A garden worth dyeing for
You've seen, smelled and cultivated your favorite plants. Now, maybe it's time to wear them.
The new book "Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes" (Artisan) makes a great case for that unlikely project, with stunning photos of yellow coreopsis, emerald-green indigo leaves and purple-black pokeberries juxtaposed with skeins of dyed wool in colors ranging from buff and butter to jade green and cherry red.
Making the dyes in the book requires some planning, harvesting and simmering, but no particular experience or expertise; the knitting and fabric-printing projects are mostly simple and straightforward.
"The practice of making the dyes actually is no more complicated than making tea," says author Rebecca Burgess.
A textile artist from Northern California, Burgess says she's intrigued by the natural world — its colors, cycles and preservation. "How connected can we human beings be with our natural surroundings?" she says. "How close can we get (to nature)? How much can we return to it while still honoring who we are as modern human beings?"
The book reflects those preoccupations, with dyes grouped according to their seasons of availability (depending, of course, on where you live): goldenrod in summer, aspen leaves in fall, madder root in winter. The palette isn't muted so much as delicate and subtle in places, but it comes as a surprise to those accustomed to department store hues.
"We're so used to it being bright and instant and available," says Burgess. "But there's a huge biological system we bypassed to offer bright pink, bright red, neon this and that. And what we've done is we've relied on petroleum and coal tar. Those are the bases for synthetic dyes."
The book's most accessible projects rely on plants easily available in garden centers nationwide — zinnia, coreopsis and hollyhock — or plants that grow naturally throughout the U.S., such as pokeweed, goldenrod or elderberry.
Burgess' showstopper dye is a rich, vibrant magenta, derived from the berries of pokeweed (which, it should be noted, is toxic to ingest). You crush the berries, add water and vinegar, and follow instructions for preparing the yarn and submerging it in the dye.
Goldenrod produces a medium-yellow dye with undertones of fresh green.
"It's a traditional dye plant, very much part of historical harvest practices," she says. "It grows in open meadows, and it's like its name — it's showy."
The book is intended in part as a reference book for natural dyers, and there are many projects to choose from. Burgess, who gets about 10 emails a day from beginners, says some neophytes garden for a specific color, growing the plant themselves.
Those who don't have the room or the inclination to grow their own zinnias, coreopsis or hollyhocks can volunteer to deadhead their neighbors' plants, removing wilted blooms so new ones can grow.
Many plants, such as coreopsis, love it when you deadhead them, says Burgess. Your neighbors' hollyhocks and zinnias will be similarly appreciative.