“It all began with a kitchen disaster,” says local natural dye expert and workshop instructor Sophie Kanter. “I was cooking with turmeric and got it all over my shirt. I went to Google how to get rid of the stain and discovered a new world of natural dyeing.” Thus began Kanter’s journey into the slow-fashion movement and community of people using plants and food to add pigment to fabrics and make clothing with intention.
As Jews, we are always seeking to survive and flourish our community. This includes our responsibility to protect our earth for future generations. As activist Yossi Abramowitz notes, “There is no higher fulfillment of Jewish mission than to save the majesty of God’s creation.” Many Jewish values hold us accountable to protecting our planet. Tikkun olam (repairing the world), derech eretz (civility and humanity) and chesed (mercy and kindness) are three core values of our religion that lead us in practicing mitzvot towards our land, our food systems and each other.
For Kanter, protecting the planet comes from her work with natural dyes coupled with her religious connection to Judaism. She draws color from the natural world, using foraged plants from the local landscape along with food scraps like avocado pits to dye fabrics and develop a deeper understanding of sustainability.
When not working on her own creations, she leads workshops at The Lemon Collective in Washington, DC, a workshop space where the city’s creatives gather to teach and learn. Her monthly Dye Club is an event for anyone curious about dyeing with plants or looking to build community. “I wanted to make natural dyeing more accessible to people,” says Kanter. “My classes are community driven, a social experience where people come repeatedly every month, sometimes bringing in their own foraged items to experiment with!”
“Drawing color from the natural world is an ancient tradition,” she notes. “Before the 1850s, all clothing was naturally dyed and used as a way to communicate one’s location or status.” “It is an oral tradition with not much written down and no hard, fast rules.” In the natural-dye world people learn from each other.
Kanter first made connections with the textile community in San Francisco and upon moving to DC has grown the community here through her workshops and collaborations with like-minded businesses such as Lady Farmer, a local sustainable apparel company. “Finding other creatives is an anchor for the natural dye community,” says Kanter. Luckily for her, the DC Jewish food community is full of several young, entrepreneurial creatives who look to each other for guidance, support and inspiration.
Since summer is finally here and if you went to Jewish summer camp then you definitely have nostalgia for tie dye, Kanter has a few tips to get started in natural dyeing.
First off, the next Dye Club meets on Saturday, June 22. This no-experience required workshop is set up to introduce you to different dyes and techniques, including Japanese Indigo, natural dye and eco-printing. You can even bring some stained clothing to upcycle (the process of transforming waste materials or unwanted products into new ones) your wardrobe!
For beginners, Kanter recommends experimenting with foraged finds and remaining open to surprising results. Avocado pits, for example, produce a pink dye, while black walnuts dye fabrics chocolate brown. It’s important to prepare your fabric properly to get the best results. Since dyeing is a chemical process where the pigment bonds to the fabric you need to soak your materials with metal salts to create a bridge between the fabric and the dye.
Kanter likes to keep a “dye journal” where she documents all of her creations, using this as a resource for her own creative growth and sharing with others her successes and sometimes failures.
Natural dyeing takes time, practice and a lot of patience. Just like planting a tree for Tu B’Shevat or foraging sticks to build your sukkah, sustainable practices are lifestyle choices we make that have much larger impacts than just ourselves. So save those beet skins the next time you make borscht, and try your hand at creating a natural dyed challah cover for your next Shabbat.