A trip to Vermont last this week brought a wave of inspiration for natural dye color.  I taught a two-day class for a group of 17 who came from a range of places from across the United States.  The workshop was hosted by Twin Pond Retreat, and paid for by a grant by the Vermont Women’s Farm Foundation.  We spent the first day preparing our wool, organic cotton and other samples in sumac leaves, alum, rust water, bog mud, and  cow’s whey.

The sumac leaves were cooked lightly for just one half hour before entering the raw materials into the pot.  The tannin in the sumac was rich at this time of year.

Apple branches were pruned, (these came from a wild apple tree), we harvested lady bedstraw, goldenrod, madder, fresh indigo, black walnuts, purple basil, coreopsis, sumac berries, and I also brought sage from California to share with the group.  Other than the sage, everything had come from the garden.

The mordanting and preparation all took place on the first day… we prepped 7 dye vats in total.  It was an ambitious and exciting task to combine those colors with so many mordant options.  It would have likely taken a week to even begin to explore the color permutations.

That night we ate wood-fire pizzas as the dyes cured and the mordanted fibers dried. We ate and dyed from the same garden. Re-inforcing the food, fiber, and dye connection. It is true that what we eat, and what we wear are crucial pieces of the human ‘well-being’ puzzle, and the way we procure these necessities either hinders or enhances the existence of other species and our own progeny.

Madder root was harvested fresh from the garden (3yr. old roots), and we created a beautiful frothy red vat.

The samples of red are pulled out of the vat, almost ready, the red takes time, the heat must be slow and low.

The cool spectrum colors were abundant (which is rare), but we had tannin and iron reactions, purple basil, and fresh indigo to do the trick.

Some of the samples are lined up here, including a pH modified coreopsis strip, made yellow with vinegar and deep orange with wood ash.

The rug wool samples were divided up amongst the group.. light pink from bedstraw, red from madder, sky blue from fresh indigo, tan from sumac, gold from apple bark, and turquoise from purple basil, orange from coreopsis.

The pond was just a short walk from our dye station, and very swimmable.  The edge of the body of water housed an iron rich bog– which we also put to good use.

The bog was filled with conifer needles, and over time the decomposition had created an iron-rich concoction.

The cloth was originally rolled up tightly– here you can see it after it had been unrolled, it turned black all along the edges where it was exposed to the bog (in just one full day of soaking).  The inside of the cloth had been rolled up with maple leaves that had just begun to leave a tannin reaction that could be seen as a light green outline of the leaves in the center of the fabric… (given more time the leaf imprints would have been black.)

At the end of the last day the sun began to set and the samples were collected in the last remaining light. Our group was hard-working and compiled a lovely collection of garden colors.

Our wool yarns illuminate the rainbow that came from the Twin Pond Garden.  A beautiful array of botanic color.

Thank you Jennifer Steckler and Twin Pond for your incredible Vermont hospitality– and for nurturing such a special place on this planet.. and thank you Sierra Reading for your incredible work and teaching skills!  What an outstanding and deeply inspired event!

The first early rains came just before our annual dye class at the California School of Herbal Studies.  The first year roots students were, as usual, wonderful to work with.  The collective connectivity, appreciation, and understanding that the students have for the earth and its processes is phenomenal.

The dry line is a testament to the richness of autumn color.  Late season fennel, pokeberry, toyon, black walnut, and oak galls adorn the outside of the medicine making kitchen.  Students brought things from home as well as explored a myriad of cellulose and protein fiber samples.

The students had made felt pouches in an earlier class, and brought them to our dye workshop to see if they could color them in our vats.  This experiment was with pokeberry.

This was a very fun collection of samples– with multiple over dye processes taking place.

Oak galls, coreopsis, pokeberry, local wool and some (non-local) silk look incredible in the late day sun.

Black walnut, toyon, and coreopsis samples in hand after a good days work.

Fuzzy fennel and iron dyed felt pocket, and a happy owner.

Thank you roots students… awesome day!

The spring dye season began at the Filoli Estate in Woodside this year.  Expansive meadows, riparian ecosystems, oak studded woodlands… a perfect place for our first and semi-rainy day of dye work.

We painted with crushed stone and fruit inks… and then immersed our work in dye vats of the season.

The water laden plants created a soft palate whose tones looked so much like our surroundings.

The experiments continued throughout the afternoon, the playful samples kept coming…

The following week, I was off to the schools.. this lovely piece was done by an 8th grade crew working on re-purposing their thrift store finds during a week of Eco-chic explorations.

These T-shirts were in their first phase of being refurbished… the students used shibori techniques with tongue depressors and coffee stirrers.  Next step: embroidery, and sewing.

The whole collection, inspired from the spring recipe for Logwood!

Gorgeous colors came from our Bay Area Discovery Museum dye day– the bright yellow emerged from distaff dye pots.  Every child’s favorite color!  It also happens to be a species that our open space districts, national parks, and other land management agencies are spraying with herbicides to remove… I much prefer dye making from such a plant.  I recommend the master dye bath recipe, as well as an alkaline after bath.  

Into the distaff dye pot went our little flags.

Out came the brightest yellow!  Everyone was so pleased.

We pounded colors from our cultivated gardens into our distaff colored fabric swatches.  We used the spring dye starter recipe from the new book Harvesting Color.  This particular project is perfect for children and adults seem to love it too.

The end result…. little pounded distaff dyed cloths!
More spring dyes to come… with these late spring rains, their will be so much to harvest!

The Art of Native Ink

April 24, 2011

The first dye series of its kind was taught at the Regenerative Design Institute this Spring– classes steeped in processes created from the very landscape surrounding our dye pots and ink vats.  Coffeeberry, Toyon, and Coyote Brush were harvested by our team of eco-art explorers.

We began on a rainy day for our harvest… we gave each plant a clean-up and nice little prune.

We made our modifiers and mordants through the crushing of galls from our native black oak.  A beautiful and renewable binding agent.

The copper pots were put to good use to patina our colors…. they have masterful results with the native plants.

We began to experiment with home made screens– images originally drawn by an artist and designer friend, Sierra Reading of the California College of the Arts.  The images of Pokeberry and Black Walnut (both dye plants), looked quite beautiful in our coffeeberry ink.

The Pokeberry image was created with coffeeberry ink on a toyon dyed cotton fabric

A lovely hand-cut printing block was used to make this design.

The class was intently creative….

Painting leaves proved to be an exquisite way to print…

We shared our blocks and leaves with one another.

We also created some gorgeous prints without the use of blocks– just using bay leaf, eucalyptus, rubber bands, and iron rich waters.

Thank you to all of the class members– your art was and is an inspiration!

Thank you to Michael Keefe for your continuous stream of good photography and support:

For more pics of our workshop:  See the Smug Mug Site

A Season of Botanic Color

November 2, 2010


photo taken by Dr. Sara Gottfried at her model platinum leed Oakland home

There’s been five fabulous workshops in the last three weeks– and I haven’t been able to document them all.  However– what pictures were taken I now have the privilege of sharing with you.  This autumn has been a complete inspiration for me as a lover of natural color.  The students created so many new samples, and finished goods to awe over…

photo taken by Dr. Sara Gottfried

Sara’s pants were soaked in iron and then dipped in fair trade logwood from the Dominican Republic.  A one-of-a-kind gorgeous creation.

A cotton sample freely printed by a student with found-object iron acetates, and an immersion dip…

photo taken by Dr. Sara Gottfried

Sara dipped her silk in native coffeeberry and logwood after she and her daughters wrapped it and secured it with little stones.

photo taken by Dr. Sara Gottfried

The preparing of the black walnut bath.  After some soaking and boiling these husks turned our fabrics into a range of deep and lighter shades of chestnut brown.

Rows of Native Color + Indigo:  Jeannie and Marie created a very organized row of samples– the bottom row was dyed in black walnut, the next row up was dyed in coffeeberry, the pinks were dyed in horsetail, the blues—in indigo, and the top row was dyed in madrone bark.  The samples were done on handwoven hemp, cotton weaves and knits, silks, – and cotton hemp blends.

A simple coreopsis flower bath turned Geraldine’s pole wrapped silk into a lovely golden sample–reminiscent of the falling leaves dusting our sidewalks.

photo taken by Dr. Sara Gottfried

Sara’s horsetail shibori shirt– this is my absolute favorite dye this season.  Normally I harvest it in the late spring.. and realized this year, that it is still producing amazing color well into the fall.  I wonder where the pink is hiding within this 380 million year old species.. it has so many stories to tell, if only its DNA could talk in a language I could understand!

Thank you Dharma Trading Company, Gottfried Center for Integrative Medicine, Harvard University, Lambtown, and the Regenerative Design Institute for sponsoring, supporting, and giving such an incredible foundation for natural color experimentation this season!


Our first Regenerative Design Institute textile class was held yesterday, and what a day it was!  Re-skilling is happening in our community one step at a time– practical DIY textile education is here! (Check out RDI’s classes)

The Pacific Coast was feeling pretty damp yesterday– so we went into the warm and lovely greenhouse to do our work, and keep from getting too wet.

We put the dry line outdoors– under some trees, it seemed to do the trick.  The scarf that Dustin holds is an incredible testament to the late summer horsetail.

More horsetail in the foreground here, on lambswool– the soft pink color it produced was jaw-dropping!

It also proved to work beautifully on silk shibori pieces as well..  Rose is holding her horsetail scarf– a piece that she created with folding and tongue depressors.

Erin made this incredible indigo and california sagebrush piece with a pole wrapping technique.. a lovely outcome to say the least.

A beautiful and creatively dyed wool skein dipped in toyon, sage, on its way to another layer of color in the black walnut bath…

A series of wool strands dyed in all of our native colors (with the addition of indigo)…

A beautiful bowl of samples ready to be rinsed..

It was an honor to collaborate with participants whose life’s work spanned from the home-design-and-build sector– to organic farming.. we had an extremely talented and inspiring group who brought a new and unique flair to the ancient processes. I am so grateful for each and everyone’s participation– what a joy to explore the native colors with you!

Our next Natural Dye Workshop will be held on Oct. 3rd at Lambtown

Click here for the link and scroll down to for the natural dye class

Heart’s Desire

June 22, 2010

Heart’s desire beach was the location of the 6th consecutive workshop that I led last week.  I do apologize for the lack of posts.  Summer becomes a busy time of teaching, planting, watering, and tending.   In general the solstice brings so much more activity than any time of year– more light, means more time in the day to do things, and it seems there is so much to do…

I worked with Environmental Traveling Companions out at the State Park along Tomales Bay for a one day dye workshop.  These young adults from Oakland, San Francisco, and Napa are selected to take a 24 day road trip throughout California, as a means to build leadership skills, get out into nature, and create community through peaceful and conscious communication.

We used two of my favorite native species– Toyon and Sticky Monkey Flower.  The toyon had been brewing since the winter months, and the Sticky Monkey was freshly harvested at a ranch in West Marin.  The students went on a walk through the park with me to identify the native species that we were using for our vats.  We discussed how the use of local resources can offset our need for foreign and synthetic substances.  We also discussed how the practice of using these native species, done in conjunction with propagating them, enhances biodiversity, and awareness of indigenous habitat.

Some students dipped their scarves in both vats for a two-toned effect.

Toyon with a creative use of shibori patterning.

Toyon and Sticky Monkey in the wind hanging on coffeeberry bushes..

Students then used a combination of earth pigments and soy milk to make natural paints that they then used to paint onto their cotton squares.  They are creating a collaborative quilt with messages about their experience on this long 24 day journey that they are now embarking upon with one another.

These were messages that the students quietly reflected upon, and then began to paint.  These were their thoughts, and their mantras..

Toyon dyed cotton, with iron mud paint.

Done with a very fine bamboo brush…

The young people said it all.  Not much to add to this body of wisdom.

Thank you ETC for such an incredible day– I wish you many happy and awe inspiring days on your journey.

On May 16th from 10am to 2pm, the Sangati Center of San Francisco’s Mission District will be hosting a first ever Natural Dye Workshop.  The center’s focus is to bring unamplified Indian Music to the community, and with 300 concerts a year– the center does an incredible job of bringing the music to the people.

The center is also a hub for traditional arts, and thus, what better a place could exist for a natural dye workshop?  The rich Indian history of textiles includes an incredible series of natural dye recipes.  We will honor our native landscape while taking inspiration from the Indian tradition with the use of indigo, as well as a peace silk that was raised, processed and woven in the Southern regions of India.

Native CA Toyon dye bath

Deepa Natarajan of the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden will be co-hosting this workshop.  Deepa has been creating a native garden at the Center, a beautiful vision of what can be done in an urban landscape.  We look forward to sharing this incredible day with you.  You can contact Deepa to sign up for the class natarajan.dp@gmail.com

The temperature was perfect, the sun just right, sweet smelling toyon, coffeeberry, and coyote brush dye vats wafted into the afternoon air.  The thick smell of black walnuts (which have been soaking since last fall), did overpower the senses a bit– an aroma that crosses somewhere between old seaweed, and a compost pile.  It is actually a nice smell– very earthy, just a bit pungent.

Deepa Natarajan the Berkeley Botanical Garden education coordinator with Susan Kuehn the coordinator for the San Francisco Garden for the Environment

The group of 17 women coalesced creatively amongst the native plant colors– and the blues of the fermenting indigo vat.  The participants level of expertise within this field spanned from commercial textile designers–natural paint makers–scientific illustrators–to professional felters. I was so inspired, and grateful for the advanced level of awareness that was brought to this workshop.  We could have spent at least two days simply networking and weaving our skill base together, to bring forth a natural color and fiber revolution.

A handwoven hemp– roughly retted and then woven on back strap looms by the Karen women of North Western Thailand, dyed in our native toyon dye bath.

A beautiful example of Indigo on silk– with the use of a bundling shibori resist technique.

Black walnut browns over dyed with fermented indigo.

A blend of many dips in many baths- including eucalyptus, indigo, and possibly one other species…

A well organized compilation of samples– raw hemp, organic cotton, and blends of both fibers, dyed in the native species, as well as eucalyptus.

Samples were a challenge to extract, with so many floating and submerged within the pots.  There are always a few little pieces that show up at the end of the day, as I’m cleaning and re-pouring the dyes.

Thank you Berkeley.. The biological diversity of the garden was deeply reflected in the diversity of talent, capacity for understanding, and depth of interest of all those who came. I enjoyed myself so much- and am excited for our future collaborations.

The first annual Permaculture Marin dye workshop was as pleasant a day as could be imagined. The clouds parted, the blossoming fruit trees stood above dense carpets of multiple shades of green, and the people gathered.

An intersection of passion, prior experience, and curiosity brought together a group of men and women with a broad background of weaving, teaching, gardening, farming, and spinning experience.  We created a laboratory of creative color — using toyon, indigo, black walnut, fennel, french broom, coffeeberry, iron, and tannin.

The indigo vat was slow to ferment the day before the workshop–too cold for the yeast.  The sun came out for just enough time to coax it into producing some very lovely blues.

This workshop took place at one of the most beautiful of gardens.  Originally planted, designed and cared for by teacher, farmer, and weaver Penny Livingston of the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas.  The land is now tended and cared for by Lauren, Dave and Molly– all teachers, and gardeners extraordinaire.  The strawbale structures, the gray water systems, the orchards, and the silver dollar eucalyptus planted for its dye properties are just some of the many elements of this amazing homestead.

The colors of the day

The dye pots getting introduced to the people.

The creations were mesmerizing– the colors soft but striking.

Thank you Permaculture Marin for your work!  I am so grateful for all you did to make this day happen.  Beginning months before we set foot in the garden, until the day of… The coordination of all the details in addition to the worlds greatest lunch, together made for a beautiful experience, now indelibly placed within the memory of all good things.