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For natural dyes, look to the yard or kitchen

By Katherine Roth AP | 3/28/2014, 11:11 a.m.
This undated photo provided by Sasha Duerr shows a color palette Duerr has dubbed “compost colors,” dyed using onion skins and avocado pits, from left, yellow onion skin and alum salts, yellow onion skin with no mordant, avocado pits and soda ash, avocado pits with no mordant, and avocado pits and iron added. These colors were made with alum, iron and soda ash, with hues and shades that vary depending on mordants and modifiers that are used. Photo by Sasha Duerr.

Transforming weeds, kitchen scraps and other natural elements into a rainbow of textile dyes is a concept as old as civilization itself, with dye vats dating to as early as 2000 BC.

Now, these homemade pigments - some long abandoned in favor of more startling chemical dyes - are being rediscovered in kitchens and studios around the world.

"There’s been a huge rise in interest over the last two or three years,’’ said Sasha Duerr, author of "The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes’’ (Timber Press, 2011), who teaches natural dye techniques and has founded the Permacouture Institute, which promotes sustainable textiles. "There’s a lot we have to revisit and learn.’’

Yoshiko Wada, who has produced films about natural dyes and led dye tours to France, India and Japan, said much of the appeal is that "the process slows us down and reconnects us to the environment.’’

At a time when focus is returning to locally produced goods, these sustainable natural colors reflect their surroundings. The soft welcoming blues of painted shutters in the south of France are from indigo. The golden yellows of Provence are of ochre. And from the American desert Southwest, those dazzling reds and fuchsias are made from cochineal, a parasite that lives on cactus.

"I try to stay open and think of colors when I look around me. I collect lots of different things, like Osage orange, pecans and walnuts, onions and pomegranates,’’ said Maura Ambrose, who makes hand-stitched quilts of naturally dyed fabrics in her Folk Fibers studio in Austin, Texas.

Onion skins (yellows), walnut hulls (browns), avocado peels and pits (pale pink), marigolds (yellows), sumac leaves (brown), mushrooms and lichens (with their rainbow of possibilities), cochineal (fuchsias and reds) and madder root (oranges and reds) are traditional favorites. Coffee grounds and old tea bags also are great for shades of tan and brown. Nettle yields greenish tints.

"We always think of nettle as this awful thing that stings and hurts,’’ said Sonia Uyterhoeven, gardener for public education at the New York Botanical Garden. "But if you chop it up and soak it, you get lovely yellows and greens. Just make sure to harvest it using thick gloves.’’

Even succulent plants can be used to make dyes, said Duerr, who recommended aloe for pinks and yellows and jade plants for purples and black. Wild fennel, abundant in northern California, yields fluorescent yellows "so bright they hurt your eyes’’ if harvested while in bloom.

"It’s like making tea. You boil the plant and then simmer,’’ she said. And like cooking, the results depend as much on the chef as on the recipe. "The beauty of it is that you can take something from the back of your closet and give it new life using just the waste from your dinner.’’

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In this undated photo provided by Sasha Duerr, the Permacouture Institute’s “Weed Your Wardrobe” event participants give old clothing a new life by dyeing it in a wild fennel dye bath, in Oakland, Calif. Photo by Sasha Duerr.

Any plants containing sufficient tannins can be used to achieve colorfast fabrics without additives, known as mordants. But there are also natural mordants, such as rhubarb, sumac, pomegranate rinds, lemon juice or vinegar, according to Uyterhoeven. With a mordant, sumac fruit yields red pigment and indigo yields its classic shades of blue. Cream of tartar can be used to brighten colors, and salt to intensify them.(RJ1) (RJ1)