Natural Dyes

We have been practicing the art and science of natural dyes for over ten years. Up until the 1860’s all textiles were dyed naturally. Synthetic dyes were created and were quicker and cheaper. Our demand for local and cheap has created a planet full of environmental hazards and dangerous work conditions for the most vulnerable people of the world. The movement of knowing where your clothing comes from is growing. Natural plant dyes make beautiful multi-dimensional color, colors that cannot be even closely replicated by synthetic dyes. We grow many of our dye plants and also harvest respectfully from nature. From goldenrod to purple basil to elderberry. There is a wealth of natural color available.

Why is this important?


Even with years of corporate social responsibility programs operated by the world’s largest clothing and textile manufacturers, the recent stats show that toxic fresh water effluent rose from 1.9 billion tons to 2.5 billion tons between 2006 and 2012 in Chinese fresh water tributaries, rivers, and streams. China manufactures 52% of the world’s textiles. Even with a new onslaught of ‘green’ and ‘eco’ friendly design being offered via large brands, the necessary improvements that would truly alleviate the massive scale of the problem remain to be seen within the supply chains of these companies.

  • After agriculture, the textile industry is the #1 polluter of fresh water resources on the planet.
  • Recent 2012 report: Textiles are the 3rd largest fresh water polluter in China, ranking above mining and petroleum refinement.
  • Microscopic plastic debris from washing clothing made of synthetic fibers is accumulating in the marine environment. Download a study on this important issue: Microplastic-Study
  • According to a recent year-long investigation of the world’s largest dye factories, alkylphenols and PFCs were found in toxic levels in China’s two major fresh water river deltas. These hormone disruptors are hazardous even at very low levels. Both chemicals are man-made substances that persist in the environment and can have potentially devastating effects as they accumulate up the food chain.
  • 2,000 synthetic chemicals on the marketplace are used to soften and process clothing after farming and dyeing processes are complete: The synthetic compounds used are attributed to a range of human disease—including chronic illness, auto-immune disfunction and cancer.
  • Even the most ‘eco-friendly’ synthetic dyes contain endocrine disrupters and the most commonly used dyes still contain heavy metals—such as cobalt, chrome, copper, and nickel in neurotoxic concentrations.
  • Labor is sought for cost first and foremost—not for quality—leading to massive exploitation and many unstable jobs.

In 1965, 95% of the clothing in a typical American’s closet was made in America, today less than 5% of our clothes are made here. Unfortunately, this huge movement of the industry was not done seeking higher standards of production, economic equity for laborers, or tight environmental regulation. It was done to circumvent the policies, unions, and costs associated with doing business on shore.

We have off-shored the effects of our consumption, which has led to a great disconnect of the actual environmental and social costs of our clothing. The Fibershed prototype wardrobe was a small yet crucial step towards towards defining a new textile paradigm, where ‘less-unsustainable’ is simply not enough. We know that only systems that are regenerative by nature will persist into the future.

Critics are quick to assume the Fibershed project is and will remain a fledgling concept that cannot scale to affordably clothe human communities. What is missing from these arguments is a working knowledge of community organizing, prototype development, replication, and ecological systems. Fibersheds are community driven projects, inherent in their creation is a slow, democratic, collaborative process. However, even in this ‘slow emerging culture,’ those of us developing the new fiber and dye systems are currently able to produce zero waste garments that produce zero toxic fresh water effluent, and have shrunk the carbon footprint by six times that of conventional garments. These prototypes were developed without the crucial equipment (solar powered mills), that are necessary to provide clothing at affordable prices. Our mills were shipped off shore more than 20 years ago, and it is our mission to return value-added processing to our community once more, to reduce prices of ‘farm-fresh fashion,’ secure local jobs, and provide 100% regenerative clothing to the community.

Sounds good, but is this prototype development scaleable?

Yes, but this is not your typical form of industrial capitalism — Fibershed systems rely on small scale production. Scaling production to the size it is now, is the heart of the problem, and places undo pressure on certain communities to procure the material needs for global populations. Our current goals are to build two solar powered, worker owned mills equipped with grey water systems. These mills would alleviate the bottleneck of production in our region and will serve as examples to communities in other regions for how to create regional and regenerative textiles. It is the sharing of knowledge, and the replicating of good ideas that build the scale we need to clothe human populations.  This is not the era of brittle monopolies, but the era of small, resilient, and flexible systems that not only mimic ecological systems, but truly benefit them.




5 thoughts on “Natural Dyes

    • Hi Cheryl,
      There are a couple of points to make about the differences is wool. firstly, sheep wool contains lanolin and alpaca does not. some people have lanolin sensitivities and that causes the itchiness. Secondly, any coarse wool will feel itchy no matter what type of animal it comes from. It is important when shearing animals to sort the wool for end use. I use my softest wool for processing in to yarn and set aside the coarser wool for felting etc. so that it does not end up in a garment worn close to the skin.


  1. Hi,
    I’m Textile Designer from Israel.
    I chose to work only with natural materials, especially with new eco fibers like Bamboo and Soy.
    Most of my items are handmade.
    I’m looking for new yarns, like wool and I’ll be happy to know if you also sell wholesale?
    If so ,what is the minimum amount? And prices?
    Likewise I’ll be happy to understand more about “Maine Fibershed Affiliate”
    Thank you
    TOOSHA – Eco Textile Design


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s