Toxic. Carcinogenic. Mutagenic. Non-biodegradable. Just a few of the unexpected ways to describe that organic fiber t-shirt you’re so proudly wearing. Say what? According to Sasha Duerr, founder of Permacouture Institute and author of the Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes, the sad irony is “you can have an organic fiber T-shirt, but if the dyes used to color it were toxic, they can be absorbed by the skin and can also prevent the T-shirt from biodegrading.”
Yowsers! I try to eat organic and I’ve finally surrendered my hopeful – read desperate – belief in high-tech sounding face cream ingredients, in favor of the motto, “if you can’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin.” But, I’m guessing most of us have never considered the connection between our clothes and our personal health.
So when I heard Duerr was leading a workshop on how to create a saturated array of colors straight from our very own garden, kitchen, or urban sidewalk, I immediately signed up.
Walking into the Mission district’s 18 Reasons, I join a group of 10 fellow fabric enthusiasts that include sewers, knitters, wool spinners, and – who knew? – a lone accountant. I sit next to Nicole Markoff, owner/designer of the Nicacelly Collection, a line of responsibly-produced street wear made from dead stock she found in Thailand. She’s attending because, “I wanted to move beyond the curry, turmeric, and tea that I had been dyeing with last year.” I start to reconsider the amount of time I spend holed-up with my face in Harper Bazaar.
Duerr is a big draw in these circles. Markkoff enthuses, “Sasha’s an incredible wealth of knowledge and her closed-loop approach is what I’d like to replicate in my work and business.”
As we start preparing our fabric samples, Duerr tells us about the astonishing amount of dye-producing plants available right here in urban San Francisco. “Once you begin learning and can identify plants which are harmful, those that are useful, as well as those that are common, local, edible and in season, ” she says, “Your view of your environment changes.”
While knowing that, in an emergency, the maple-like leaves of the Sweet gum tree can be used to treat fevers and wounds can gain you Bear Gryll’s-type kudos, learning how to create a color palette from foraged plants comes from spending time outside and building a relationship with nature. Duerr promotes the need for our culture’s increased ecoliteracy – “Much of what has become problematic in our modern lives is related to our having forgotten how to connect with simple rhythms of nature.” When you are working with the natural world, you’re constantly aware that you are often working on nature’s schedule, not just your own.”
As we chop up stalks and leaves and toss them into the bubbling pots of hot water on the kitchen stove, I’m reminded of the tenets of the slow food movement. Foraging for local edible plants and mushrooms, syncing production with true natural seasons, and how we’re beginning to understand what our actual limitations are in creation and consumption. Not to mention, how it has inspired people’s connection to where their food really comes from. We’ve embraced these concepts with our food, but with our clothes? It feels like a whole new idea. Or, maybe because so much of it is about sustainability, it’s simply a really old idea that seems new again.
Just like any of San Francisco’s renowned chef’s who wants to work with the freshest most local ingredients, Duerr, in her search for the best natural dye color for her line Adie + George, has discovered that sometimes the natural rhythms of nature and those of the artificial fashion industry don’t sync, “You’ve got to make sure a plant you’re dyeing samples with for New York Fashion Week will actually be in season when you want to dye the garments, she says, adding, “Personally, I love that concept of being immediately connected and having to think about your clothing that way – truly seasonal rather than just the fashion world seasonal that we’re used to.”
Aside from ensuring you are a steward of the land, it’s important to remember just because its natural doesn’t mean it’s always good for you. Among the many leaves that can be toxic are those from peach and plum trees, which contain cyanide, and rhubarb leaves, which contain oxalic acid. Durer recommends that if you come across a plant you want to experiment with, study up on it before. But then, she says, “creating color from botanical sources can be as easy as making your favorite tea.”
As we sink our tiny pieces of wool into the homemade batches of dye, we learn about natural dye practices on the verge of use on an industrial level. Clearly this is a huge topic, but if this is how your organic t-shirt delivers upon its true promise, then the beautifully-colored, one-of-a-kind fabric treasures we take home that evening are clearly a metaphor for what is possible if we just pay attention to our environment.