“Plant dyed” is a term likely foreign to most. Why the use of plant based dyes is significant is perhaps even more elusive.
Before we discuss plant dyes, it is important to understand what they are a counterpoint to, synthetic dyes.
About Synthetic Dyes
The majority of the apparel items in your closet most likely were tinted conventionally with synthetic dyes. The global environment has faced extensive pollution at the hands of synthetic dyes due to their toxic and non-biodegradable nature. This pollution has detrimentally impacted waterways, soil fertility, crop production, and human health, across the globe, but particularly in Asia and Southeast Asia (Carvalho and Santos, 2015) - Textile Dyes: Dyeing Process and Environmental Impact
Chief among synthetic dyes that pose the greatest risks are Azo Dyes, which make up more than half of the dyes utilized in textile dyeing.
“Azo dyes, which account for 60 to 70 percent of all dyes in the industry, are responsible for setting high intensity hues, poppy reds in particular. But when broken down and metabolized, they are a known carcinogenic. And even if it seems like the color of our clothes and cancer couldn’t be less related, azo and other chemicals don’t dissipate, but evaporate into the air we breathe or are absorbed through the skin. At best, contact with dyed synthetics triggers allergic reactions, skin irritation, and rashes. At worst, it increases the risk of cancer” (LaRosse, 2017) - To Dye For: Textile Processing’s Global Impact
Water pollution, crop loss, cancer and other health related issues are a price that we at MBS deem unacceptable, particularly when considering the outcome : apparel items that will be worn only a handful of times before being discarded or forgotten.
A river in Wangli town in east China’s Zhejiang province is known as “red river” due to the high level of pollution from red dye in this October 31, 2011. (Photo by CFP)
About Plant Dyes
Plant dyes offer an opportunity to reconnect with process, avoid the use of toxic substances, source our dyes in meaningful ways, offer compelling colors unique to our collection, and imbue our garments with greater meaning for the wearer.
At MBS, the colors in our collection come from plant based sources that we then dye in-house, with our own team, in our Austin, TX based studio.
Forms of Plant Dye
- At MBS, we often dye with raw materials, such as wood shavings, fresh and dehydrated plants, avocado pits and skins.
- The use of raw materials is of benefit particularly when we are working with Zero Waste dye stuff. These dyes are the byproduct from local businesses, materials that happen to hold natural dye properties, but were not cultivated for that use, from places such as mills and food processors.
- Raw materials are also used when dyeing with the plants we cultivate, particularly during the research and development phase.
Osage Wood Dyed Linen in the Dye Bath, photo via our instagram
- Plant derived extracts, in both powder and liquid form. These extracts are composed entirely of the plant derived source material, but are delivered in a more refined and easy to dilute medium. These are beneficial particularly when utilizing dye stuff that is of high volume ratio of goods to weight of fabric, or would require extensive processing to prepare for the dye bath.
Cultivating Plant Dyes
The plants we are currently cultivating abide by Permaculture, a philosophy of working with the existing features of a property to model a farm after a natural ecosystem and allows farmers to:
- care for the land and people within a long-term-use plan;
- manage water flow to prevent flooding and mitigate against drought;
- use renewable resources and limit waste;
- choose planting and structure locations to conserve human energy. (Source, New Leaf/MRC Austin).
The cultivation we have partnered with the MRC and New Leaf for creates employment opportunities in agriculture for Austin’s refugee population on land approximately 20 miles East of our dye studio.
Miranda Bennett and Doli Wikongo harvesting Mexican Mint Marigold commissioned by MBS at New Leaf Farm, photo via MRC