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"All those colors we associate with fall and spring—reds and oranges or greens and yellows—are usually mirrored in the colors of the dyes you get from plants growing in those seasons. It's a colorful way to get more in tune with the natural world," Burgess says.
She explains that when you use nature as your source of dyes, you get to see how colors change and vary with your season and your locale: "There's something to the colors of the Southwest," she says. "You get really strong yellows, dusty browns, burnt umber reds. In the Ozarks, the colors I found were amazingly prairie-like, with a lot of the blooms coming out pink, goldenrod, and yellow."
Burgess even likes to look for invasive species as sources for color, and she's often used French broom and wooly thistle, invasive plants that are overtaking wildlands and national parks in California.
"Our national parks are all spraying [them] with herbicides from Dow and Monsanto," she says. "One of my responses is to pick that plant and find a use for it." Wooly thistle produces an almost neon yellow, while French broom "makes a great sage green."
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The problem with conventional dyes
"Synthetic color, ecologically speaking, is a disaster," Burgess says, even those described as "low-impact" dyes.
There's the use of toxic heavy metal mordants: "Cadmium, copper, nickel, cobalt, and chrome are usually used in some form during the dye process, and sometimes mercury and lead are used to make denim," she says.
Those mordants wind up in water from clothing factories, killing aquatic animals and harming people who live nearby.
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In low-impact dyes, she says that the use of synthetic compounds and heavy metals is reduced, and usually companies producing them avoid the most carcinogenic and neurotoxic, but can't eliminate them completely."The root of a synthetic dye is either coal tar or some other more viscous form of petroleum," she says. Some coal tar dyes are known to cause cancer, and though they won't rub off of clothes onto the wearer and cause health problems, they do pollute water near clothing factories.
Also, "from the perspective of a human living in 2011 with almost 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, creating climate havoc," she adds, "I see no reason why we should be digging into carbon poles for colors when so many other alternatives exist."
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Teaching others to opt for natural colors
Burgess is a self-taught seamstress, and studied ecology in college. She first became interested in natural dyeing techniques when someone asked her to teach a class about textile dyeing to children.
"I looked at what we were going to use for color, and felt somehow disappointed in giving children a powder mixed with water," she said. "The children weren't going to learn much about color or ecology."
She experimented with food dyes made with beets, turmeric, and fennel to see what that would yield, "and then just watched these children become so excited about dye work."
That experience led to a more in-depth study of all the plants she could find around her to see how she could make more sustainable, natural dyes and, ultimately, her book on the topic and nonprofit organization.
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How to do it
It took Burgess a lot of trial and error to determine which plants produce which colors, so for beginners, Burgess recommends sticking with whatever's in your garden.
You can use plants like garden-variety zinnias (which produce a range of "buttery yellows," as she describes them), Japanese indigo, and coreopsis (which produces an orange dye). Even the leaves of a fennel plant can be used to produce a sort of olive green. During summer, look for blue elderberry, for its purplish blues, and tickseed sunflower for its bright orange hue. The black walnuts and sumac you find in fall will give you varying shades of brown, and pokeberry (or pokeweed) gives you a deep red that will remind you of fall foliage.
Prior to dyeing your fibers, soak them in a mordant (a substance that combines with a dye or stain and fixes it in a material) which, in natural dyeing methods, doesn't require toxic heavy metals. Burgess uses alum (a less-toxic relative of aluminum), iron baths (she makes them by soaking iron nails or screws in water and vinegar to avoid buying iron that had to be mined), and vinegar. The mordant helps fix the color to the fiber and it also can deepen a hue or give you richer, more vibrant colors.
The recipe for making each dye bath will vary, depending on the flowers or plants you use, as will the length of time you'll need to let your fabric sit in the bath. You can alter the color by using various washes afterward, made from iron, wood or soda ash, salty ocean water, or even regular vinegar, that will brighten your colors, tone them down, or even change them into different hues.
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If you're interested in getting specific recipes and learning more about natural dyeing techniques, Burgess recommends a short tutorial or taking a class, both of which you can find on the website NaturalDyes.org. The process is easy enough to learn with some patience and a tutorial, or her instructional book.