Sasha Duerr is a Natural Dyer, Artist & Alchemist

The alchemy of the natural world occupies many of Sasha Duerr’s daily thoughts. For this California-based artist, designer and educator, the world of plants and the myriad colours that can be extracted from them, provide an endless source of inspiration and wonder, experimentation and play. The author of several books on the subject of natural dyeing and a passionate voice for slow-fashion and regenerative design, Sasha is widely regarded as one of the leading voices working within the world of plant-based palettes. We recently caught up with her during her sabbatical in Morocco to find out all about her life of colour.

Please tell us about you and your life with plants. In my practice as an artist, I am always fascinated by natural colour and its ability to surprise. Brilliant hues can be found in everyday surroundings – from compost colours after dinner with friends, to a rainbow produced from the weeds we pass by every day without a second thought. 

There are so many ways in which working with natural colour can connect us deeply to people, place, and to the planet. I’m constantly aware that I am working on nature’s schedule, not just my own. This allows me to be directly involved with the natural world, communities and individuals, as well as with a plant life-cycle in relationship to my own.

Dye garden. Image by Sasha Duerr

What were the landscapes you grew amongst as a child, and how did they shape the person you are today? I was fortunate to grow-up spending most of my time outside, splitting every six months for a few years as a child between the northern coastal woods of Downeast Maine and the volcanic rainforests of the Big Island of Hawaii. Connecting with these very different ecosystems at a very early age deepened my love, respect and relationship with plants.

Slow food has taught us that sustainability is as equally rooted in social connection and care as it is in environmental stewardship. This is also fundamentally true for slow fashion and textiles. 

Sasha duerr

When do you first remember feeling a connection to the natural world? I have always felt a strong connection to the natural world. As a very young child, I would spend hours in the woods and especially loved experimenting in puddles. I loved the smells of spruce branches when wet in the water and the mauvey-pink and inky purple colours that would seep out from the inside of their green cones. 

You are currently on a travelling sabbatical, in Portugal last time we spoke. Can you please tell us a more about this trip? Are you researching plant dyes during your adventures? Both in my own work and as a family, we have been planning this research and family sabbatical for many years. We have been traveling since September beginning in Scandinavia – Iceland, Norway, Denmark – and then traveling down through Europe to Southern Portugal and Morocco, where we are now. It has been a wonderful opportunity to experience and study plants, landscapes, terroir, and experiment with natural color and ideas along the way. In early 2020, we will be spending time in Southern India researching medicinal natural colour practices, Australia in February, where we are excited to delve deeper into permaculture practices and slow design ideas, and then Japan in March, where I am especially interested in the overlaps in practices for fermentation, both for food and natural dyes.

Colour blooms. Image by Sasha Duerr
Natural plant dyer, artist, author & alchemist, Sasha Duerr.

You studied environmental science at university and then worked as a painter before commencing your journey to discover the intricate science behind natural plant based dyes. What shifted this change in direction? I was a painting major in college and studied Environmental Ethics as a minor. Many of my paintings focused on documenting abstract images of transformation in nature, but as I was working with oil paints and acrylics, I quickly realised that the materials I was using in my work were making me feel sick. As I researched ways of making my own non-toxic colours, I found that much of the information available was outdated, difficult to understand, or made with recipes that used harmful sources. I travelled around Indonesia and India to seek out teachers and lineages of plant-based colour knowledge, and upon arriving back in the US, I met with women in agriculture, on farms and in the indigenous communities that I had grown-up within who were also caretakers of similar knowledge systems.

Across the years, I have focused on natural colour and palettes as a practice. Cultivating connections and collaborating on projects to extract colours from by-products of food, flora, medicinals and plants beneficial to our ecologies has become my life’s work. For me, there is no comparison to the beauty of the true hues that have emerged during this process. 

Pollinator palette. Image by Sasha Duerr

What elements determine the kind of colour that is extracted from a plant at a particular time of year? Working with a particular plant throughout the year can give you different hues depending on its bio-chemicals. Whether the plant is fruiting, flowering or in repose can make a difference to the colour you are given. The health of the individual plant, the ecosystem it grows in, how much water and light it receives, the terroir of the landscape, even how acidic or basic the soil it grows in is, can each play a role in the unique hues created from plant-based colour sources. 

A topic that I love to muse over with natural dyes is their different life cycles. At one point fibres and dyes were so biodegradable that they left no trace. Our own sense of fashion is often dependent and driven by change and cycles, not permanence. Our openness to recognizing this truth philosophically could open new avenues toward how we provide stewardship for the future of natural colour, and how we can also increase the biodiversity of our palettes to include a wider range of hues that follow nature’s timeline.

What is the Permacouture Institute and how does it explores ideas of regenerative design? 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 promote holistic thinking around natural dyes, slow fashion and textiles. Some of these projects, like ‘Weed your Wardobe’ focus on rethinking consumption, ‘Dinners to Dye For’ and ‘Seasonal Colour and Taste Palette’ are workshops that explore the relationship between plant-based colours, slow fashion and food, and ‘Fibre and Dye’ examines plants that are not as dye or fibre producing. We also create eco-literacy maps, support plant-based dye and fibre-based seed libraries, and host work weeding parties that then utilise the extracted weeds to refresh used garments through renewed natural colour and patterns. 

Do you have a garden at home? If so, please paint a picture of this place and the kind of plants we might find growing there. We live in an urban area on the Berkeley/Oakland border in Northern California. We have garden beds and an outdoor work and dye kitchen where I compost the leftover plants from my dye baths. My garden is a collection of drought tolerant herbs, fruits and veggies that have dye producing bi-products, such as pomegranate rinds, carrot tops, onion skins, apple, plum, cherry and peach trees, pollinator plants like sunflowers, fennel, hollyhocks and traditional dye plants like madder root for natural reds, Japanese Indigo for blues and weld for strong, lightfast yellows. It has become an experimental garden for me over the years and offered ways to create a kind of natural colour ‘test kitchen’ in my backyard.

It’s all in the weeds. Image by Sasha Duerr

What are your thoughts on weeds? I have always loved that weeds show up for a reason. They are some of the best gauges of soil, climate, survival, as well as terroir. I love working with weeds to show both their potential and to showcase that which may be ‘unwanted’ in a system can be useful in creative capacities.  

What is the most unusual plant material you’ve extracted colour from? As part of my job (and my nature) I extract a wide range of plants, getting to know them and learn their qualities. One of my favourite and most unusual plants I have worked with as a dye source is the Jade plant. I had no idea that it could provide pale pinks and lavenders as well as deep purples and blacks when iron is added to the dye bath. Always a reminder to be mindful to that which you have yet to know! 

What are compost colours? Compost colours are extracted from plants, food or floral waste that we participate with regularly, but which we do not always realise have the potential for beautiful colour. What we consider ‘valuable’ is always an interesting question. Carrot tops are often taken for granted as we toss the tops or they a pre-cut for us at the grocery store. There is so much rich potential in knowing a plant from root to stalk, and opportunities for creativity in the discarded peels, rinds, husks and hulls. Some of my favourite experiments in colour palettes over the recent years have involved exploring the hues that can be made from tropical fruit waste, like charcoal greys from mango peels, blush pinks from lychee rinds or blacks from red banana peels. I am also interested in the bi-products of the beer and wine industries in California, experimenting with a variety of spent hops after brewing and the green waste of vineyard prunings. The biodiversity and vibrancy of a color palette made from leftovers from your favourite meal before hitting the compost pile can be astounding. 

Pollinator palette. Image by Sasha Duerr
Weed palette. Image by Sasha Duerr
Compost colours. Image by Sasha Duerr
Weed palette. Image by Sasha Duerr

What is your interest in heirloom seeds? Saving heirloom seeds supports biodiversity. There are hundreds of thousands of plant-based fibres and dyes to choose from, but due to our collective knowledge being dimmed by corporate and synthetic options, we may have never heard of the vast array of heirloom plants that provide incredible natural colour and fibre opportunities. Through Permacouture projects, we have tagged fibre or dye-producing seeds in public seed libraries for shared use. My textile students at California College of the Arts are currently adding to their libraries by growing heirloom dye plants including madder root, Japanese indigo and Hopi black sunflowers, and saving their seeds. These are then available to any California College of the Arts student, faculty, or staff that has a library card on campus. 

You have collaborated with numerous leading international brands across the years to explore ideas of slow fashion, including Anthropologie, NY Fashion Week and The North Face. What is your role in this process? Slow food has taught us that sustainability is as equally rooted in social connection and care as it is in environmental stewardship. This is also fundamentally true for slow fashion and textiles. 

Manufactured fashion ‘seasons’ move quickly and relentlessly. The term ‘fast fashion’ suggests that an article of clothing may continue to be functional but is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate. Unfortunately, everyone, as well as the environment and the people who expend labour, pay for the bargain bin. As with fast food, there’s little emphasis on the fallout of production or the negative social and environmental effects of rapid consumption.

Navigating materials and where they come from can be nothing less than overwhelming for the average wearer or designer. I am often helping designers connect with circular ways of thinking and creating through ideas expressed in permaculture and regenerative design processes, such as the application of colour and plant-based palettes. 

I am happy to be an educator who has born witness to so many talented souls and their creative ideas, and to see all the diverse practices emerging in the ways that we think about, approach, participate and add to slow fashion. There really is not one method. 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, and supporting others in their efforts all add to the ways in which we can begin now, right where we are.

You are the author of several books including Natural Colour and The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes. Can you tell us a little about your upcoming book, Natural Palettes, and the kind of stories we might find within its pages? Natural Palettes (Princeton Architectural Press) will be released in spring 2020. It’s a book that I have been working on for the past three years, but have been wanting to create for the last twenty! It was written as a plant-based colour-guide and a curation of natural colour stories that provide inspiration for sustainable fashion, textiles, fine art, floral design, food, medicine, gardening, interior design, and other creative practices. With essays, photography, 25 Palettes, and over 500 natural colour swatches, Natural Palettes is a haven of botanical information that will connect readers with the many benefits of working with organic materials. My hope is that they will never view plants, or colour, in the same way again! 

If you were a plant, what would you be? I’d be a lemon tree. The blossoms are always invigorating, calming, and heavenly scented. Lemons are also an all-time favourite of mine to cook with, whether in a tangy dressing, a citrus based cocktail, or a layered Meyer Lemon cake. But best of all, lemons can also be a saviour as a natural dyer, through working as a colour changer or eraser of unfortunate natural dyeing mistakes (especially when experimenting with iron modifiers!). As they say – when life gives you lemons!

Pollinator palette. Image by Sasha Duerr