I’ve been experimenting with using foraged plants and flowers and food scraps in my own kitchen as natural dye materials for a little over a year. For regular updates on this, head over to my IG feed: @sfurbanwanderer. For a fiber and textile fanatic who loves color, this was probably an inevitable exploration. I am the kind of person who takes photos like this at museums (from the Vasa Museet in Stockholm) and reads books like this for fun.
As I began to learn to weave over a decade ago, I realized how many more skills there were to learn to take step after step deeper into the understanding of the materials you are working with and where they have come from. Some—like dyeing and spinning and using complex patterning like ikat or batik—seemed pretty far out of reach, but things I thought I might get to sometime down the road.
Aside from having great access to indigo vats when I was weaving as part of “The Possible” at BAM/PFA in 2014 (the beautiful blues I made there will someday be a separate post!), I am mostly self taught in all my areas of creative work, so starting in 2017 I slowly poked around in various places to begin to work with natural dyes on my own. There are a few people I follow on social media who have offered easy baby steps into the world of understanding the process, and the two who made it seem too easy not to try were Rebecca Desnos (using avocado pits and skins, and later soy as mordant) and Karen Hess’s Local Dialect (oxalis flowers).
It just so happens that I love avocados, and oxalis flowers love the hillside I live on, so I have easy access to both. And neither of these two dyestuffs require preparing your fiber with a mordant (which allows easier bonding of the color with the fiber), so I could jump right in without having to understand too much of the chemistry at the beginning. That would come later.
I am also an urban farmer at Alemany Farm (since 2010), where I often work with first time volunteers who get very excited about growing food there. One of the things I love about working at the farm is introducing the many OTHER things that the farm offers—like a complex and buzzing ecosystem of pollinators, the many native plants we grow not for consumption, the plants that are edible but don’t look like food, etc. So when I started foraging and using the invasive weeds of oxalis to dye yarn, I enthusiastically shared the end product with my fellow farmers. The folks tending to the medicinal and herb garden have been growing traditional dye plants like madder for some time now, so it’s not a new concept to have dye plants on the farm. I did get into the Alemany greenhouse recently to start some zinnia and flax seeds, and repot some indigo starts, but my angle is definitely to look at what is already in abundance in front of me and using that.
Now I’ve been asked to give a workshop on using natural dyes, so another volunteer, Musette, and I are going to give an introduction to using natural dyes. The workshop, Bring Local Color into Your World: Using Natural Dyes, is on May 12, 2018 at Alemany Farm in San Francisco, and I’ll cover using foraged plants and kitchen scraps, and Musette will talk about using madder and other dye plants we’ve cultivated in the medicinal and herb garden specifically for the purpose of dyeing.
Here is a bit of a chronicle of my various experiments in using natural dyes. I am not a person who is in love with using pink or yellow in my textile creations, but something about the beauty of the sunsets lately made me imagine I’m pulling the sunset energy inside.
So far my experiments have included dyeing with avocado pits and skins, oxalis flowers, coffee grounds, eucalyptus leaves, and right now I have fiber in a fennel plant dye pot. Here are some of the results.
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