Less than two decades ago, the idea of a food-traceable agriculture movement was niche. Today, farm-to-table has changed the way we, as a society, relate to our food. Adjunct Faculty Member in Environmental Humanities, Prin van Gulden, feels sustainable textiles are poised to be the next shift in our cultural behavior.

One area to focus on when shifting to more sustainable textile systems is the colors of those fabrics we use every day. So what goes into the process when you use natural dyes?

natural dyesIt all starts with a mordant. Natural dyes will not adhere to fibers without the use of a mordant. Without these mineral salts like iron or alum, the dye will wash out or fade. In some instances, like skeins of yarn, the entire piece is immersed. In pieces with more localized areas of color, the process is more complex. Using wood or foam stamps to block print seems simple enough, but mordants operate like invisible ink which creates a whole new level of intricacy.

Now let’s talk about dyes. Natural dyes are derived from plants, invertebrates, and minerals. In the course Natural Dyes and Dyeing students used some purchased dyes but mostly dyes grown here at Sterling, in Prin’s home garden or wild harvested from nearby fields. The blues were sourced from Japanese indigo. Reds stemmed from the insect cochineal and the roots of the madder plant. Yellows came from weld and goldenrod and browns from walnut. The list is extensive. While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all the options, it’s also easy to get excited about the divergence from petroleum-based, water-polluting, chemically-intensive production.

Much like the farm-to-table movement repositioned farmers and food producers as culinary artisans, the relocalization of the textile supply chain carries with it a reemergence of skilled craftspeople. With that, let’s walk through the students’ work resulting from the Natural Dyes and Dyeing class and their artist statements.


I could listen to Indigo tell me stories for hours. My favorite one that she repeats often is about the creation of galaxies. Coppery-gold flecks of unknown substance dance around in the vat, joining, separating, swirling. Indigo told me she thinks our whole universe is just one of those flecks, who knows what the rest are? – Gannon Walsh

From interacting with native dye and food plants alike in a manner that carries reciprocity; to conversations surrounding colonization’s effects on traditional knowledge; and finally to a journey with acorns as a food source, dye source, and cultural focal point. – Erika Wolf

Some pieces are, quite literally, a bit rough around the edges. Every blemish on the cloth is something that I didn’t know. Even in later works, there are still plenty of places where I learned something new about the techniques I was using. It was hard for me to accept these pieces for how they are, but in the end I think the occasional mistakes are as important as they are unavoidable. – Paige Harris

I think printing is an interesting and exciting medium and enjoyed expressing imagery of important resources that sustain and nourish us. – Gabe Rogers

My love of the natural world is what brought me to Sterling and I carry it with me into each of my classes to guide and inspire my learning and creativity. – Zenaide McCarthy

I like to do things slowly. A pace thick with intention and forethought. Time spent with ideas before they turn to plans, and then actions. This class challenged that and asked me to work more quickly. -Julien Wilder



My intentions going into this were to make pieces that meant something to me, or things that I could make for my friends back home. I know some of my things are politically charged, and I know some folks aren’t going to vibe with them, but please be polite and leave them be. These were made with heavy emotions and thoughts I have had my whole life. The system will continue to be unfair unless we fight it! – Elyssa Short

The series of block prints were carved from balsa, a soft wood that is easily cut with an exacto knife and resembles a sponge while dipping into the mordant liquid. Each block pattern is composed of stark geometric shapes and/or finer lined patterns that transform depending on the orientation of the block. Each of my dyed pieces embrace imperfection and unevenness yet strive to achieve striking colors. -Antonia Cristofaro-Hark

Fiber reacts to soap, to mordant, mordant reacts to pigment, pigment to time and temperature, I react to color and texture. My work is a reflection of this experimentation, this conversation with the many elements of the dye process. I’ve felt amazed, frustrated, disappointed, and in love with each step of this process. This work is some of all of that. – Sadie Stock

In the five week Natural Dyes class, I got the opportunity to learn about the many ways humans have been, historically and still today dyeing using plants and minerals found locally. We got to harvest, dry or ferment and use them to dye wool skeins and cotton fabrics with different mordanting techniques and styles of vats. Simple block prints with soft pale colors have been a beginners introduction to the requirements of skill and practice used to make fine Machilipatnam style kalamkari art with block carving and printing. – Prathana Shrestha

Along with the beautiful color produced by madder root, weld, and black walnut the plants carry their own array of medicinal effects. I was enchanted by the opportunity to engage with these qualities in the form of clothing and linens, allowing for skin to herb contact. For this reason I chose pieces that engage the user with an intimate connection with the fiber i.e. panties, masks, pillowcases, long johns etc. – Charlotte Feinberg

Filed Under: Blog Environmental Humanities

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