Cornell Natural Dye Garden

Dr. Denise Green creates with a solution in mind.

Green, an assistant professor in the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design at Cornell University, began naturally dying fabrics almost four years ago, looking to make textile and apparel production more sustainable.

And just recently Green’s work was celebrated at New York Fashion Week when the Cornell Natural Dye studio collaborated with Sies Marjan for its fall collection. “The collaboration between Sies Marjan and the Cornell Natural Dye studio brought science, design, and sustainability together by drawing inspiration from the Guggenheim’s Rem Koolhaas exhibition, ‘Countryside, The Future’,” said Green.

The collaboration began with Green’s team supplying Sies Marjan creative director, Sander Lak and his team with imagery of the dye work created in the Natural Dye Studio. “We have explored so many different printing and dyeing techniques over the past five years — from contact-dyeing (bundling and eco-printing) to traditional vat dyeing — so, we showed Lak examples of our work and the range of colors we could achieve,” said Green. “We also explained how the hue, chroma, and value of potential colors will change depending on the dye technique, mordants used, pH of the dye bath, water quality and other variables.”

Sies Marjan silk

The Sies Marjan team working in the Natural Dye Studio.  Courtesy Image.

Though the natural dyeing process is complex, it offers many possibilities.

Lak’s vision and inspiration ultimately led Green to use a contact dye method known as eco-printing, or plant pounding, technique. Eco-printing extracts pigment from fresh foliage by using a rubber mallet to pound plants into the pre-mordanted fabric. The fabric is then steamed to fix the color.

To determine the right foliage for Sies Marjan, Lak provided Green’s team with his mood board and other inspirational imagery. Green then shared a suggested list of plants which was tested on Sies Marjan’s fabrics.

For the plant pounding process, a small team from Sies Marjan joined Green and Cornell Ph.D. student Kelsie Doty in the Natural Dye studio to pound herbs like sage, oregano and basil, but also Japanese Indigo and petals from roses, sunflowers, pincushions, amaryllis and dahlias, into 18 yards of silk fabric by hand.

The Sies Marjan team working in the Natural Dye Studio.

The Sies Marjan team working in the Natural Dye Studio.  Courtesy Image.

“Plant pounding is one of the least water-intensive natural dyeing techniques because we utilize the moisture of the plant and only need steam to fix the colors,” said Green. “The environmentally friendly approach to dyeing makes these textiles that much more special. We create delicate beauty and color while conserving water.”

Natural dye research is ongoing.

“Research about natural dyes is critically important because they have the potential to make textile and apparel production more sustainable,” said Green. “Natural dyes are a renewable and biodegradable alternative to synthetic dyes. We are able to create dye from diverted waste products of the agricultural, logging, and food service industries, which strengthens the potential for sustainable dyeing.”

The natural dye process can be used on other materials, too.

In the Natural Dye Studio, green has been experimenting with activewear fabrics for about four years. An avid hot yoga instructor herself, with an anthropology background, she began to notice that her fellow yogis were looking for more sustainable clothing options. The challenge, Green said, was how to develop a naturally dyed athleticwear fabric that would withstand repeated washing and wearing.

“Natural fibers, particularly cellulosic, are not ideal for activewear,” said Green. “With hot yoga comes a lot of sweat, so cellulosic fibers are not a viable option. I was challenged to develop natural dyeing techniques that could be used on synthetic fabrics optimized for athletic activities where the body moves and sweats — in other words, fabrics that are quick-drying, wicking, stretchy, strong, resilient and resistant to abrasion.”

And beyond natural dyeing and eco-friendly textiles, the life span of a garment’s construction and efficacy of the dye work should also be considered, for a garment to be truly sustainable.

“Thinking holistically about sustainability was important to me: creating a more environmentally friendly production technique is only sustainable if the fabric is made into a product that is reused many, many times,” said Green. “I wanted to create yoga clothing that could withstand repeated and frequent washing and wearing without fading or falling apart.”

Green’s first yoga outfit was given to a daily yoga practitioner who has worn it to more than 700 hours of hot yoga classes to date. The garments are machine-washed and dried after every class. And while the garments remained unsullied, the color has been affected over the three years of wear.

Cornell Naturally dyed activewear.

Naturally dyed yoga clothing from the Cornell Natural Dye Studio.  George Cannon

“It began as a bright and light yellow with orange undertones. Instead of fading, the color saddened to a burnt orange and became much darker in value, increasing the contrast of the pattern created by eco-printing the plant matter,” said Green. “Instead of fading, the garment becomes darker and more visually interesting with wear.”

And Green questioned, “Why do our clothes have to stay the same? If we are designing longevity into a garment, shouldn’t we also design for change?”

Further, Green says with the one constant in fashion being change, this color transformation could, in fact, be beneficial to a consumer who is always looking for something new. “I like the idea of clothing that changes with time and thus remains visually interesting,” said Green.

In order to make these activewear textiles as sustainable as possible, Green looks to source dye that could come from food waste and agricultural waste. For example, she has access to the Cornell dining hall to acquire yellow onion skins, red onion skins, carrot tops, coffee grinds, rinds, and avocado pits (a favorite because of the rose color it produces). Additionally, Cornell has instituted the Natural Dye Garden which grows coreopsis, Hopi dye sunflowers, Japanese indigo, madder and different varieties of indigo.

Cornell-naturally-dyed

Created in the Cornell Natural Dye Studio.  Courtesy Image.

While Green’s experiments have led to success, she said there is more research to be done, believing that there is the possibility to develop digital printing techniques that use pigments extracted from natural dyes. “Contact dyeing is one avenue, but I believe there are other possibilities to explore with the right investment in research.”

“In order for natural dyes to be financially, aesthetically, and functionally viable for the fashion industry, we need economies of scale,” said Green. “We need to develop large-scale industrial manufacturing processes if there is any chance for natural dyes to be widely adopted in the industry.”

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