Filled with mismatched jars and containers, plant clippings and even two lounging resident felines, the workshop of Astoria artist Iris Sullivan Daire looks like the lab of a mad scientist.
She slips on oversized rubber, pigment-stained gloves and plunges her hands into a large mystery vat of liquid. The scrap fabric she pulls out of the pot shape-shifts from yellow-green to blue in front of her eyes.
“It’s magic,” she said.
The mystifying effect isn’t new, it’s been around for about 4,000 years. It’s the oxidation process that happens when fibers are removed from an indigo dying vat, the same plant people used to tint clothes in ancient India, East Asia and Egypt.
Living in a world where most textiles are now dyed with synthetics, Sullivan Daire has become a master of using her natural elements to create color. She’s passionate about sharing the techniques with others and will be offering classes at the Sou’Wester Arts & Ecology Center in Seaview, Washington, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 16.
Many of the supplies for the classes will come from her own garden, where she grows 15 different plants to create pigments. What she can’t get from her own land, she forages for during her daily walks. Her local favorites are fireweed, red alder and sitka spruce.
“Red alder is the one that is dominant here,” she said. “You can use the cones to dye with, the leaves to dye with and you can use the bark off of your firewood to dye with.”
She said she’s most excited to teach after-school programs at the Sou’Wester, eager for the opportunity to teach kids that every color of the rainbow can be created from just three different plants. The classes will be held three days a week for three weeks.
“If you get exposed to it, it’s totally exciting,” she said.
Sullivan Daire served as a nature guide in college and feels her workshops are essentially guiding young students through nature in a different way. She plans to focus her lesson plans on a new color each week, and give her class hands-on experience to create something of their own.
She’ll also be hosting Saturday natural dying classes at the Sou’Wester for students 12 and older. The weekend workshops will cover everything from indigo dying, flower printing on silk pillowcases and eco-printing tablecloths.
The workshop series comes at a time when many people are becoming more aware of where their clothes come from. According to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile production pollutes water and generates more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The dying industry uses more than 8,000 chemicals and many, including sulfur, arsenic and formaldehyde are harmful to human health.
Sullivan Daire only uses non-toxic natural dyes.
She believes introducing people to more sustainable alternatives like natural dying can make a big difference in attitude. She doesn’t believe in shaming people for past purchases.
“Just having one textile that you know the source of, that’s meaningful to you and enriches your life in huge ways, that’s the sort of experience that encourages people to seek that out more,” she said. “I’d rather do that than just telling people ‘everything in your closet is bad and wrong, you’re bad and wrong for having bought these things.’”