling statistics about the contamination of our water:

  • The World Bank estimates that 17 to 20 percent of the world’s industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.
  • There are 72 toxic chemicals in our water that originate purely from the dyeing process; of these 30 cannot be removed. (See “A Cancer Cycle, From Here to China” at
She blames “fast fashion”—the relentless mandate of the fashion industry to convince us that, although an article of clothing may still be functional, it must be replaced by something more stylish. She compares fast fashion to fast food, since, in both cases, rapid consumption rules the day with little thought given to the negative consequences. 

Duerr carries the relationship between food and fashion further. She writes that “just as many of us have lost our basic knowledge of food and cooking . . . so too the basic knowledge and practice of making plant-based color for fashion and textiles have been lost.” As the slow food movement strives to link the pleasures of the table with a commitment to community and environment protection, Duerr seeks to connect textiles and fashion with the same commitment to global health.

Even though our grandmothers were using more natural, recognizable ingredients in their cooking than we are today, I’m not sure they were dyeing their own fabric. When tie-dyeing and batik became popular in the US in the 1960s and 70s, and many textile artists were experimenting at home with natural plant-based colors for dyeing fabric, dangerous metal mordants such chrome, tin, and copper were part of the recipe. Mordants are necessary to help dyes bond with fibers, making fabrics colorfast through washing and wearing cycles.

For certain natural dye sources and colors, powdered metals are still a necessary part of Duerr’s recipes, although she works only with alum and iron, the safest choices. Nevertheless, she uses these less-toxic metals with “extreme care and caution” (e.g. gloves, lids on pots, dust masks, dedicated tools and equipment, safe disposal of spent dyes, etc.). Fortunately, adding a metal mordant is not always necessary.

When oil paints gave Duerr headaches and nausea as a budding artist in her early 20s, Duerr began investigating natural colorants in India, Nepal, Tibet and Indonesia. Plants have provided of a whole gamut of textile colors for centuries, but it was not easy finding the how-to of sustainable plant dye practices in her travels. She continued her research in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she “fell in love with the variety and sources of plant-based palettes” available in her new backyard. She wrote her MFA thesis on dyeing without toxic metal mordants and founded Permacouture Institute in 2007, to continue the exploration of responsible fashion and textile practices.

For Mother’s Day a few years ago my farmer daughter sent me a set of seven small pen and ink drawings of individual vegetables and fruits. She tinted each image with color distilled from the subject itself. I displayed the drawings in my kitchen and over time the colors have all disappeared, except for the cabbage, which is still an olive green. So why didn’t the cabbage fade?

Some plants have built-in mordants that bind their color to fiber (or paper) without additives. Plant-based materials that Duerr uses for making color-fast dyes include avocado pits, loquat leaves, eucalyptus bark, and pomegranate rinds, which all contain significant amounts of tannin. Safer mordants have also been made from proteins like milk or soy, and even from plants that absorb metals like aluminum through their roots.

Duerr encourages readers to start dyeing with “the wayward white wool sweater in the back of your closet that you haven’t worn and the leftover by-products of your favorite meal before they hit your compost pile.” With natural dyes, your fabric fiber choices are also natural:

  • Protein fibers (animal-based): Alpaca, angora, cashmere, silk, wool
  • Cellulose fibers (plant-based): Cotton, hemp, linen, nettle, piƱa, ramie, sisal
 Other natural materials such as shell, bone, wood and porous paper can also be dyed.

The projects in “Natural Color” are arranged by the seasons, and fall includes “Hopi black sunflower seed wool rug” and “Madder root scarf.” (Madder root can make vibrant, clear reds, otherwise difficult to find in nature.) Tannin-rich persimmons are typically used green, and require a week of fermentation and a year of aging, so you should start gathering them now for next year’s projects. Winter is for pomegranate rinds, purple cabbage leaves, blue spruce branches and redwood cones.

For fun I decided to give her “Avocado pit pillowcases” project a try, although when I couldn’t hunt down linen of any sort on my shopping safari, I used cotton napkins instead. I found washing soda and something approximating Marseille soap at Nob Hill, which are needed to help release built-up waxes, dirt and oils in the cotton fibers prior to dyeing. The pre-washing, dyeing, post-washing and drying took the better part of a day, but the results were nice enough: the pits turned the white cotton a nice, organic shade of pink.

If slow fashion is to gain any momentum at all, we will have to become more environmentally-conscious consumers. Sasha Duerr’s book is all about the kind of awareness we need—not only for making better choices, but also for tuning into the cycle and offerings of nature. As Duerr points out, nature is the ultimate instructor, an invaluable source of color, inspiration and innovation for all creative endeavors.