Avocado pits create a dye that ranges from bright bubblegum pink to light pastel pink. Eucalyptus leaves make a deep orange color that Sophie Kanter says is “absolutely beautiful.”
Kanter, a 33-year-old pastry chef turned school teacher, spends her spare time teaching others the art of natural dyeing. She extracts her dyes from supermarket produce and from the plants she forages from local parks, and uses them to decorate shirts, scarves and other fabrics.
“The reason why I like it is because there is a science to it, and [dyeing] is understandable from a chemical perspective [as well as] an experimental and tactile perspective,” says Kanter, who lives in Adams Morgan.
Her interest in dyes began about four years ago, while she was cooking. She spilled bright yellow turmeric on her brand-new white shirt and went online to find a way to get rid of the stain. Instead, she found articles about how people use turmeric as a dye.
“It was interesting. I started dyeing all the white clothes in my closet, with all sorts of things,” she says. “I was living in California and had lots of dye plants growing in the neighborhood.”
Kanter began to experiment with the plants, finding out which ones made good dyes and which did not. She took classes, met with dye experts and even collaborated with a seamstress. Then she moved to Washington, where she found a desire for a new kind of arts class.
“It can be a little hard to find creative stuff in the D.C. area sometimes,” she says. “The nature of D.C. makes it a little hard for artists to exist within that space. [But] I think there’s a real craving for it.”
And that’s how she ended up joining the Lemon Collective, a space for artists to hold workshops and classes, so she could teach others the basics of natural dyeing.
Kanter’s own Dye Club DC meets once a month.
Students use dyes and techniques, like the Japanese art of shibori, to create patterns. Dyeing is a way to upcycle old clothing, she explains. By adding designs and colors to old shirts, they “become new again,” she says, which reduces the need to buy new clothes.
She’s only upcycled one fifth of her own wardrobe with natural dye, she says. Adams Morgan doesn’t have a good space for dyeing her clothes and most natural dyes fade over time. And her job as an assistant teacher keeps her too busy to try out new techniques on her own.
She loves to share her knowledge. But she says her favorite part of dyeing is foraging for plants. She keeps a list of them in her phone, and goes to local parks to see what she can find.
And there’s always a surprise.
“It’s just so much fun to kind of tap into the season and see what’s growing. It’s magical because it’s unpredictable,” Kanter says, explaining that the color you get from a plant can vary depending on the time of year and how much rain has fallen.
Certain dyes, like indigo, are longer lasting than others. And certain foods, though they stain, don’t make for good dyes. She never uses beets in her work, for example. Or turmeric, even though that’s what started it all.
She hopes to meet another artist to collaborate with on clothing design, and eventually design decorations for special occasions, like weddings. There are so many possibilities that it’s an art she’s willing to dye for.
“I could probably do this for my whole life and never get bored of it,” she says. “There are so many possibilities. I can go to different regions around the country and the world and find new things. Everyone has a different technique and different way of doing things. There’s no gospel. It’s an endless world.”