Where most people see compost, Sasha Duerr sees color. Take avocado pits, for example, which can be boiled to produce a deep-purple ink or dye. “There’s an invisible world,” says the artist and educator. “It’s satisfying to see all the spaces we’re not accessing and how much potential is there.”
While studying painting in art school, Duerr found that oil-based paints made her sick, so she started exploring alternatives. This led her to the world of textiles and natural dyes. With nods to Permaculture and slow food, Duerr founded the Permacouture Institute, an educational nonprofit dedicated to sustainable textiles and regenerative fashion design.
The development of synthetic dyes in the 19th century helped make textile production cheaper and less variable, but it also brought a host of environmental and health issues. Toxics such as chlorine, formaldehyde, and heavy metals are commonly used in the process of dyeing and treating textiles, making the industry one of the world’s largest polluters of fresh water.
“Even if you’re not eating these chemicals, they can still end up in your food because we all use the same resources,” says Duerr. “Dyes can go into the air, water, and soil, and directly into your skin through your pores, which are like tiny mouths.”
A Renaissance in Color
Plants both wild and cultivated have historically been used to make natural dyes. For example, the heirloom Hopi Blue Dye sunflower, grown by the Hopi people of the Southwest for food, oil, and dye, produces seeds with a dark purple-black pigment.
Many dye plants grow wild in the Bay Area, and you can find ingredients for dyes at the farmers market, such as rhubarb, artichokes, fig leaves, and nettles. (See Duerr’s Seasonal Color Wheel or book for inspiration and recipes.)
Dyeing presents an opportunity to use things that would otherwise be thrown away. Onion skins produce a range of gorgeous colors, depending on the mordant (a fixative used to bind dye to fabric, sometimes changing the color). Carrot tops make a vivid green hue, while artichoke leaves are a traditional green dye in France. After they have passed their prime, cut flowers like roses, poppies, and daffodils can also be added to the dye pot.
With so many dye materials so easily accessible, Duerr started reviving old recipes and experimenting with nontoxic dyeing methods. “I don’t look at plants the same way I did before, even when I’m just walking down the sidewalk,” she says. “I start to see their color in a different way.”
As with cooking, working with “living color,” as Duerr calls it, demands some flexibility on the part of the dyer. “You might not be able to achieve the exact result you want every time, because it’s based on the alchemy of the landscape and the plant itself,” she says.
Much as the flavors of a cheese, wine, or fruit can change depending on weather, soil, and growing conditions, plant pigments also vary from season to season and year to year. One fall Duerr made a mauve dye from black olives she harvested, but the following February, fruits from the same tree produced an indigo. The next year, an abundance of rain left the trees without enough pollination, and the color was weak and diluted.
“It was the first time I conceptualized what people mean when they talk about a ‘bad year’ for wine,” she recalls.
From Waste to Wardrobe
Through the Permacouture Institute, Duerr works directly with farmers to repurpose materials that would otherwise wind up in the compost or burn pile. “There are a lot of parts of the plant that the farmer’s happy to get rid of,” she says. Fava greens, grown as a cover crop to put nitrogen back in the soil, make a beautiful dye, as do “volunteers” like wild fennel, nettles, and eucalyptus leaves.
Duerr collaborates with chefs to produce Dinners to Dye For, where the participants take part in a plant dye workshop and enjoy a meal that features the same plants, with the goal of raising awareness about sustainable fashion and food.
Even for sustainability-minded consumers, “slow fashion” is new territory. Moving away from mass-produced models of textile production means rethinking our attitudes about the longevity of our clothes and understanding the relationships and processes that go into producing each garment. “It’s not healthy for us to be consuming textiles the way we do, in the same way fast food isn’t healthy,” Duerr observes.
Using plant-based colors and repurposing old garments or fabrics can be another way of breathing new life into our wardrobes, without the drain on resources. “There’s something great about taking a piece of clothing you already have and imbuing it with newness and storytelling,” Duerr says. “In the end, what’s going to make you keep something and take care of it is an appreciation and understanding of the hands and labor that went into it.”