If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the United States (feel free to reread that sentence). There’s a lot of attention directed towards remodeling our ghastly inefficient food system, and while a lot depends on large-scale change, there are opportunities for you to reclaim “waste” in your own kitchen.
Composting is probably the first option that comes to mind, which is all well and good. You should definitely do it. But many of your scraps have potential to become more than just additions to your community garden plot. A range of kitchen staples — including onion skins and avocado pits — have been used as natural dyes for hundreds of years. Harnessing their color is nothing new, and with a little training, easily achieved by us home cooks.
But where to begin? On Thursday, May 22, the Textile Arts Center will host STAINED: A Sensorial Experience of Natural Dyes. It’s the brainchild of textile artist Cara Piazza, who wanted to create a unique space where “the public [can] engage with natural dyes through the lens of experimentation, ritual and performance.” Beyond the natural dye fun, it’s also a fundraiser for the center’s Sewing Seeds program that “provides accessible, accurate and inspired information on natural dyes” via a Brooklyn-based natural dye garden, classes and artist residencies.
We caught up with Cara to learn more about the event, as well as the possibilities of natural dyes:
Edible Brooklyn: What was your inspiration for the event?
Cara Piazza: The idea for STAINED was born from my love of dinner parties, natural dyeing and my quest for challenging the way we interact sustainably while not compromising our want for luxurious and seductive experiences. My first foray into natural dyeing came from a workshop I took at my university; we had a guest lecturer who showed us how to naturally dye with just what we had in our cupboards. Being Italian and a serious food lover, I was instantly hooked.
I’m also a confessed brown thumb and a city dweller, so quickly realized that I could achieve the best results of natural color through using food scraps. Through these “waste” items, you can create something beautiful. Instead of chucking away parts of many common ingredients, (like onion skins and avocado pits) you can upcycle them into a spectrum of colors for clothing, interior wares and more. Wanting to showcase these skills, but not in a typical workshop format, STAINED was born.
Inspired also by Punch Drunk’s production of Sleep No More, I wanted to create a dining experience where each dinner is unique according to each participant’s imagination. The art of natural dyeing follows this theme as there are a variety of different factors that can affect your final outcome. As they interact with the utensils for dyeing, each of their experiences with the dye will be completely different from the next.
EB: Can you tell me a bit more about how you chose the ingredients for your menu?
CP: I wanted the tasting table to look like a Dutch still life painting, while serving edibles that are seasonal, local and work as natural dyes. I partnered with Nicole Asselin who is catering the event; she is an extremely talented natural dyer and all around renaissance woman. I also firmly believe that you shouldn’t use edible food for dyeing (there are plenty of people who could eat it), so it was important to me that only the byproducts, or what would typically be thrown away, would be used.
We also have black walnut shells, apple tree bark leaves and onion skins (people have also dyed Easter eggs using these throughout history), carrot tops, fennel tops (make a great green to yellow dye) and rhubarb leaves. We’re also using squid ink, which gives you such a rich deep black.
EB: What do color do those rhubarb leaves give you?
CP: What’s wonderful about natural dyes is that you can get a whole spectrum of colors from one dye stuff depending on what assists and vessel you use. Plant-based fibers take better to animal based dyes and visa-versa. Essentially, you need an assist, or something called a mordant that acts as a binder for dye matter to the fabric. For rhubarb leaves, you can get anything from an acidic green to a pale yellow.
EB: Let’s talk some more about the factors that can affect the color. Can you tell me a bit more about the different tools and techniques involved with the process?
CP: Natural dyes only take to natural fibers — so, all plant based fibers (like cotton, hemp and ramie) and animal based, like silks and wools. For the natural dye to stick to the fiber, you have to use a mordant; it is a naturally occurring chemical assist that allows the dyes to take to the material. You can even use things that you will find at the grocery store; alum, cream of tartar — the list goes on and on and on. Things like tea, egg yolk, iron (steel wool) all work, and it’s great that you can find them all in your convenience store.
What amazes me about natural dyes is that the process is similar to making fine wine or whiskey; the longer you take and the more care and love that you put into it, the longer lasting and special the final product will be. If you leave fabrics to mordant and age over time, then the garment will last longer, too. It’s a way to ensure longevity of your clothing and fabrics and create pieces that can become heirlooms.
Freyja wrap scarf: hand dyed silk with madder, iron sulphate and turmeric with an itajime shibori print.
EB: How do you suggest folks take care of items that have been naturally dyed?
CP: My rule of thumb is no dry cleaning (the chemicals are not good for the environment anyway) and stick to hand washing with eco detergents like Meyers or Dr. Bronner’s. The sun can also affect the color, in addition to the amount of times that you wash — that’s true of pretty much anything. You can put it in the dryer, but better to let air dry. Basically treat it like you would treat your lingerie, or a more delicate piece of clothing.
EB: Lastly, why natural dyes over synthetics?
CP: One of the factors you have to think about are the dye houses that create the color for the “fast fashion” industry. Chemical dye is a very harsh pollutant for the water sources around these plants, in addition to being really unhealthy for the workers and locals. Also, if you look at it from a holistic approach, if you wear a garment that was dyed with something chemical, and you sweat then it can seep into your skin — which is your largest organ.
And for me personally, natural dyes are just a more beautiful option. They give you a variety of colors that just look really beautiful together. A naturally dyed pink is going to look great next to a naturally dyed indigo, while with a chemical dye that mix can be quite visually abrasive. It’s just a personal thing.
Can’t make it to the event? The Textile Arts Center keeps a regular schedule of natural dye classes at both of the Manhattan and Brooklyn locations.
Photo credit: Adam Pape