(Style)

Can Plant-Dyed Clothes Help Fashion Become A More Sustainable Industry?

Hop on the botanical bandwagon.

abacaxi/KZ_K Studio/Shutterstock

There’s an Earth-friendly renaissance happening in fashion right now. As brands seek out ways to become more sustainable — beyond the use of creating items with recycled plastic water bottles, for example — one path forward to an eco-friendly future is to embrace plant-dyed clothing.

Plant-dyed clothing is exactly what it sounds like; it involves dyeing clothes with plant-based solutions. More specifically, plant-dyeing uses liquid forms of foliage, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and flowers to imbue color into fabrics. Textile experts, fashion designers, and hobbyists say these natural dyes are more sustainable than manmade ones because they are less likely to be toxic — a basis behind the larger concept of regenerative agriculture that fashion has been embracing as of late.

Since the plant-dyeing process uses organically occurring resources from Earth, the clothes are, well, natural, and therefore also capable of biodegrading more easily compared to those made with chemically produced materials that contain toxic compounds like bisphenol A (BPA). According to Sandra Sider, a textile expert and lecturer at Parsons School of Design, “Synthetic dyes do not [always] bind to the fibers and, in most of the world, are released as wastewater that is aesthetically repugnant and full of toxic chemicals.” Since plant dyes can only be used on natural fibers (the technology to use them on synthetic materials like recycled polyester is still developing), she believes that further normalizing the use of plant dyes will encourage textile designers to focus more on employing those materials and effect a new level of sustainable change.

Despite words like “sustainability” and “circularity” becoming the buzziest buzzword among fashion peeps today, Sider confirms that only a small fraction of textiles today are dyed from plants. Those textiles seem to come mostly from small producers with concern for the environment. For them, the use of plant dyes in conjunction with organically farmed materials is ideal because the process factors in emissions, biodegradability, toxicities, workers’ rights, and water waste — all of which are key concerns that make up the true definition of sustainability.

At AWAVEAWAKE, founder Jaclyn Hodes has exclusively used natural materials since she founded her brand a decade ago. She recalls to TZR that she found inspiration in plant-dyeing methods when she studied them as a graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. At the time, “There were next to no options for conscious clothing,” she says. Though, “the concept of color being chemically synthetic and being everywhere [was overwhelming to think about].” In developing the line, she researched an array of materials under the sustainable umbrella and settled on silk and cotton. Today, she mainly relies on leaf-based dyes from Bali, where she currently resides to oversee production for her collections.

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Meanwhile, Sheena Sood uses indigo dye from Mexico, India, and Indonesia to color many cotton, silk, and linen pieces in the collections of her fashion label abacaxi. “In Indonesia, they use the fresh indigo leaves and ferment them to create the dye bath, [a solution that] can be saved and continuously re-used for several years,” the designer explains on her website.

For brighter shades, she forms a dye from turmeric to use on clothes, a method that she’s shared in a video on TikTok for committed DIYers.

For Spring/Summer 2022, she designed a four-color, handloom weave from plant dyes. The process consisted of dyeing yarn with four colors and customizing a striped pattern on a handloom, an instrument used to weave clothes manually, without the aid of electric power. For this desired effect, Sood used wedelia foliage to make a green hue, tecoma flowers to create the color yellow, vembadam bark for a shade of purple, and butterfly pea flowers for a blue tone — the last of which is best known by holistic health enthusiasts for its antioxidants and healing properties.

The process of using plants to dye clothing, however, is hardly new. Thousands of years ago, textile production followed a similar model to food foraging. People hunted and gathered the materials needed — plants, animals, and minerals — to dye their fabrics that they would then spin into garments. The earliest plant-dyed textile known is ancient — a woven cotton fragment that was discovered in Peru in 2016. It is dyed with indigo and dates back roughly 6,000 years, which perhaps makes sense, as the color’s name derives from the ancient Greek word for “India,” where indigo dyeing may have originated in the East. Through colonization, plant-dyed clothing methods spread to western civilization, with different cultures adapting their practices to the flora that was local to them. The Japanese, for example, invented the technique of shibori, while Malians use a special type of mud to color their cloth.

Sood, whose Indian-American roots have clearly informed abacaxi’s ethos given her use of cheerful colors, handcrafted techniques, and relaxed silhouettes, feels that Earth-born fabrics and dyes can make a difference in one’s physical health. Turmeric is a key component of traditional Ayurveda, an ancient holistic medicine practice from India, for its anti-inflammatory properties. When infused into the material, it becomes “a healing cloth,” says Sood. “What you put on your body makes a difference in the same way that what you put into you stomach affects your health.” Indeed, it’s an unfussy alternative to oral supplements and face masks — two common contrivances of holistic health and skin care routines. Synthetic dyes containing toxic chemicals, by contrast, are proven endocrine disruptors. BPA, for example, can mimic estrogen to interact with the hormone’s receptors in the body — a reaction that can cause cancer. (And despite its botanical origin, indigo, too, can be toxic when synthesized, Sider cautions.)

When it came to founding her clothing label, Kelly Shanahan of Ziran also looked to her Chinese heritage for inspiration, which led her to plant-dyeing. She uses Xiang-yun-shã silk, a material that comes from a single southern Chinese village along the Pearl River and dates back in history to at least the Ming Dynasty. Once the silk is woven, it’s coated with iron-rich mud from the river, then it’s dyed with vegetable yam juice on a farm.

As Shanahan explains it, there’s a chemical reaction between the iron and the tannins of the juice that transforms the silk. In its finished state, she says “Xiang-yun-shã boasts wrinkle-resistance, super softness, and antimicrobial properties” (though the last is disputed amongst scientists and textile experts). The process is just as special to her as the end result because it’s made in nature rather than with a series of chemically distilled, plant-based solutions and tap water.

The use of organic materials is critically important to many of these designers — using anything but would undercut the positive environmental effects of plant dyes. Designer Karolina Zmarlak of KZ_K Studio uses organic cotton for her knits colored with rooibos tea, red turnip, blueberry, coffee bean, and matcha dyes. She sources the material from Food Textile, a manufacturer that extracts dyes from food waste. And a fairly new development at abacaxi is that Sood will be working with a cooperative in India, called Oshadi, that farms organic cotton and dyes materials using local flowers and barks rather than sourcing these services separately. Meanwhile, Hodes has employed Indonesian weavers who use organic cotton yarn to accompany her seasonal assortments of silk garments.

Producing less is another obvious way to help the environment, which is almost innate in the plant-dyed clothing manufacturing process. Sood says she makes 30 pieces per style on average (though that number is slated to increase slightly in working with Oshadi), while Lia Kes says she produces 20 to 100 plant-dyed pieces per design for her eco-focused, eponymous clothing brand, Kes NYC.

Shanahan keeps limited stock, otherwise boasting a made-to-order model to keep production optimized and waste low. “Sometimes I can only get 15 to 30 yards [of plant-dyed fabric] total, which is like 10 shirts,” she explains. It may happen that nine customers will demand mediums, which she can make upon request. Still, Shanahan believes that if necessary, plant dyeing could take place on a larger scale, within reason. “It’s just limited by time because it takes so long to make it and it’s handmade. So, it could never be like a [mass production] situation, but there could be boutiques all over the world that will sell it.”

Araks

Of course, handmade, plant-dyed clothing could be the answer to fashion’s conundrum; producing nontoxic, biodegradable clothing in smaller numbers could have the most positive effect on the environment. And even for those who are most concerned with their profit margins, some would say brands’ efforts to go organic are merely an overture of what’s to come, especially when their ethos so intelligibly speaks to the ever-blossoming Generation Z shopper.

According to a 2019 study called Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail, the majority of the generation’s consumers prefer to buy sustainable brands, and they are more willing to spend 10% more money on sustainable products than any other adult generation. The report also found that zoomers, along with millennials, are the most likely to make purchase decisions based on personal, social, and environmental values and principles. A follow-up report, too, which surveyed respondents in 2021, showed that they’re influencing the older generations to place more importance on sustainability in their purchasing decisions.

To do their part, Kes and Zmarlak say they put much effort into crafting pieces with longevity in mind. Essentially, one might fancy them the Donna Karans of sustainable clothing; they pride themselves on creating functional daywear with ample possibilities for mixing and matching.

“Designing into lifestyle is probably the most critical thing that you could do [in terms of] sustainability,” says Kes, who dyed silks with weld and logwood for Spring/Summer 2022 and with indigo for a collaboration with artist Zaria Forman. Zmarlak, who has previously experimented with washable leathers and reversible fabrics, likewise says she keeps her focus on convertibility and wearability in her small production runs. While this season was her first foray into plant-dyeing, she sees the venture as a natural next step to producing garments with the smallest footprint possible.

Still, the plant-dyeing process doesn’t quite yield cookie-cutter results, as there are often color inconsistencies in the sampling and production phases. “Today we spent half an hour on FaceTime [with my dyer, Cara Marie Piazza] figuring out what we’re doing because what we want didn’t happen the way we wanted it to happen,” says Kes. It’s really trial and error, most of the designers conceded in their interviews to TZR, so being flexible with a creative vision is important.

Hodes, who has loved the idea of incorporating prints into her designs, has made such adjustments. To forge some of her prints, “[the dyes] have to take form as a pattern woven in the material,” she explains. Otherwise, she’s limited to solids, batik, and block printing to keep the collection entirely plant-dyed.

That said, plant-dyed garments are often considered one of a kind. Because they’re hand-dyed, the uniformity one would expect from the machinery used in mass production processes is impossible to achieve. The result: a sort of patina for plant-dyed clothes.

“Every dye and every fabric and every batch respond a bit differently,” Kes shares. This may have to do with hard-to-control elements like water, even from various places within the same city, which are prone to changing the chemical composition of fabrics with natural dye extracts. According to Piazza, elements like the pH level, temperature, and mineral content of the water can affect the color of the dye. This aspect of the trade can be particularly frustrating for Shanahan, given her producer’s reliance on outdoor elements. “You can’t even make the same thing twice because it’s all so dependent on Mother Earth, which can be frustrating for me [when a print did really well],” she says. Furthermore, Xiang-yun-shã silk can only be made from May to August, when the climate is the most dry in China, because part of the process requires the dyes setting on the fabric with sunlight.

To turn back briefly to aesthetics, plant dyes allow for a very vibrant palette of shades — a big attraction to those who love color. “Natural dyes are like oil paints; they are rich and have so much depth,” says Araks Yeramyan, founder of luxury lingerie and swimwear brand Araks (it offers a capsule collection of plant-dyed linen sleepwear). “The choices are limited, but when you get the color you love, it is magic. Sometimes, I feel like the colors glow.” Hodes has a phrase for the visual effect that Yeramyan expresses: “I often describe it as ‘living color’ because it is from something that was very much alive, and so it has an added resonance.”

One might say this inherent luminosity speaks to the pureness of the brands practicing plant-dyeing. For those who commit to the process, Kes believes, transparency is already one of their key values. “I just can't separate [who I am from my environment and my community]. ... The values come before the need to sell.”