Most people never give a thought to how a piece of clothing was given its color. Unfortunately, if you don’t, you could unknowingly expose yourself to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis. Fabric dyes are also a significant environmental concern, contributing to pollution — oftentimes in poorer countries with lax regulations on toxic chemicals to begin with.
Rebecca Burgess, author of “Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes,” has 15 years’ worth of experience in this area and is the executive director of Fibershed — a word she coined — which is a resource for creating safe, organic textile dyes.
“I started this work when I was taught to train young children in how to use dyes when I was in college,” Burgess says. “It was a textile art summer program [and] I was in charge of direct instruction for [a group of] 9-year-olds. It was a summer job. It exposed me to the arts and crafts side of textile dyeing … I was helping them use these compounds to color t-shirts.
We had to wear gloves. I had to wear a mask. People had to wear aprons. We couldn’t let the powder get in the air. We were so careful once we opened these jars of powder to not get it in our lungs or on our skin. The ingredients list wasn’t very clear.
The molecular breakdown of what was in the material wasn’t clear, but the producers of the dyes were asking anyone who uses them to be very careful with inhalation and exposure, especially skin exposure … A light bulb went off. ‘Why am I having children use a material that they have to wear masks and gloves [to use]?’ While we’re making the dye, we’re suited up.
And then we take the T-shirt out of the bucket. We rinse it a little, and then we put the T-shirt on our bodies. Somehow it’s OK to wear the stuff on your skin, but it’s not OK to touch the powder? There was a chasm between what seems like solid logic in what we were willing to expose ourselves to and why we were doing what we were doing.”
Plant-Based Versus Synthetic Dyes
At that time, 21 years ago, Burgess used the search engine of the time (Ask Jeeves) to inquire about alternative dyes and discovered you could use things like onion skins, cabbage and beets. Armed with onion skins, cabbages, beets and hand-harvested blackberriesand dandelion leaves, Burgess set to work learning how to create natural dyes.
“I just started bringing food-based products into our textile program. The kids started cutting up vegetables and putting it in pots of water, heating it up and making tie-dye T-shirts, but with cabbage, collard, onion, beets, blackberries and dandelion. And then we can take that fluid, cool it down, and then pour it back out on the lawn. It was tea essentially.”
Over time, Burgess discovered industrial dyes contain a number of fossil carbon-based chemicals known to be endocrine disruptors. A master’s thesis circulating around the UC Davis campus at the time pointed out that it took 400 pounds of coal tar to make a single ounce of blue dye. Interestingly, the first synthetic dye actually came about by accident.