The Native Colors

May 28, 2009


This was a class with 22 women. I taught native plant natural dyes, at the California School of Herbal Studies. What an amazing group of healers, artists, activists, all of whom are aspiring herbalists. I was honored to meet each of them. We had a lively group discussion, where we discussed our local and global environment.


Our conversation was of the following-Organic local fiber, and natural dye production and use, need a movement of scale supporting their growth and development. Just like the movement for local organic food production. After discussing the Industrialization of ‘color’, it was clear how many similarities there were between industrial food based agriculture, and the industrialization of the dying process. Many small farmers were moved off the land when synthetic dyes supplanted the roots, and leaves of traditional domestic crops such as madder, and Indigo. Synthetic dyes received another boost when the distillation of petroleum was invented. As did industrial agriculture; when a host of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer were created, to ‘boost’ production of mono-crops. By-products of the distillation process are used in synthetic dyes, along with a host of heavy metals. The effluent from the industrial textile dying process goes into municipal water treatment plants, (at best), and then out into our rivers, lakes, and oceans. The chemicals are not extruded, only diluted. The list of carcinogens in this process is quite long. (The list is the same for ‘low-impact’ or ‘eco-dyes’).


‘Air emissions from the distillation of crude oil into its counter parts (used for synthetic dyes), includes nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide (leading to acid rain), carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane, water emissions including benzene, naphthalene, and toluene (known carcinogens), solid wastes such as uranium and other heavy metals, land and water spills. It took 400 lbs. of coal to create one ounce of the original Mauvine by William Perkin – the man attributed with inventing the first synthetic dye. And currently, coal is the leading cause of global warming.’ -Rachel Stone, Masters Thesis, UC Davis 2008.


It is time for us to support local organic fiber producers, and purchase organic un-dyed or naturally dyed clothing, bedding, and linens. The risks to our own bodies with contact to the fiber reactive dyes is a concern, the bigger risks to our air, water, and soils is of huge concern. The up side, is that we have the option of supporting organic producers, and we can purchase un-dyed clothing. Naturally dyed clothing is just beginning to become available, and will require our support to keep it thriving.


One Response to “The Native Colors”

  1. Andrea tetreault Says:

    I’ve just bot your book Harvest Colour and cannot find any other way to contact you but in page 28 the sentence does not end and does not carry on on page 19. Is there something missing???
    I would like also more info on rhubarb leaves as a non metallic mordant. Hope you can help please

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