Creating natural color from natural sources creates multiple opportunities to engage the senses, and to increase ecoliteracy. Ecoliteracy is the ability to comprehend the language of nature, its interconnections and its limits. Learning to identify plants in our environments, how to cook, and even how to create plant-based color palettes from soil to studio, are concepts directly related to ecoliteracy.
A natural byproduct of being a natural dyer is how much you learn about plants in the process of research and experimentation. As a textile artist, designer, and slow fashion and textile educator, my work is centered in reviving natural dye recipes that have been dormant or lost. Renewing recipes relies heavily on rediscovery and sharing, as a vast array of hues held in the plants around us have been lost due to the rise of synthetic color. Coinciding with the industrial revolution and the dawn of fast fashion, the loss of natural color is as drastic as the loss of biodiversity of food sources.
Working closely with the Slow Food Movement, helps me to learn as much about possible food waste products, and to create alliances and enticing ways to connect people to their clothing as much as to their food. Through Permacouture, we collaborate on "Dinners to Dye For" with local chefs to create seasonal colors and menus derived from the same local plants. The rising importance of “slowness” in fashion and textiles does not refer to the length of time involved in making or doing something, but instead points to an expanded state of awareness of the effects of our daily actions, and the potential for richer ranges of experience for individuals and communities.
I uncover almost daily an “aha” moment of connection as I explore food plants from farm to compost bin in search of opportunity. It’s evermore obvious in our contemporary ecological crisis that, even if we are not literally eating our textiles and clothing, we all share the same air, water and soil, as our food sources. This fact makes us think deeply and effectively about regenerative, healthy, and holistic practices for manufacturing and consuming. Recycling, up to and including composting our textiles and natural fiber clothing, is one activity that will allow both culture and nature to thrive.
I founded Permacouture Institute in 2007 as a way of exploring (and disseminating) responsible practices in slow fashion and textiles. My thinking was inspired by permaculture, which uses patterns that occur in nature to maximize productivity while minimizing wasted energy and environmental damage. Permaculture relies on holistic thinking to create stable systems that provide for human needs, in sync with both nature and culture. California, with its abundant food cultivation and exploratory culture, becomes a ripe home to cross-pollinating principle of slow food with fashion.
As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area for the past twelve years, I have probably consumed hundreds of Californian-grown avocados, but little did I know until my food-as-color research began that my kitchen compost was home to a rainbow of pink (and other) tones. Without a mordant, the pit all by itself blooms bright pink in the dye-bath. With iron added, the bath turns to a rich mauve-gray. You can make indelible blacks, too. Avocado pits yield high tannin content, which means the dye bath can turn red on exposure to air. Avocado pit was used, in fact, in the days of the Spanish conquistadors, to create red ink used in important colonial documents.
When I work with avocado, I focus on the pink and pinkish-orange tones – colors you can see in the collections of Adie+George, a slow fashion bioregional knitwear collaboration between myself and design partner, Casey Larkin. Adie+George, named after my grandmother and Casey’s grandfather, embraces continuity across generations, and is our slow fashion experiment in working with local and truly seasonal plant colors. Each color palette we make draws directly upon renewable, local, plant-based resources. Our garments are dyed with colors that are in season and available as weeds, or agricultural or food waste at the time of production. This sort of seasonal linkage is unusual in the fashion world, which often has commercial "seasons" designed to debut every 6 weeks, creating an endless illusion that resources are limitless, and a continual drive for consumption.
Adie+George Autumn/Winter 2011 collection features pink (and iron-induced grays) from avocado pits. When in production, we use local restaurant avocado pit waste to make the color. We dye Northern California-spun alpaca fiber, as well as other textiles made as close to home as possible. Our garments are all knitted in California and compostable at the end of their well-loved life-cycle, as their non-toxic colors and fibers are all biodegradable, and can even be wonderful nutrients for your garden.
We strive to set a good example for other fashion houses with our contemporary use of traditional plant-based colors, as well as our other as-local-as-possible methods. Through Permacouture Institute , we are currently working on a "Local Color Wheel" as a tool to help designers follow-suit with truly seasonal plant colors available in their area. Whether you are in San Francisco, London, New York, Paris, or any other part of the world knowing what plant dye colors are sustainable and available throughout the year is always in season.
Sasha Duerr is the founder of the Permacouture Institute and co-designer, with Casey Larkin, of Adie+George. Sasha lectures on Soil to Studio practices at the California College of the Arts. She is also the author of The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes (Timber Press/Workman. 2011). See www.permacouture.org and www.adieandgeorge.com for more.