Transforming weeds, kitchen scraps and other natural elements into a rainbow of textile dyes is a concept as old as civilization itself, with dye vats dating to as early as 2000 BC.
Now, these homemade pigments — some long abandoned in favor of more startling chemical dyes — are being rediscovered in kitchens and studios around the world.
"There's been a huge rise in interest over the last two or three years," said Sasha Duerr, author of "The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes" (Timber Press, 2011), who teaches natural dye techniques and has founded the Permacouture Institute, which promotes sustainable textiles. "There's a lot we have to revisit and learn."
Yoshiko Wada, who has produced films about natural dyes and led dye tours to France, India and Japan, said much of the appeal is that "the process slows us down and reconnects us to the environment."
At a time when focus is returning to locally produced goods, these sustainable natural colors reflect their surroundings. The soft welcoming blues of painted shutters in the south of France are from indigo. The golden yellows of Provence are of ochre. And from the American desert Southwest, those dazzling reds and fuchsias are made from cochineal, a parasite that lives on cactus.
"I try to stay open and think of colors when I look around me. I collect lots of different things, like Osage orange, pecans and walnuts, onions and pomegranates," said Maura Ambrose, who makes hand-stitched quilts of naturally dyed fabrics in her Folk Fibers studio in Austin, Texas.
Onion skins (yellows), walnut hulls (browns), avocado peels and pits (pale pink), marigolds (yellows), sumac leaves (brown), mushrooms and lichens (with their rainbow of possibilities), cochineal (fuchsias and reds) and madder root (oranges and reds) are traditional favorites. Coffee grounds and old tea bags also are great for shades of tan and brown. Nettle yields greenish tints.