The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr Demonstrates Slow Fashion Goodness

ExclusiveInterview with a leading slow fashion expert.

If late February finds you rather lackluster and beaten down, we just might have a cure for what ails you. Sasha Duerr of the Permacouture Institute recently released her new book, The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes, and it is a true cornucopia of slow fashion goodness and ‘soil to studio’ guidance. Sasha is one of the leading experts on natural plant dyes and home-brewed recipes for creating customized color palettes that also touch on eco-literacy and bio-regional awareness. Identifying non-toxic dye materials that reside in your own kitchen, garden, or urban plot goes hand in hand with all of the focus and research one might put into shopping for and preparing organic foods. This is the first book that really highlights why fashion and food are intertwined, and why we can no longer afford to view textiles and clothing as something other than the underlying fiber of our everyday lives and shared communities.

The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes: Personalize Your Craft with Organic Colors from Acorns, Blackberries, Coffee, and Other Everyday Ingredients might seem like a mouthful to some, but for artist and educator Duerr, it is vital that everyone celebrate the creative possibilities that exist in those findable organic materials that are very much a part of our long history with natural gardening and textiles. Granted, this Bay Area resident has loads of greenery and inspiration in the foothills of her community, but she will also be the first to admit that time outside in pristine nature is not the only way to re-connect with our environs and those traditions that might help us to revive plant dye knowledge.

I have always loved that Sasha does not have to hunt very far to locate indigenous plants (often called ‘weeds’) or resuscitate kitchen goods (coffee or onion skins) that magically find new life with just the right application of expertise. Her visually alluring book wisely takes the mystery out of dye alchemy so that everyone feels empowered to do the right thing, even if you opt to not try the recipes for some time. I, for one, would consider using this book as a text book in any sustainable fashion course, principally as a means to create a greater awareness about how accessible and affordable eco-fashion truly is.

An Exclusive Q & A with Sasha Duerr:

In an interview with the book’s publisher, Timber Press, Sasha explains why she initiated this project and what role it might play in our relationship with coloring fashion:

The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes is about experimentation with organic color recipes from my own kitchen, garden, and community. Books and information on natural dyes are diverse, and dye-producing plants and color recipes differ from region to region. As my love of natural color grew, I realized that many dye recipes have been lost to particular cultures and areas of the world. Through creative re-engagement we can begin to revive these recipes and reconnect with the long history of handmade beautiful and non-toxic color sources.“

Plant-based color essentially yields a complex brew of aesthetic and environmental benefits that toxic and synthetic dyes simply do not. Plant hues are far more varied and complimentary in palette and might be compared to a naturally occurring rainbow where all of the edges overlap and intermingle in the most mesmerizing way. Chemical dyes, in addition to being extremely harmful to work with and wear, are far more limited in their range of tonality and subtlety.

Sasha elaborated on her love for plant-based color and the unique creative and environmental possibilities via her blog:

“Plant-based dyes offer colors that are unusual, varied, and vibrant. Natural dyes harmonize with each other in a way that only botanical colors can. 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. Even mixing synthetic dyes can rarely if ever achieve the range of shades that natural dyes possess. When you work with organic botanical color sources, you are literally working with living color. The unique qualities of naturally dyed textiles can often make the color vibrate or glow. Plant-based dyes also offer an ecologically friendly alternative to synthetic dyes because they come from plants, which can be renewable non-toxic resources and biodegradable.”

As a fiber lover and on-going student of sustainable textile methods and innovation, I asked Sasha these specific questions as part of an exclusive interview for EcoSalon readers.

EcoSalon: Are the recipes and projects in your new book for the beginner or individuals who have some experience with natural plant dyes/fiber?

Sasha: I aimed to do a combination of recipes for the beginner and advanced dyer. I wanted to offer an easy and accessible way for the beginning dyer to achieve beautiful and satisfying results without a lot of effort, and at the same time offer the more experienced dyer a plethora of plants they may not actually have thought of as dye producers. I also wanted to present everyone with more socially or environmentally engaged ways of working with one’s dye practice; for instance, teaching out of your local community garden, seed saving, helpful tips for mapping your neighborhood, offering fiber and dye plant exchanges, or uncovering long lost dye recipes from your family tree and native bio-region.

EcoSalon: What is one of the most commonly misunderstood plants (“weeds”) in your opinion, in relation to its amazing properties and qualities?

Sasha: We are currently working with what we call our “seasonal yellow” which, depending on what time of year the garment is dyed, uses a prevalent invasive weed in Northern California which is where I live  – such as Oaxalis or fennel (dry or wet season respectively!) to produce a super bright fluorescent hue. It’s a great way to think about color, and a useful way to use a weed that needs to be eradicated before it hits the compost pile so that a more bio-diverse natural habitat can thrive.

Another “weed” I love is nettle, as it can be a healing medicinal herb, delicious iron fortified food, and both a wonderful dye AND fiber plant. Any unsuspecting plant with which you can stack functions (i.e. use in multiple ways) is a value to both nature and culture in immeasurable ways.

EcoSalon: Are urban dwellers a part of the natural plant dye scene/movement as much as non-city dwellers?

Sasha: Absolutely. Connecting urban dwellers to natural dyes and eco-literacy through fashion and textiles is one of my ultimate loves and one of the reasons that I started the Permacouture Institute.  I visited the wonderful Textile Arts Center in Brooklyn last night for a book event, and there was an impressive turnout of local New York natural-dye enthusiasts. The Textile Arts Center is also actively working on planting a dye garden on their block and connecting students and textile artists to urban community gardens through natural color. This is something we strongly advocate through our work with the Permacouture Institute. We work closely with garden projects in Oakland and London, both very urban locations for plant dyers.

I am also very interested in bi-products and waste products of urban places that can produce dye colors…cities are excellent places to connect with florists, restaurants, herbalists and urban parks to discover what urban plant bi-products can be unique and brilliant sources of color. To quote a great permaculture saying, “If its not in production it becomes pollution.”

EcoSalon: Is there such a thing as  a natural/organic mordant?

Sasha: As far as botanical based mordants (non-metal based binders that help the dye hold to the fiber), many of the plants that I like to work with actually contain mordants in them naturally without additive—any leaves with plenty of tannins or Oaxalis fit that bill! Oak galls and acorns work well as botanical based mordants, and I am just starting to experiment with other natural methods of mordanting, such as working with protein bases like soy. The metals only ones I ever work with as mordants are alum and iron, those are the only mordants I advise using in my classes and in my book. They still need to be treated with care and used sparingly. But wow, there are so many natural dye books that should be used with extreme caution because they suggest using toxic heavy metal mordants such as chrome and tin, especially books from the 60’s’ and 70’s, which badly need environmental updating. The exciting thing is that there is a lot of experimentation being done to move into better ways of working in sync  with healthy plants for you and the environment and your textiles which have a wide range of gorgeous color and are not dependent on heavy metals. This is what excites me about moving the field of natural dyeing forward in a healthy and sustainable way.

EcoSalon: For Adie + George collections, do you think about the palette first or do you experiment with natural plant dyes that suit the season, and then build the collection around your slow fashion process discoveries?

Sasha: I am continually experimenting with seasonal color, and I’m very excited about the new plants I’ve been trying.  For Adie+George’s  AW11′ collection my obsession was working with avocado pits, which in California are an ongoing commodity and restaurant waste bi-product. I have also gotten really into what we call our “seasonal yellow”- either Oaxalis (Sourgrass) or Fennel, both bright florescent yellows made from invasive Californian weeds that dovetail each other in the wet and dry seasons in Northern California.  It’s always a combination of plants I have fallen in love with and the colors they produce worked well with fall fashion forecasting and with the designs and fibers Casey and I choose for the collection. Of course I always love seeing that the “avocado pit” palette is trendy on the runways in Denmark too, even though the plant originated very locally for us in Northern California.

As a co-founders of California-produced sustainable fashion label, Adie + George, Sasha Duerr and her design partner Casey Larkin have been able to put all of this ‘to-dye-for’ knowledge to the test, and the results have been both stunning and empowering when it comes to bringing fashion back to its roots. Adie + George’s locally-produced and plant-dyed knitwear uniquely demonstrates that fashion, beauty, and responsible production can all co-exist without compromise. Our Fashion Editor, Amy DuFault, viewed Adie + George’s Fall 2011 collection at this past weekend’s NOW Showcase in NYC, and  had this to say:

“It was truly a stand out line for me based on the fact that they’d created such lovely, feminine silhouettes and truly organic-driven color. Given the thoughtful context from which the brand is born, it stands out as a very progressive line to watch.”

To learn more about future book signings and projects related to the Permacouture Institute, you can contact them via their website or follow their blog.

Images courtesy of Sasha Duerr/Permacouture Institute, Tristan Davison, and EcoSalon’s Fashion Editor, Amy DuFault.