When you are a practicing alchemist, as Sasha Duerr is, strangers will often ask you to demonstrate your powers by heating up a caldron in the yard. It’s a living, and Ms. Duerr is usually happy to give it a try. On a recent Monday afternoon, she had arranged to spark up three propane camp stoves and scavenge a few things to boil.
Ms. Duerr, 36, intended to show how easy it is to transmute common plants into natural fabric dyes of rare beauty. The formula has been an open secret since the days of Pliny the Elder: fill a pot with water, add a basket of leaves and a square of silk, bring the potion to a simmer. Then wait for the magic to happen.
Ms. Duerr had set up her folding table on the Oakland grounds of the California College of the Arts, where she teaches textile design. “Two years ago, we started this garden,” she said, walking into a shady corner near an earthquake supply shed. Before that, the unkempt space “was kind of a home for wayward art projects.”
In three or four beds ringed by salvaged bricks, Ms. Duerr has planted a “rainbow row.”
The root of the madder plant creates a true red. “Poppy roots make a yellow-orange,” she said. A light green comes from fava bean vines. “You know you can eat the fava leaves, too,” Ms. Duerr said. And she snapped off some foliage for a quick snack.
Across the street from the garden, a Wendy’s was advertising a crispy chicken sandwich at a shockingly low price. Ms. Duerr believes the equivalent of fast food is fast fashion: an industrial process filled with joyless overconsumption and noxious byproducts.
Today’s batch of botanical dyes, by contrast, would be safe to brew during Ms. Duerr’s pregnancy. (From the looks of it, she was about 48 weeks along.) As for wastefulness, Ms. Duerr said, “I almost never buy anything new.” This afternoon, for instance, she was wearing a pre-owned lime-yellow maternity top, which she had dyed with sour grass (a k a Bermuda buttercup), an invasive California weed.
A honeybee alighted on her shirt. “When you’re working with natural dyes, that happens all the time,” she said. “I’ve had hummingbirds come and sit on my shoulder. I’m sure there are plant pheromones. They see the color and it’s alive.”
In truth, the art of natural dyeing has been near dead since the mid-Victorian era. Yet in Ms. Duerr’s experience, the last couple of years have seen a new bloom of interest in growing botanical dyes.
In a formerly derelict lot in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, a new dye garden and Community Supported Agriculture program will begin this spring. The Textile Arts Center, which is helping to start the garden, will offer not just plant material, but a workshop and access to its Gowanus studio. All 10 of the offered shares sold out in mid-March.
Natural dyes exist all around us, said Isa Rodrigues, 26, who organizes the center’s Sewing Seeds program, yet “people are not aware of them.” Colors can come from common flowers (like dahlias and marigolds); tree leaves (Japanese maple, sweet gum); berries (blackberry, elderberry); herbs (mint, rosemary); nuts and shells (acorn, black walnut hulls); and barks (birch, madrone).
If you’re looking at a plant, you’re looking at a potential dye.
In old manuals, you can often spot the traditional dye plants — madder, woad, true indigo — from the word “tinctoria” or “tinctorum” in the botanical nomenclature. Yet Pamela Feldman, 58, has always needed to identify these mysterious specimens for the other community gardeners who share the grounds of the old Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium.
This spring, though, her weedy-looking plants may become a less exotic sight. At the annual planning meeting, Ms. Feldman learned, “there are four other people at the garden growing natural dye plants.”
Knowledge about sustainable dye techniques seems to be blowing around like so much pollen. For 17 years, Ms. Feldman has published the Turkey Red Journal (turkeyredjournal.com), a twice-yearly periodical that addresses recondite topics like Japanese mud dyes and Scandinavian mushroom coloring. But most dyers seem to learn through workshops or apprenticeships….