The Possible textile artist Sasha Duerr has been spending time in the BAM/PFA galleries, experimenting with dye plants found in the surrounding neighborhoods, conducting class sessions with her students from the California College of the Arts, and participating in a natural dye workshop and panel discussion. Duerr, who founded the Permacouture Institute in San Francisco and London to promote sustainable practices in the textile and fashion industry, is the author of The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes and has been quoted in recent, widely published feature articles examining the resurgence of interest in natural, local dyes. As an educator, she has worked with children in the Edible Schoolyard Project, and she regularly partners with other local and international organizations to raise awareness of the issues associated with overconsumption and to promote regenerative design. She spoke to us about her practice in general and her participation in The Possible.
One visualization of your practice is the beautiful color wheel you’ve created, which illustrates the plant dyes available throughout the year in San Francisco, which is for sale in the Museum Store. Can you tell me about this project?
The seasonal color wheel is a tool that helps people visualize the alchemy of a place. It illustrates the notion of color as an active rather that static component. I’ve just completed a Los Angeles color wheel, and I’ll be working on wheels for London and New York, as well. The wheel indicates what plants make sense for where you live and when you can find them: succulents in Los Angeles, golden rod and birch trees in New England, browns and yellows in Hawai’i, which can be very surprising.
No favorite season; I love the entire process. Winter is great here, because it’s green. I get excited when it’s pomegranate season. And now the sour grass is out. Like with grapes and wine, there are good years and less good years for plants like pomegranates and olives.
Tell me about your background and how you came to work in natural plant-based dyes.
I grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Maine. When my parents got burnt out on the weather, we moved to Hawai’i. Both cultures are dependent on plants. I did environmental studies in college, where I began to see a connection between chemical processes and art, and also a connection between fashion and food. I became interested in color and botany and medicinal studies … it’s all related, and I learned to work in an interdisciplinary way. I’ve collaborated with chefs and with botanic gardens, for example.
Can you talk about the basic process for making dyes from plants?
There’s a lot of hard research involved, using books, papers, and old texts. A lot of the existing research is dormant; you’ll find a tidbit of information that indicates that a particular plant was used for a particular color. Then there’s the hands-on research. First, make sure the plant is not toxic. If you don’t know what plant it is, you’ll have to properly identify it. There are standard methods for extracting color, like brewing a tea, for example. Then you’ll want to test the dye on various fibers. You can develop your own palette by experimenting with the colors over time. In California, we’re using combinations of plants that may never have been combined before, as nature is evolving. We’re creating contemporary colors.
From your perspective working with natural dyes and fibers, what would it take for these practices to be embraced and adapted on a large scale by the fashion industry?
This is the moment for the movement to take hold. We know a lot more than we did at the time of the earlier resurgence in natural dye techniques in the 1970s. We know more about toxins, so it’s a lot safer now. Awareness is building, and the conversation is beginning. A lot of big companies are signing detox treaties now. Not all plant dyes lend themselves to a large-scale model—but the current business model is unstable, and we’ll be seeing differences in the next decade. New technology will need to come into play. We’ll have to think about labor and how things are created. And maybe people will just have to have fewer things.
Different people will participate in different ways. Like with food: some people will become chefs, some people will cook their own meals, and some people will get take-out. Sustainability is about diversity. There’s not just one model, that’s not realistic. That’s part of being an artist. People will have to care about the role they’re playing.
Tell me about your experience so far with The Possible.
It’s been wonderful to bring the plant dyeing community together in one place, to watch all of the experimenting by artists who don’t typically work in this way, and to see how plant dyeing might relate to ceramics or printing. I’m learning things every day. It’s going to be sad not to have this exhibition here in a couple of months. My CCA students will present their final projects at BAM/PFA, and they are doing papers using the exhibition and The Possible library. One combination we experimented with is sour grass, which grows around the museum, and indigo (a vat of which—grown just north of San Francisco—has been fermenting in the galleries as part of The Possible).