COLOR IS MY love language. As a gardener, nothing pleases me more than composing harmonious plant combinations filled with apricot, orange and rust blossoms with silver-gray and teal-blue foliage. Of course, I also plant plenty of yellow and rose, purple, lush green and woody browns; color is how I navigate the garden year.
Sasha Duerr is a California-based textile artist, natural dyer and gardener dedicated to uncovering hidden hues in garden plants and regional botanicals. Duerr teaches at the California College of the Arts and is the founder of the Permacouture Institute, an educational and environmental arts lab focused on regenerative design and sustainability that’s looking to upend fast fashion and toxic textiles.
Duerr is the author of three books on dyeing with plant color: “The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes” (Timber Press, 2010), “Natural Color” (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2016) and this year’s “Natural Palettes” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020). While the previous two titles are chock-full of basic recipes and easy-to-cook-up projects, her latest book is a tribute to the ingredients themselves — the plants, where they come from, the benefits they yield and the abundant biodiversity of the world around us.
The innovative color guide is structured around 25 themed color palettes with 500 natural color swatches. Visually, it’s delightful — a lively flip book filled with nuanced hues and rich neutrals. In addition to this remarkably ambitious compendium of color, Duerr offers seven thoughtful essays in which she reflects on the alchemy of living color, the sensory-immersive experience of gathering and foraging natural materials, and place-based local colors.
“Plant-made palettes are the essence of time and place,” she writes. A discussion about “compost colors” utilizing red cabbage, onion skins and black beans will have you looking at kitchen waste with fresh eyes. Even common weeds, like dandelions, nettles, morning glory vines and brambles, reveal surprisingly lovely hues.
Over the years, I’ve had several chances to hear Duerr speak about her work — once I even got to be her assistant as she demonstrated creating a fresh indigo dye bath. During that workshop, Duerr introduced the idea of creating a color palette from natural materials as a means of celebrating an occasion — say, the birth of a baby or a wedding day — with a unique color signature. I came away from that day inspired to continue exploring plant-based color, and with an exquisite length of silk dyed robin’s-egg blue. Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria), an easy-to-grow annual, has been a constant in my home garden ever since.
We’re not likely to forget this past growing season anytime soon, but I thought it would be fun to capture a plant-based color story on fabric and create a lasting keepsake of this unique moment in our lives. Looking around the garden and walking around my West Seattle neighborhood, I decided to mess around with blackberries — plentiful, ubiquitous and filled with brilliant color.
As anyone who has ever spilled berry pie on white pants can attest, the operative word here is “mess.” Mashing the juicy berries yielded a deep purple dye. After treating a length of linen in a salted hot-water bath to help the color take, I soaked the fabric overnight in the blackberry dye. The final result was pleasing, a soft rosy wine. I sewed a face mask, of course.