The magazine of material culture

Natural Color


                                 Interview by Sofia Klapischak / Photos by Aya Brackett

Sasha Duerr picks up the phone with a laugh. “I was just out tending my sunflowers,” she says, “and my fingernails are full of dirt.” She’s stepped away from the garden plot to talk about her new book, Natural Color, a handy volume that opens up the world of natural dye to anyone willing to get their hands dirty. Approaching dye elements similarly to the ingredients that might found in a cookbook recipe, her book offers enchanting do-it-yourself projects with engaging step-by-step instructions.

When she was a child, Duerr remembers looking into a puddle and seeing layers of colors reflecting back at her. The open landscapes of coastal Maine and Hawaii, where she was raised, nurtured her creativity as an artist. Today, as a professor and practicing artist, Duerr promotes using natural dyes as a sustainable textile practice, as well as a way of exploring creativity and have an immersive experience with nature. 

Can you talk about the emotional response that you have when working with natural materials?
Natural color can be immediately connective... and that is one of the reasons that I fell in love with the practice of plant dyeing. Growing, foraging, and supporting the process of creating plant-based colors is imbued in authentic storytelling of people and place.  For instance, creating a seasonal dye bath with wild fennel (which grows from May to September in the Bay Area) marks a yearly cycle of the returning plant and refreshes textiles with new seasonal yellow- and there’s always a sensory experience imbued in the hue. 

What was your research process for the book like as you went about selecting certain geographical regions and "ingredients"?
I wanted to curate a biodiversity of plant colors in Natural Color. I especially wanted to work to those that elevate weeds, and organic waste materials and those plants that are easily accessible dye palettes, so I turned to common culinary, floral, medical plants and weeds that you may be able to find in different climates.  Luckily, the Bay Area can grow so many different types of plants- just in my own neighborhood I can equally experiment with birds of paradise and blue spruce... I’m very fortunate place to live in a place where I can work with plants in a diverse way. 

One of the most stunning parts of the book is the seasonal color wheel, which shows the changing plant shades throughout the year. How did this come to be? 
I've had so much fun creating the Seasonal Color Wheels for each new region... I am now delving into deeper research and color palettes for cities around the world, especially fashion capitals. Most of my research centers on a combination of most common trees, weeds, flowers, and seasonal bi-products of local produce for each area. Of course, there are thousands of colors you can make naturally, and these are just curated suggestions for a range of colors that might resonate with a certain region, and help people connect to plant dyes in new ways by visualizing common sources of color in their everyday experience. 

Could you explain the process capturing the ephemeral characteristics of nature through natural dyeing? 
Creating plant based color palettes is continually awe-inspiring for me. The process of creating natural color is uniquely expressive to the ingredients, season, soil, the pH of the water and of course your own timing as you make the dye. The practice of plant dyeing is one that also allows you to capture the more ephemeral aspects of life in this way, it becomes very alchemical, allowing you to see the unseen in the everyday... for instance a color palette that can be created from a coastal ocean walk, a farmer's market meal, fall leaves in autumn on your sidewalk or a souvenir from a bouquet. 

The projects in the book are so unique, like a hibiscus sun hat and avocado pit pillowcases. How did you come up with them?
Just as much as I hoped to create a palette of unique an varied plant dye sources per each season, I also wanted to create a diversity of projects that would inspire a wide range of interest and entry points while still being accessible in materials and ingredients.  The woven hats came out of a playing with hats that I brought home from Hawaii a few years ago. I thought it would be fun to dye a beach hat with hibiscus- as it spoke of the Big Island to me. 

For the sweet gum leaf watercolor wall wash, the idea was really created based off of art installations I have created over the years with specific plants that have meaning for me.  I started working seriously with natural plant dyes about 15 years ago as an MFA student at the California College of the Arts, and it was then that I started to paint large minimal color wash murals with them. I would often highlight plants that were foraged and gathered, as well as connected colors that spoke of people and places.  I really love pouring and painting dye directly on walls: it's a way to share the spectrum of  plant-based palettes in a broader sense visually, and also a way to create dialogue and conversation around a plant and what color it creates. For me, it’s a particularly immersible way to interact with plants.