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A Texas Quilter Cooks Up Plant-Based Colors for an Age-Old Craft

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A Texas Quilter Cooks Up Plant-Based Colors for an Age-Old Craft

May 9, 2014

It may seem old-fashioned to use onion skins to dye a hand-stitched quilt that’s meant to be handed down for generations. But Texas-based quilter Maura Grace Ambrose wouldn’t agree. Ambrose makes modern heirloom quilts for her line Folk Fibers, working from her home studio on a country road in Bastrop (30 miles southeast of Austin). Her specialty: patchworks that combine fabrics colored with natural dyes and vintage textiles.

Photographs by Maura Ambrose/Folk Fibers unless otherwise noted.

Above: Quilter Maura Ambrose with one of her completed works. Photograph by Theron Humphry.

“My goal is to share the craft and folklore related to natural dyes and quilting,” Ambrose says. Her love of timeless textiles and her sharp designer’s eye have earned Ambrose worthy recognition: She won the 2013 Martha Stewart American Made Award and recently collaborated with Levi’s to create custom denim quilts. Last fall she took part in the Levi’s-sponsored “Station to Station” event, a public art project in which artists, musicians, filmmakers and artisans traveled for a month by vintage train, stopping in nine cities and towns for exhibitions and performances.

Above: Ambrose’s quilts are stitched entirely by hand, which adds “one-of-a-kind beauty,” she says. Women in her community pitch in to help with large orders. Photo by Theron Humphry.

Ambrose has a degree in Textile Design and Fiber Arts from the Savannah College of Art & Design. But it was the time she spent working on organic farms that inspired her to start using the bounty of the natural world to create heirloom textiles. “I learned to appreciate the way farmers struggle against the odds to make something they believe in,” she says. “Farming is hard, tedious work, and they’re really incredible entrepreneurs.”

Above: A fall harvest of dye ingredients. Ambrose uses plants from her own garden and from friends in the community to make colors for dyeing her quilt fabrics. The Hill Country around Bastrop offers a range of wild dye elements, from persimmons to prickly pear, Mexican plum to xochitl flowers.

Above: Pomegranates grow in abundance near Ambrose’s Bastrop home. Here, a basketful awaits soaking. “When I’m making dye, I go whole hog,” Ambrose says. “I use the entire fruit, and crush or break the skin either before or after I soak them in water.”

Above: Ambrose with wood harvested from an Osage orange tree, used to create yellows, golds, and a mossy green. “It takes trial and error,” she says, “since each plant is different.”

Above: Wild mushrooms soaking in jars. “Sometimes a plant isn’t ready when you need it,” Ambrose says. “Nature doesn’t always cooperate with your schedule.”

 

Above: Straining onion skins that have been boiled and soaked. “Basically, you heat the plant material to slowly break it down. But nothing is guaranteed, so you have to experiment with each batch.”

Above: The earthy color range of yellow onion skins. “Onion skins give you a combination of red, yellow, orange, and ocher shades,” Ambrose says. “For deep colors you need a concentrated dye bath and plenty of time for the fibers to soak.” The same dye will produce different colors in different fabrics. Ambrose sticks with 100-percent natural textiles, using cotton, wool and silk.

Above: The quilter with five of her labors of love, made for the online housewares shop Terrain. Photograph by Wynn Myers.

Ambrose is writing a book about her experiences making plant-based dyes. Meanwhile, she suggests that would-be dyemakers consult two of her favorite works, Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles, by India Flint, and Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, by Rebecca Burgess. “I also encourage people to experiment,” she says. “There are no secret formulas or tricks; it just takes experience to learn and perfect.”

Dying to know more about natural dyes? Read our Shopper’s Diary post about a New York City designer whose silk scarves are colored with dyes made from discarded flowers. For lots more on plant-based dyes, consult our section on Natural Dyes. And don’t miss this Remodelista post about making dyes from, yes, sawdust.

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