A Case for Natural Dyeing – Taking Small Steps in a Big World

I recently read a New Yorker magazine article by Jonathan Franzen entitled Carbon Capture (April 6, 2016). He begins the piece by talking about the new football stadium being built in Minneapolis and how the glass walls could spell the doom for thousands of birds predicted to fly into it each year. Requests to change the design by including specially patterned glass to prevent the collisions (raising the price of the stadium by one-tenth of one percent) were thwarted when the National Audubon Society issued a press release identifying the dangers of climate change. A local journalist responded by claiming that global warming was going to kill off many more than the few thousand birds the windows placed at risk.

Climate change is real, as are so many of our environmental issues. They are bigger than any of us and no one person can be held responsible or fix them. But Franzen makes a good case for each of us doing something. We do have the capacity to act and deal with the issues immediately in front of us – actions we can take right NOW to improve our environment.

the creek behind my dye studio
the creek behind my dye studio

The author visited a small, isolated, Peruvian community. With the help of the Amazon Conservation Center, the residents are engaged in re-foresting steep slopes by hand, operating an experimental organic farm, and running a small scale fish hatchery that raises native species. All of these ventures are employing local people and helping them raise a bit of extra cash. Yet the most important results are enriched soil, the mediation of erosion problems, and increased populations of native bird species.

Franzen also went to Costa Rica where a tropical biologist and his wife have created a Reserve of Pacific Dry Forest. The area hosts a complex inventory of hundreds of thousands  of plant and animal species occurring within the space. This is “hands-on” science, engaging graduate researchers, school children, and local communities.

What struck him about both of these projects was the size of each of the component parts. They are small! Every one of them is manageable by individuals or small groups of people, yet the results are real and are making a tangible difference. Working at this scale reflects a meaningful engagement by a few in something that they love and believe in, yet the benefits affect many.

Eight years ago I made the commitment to study natural dyeing. I have investigated, learned, and integrated the use the natural dyes into my daily studio practice.  I was motivated to make this change by several factors: my water source is a shallow well, I have a septic system, and my studio is right next to a small creek that feeds into a larger river  – a home to local trout.  The other incentive is a desire to learn and master new information.

my vegetable garden
my vegetable garden

Last fall I had a special dye project  that I thought would best be accomplished with a chemical vat dye.  I decided to make an exception to my natural dye commitment. It had been many  years since I used these dyes and when I had the bath ready, I was struck by the unpleasant chemical smell of the vat. Vat dyes had been a regular part of my studio practice in the past and I was never bothered by, or even much aware of the smell.  Now I have become accustomed to the distinct and fragrant “natural” smells of the plant dyes: marigolds, weld, madder, and rhubarb root. Vat dyes are a petrochemical product, smell like one, and are notorious for the pollution caused in their manufacturing, not to mention their potential deleterious impact on the environment when the depleted solutions are discarded.

Weld in the garden,  ready to be harvested
Weld in the garden, almost ready to be harvested

I have decided not to use the chemical vat dyes again. Instead, I will continue dyeing with plants and  using colors that are of the earth. The only vat dye I will use is indigo, reduced with plants, plant sugars or minerals.  I will engage in and support the use of something that I love and believe in.

Can we stop global warming by using natural dyes? That is not likely.  But “one small step” can make a difference. My involvement takes the form of growing dye plants, using them in my textiles, and teaching others how to do the same. This is good for the creek that runs behind my dye studio, the compost pile that feeds my dye and vegetable garden, and for me. I care about these things.

fabrics dyed with various yellow plant dyes
Fabrics dyed with various yellow plant dyes

9 thoughts on “A Case for Natural Dyeing – Taking Small Steps in a Big World

  1. catherine, this is beautifully written. thank you. a story: years ago my nephew did research on the summit of whiteface mountain here in the adirondacks. his job was collecting clouds, during every cloud event he was to take samples and researchers at syracuse university used his “grunt work” to formulate theories of acid rain and climate change. this was in the 80’s. he said to me then, “we (meaning science) don’t know what we have done to the weather.” i remember those words often, and they inform my work, thinking, and teaching. that creek in your backyard is grateful to you, it sings more clearly because of your care.

  2. I am so glad you wrote this Catharine – I was going to comment on your last post to just say that yes, its important to keep an open mind but that your decision to work with sustainable materials and practices was made as an informed choice, not on a whim or because it was fashionable! It is even more valid that it was 8 years ago. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights into your work and experience through this blog.

  3. your work is beautiful, your description of how you came to it, also beautiful. putting you on my sidebar!

  4. Thank you for’this important post. The last picture with the fabric is so beautiful. Should it be possible to share with us the way you obtaintend these patterns and colors?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. All of the fabrics pictured are a result of woven shibori, various alum and ferrous mordants, and yellow dyes. An updated version of my book, Woven Shibori, will be re-published next summer by Interweave Press. This version will focus on natural dye and give you a very good idea how all those fabrics were made.

  5. Hi Catherine, I have enjoyed reading about your garden and natural dyeing odyssey. I took my first Indigo class this September. I have been able to create two vats at home using the pre-reduced indigo crystals or particles. It does have a strong ammonia smell when I open the container or vat the next day. I have been very disappointed with powdered natural dyes; I find these definitely require a mask when mixing w hot water & mordants. Dried natural products do not bother my nose, such as marigold heads. I really would like to know more about the early Spring 2016 Class you will be teaching. I am very tempted to try growing indigo & weld, I am in zone 7, Richmond area in Virginia. Thanks, Holly

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