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seaside day of natural dyes

Posted on Jan 4, 2011 by in natural dyes | 2 comments

The spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore was the setting for a natural dyes event on January 3rd, organized by Rebecca Burgess, teacher, writer, and founder of the Fibershed Project. After weeks of rainy weather, the sun shone brightly on our gathering of Fibershed artisans, supporters and farmers.

Fibershed artisans, supporters and farmers gather for a seaside day of natural dyes.

We began the day with a fire starting ceremony led by Jay Sliwa and Katharine Jolda, and soon Rebecca’s beautiful antique copper pots were simmering away.

fire starting with a bow drill

embers created by the bow drill are placed in some tinder and then blown on by participants

the burning tinder is used to start the fires

Once the fires were burning, the dye baths were heated. One of the copper pots contained the leaves of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), and the other contained California sagebrush (Artemisia californica). A stainless steel pot was filled with seawater for a natural mordant bath. (I want to experiment further with using seawater as a mordant, and use a stainless steel pot for the dye bath, rather than a copper one, since the copper of the pot can act as a mordant too. Plus, the toyon leaves contain quite a bit of tannin, which can also bind color to cloth or yarn, so that’s another factor to consider.)

After soaking Toyon leaves in water for several days, Rebecca pours the liquid into a copper pot to put on the fire. In the foreground is California sagebrush for a second dye bath.

dye bath of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

California sagebrush dye bath beginning to heat on the fire

wool and silk being mordanted in a pot of seawater

While the dye baths were heating up, Rebecca gave a demo on using kelp and stones from the beach for shibori techniques.

Rebecca demonstrates seaside shibori, while modeling the latest addition to her Fibershed wardrobe, some lovely hand knit leggings and socks.

participants working on shibori projects using kelp and beach stones

The Toyon dye bath produced some spectacular results, and we hung the pieces to dry on a beautiful structure that some of the participants built using driftwood and kelp.

samples of wool and silk dyed with Toyon leaves hang to dry on a driftwood structure built by participants

Samples of wool and silk that I dyed in the Toyon dye bath. The two skeins on the left are mordanted with alum; the piece of silk and the skein on the right are mordanted with seawater.

The California sage dye bath took a long time to yield color, so not many pieces were dyed. I brought home one skein that I had previously dyed a pale green with Omphalotus olivascens, and over dyed with California sagebrush to produce an unusual chartreuse. This is a plant I intend to experiment with further.

The day was memorable for the feeling of community, the new connections made, and the excitement of working with natural dyes such an incredibly beautiful environment. I look forward to more events of this nature as the community grows and flourishes.

beautiful rock formations at the Point Reyes National Seashore

For more photos and details of the event, you can visit the blogs of Rebecca Burgess and Molly de Vries.


  1. Hi

    I am looking into using seawater as a mordant – have you any hints to offer please? Are the colours paler than with alum? Are they as colourfast? How long should I presoak the fibre in seawater? – do you heat it?



    • Hi Joan,

      The two times I have used seawater as a mordant, I have heated the water and kept it at a low simmer for about an hour. My experience so far is limited, but I would say that the colors are paler than with alum. My teacher and friend, Rebecca, has done quite a bit of work with seawater, and has been very pleased with the colors and lightfastness achieved. I plan to experiment further and will post results at some point. Good luck, and let me know what you discover.