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Back to Nature: Plant Dyes from Permacouture


Back to Nature: Plant Dyes from Permacouture

May 4, 2016

The reason that such seasonal fashions as wearing pastels in summer and brown in autumn became seasonal in the first place was because people relied on natural dyes (from blueberries, say, or eucalyptus bark) to color fabric. Textile artist Sasha Duerr still does.

In Oakland, California, where she is co-founder of a fibers garden at the California College of Arts, Duerr grows plants like fava beans and Japanese indigo to dye fabrics for her artisan knitwear collection, Adie and George. A forager, Duerr also uses avocado pits to make deep pinks, and invasive weeds–such as oxalis or fennel–for yellows that she uses to create couture dresses. To learn more about the process, visit her Permacouture Institute online. Here’s how she creates natural dyes for fabric:

Photography by Sasha Duerr, except where noted.


Above: Collect petals and leaves to bundle, wrap with fabric, and toss into a dye pot.


Above: Eucalyptus trees, native to Australia but considered invasive in the US, are generally cursed in California for their water consuming ways. But Duerr loves their bark for the moody dark colors it produces. She learned how to bundle eucalyptus from Australian fiber artist India Flint; for instructions, visit India Flint.


Above: To dye fabric the blue shade of Duerr’s scarf, use red cabbage. Add plants to water and bring to a boil. Add a fixative (alum brightens colors, and iron darkens them). Soak fabric for from 20 minutes to overnight. Rinse in a pH neutral soap and cool water; hang to dry. Image by Katelyn Toth-Fejel.


Above: Cabbage is a litmus test of soil properties. The saltier the soil, the deeper blues that come from it. Cabbage grown in more acidic soils tend towards pink. This swath shows more salinity than acidity.


Above: These colors come from discarded Valentine’s Day roses and onion skins.

N.B.: For more, see “DIY: Seasonal Vegetable Dyes, Holiday Edition.”


Above: The garden’s origins: California College of Art fiber artists wanted a place to compost their waste. Now the compost materials are used to create dyes.


Above: Nasturtium, calendula, and viola headed for the dye pot. Seed bombs created by garden plants gone to seed help spread California natives.


Above: A scarf gets its gray and brown hues from bark and leaves. Materials pulled from the compost bin, such as coffee grounds, onion skins, and avocado pits, also are used for dyes.


Above: The Olivia dress, which Duerr made in collaboration with Mr. Larkin of Mr. Larkin Loves You, was dyed with Japanese maple leaves scooped up from the street.

N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published on May 30, 2012.

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