Permacouture’s Dinner To Dye For (London Style)

The Permacouture Institute’s Dinner To Dye For makes one appreciate how clothes get color.

Armed with stacks of foraged plants from around the canals of London, Katelyn Toth-Fejel explains how manufacturers refuse to disclose the ingredients of synthetic fabric dyes. “We don’t know what’s in them,” she says. “It could be anything.”

So began Dinner to Dye For, a workshop run by the Permacouture Institute, an organization that seeks a truly holistic approach to fashion where nature and culture nestle side by side instead of battling each other head-on. The institute is a transatlantic operation, with education programs in both the UK and U.S. Their courses span small scale school projects to university programs, marking seeds at seed libraries for their fiber and dying potential to running workshops like Dinner to Dye For.

Alongside her role as European co-director of the Permacouture Institute, Oregon-born Katelyn is also an artist and lecturer with an obsession for plants and natural science, and can rattle off chemical reactions with ease, giving them context and meaning and even humor.

At the workshop, Katelyn explains how mauve was the first synthetic dye, accidentally created from coal-tar in 1860, and how its discovery very quickly triggered a revolution in fabric production leading to today’s highly industrialized, highly chemical dying industry. She also describes her time in India in the fabric dying districts of Delhi, watching gallons of effluent being poured directly into the streets, a toxic run-off leaching wherever it wanted to go.

This particular workshop is held at Here Today Here Tomorrow, a sustainable fashion shop and studio in Dalston, London. On the table are three metal pots, each filled with boiling water and in turn filled with fennel, cowslip and blackberry, all plants that grow in abundance around London in the summer, creeping through cracks in the paths and overrunning any tiny patch of earth visible on the city streets.

We are given swatches of silk and wool and encouraged to fold, knot and clamp the fabric before dipping them into the steaming vats. Katelyn tells us she became fascinated with natural dying after taking a mandatory science class as part of her arts degree, during which she accidentally created beautiful red shades out of madder. In the meantime, my silk, soaking in the fennel stew, begins turning a vibrant, shocking shade of yellow.

We remove our fabrics from the dyes and rinse them once in a tiny sink. “If you were using synthetic dyes you’d need to rinse them with about twenty pan-fulls of water,” Katelyn says, pointing to a ten liter pot. One can’t help but think how much water consumption is a resource being over abused just knowing this fact. We move forward, channeling our kindergarten selves and make potato stamps, using an iron paste to make the dye go darker in places, creating patterns along our fabrics.

Talk about sustainable fashion is often focused on what the fabrics are made from, how sustainable the feedstock is, how the people are treated all along the supply chain. While these are undeniably important, it is easy to overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of our clothing: what color is it? How was that color made?

Natural dyes do come with problems. You can’t get the range of colors available with synthetic dyes, plants have to be sustainably sourced, there is a lack of consistency between batches. But synthetic dyes are also not perfect: they fade over time and with washing, they can be polluting and, as established, a little enigmatic when it comes to constituent parts.

With our swatches drying we sit down to eat. A bread course with sorrel butter, the leaves foraged alongside the other plants, a quiche with polenta pastry, courgette blossoms and fennel, and for desert sour lemon pots with sweet and succulent blackberries, the fruits of the brambles used in the earlier dying session. The food is delicious, conversation interesting. We take time to eat slowly.

Permacouture’s Dinner To Dye For

“It’s a totally closed loop system,” Katelyn says. “We’re using weeds to color fabrics and feed ourselves and any left overs are turned back into soil.”

It’s a method that can be scaled up too. One project Katelyn witnessed in France involved making dyes from waste materials and bi-products from existing industries such as farming. While it doesn’t always make sense to use a natural dye over synthetic, Katelyn says they are just one alternative, in the same way that wind is one alternative to coal.

And of the fascination with naturally dyed clothes: “The colors never come out exactly the same. When you look at the fabrics they aren’t one single color like on clothes you would buy, they’re made up of hundreds of shades. It just feels more special this way.”

Dinner to Dye For is run by the Permacouture Institute. Go to their site to learn more about upcoming workshops.

All images: Katelyn Toth-Fejel Co-Founder of the Permacouture Institute