by Sasha Duerr
Sasha Duerr is an artist, designer and educator who works with plant-based color and natural palettes. Join her this Thursday, August 26 at 3pm Eastern as she explores creating natural dyes.
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For those who love color AND plants, natural dyes connect you instantly to a vast range of artisanal hues that are truly vital, vibrant, and inherently meaningful through the ingredients themselves.
Plant-based palettes tell stories that are inherent to places, people, and the plants, and plant-based colors can be conjured seasonally from weeds, yard waste, florals, and food. There is an intertwined overlap with natural colors that are awe-inspiring and a color story that can directly color map an experience, like a walk in the woods, a seasonal produce palette made from by-products of your local farmers market, hues from medicinal plants, or even weeds or green waste found in your own backyard or neighborhood.
Natural color palettes can create wonder in the form of an inspirational curated experience on a whole other level, since the colors come from a living source. Botanical color palettes are stunningly visual, while at the same time they connect us to our senses holistically – inspiring us toward the creativity, wonder and importance of plants and their unique ecologies.
Lavender, mint, and passionflower leaves, which are sources of natural dyes, also have soothing therapeutic properties, easing sleep and anxiety by calming stressed nerves. These plants, as well as marigold, rosemary, sage, and aloe can also create a spectrum of aromatic hues from soothing yellows, to in-between blues, greens, and gray. True color therapy through and through.
Creating a color story harvested directly from your herb garden can be as easy as brewing a tea. Herbs valued since ancient times engage us in a wide range of ways through the vitality of their aromatic, medicinal, and culinary uses, as well as the gorgeous colors they can create.
Natural color palettes point toward the uniqueness of time and place and that is what makes the palette even more awe-inspiring than a synthetic one. The beauty and depth of working with plant-based palettes brings authenticity and immediate connection and story building built in with your color palettes because they come from slow and steady living sources.
These colorful experiences speak of thousands of years of ethnobotany- a true and undeniable color coordination of nature and culture, which has, for the most part, remained dormant since the Industrial Revolution except by those dedicated communities and individuals who have kept the natural color spectrums brilliantly alive.
Working with natural color can be a way to forage for beautiful natural hues and to connect with your local ecologies, even in your own backyard or urban sidewalk. When working with a landscape, consider what is abundant, in season, accessible, and even invasive. Wild fennel – seasonally abundant on the West Coast or in summer gardens – can be quite an aggressive plant in the landscape (even on urban sidewalks!) making it a wonderful and seasonal dye to gather. Collecting fennel flowers and fronds at their peak or just after provides the brightest hues. Wild fennel can create gorgeous fluorescent yellows from both the fronds and blooms.
When gathering dye plants in the wild, make sure that you ethically forage, properly identify your plants, ask permission as needed, never take more than a plant or place can sustain (unless the goal is to harvest your full plant or to repurpose what may be considered invasive, waste or weeds), and always gather with awareness and gratitude. Knowing your sources, the plants, people, and ecologies you gather from is the best way to engage in regenerative and healthy practices with plant-made color.
Calming shades of yellow from calendula, soothing pinks from aloe leaves, steely blues from elderberry, and healing greens from yarrow, comfrey, and nettle – plant dyes can offer both healing remedies and beautiful color. These therapeutic tones made from medicinal plants can also make gorgeous healthy hues at home.
Aloe dye can be made from the roots of the plant for warm coral tones and from the leaves for pinks and yellow shades, depending on the pH of the soil and the water that creates the dye. Aloe as a dye holds two-fold the benefits of color medicine on cloth – its non-toxic beautiful hues and its ability to add nurturing elements. Unlike synthetic dyes, natural dyes by their very nature are nourishing, soothing, and replenishing to the wearer and the dyer.
ALOE DYE RECIPE
Aloe, a succulent whose soothing leaf gel helps to heal burns, keep the skin hydrated, and offer UV protection from the sun’s powerful rays, can also make calming color palettes. Aloe is used as a plant dye in many areas of South Africa, where the roots are most often used to dye wool red and brown. From the leaves you can also make luminous soft yellows and pinks—without the use of any additional mordant.
No mordant (additional binder) is necessary to create soothing yellows. A source of alkalinity, like soda ash, added to the dye bath can also conjure soft pinks and coral hues. This recipe works best on protein fibers like silk and wool.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
4 oz of dry weight clean wool or silk fiber
16 oz of chopped aloe leaves
To shift from yellow tones to pinks, use 4% weight of soda ash to dry fiber
-Soak your natural fibers in lukewarm water and a pH-neutral soap for at least 20 minutes. Overnight is best.
-Chop the aloe and place it in a stainless-steel pot (reserve a pot just for dyeing, not for eating) full of enough water to cover your fiber and to allow your materials to move freely.
-Set the heat to 180°F (82°C) and simmer for 20-40 minutes until water begins to turn a bright peach color. Once the water starts to turn pink, turn off the heat and strain the plant material from the dye liquid.
-Place the wet fabric in the dye liquid and bring the dye bath back up to a simmer. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. For more saturated yellows, let the fiber steep overnight.
-When you have reached the desired hue, gently wash with a pH-neutral soap, rinse thoroughly, and hang to dry in the shade.
For more herbal hues and natural dye recipes, projects, and inspiration, check out these books written by Sasha.
Duerr, Sasha. 2016. Natural color: Vibrant plant dye projects for your home and wardrobe. Watson-Guptill.
Duerr, Sasha. 2020. Natural Palettes: Inspiration from plant-based color. Princeton Architectural Press.
Photo credits: 1) Herbs used for dyeing; 2) Botanicals yield a variety of hues; 3) Aloe and other dye plants; 4) Aloe yields a yellow dye; 5) Pink and yellow dye from aloe. All photos courtesy of the author.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.