BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // I’ve known Sasha Duerr (@sashaduerr) for nearly two decades—from something of a previous life or previous lives in my early days in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’90s. When I met Sasha I was instantly drawn to her kind nature, open heart, astute observations, and also her thoughtful approach to fiber arts, gardening and her wardrobe. Fast-forward a few lifetimes, jobs, relocations, children and homesteads later, and Sasha and I have remained steady friends while finding more in common in our creative and professional lives.
I mention our friendship because it’s this kinship and kindness that’s part of Sasha’s nature across her personal relationships and her relationship to her work that offers something so unique in her contribution to Slow Fashion —she’s generous, kind, intuitive, and deeply invested. And this tending, this attention, or this attunement is something that’s so prominent in her work with natural color. Sasha’s been working with natural dyes and “regenerative fashion” for nearly twenty years but her relationship to her work and to the slow fashion community feels like it’s own sense of stewardship—she’s protecting dye recipes, creative practices, and slow fashion community for generations to come. Her work evolves from her passionate connection to the land and permaculture but it extends to color, fiber, and human interactions. She lives a very intentional life as an artist, teacher, mother and homesteader, but from the bustling, urban and decidedly modern space of Oakland CA.
It’s an honor to share Sasha’s work and words in this series. Though it’s apparent she is just scratching the surface of what she has to offer at the intersection of permaculture, art and design, it’s this shifting of mindset and language that I always cherish in my interactions with Sasha. I leave our conversations wanting more insight into her resources, mentors, and philosophical approach alongside tips to creating those gorgeous plant-based colors. Welcome, Sasha!
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Your work has been inspiring me for years and it’s such a thrill to share your story. Can you start by giving an overview of your journey working with natural dyes?
I was fortunate to grow-up spending most of my time outside—splitting every 6 months between the northern coastal woods of Downeast Maine and the rainforests of the Big Island of Hawaii. Living within these very different ecosystems deepened my love and relationship with plants at an early age.
Studying painting in college, my work focused on transformations found in nature, but I was using primarily oil paints and acrylics. Ironically, I started to get sick from working with my materials, and as I researched ways of making my own lesser and non-toxic colors realized that much of the information was outdated, difficult to understand, or with recipes that used toxic sources. This led me to travel (towards Indonesia and India) and to seek out teachers and lineages of this knowledge. Upon arriving back in the US, it also brought me to women in agriculture — on farms and deeper research and knowledge in the indigenous communities that I had grown-up within.
Early after college, I also became active in urban gardening and working with the slow food movement in the Bay Area, recognizing obvious and striking parallels between not knowing where most of our store-bought fashion and textiles came from and how disconnected most were from the process of production—as well as the exploitation and environmental degradation that lies below the surface of the sale bin.
While working on my MFA in Textiles at California College of the Arts in 2001-2003, I received a two-year grant to develop natural dye curriculum at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. Through my work there, I started focusing my thesis on the direct connections between slow food and slow fashion — how sensory experiences were key to change.
After graduate school I explored natural dyes in my studio, through research, teaching workshops, hosting conceptual natural color related events and sought out further studies in gardening — particularly Permaculture. This work led me to found Permacouture Institute to explore ideas for regenerative design in fashion and textiles.
From 2008 through 2012, I collaborated with my friend and designer Casey Larkin on the creation of a locally made and all seasonally naturally dyed (by me) alpaca knitwear. We learned alot about what was possible and what was needed in slow fashion, local and natural fiber dyeing production, especially as new moms, but the work we created together was invaluable and I evolved so much in terms of knowing the power of storytelling through plant palettes and slow fashion. (I am now so grateful that Fibershed exists to connect the gaps between farmers, producers and designers to rethink regional production as it is very needed!)
My work in natural dyes also led me to develop curriculum courses in the intersection of social practice and slow fashion and textiles at my alma mater, CCA. I have been a professor there for the past 10 years and teach a course called “Soil to Studio” where we done an abundance of research and experimentation over the years in plant dyeing recipes and natural dye applications, we also maintain a community edible, fiber and dye garden with a fiber and dye seed saving library (available for any student, faculty or staff to check out) and collaborate with community partners, such as UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Cultivating the connection of creating color from by-products of food, flora, medicinals, and plants beneficial to our ecologies has become my life’s work — and for me there is no comparison to the beauty of the true hues that have emerged in the process.
It seems that maybe your personal migrations from Maine to Hawaii to California play a part in your approach to dye work, foraging for dyes and working with the local landscape. This also has the benefit of allowing you intimacy and familiarity with local plants in various ecosystems. Would you agree?
Absolutely, paying attention to and knowing the plants in our immediate surroundings connects us wherever we are. Plants can often become invisible to us in our everyday landscapes. It’s surprising how few most of us know by name — even trees in our own backyards.
As an artist, I am also fascinated by how natural color can become a vital tool to help us become more aware — to realize that what we know about our everyday surroundings can constantly surprise us, and that a brilliant spectrum of hues can be found in places that you may never expect, beautiful colors made from compost from a dinner with friends, or a rainbow from the weeds you pass by every day without a second thought. What we consider “valuable” is always an interesting question as well. For instance carrot tops provide gorgeous gold and green colors, we take it for granted and we toss the tops or they are pre-cut for us at the grocery store but at one point carrots were actually grown for the tops and not the roots as they are very medicinal and flavorful!
Your work with natural dyes feels so much deeper than creating color and experimenting with various fibers. You mention Permaculture in your work and you founded the Permacouture Institute. Is there a deeper philosophical or ecological approach to your work with dyes and plants?
What I love about Permaculture is that people and planet are considered equally when thinking about a system. In 2007, I founded Permacouture Institute (with the help of dear friends and supporters). Permacouture became a great way to explore ideas of slow fashion and textiles and to bring people together, to document, research and create through multisensory events and ultimately environmental connections.
Throughout the years we’ve nurtured programs and events to think holistically about natural dyes, slow fashion and textiles. We’ve organized social events about rethinking consumption called “Weed Your Wardrobes” where we dye unwanted clothing and textiles giving them fresh life while weeding urban community gardens and using those same weeds to dye the garments. We’ve explored plant-based “compost colors” by hosting “Dinners to Dye For” and “Seasonal Color and Taste Palette” workshops with slow food chefs, bringing communities together through seasonal meals and using the byproducts of those very same meals.
There are so many ways in which working with natural color can connect us deeply to people, place, and to the planet. The process of growing a dye plant from seed, or of reusing plants that may be taken for granted, plant colors can connect us to something greater, bringing a naturally embedded meaning not possibly squeezed synthetically out of a tube. When you are working with natural fibers and color as well as with fair and just labor, in contrast, you’re constantly aware that you are working on nature’s schedule, not just your own. This allows you to be directly involved with the natural world, communities and individuals, as well as with a plant or animal’s life cycle in relationship to your own.
Cultural continuation, celebration of biodiversity, and awareness and appreciation of supply chain and the labor involved in creating and making additionally helps in stewardship of resources and care of materials.
The growing conditions of the Bay Area for experimenting with natural color have also been a blessing. Knowing the full and unique dimensions that plants can provide —food, medicine, color, fiber— supports deeper roots in our communities, culturally expands design possibilities for food and textiles, and purely from an ecological perspective a healthier and happier future not just for people but for all life.
You’ve been ahead of the trend with natural dyes and sustainable fibers. Although we’re the same age I always consider you an elder in this work — you’ve been considering fiber sources, dye plants, slow living, and sustainable fashion for over 15 years now and that seems like forever in slow fashion. Can you talk about the broader shift you’ve witnessed in the past 10 or 15 years in relation to the interest or awareness in slow fashion?
A major shift that I’ve seen over the past 15 years is that there is now so much more support, strength and organization both within the slow fashion movement and from the mainstream. It has been so wonderful to see how the facets have grown and how many slow fashion and textile nonprofits, artists, advocates and designers are now working in the field.
I think the general consciousness of embracing the uniqueness of artisan and plant-based color has definitely gained more awareness. Navigating the complexities of our wardrobes and where things come from can be nothing less than overwhelming to the average wearer. One way that plant dyeing has been a very successful tool for the slow fashion and textile movement is in how easy the process (which is nearly if not identical to the process of cooking) of applying plant-based color to anything that you already have in your home or wardrobe as a connective and sensory process, thus allowing you to WANT to know more.
I will say that I am also happy, especially as a teacher and professor who has borne witness to so many talented souls and their creative ideas, to see all the diverse practices emerging in the ways that we can think about, approach, participate and add to this movement. There really is not one way. Being creative with what you have in your own individual life, connecting with your community, rethinking and strategizing modes and methods of art and design, supporting others in their efforts all add in the ways in which we can begin now, right where we are.
Your work just gets richer and richer — it feels like your connection to sustainable living and your practice as a colorist are entirely intertwined. I see your work as equal parts process and product. As if the teaching, gardening, art making and personal living are all interconnected. Can you talk about this blurring of boundaries and how one influences or provokes the other?
The process of making a dye bath often becomes an ultimate form of creative “flow” for me, it can awaken all the senses from growing and gathering the plants to the smells, even tastes when you are working with edibles, and of course witnessing unique and multifaceted living color. For me, it is a constant renewal of awe.
I enjoy working holistically, collaborating and connecting with the process, starting with what you have and going from there. I have always loved the practice of plant dyeing both for the process and the results as well as a tool to talk about bigger picture aspects. I believe one of the greatest plights of our modern times is the true cost of over-consumption. Plant dyes, whether you are connected from the seed of growing the color or are just conscious that by pruning your fruit trees in winter you can not only help your peach tree to grow healthier fruit in the summer but the clippings themselves can also provide an abundance of other uses including but not limited to all the seasonal color inspiration and ingredients one may need.
In addition to your work as an instructor and fiber artist you’ve also consulted with various fashion brands around their sustainability efforts. You mentioned the metaphor of “Turning an ocean tanker around versus turning a row boat” meaning that most of the independent artists, designers, and makers have an easier time switching directions, taking risks, and responding to information than a large institution that already has so many systems in place. Can you expand on this thinking of flexibility and adaptability?
Yes, I always say this to my students as they are at a point of starting small and being able to grow intentionally and with new creative initiative. Although there can be big changes and ripple effects that happen when large companies re-approach their methods toward more ethical practices (both environmentally and socially) independent artists and designers play a particularly important role as starting small and showcasing how things can be done differently, with more intention, care, collaboration or innovation can be extremely powerful. Starting small often allows you to see what works and to build in ways that can be most effective. Flexibility is also key to design for what an individual or community may actually need and what can best support their needs in changing or growing in the process.
You recently published your second book, Natural Color, and it’s a favorite on my bookshelf. The how-tos in this book focus primarily on food scraps, foraged plants and easily accessible dye materials versus prepared extracts, powders or natural dyes you might order online. Is this connection to the whole plant pivotal to your work?
In my own practice of working with plant-based color, I often use whole plants rather than extracts, I need to be aware of their seasonal availability, growth cycles and color potential. With this knowledge I can develop a color palette specific to a time of year, much like planning a seasonal menu. Working with plant color is one of the easiest and most accessible ways of connecting with the cycle of our ecologies and applying that knowledge directly to the design practice.
I love starting with the whole plant because I think it provides the opportunity for an added level of sensory connection to the process and therefore to the product. There is something so profound about the transformation that occurs when you start with the whole. I also love sharing with others the wow factor of taking something ordinary, like an avocado pit, and showing the gorgeous pinks and grays that can be conjured so easily, or from a bouquet of roses. Meanwhile you get to eat the avocado or enjoy the roses before they hit your dye pot — very difficult to do when you start directly with a powder or an extract.
Working on Natural Color was an absolute joy. We took an actual calendar year to collect and document the seasonal recipes made from gleaning, growing and harvesting a biodiversity of common and less-common plants as sources of dyes. Natural Color was also inspired by a project I’ve been working on for several years now called the Seasonal Color Wheel, which showcases natural colors you can make seasonally from common plants, often weeds and byproducts in various regions, especially urban centers.
In Natural Color we get a sense of this deeper relationship to sustainable living through your essays. The Slow Fashion movement only has a handful of theorists writing nonfiction at this point — Kate Fletcher quickly comes to mind — but it feels like the movement is rapidly developing leadership. What are your thoughts about connecting theory and practice in such a rapidly developing field?
Slow Fashion theory is important as there are so many people who will never grow their own fiber, sew their own garments or dye their own clothes, but supporting and understanding why these practices are important is equally valuable.
I often reference Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose’s book Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change; it is an incredible resource on diverse ways of thinking and designing. The environmental disaster that is fast fashion and textiles as we currently know it cannot be changed with consumption as usual even if it is replacing “toxic” materials with “eco-friendly” ones. Consumer behavior; how can we connect to what we have more deeply; how can we choose and care for what comes into our lives; how can we change or adapt what we have, transform it into something new; or whether ultimately that garment is designed for the compost pile or re-imagined all matter tremendously.
A topic that I love to think about with natural dyes is that these colors can have different life cycles, like our life experiences and relationships. Not everything (or every color) is meant to be permanent, and at one point fibers and dyes, just like with food, were so biodegradable that they left no trace. Our own sense of fashion is often dependent and driven by change and cycles, not permanence. In fact, our openness to recognizing this truth philosophically could also open new avenues toward how we provide stewardship for the future of natural color and how we can also increase the biodiversity of our palettes to include wider ranges of hues, potentially by being on nature’s timing and expressing different waves of sensory beauty in new forms.
I love your use of the phrase “regenerative design” versus sustainable design. You write, “Permacouture … focuses as a dedicated educational and environmental arts lab that continues to research, teach, experiment, build curriculum, consult, and encourage regenerative design practices for textiles and fashion.” Can you explain the concept of regenerative design particularly within slow fashion?
“Regenerative” as a word can be an incredibly useful tool. It can help us to imagine new ways that we may actually be able to ADD positively to a system rather than merely just to sustain what already exists. It expounds on ways that we can build upon a practice and evolve it into something greater, renewing the system with additional life and energy. I think this word is especially powerful for fashion and textiles as it motivates us to think beyond the boundaries of what we may presently think is possible, while at the same time caring for and deeply nourishing the best of what already exists.
So many folks are hesitant to experiment with natural dyes because of the mordants. Or because of the fear they’ll get it wrong. What’s your advice to folks just starting out with natural color—maybe a few favorite dye plants you like best for beginners?
Plant dyes can so easily be made with ingredients already in our kitchens or gardens, or with materials already on their way to the compost pile. For beginners I suggest knowing your materials: choose all-natural fibers, clean them well, and remember when making a dye bath “longer is stronger.” Getting started, just like with cooking, can be a process of being aware, being patient, being open, and continuing to practice, practice, practice. A few of my favorite fall plant dyes for beginners to get started (and that don’t need an additional mordant added) are pomegranate peels; avocado pits and rinds; golden onion skins; and black walnut hulls. AND, as an added win/win, these colors are also all delicious byproducts. So you can have your color and eat it too!
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Adrienne Antonson (State the Label)
Photos © Sasha Duerr, used with permission