Chromatic Geography

June 8 – August 26, 2017

Craft Ontario Gallery
1106 Queen St. W., Toronto

Chromatic Geography: Natural Dyes in the 21st Century
Opening Reception, Thursday, June 8, 6 – 9 pm
Panel Discussion, Friday, June 9, 5 - 6 pm
Craft Ontario Gallery
1106 Queen St. W., Toronto

For the majority of human history, all colour used by designers, artists and craftsmen has been obtained from natural sources. Dyes were solely derived from plants, insects and minerals, with many that were difficult to source and process, making them highly prized commodities. After a glory period for natural dyes during the early industrial revolution, which produced beautifully coloured and patterned textiles, the advent of synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century caused natural dyes to fall into disuse.

Today, interest in natural dyes is undergoing a global revival, fueled by a growing awareness of the harmful by-products of the industrial dye process, and a greater understanding of the environmental issues relating to textile production. A new generation of environmentally conscious artists and designers are exploring the use of natural dyes while re-examining regional production, often within the context of a “DIY” approach to life and work. Bioregionalism as an expression of a sense of place and cultural origin is a dominant theme, and is exemplified by the use of local dyes and traditional techniques. The rise of the local is also motivated by a desire to revive post-industrial economies and local, small-scale industries such as dyestuff and fibre cultivation. Moreover, science and innovation in commercial applications of natural colour belie dismissive misconceptions about larger-scale applications.

Chromatic Geography examines these new trends, and presents a diversity of approaches to the use of natural dyes, from scientific research and raw material development, to innovative, contemporary applications in craft, fashion, design and art, with personal approaches to materials and aesthetics.

Laura Sansone will join us for the opening reception from New York with her Mobile Textile Lab, demonstrating how to extract natural dye colour from plants. These dye solutions will then become part of the Chromatic Geography exhibition, providing a solar dye system in the front window of the gallery for the duration of the exhibition.  As well, a member of Upper Canada Fibreshed will be in the gallery demonstrating hand spinning, using Ontario-grown fleece dyed with natural dyes.

Please also see the below exciting roster of workshops being hosted by the Contemporary Textile Studio Co-op...don't miss the opportunity to get hands-on experience with natural dyes!

Chromatic Geography is curated by Rachel MacHenry and Thea Haines, with the work of:


BioDye is a natural dye facility located in central India. Bringing together contemporary environmental thinking, scientific methodology and research into the historic record, BioDye has developed a fully integrated closed-loop natural dye system. Plant waste from the dye process is composted and supports the next generation of dye plants, while dye and mordant water is filtered and used to irrigate the fields. BioDye works with local women’s groups who sustainably gather regional dye plants, and also partners with farmers to support the reintroduction of indigo as part of crop rotation farming methods. BioDye colours are light and wash fast and are currently being used in textile collections for both interior and fashion textiles.

Liam Blackburn

My recent work uses natural dyeing to investigate location, season and biodiversity. The 52 Walks Project explores specificity of place and time through a year-long weekly natural dye practice. Foraged materials from weekly journeys are used as dyestuff, and consequently create a changing palette of colours that come to represent both the slow progression through the seasons and the diversity of flora surviving in an environment often conceived of as being entirely urban. A consistent methodology was used across all of the dye sessions, creating a series of samples that are specific to process as well as location and time frame. It may be of interest to note that wash and light-fastness of the dye samples is not of concern to the scope of the project.

Studio Blond & Beiber

Essi Johanna Glomb and Rasa Weber are Blond & Bieber, a Berlin-based design studio. Blond & Bieber is a cooperative endeavor operating at the border between textile and product design. By means of concept, experiment and a strong visual approach the duo (though educated as product-developers) always choose a narrative approach to design over a purely practical understanding of production. Blond & Bieber are searching for subtle expressions of modern rituals and processes. Their research can be understood as a tightly woven mesh, which lays the foundation to all their projects. Textile is used as the embodiment of a versatile material that can be seen as a key to their story telling. Color and the use of unusual, often natural, pigments play a central role in the studio’s work.

Abigail Booth - Forest + Found

Through minimal use of colour and paired back structure my work explores a deep connection to our sense of place. Referencing familiar architectural motifs such as bars, grids and columns, I use patchwork to construct broken compositions that illustrate the failed or fractured in both our built and natural surroundings. The act of piecing together these compositions is a direct way for me to navigate the conflicts of living and working in a city while retaining the need for a place of solitude and escape. Working with natural dyes affords me a subtlety of colour that resonates with my use of negative space to create a sense of stillness and reflection. Working solely with wood tannins to produce a restrained palette of muted greys and browns, the colours I use are inherent to my identity and connection to surrounding landscape. Through abstraction, both in composition and colour, I look to evoke a strong emotional response to the constructed, cerebral spaces that occupy my wall pieces.

Caroline Forde

In her design work, Caroline purposefully references Canadian climate, topography, local flora, fauna and the idea of the ‘mystic north.” By taking a playful approach to both collage and pattern, her prints celebrate vibrant colour combinations and expressive motifs. The purpose of a natural motif is to bring the view of the landscape into a domestic space, offering an effortless solution for interior decoration.

This work challenges the process of creating a textile and calls upon the designer to incorporate sustainability and craftsmanship into a thoughtful, sought-after object. Drawn, dyed, screen-printed, steamed, washed, and pressed, these wall hangings can be valued for their material sensitivity, traditional techniques, and modern aesthetic. The extraction of marigold, lac, madder and iron, create the complex colour palettes of each piece. The care and application varies for each dye material, posing a unique but rewarding challenge. Through her work with natural dyes, Caroline seeks to increase sustainable literacy and practices in the fashion and textile industry.

Gitte Hansen

My current design practice involves working with old textile technologies. Using natural dyes, felting, stitching and hand sewing provides a forum for me to explore and understand colour, create new ideas for leftover fabric scraps, and experience the joy of working in harmony with the natural world.

Mackenzie Kelly-Frere

My studio practice is rooted in a contemplative approach to cloth construction using natural materials and plant-sourced colour. I favour compositional strategies where both the duration of and intervals between pattern elements are based on random numerical sequences, measurements taken from my body, and antique winding tools made irregular with time and wear. In combination, these methods produce complexity and variations that echo patterns found in nature and the irregular symmetries of the body. As I engage with layers of complexity driven by factors over which I have little control, intervals emerge in which apparently random sequences coalesce into visible repetitions or patterns.

In my weaving, random numerical sequences and ancient textile structures are interleaved creating both structural (specific to the interlacement of threads) and visual noise that interferes with the perceptual process. The online random number generator used in these pieces is driven by the atmospheric noise of lightning strikes. This link to natural phenomena is compelling for me, as it seems to conflate the digital and the natural. Ultimately the source of the integers I utilize to compose this work is immaterial as I am more interested in drawing one’s attention to the process of perception itself. In these pieces I am intrigued that hints of repetition, or the occasional alignment of apparently scattered blocks of colour may draw us to construct pattern and make meaning in that which we perceive.

A note on colour for Chromatic Geography:

The Canadian prairie was once the bottom of a vast prehistoric sea. Sometimes my weaving is about this place. In my weaving, plant sourced colour has an analogous connection to landscape and the natural world. I have worked with plant dyes for more than twenty years and in that time my palette has been delimited by shades of sun bleached straw in wind swept snow and faded barn reds. The presence of these specific shades in my work evokes the peculiar phenomenology of colour on the prairie that makes it possible for my father to describe his favourite colour as “sky blue-pink.”

Hiroko Karuno

As a spinner, I like to work with the colours that natural materials themselves possess. However, as a designer and maker of textiles, I have become interested in the many other colours that Nature can provide for my work. Since moving to Ontario from Japan 35 years ago, I have explored the dye potential of many plant species growing in my area in and around Toronto.

When we look back at our history of applying colours to our bodies or clothing, we can see that our ancestors seemed to apply the colours from the soil or minerals that existed naturally around them. After the discovery of fire, one of those natural colour sources was the soot remaining in the fireplace after burning fuels.

Soot is a pigment, the most primitive kind of colour, and it has a long history.
For example, in Japan, where soot forms the basis for sumi (ink) used for calligraphy and painting, textile dyers use soot to create colour and pattern on a variety of fibres.

Whereas dyeing generally employs chemical mordants to ensure fastness and to influence hue, pigment possesses colour on its own. No additional chemicals are added, and the colour of the pigment can be expected to be the final colour of the materials.

The method of applying colour by means of a pigment is different, too, from any other natural dyes. No extraction, no heat and no mordant are necessary for setting the colour. However, repeated immersions of the material are required to obtain a deep and long-lasting colour.

Various greys can be obtained from natural sources using an iron mordant, however, those greys all contain different colour elements. Soot grey provides us as pure a colour as possible. Such purity is one aspect of the rare nature of this colour. There is nothing flashy about its beauty.

I chose soot grey for Pine Soot / Particolour because of its subtlety. Users of sumi (ink) say that it can create 5 different “colours,” from dark to pale grey. Whatever the actual number may be, its neutral beauty appears to contain endless variations of grey. In addition, soot grey possesses the same aged beauty that fine handmade paper has. The more paper is aged, the stronger it gets. The more soot grey is aged, the more beautiful it becomes. Working with this colour, its calmness and subtlety bring me enormous satisfaction.

Eventually all natural colours will be faded by the sun, washing and/or friction. However, the more a colour fades or changes, the more beautiful it becomes. Each stage of change has its own beauty. That is the character of all colours from natural materials, and the soot pigment demonstrates this well. There are artifacts that have survived for years showing the beauty of precious grey that only time can produce. That is the colour I would like to see on my moro-jifu.

Jason Logan – Toronto Ink Co.

Founded in 2014, The Toronto Ink Company is a collaborative, citizen-science experiment to harvest and distill colour from built, wild, and hybrid landscapes. The Toronto Ink Company works on all scales from bottled pigments and ink tests to collaborative projects with poets, artists, designers, filmmakers, and architects.

The inks are made street-harvested, handmade, sensitive to place and ecology and may vary according to season. They have been tested by artists, illustrators, and experimenters around the world, from Berlin, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and Japan, to a National Geographic icebreaker in the Arctic.

The ink tests are a visual record of the possibilities and interaction of hand-made inks on paper. Each ink test has been stabilized with a casein fixative, creating living archives which may crystallize, oxidize, or change colour over time.


Maiwa supports traditional craft through an ethical business model. Working mainly with India, but also with several other areas, Maiwa is involved in the trade of embroidered, block-printed, handwoven, and naturally dyed textiles. A large portion of our success is due to our educational commitment; ensuring that the purchasing public knows how textiles are made - and who makes them.

This philosophy has led to Maiwa actively promoting exceptional artisans on the world stage. In addition to its three physical stores, Maiwa promotes artisan work though exhibitions, symposia, podcasts, and an ambitious program of documentary video production.

The Maiwa Foundation was established in 1997 by Maiwa Handprints Ltd. It was registered as a private trust in 2001 to help fund practising and re-emerging artisans in the craft sector. The fund supports work that develops higher-level skills or sustains existing skills. Recent workshops include India (Nagaland, Assam, Kerala, Bengal), Morocco, and Ethiopia.

Although Maiwa Handprints Ltd. and the Maiwa Foundation share similar views, they are separate organizations. The first is a commercial enterprise while the second is a non-profit organization dedicated to education and the relief of poverty.

The Maiwa School of Textiles has grown out of our desire to share ideas, techniques and culture. We believe that the need to create is universal. We seek to promote traditional techniques from around the world and to encourage local makers and craftspeople.

Charllotte Kwon is the owner of Maiwa Handprints Ltd. and the director of the Maiwa Foundation. Through Maiwa, Charllotte also runs a textile archive and research library located on Granville Island. Under her direction Maiwa has produced four documentary films and a number of print publications. She also guides Maiwa’s substantial web presence. Charllotte travels extensively each year to research handcraft and to supplement her natural dye research. Always looking to extend natural dye use, she also teaches dyeing workshops with artisans around the world and has planned a series of natural dye master classes to bring exceptional practising artisans together.

Matson + Palmer

Natural dyes are magical. They have depth, personality and energetic vibrations that cannot be reproduced by other means. They can be rich or soft, but will always have a specific resonance that is easily recognizable. Their qualities are inherent because they come from a source of awe unto itself: nature. Natural dyes are derived from almost any natural material we can think of, including roots, bark, flowers, wood, mushrooms, vegetables, minerals, soil and even shellfish and insects. Some dyes give us color for just a day or two and create a precious, ephemeral sense of beauty and time. Other dyes can last for decades, if not centuries, giving a special permanence and peek into the past.

Humans began using natural dyes thousands of years ago. They used what was around them and organized the colors and palettes to express power, wealth, spirituality and beauty.

Indigo blue, one the most beloved natural dyes because of its truly unique ability to glow, is found naturally growing in some form on every continent except Antarctica. Indigo dyed linen was found in King Tut’s tomb and Egyptian hieroglyphics portray kings as gods with indigo dyed linen wigs; Mayans used a form of indigo that sill baffles historians, commonly called Mayan Blue, during ritualistic sacrificing for their gods; African royalty dressed in the best, deepest indigo garments of their time; and the prestigious Japanese samurai were adorned in indigo clothes because it was thought to heal wounds and promote deep introspection and wisdom.

I’ve been working with natural dyes, especially indigo, for about 15 years. I’ve worked with the same farmers in India for almost a decade, but they have been growing indigo for three generations. Indigo is part of the bean family. It’s a legume. Legumes are unique because they restore essential nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen, instead of depleting it. The farmers I work with plant indigo between their food crops as a natural fertilizer. After about three months, they pull the indigo and let their other crops fill in. In this manner, they can keep growing healthy plants on the same plots of soil for years.

I also work with other natural dyes. Currently I have been working on developing a new dye from plant waste for the apparel industry. I’ve partnered with a biochemist, Dr. Nina Shapley, at Rutgers University. The United States National Science Foundation is supporting the project. We’ve been developing the new dye in collaboration with apparel industry experts and leaders. While they have told us natural dyes are of importance, they are really a cherry on top of the real problem. The real crisis facing the apparel industry is the excessive use of fresh water to dye and finished our clothes. Therefore, Dr. Shapely and I have been working on a natural pigment that is capable of reducing water use by 93% at the mill. The reduced water and biodegradable, non-toxic dye has the potential to save billions of liters of fresh water from being irrevocably polluted with commonly used petrol-based dyes.

Rowland Ricketts

Color was never of interest to me until I learned of natural dyes. The physicality of plants and the material content that they bring to color has proved to be a long-standing interest in my own studio practice. These Drawings started as experimental studies in how I might capture the materiality of the indigo vat I use – a dye vat made of Persicaria tinctoria leaves that I grow and compost, wood-ash lye, limestone, and wheat bran.

After a mishap in the studio in the spring of 2016 in which an artist working in the space above mine flooded my studio with watered-down acrylic paint, I had to resurface my work table. Removing the table’s cover I found the felt padding saturated in places with the thinned paint, but there were other unexpected marks that appeared as the liquid was wicked and drawn on various paths through the felt.

Salvaging felt from the table, I began a series of experiments in which I saturated the felt in the indigo vat through 2-3 overnight immersions. Once dyed, instead of rinsing out all the impurities in the vat as I was trained to do, I flipped the material and allowed the liquid from the dye vat to be drawn downward through the felt, leaving traces of all the other components of the dye.

The final presentation of the cropped “drawings” was based on the idea of samples – both scientific and commercial. As scientific samples of the dye, the felt contains everything in the dye vat other than what evaporated when drying. The drawings are presented in a style adapted from commercial carpet displays. While visually beautiful, the unwashed felts are full of rotted plant matter and alkaline wood-ash lye and limestone. They give off a slightly unpleasant smell and won’t hold up over time, samples of a product that challenges the values of our commercial world.

Meghan Spielman

As a contemporary textile artist focusing on the craft of weaving, my work is rooted in traditional techniques and methods. Historically, many textile techniques, such as ikat or resist dyeing, are achieved through the use of natural dyes. Therefore I believe it is very important to my practice that I honour and continue these traditions through the use of ethical materials.

As my time has recently been split between Montana, New York, and London a sense of place has also become increasingly important to my work. I find that examining traditional cultural textile techniques and materials often allows me to reconcile my own displacement, and to discover a connection to a specific geography or region.

The piece Landscape of Santa Fe embodies this aspect of my work. The piece was created while studying with the artist Polly Barton in Santa Fe, who is trained in the technique of Japanese ikat, The local geography, landscape, as well as the examination of traditional Japanese weaving techniques, have all influenced the work’s creation.

The natural landscape of New Mexico is a unique pocket within the western U.S. As a native to Montana I feel at home in the west, yet the geography of Santa Fe offered a new vibrancy I had previously not experienced. The neutral sandstone plateaus I grew up around in Montana exist in full saturation in New Mexico. Rich red, orange and yellow cliffs cut across a pure blue sky.

Inspired by this local palette, Landscape of Santa Fe is naturally dyed with cochineal, gardenia, and indigo. The cochineal dye was harvested from a colony of cochineal insects growing on a cactus plant in Polly’s yard and achieved a light red color. The indigo dye was used because it is traditionally a very important dye used in Japanese ikat. The gardenia dye achieved a vivid yellow color in the spirit of the surrounding geography. Overall, the natural dyes are vibrant, yet complex and impure. They leave evidence of both tradition and landscape.

Gabriela Farias Zurita

In Pre-Columbian America, particularly in the Andes, textiles were one of the most important and highly developed technologies made by the different Andean cultures, giving rise to one of the richest textile traditions in the world. Their role was to represent identity, social hierarchy, and civil status; sometimes they even were given as tribute and acted as a symbol of social prestige.

The most important material used by the people of the Andes, and still in use today, are Camelid Fibers (Alpaca, Llamas, Guanacos and Vicuña) which are found all along the Cordillera de Los Andes in South America, from Ecuador to Tierra del Fuego. Their highest concentration occurs in the Peruvian-Bolivian plateau, northern Chile and Argentina, at heights between 3,800 and 5,000 meters above sea level. The precious fiber obtained from these animals represents only 2.6% of the total wool fibers traded worldwide (FIA, 2008).

Investigations locate the domestication of the original wild animals (Guanaco and Vicuña) between 9,000 and 2,500 BC and at a height of 4000 meters above sea level.

Since then, these animals have been a fundamental part of Andean culture. Their critical importance translates into a series of activities, ceremonies, songs and constant, affectionate care for the herd, establishing the close relationship between Andean people and their animals.

Andean weavers, however, are not only known for their complex constructions in weaving, but also for their knowledge in dyeing. Ancient textiles preserve incredible palettes of colours made by their creators hundreds of years ago. One important colour source is animal in origin and is obtained from an extract of the cochineal beetle, a parasitic insect found on the Dactylopius coccus cactus. Currently the largest producers of cochineal are Peru and Chile. This insect lives on the cactus for a period of three months during which it feeds on the sap, transforming it into carminic acid, the coloring agent responsible for creating natural red dye.

The work of eco fashion designer Gabriela Farias Zurita embraces this historic background, translating into modern textile objects the heritage of the Andes. Today, she works with weavers who carry forward the knowledge given by their ancestors. These textiles are simple in shape and use and yet have a mission to connect cultures.

Both the modernization of textile production and the phenomenon of global overconsumption have had a fatal effect on traditional craft all over the world, and the Andes are no exception.

These two shawls are made from Alpaca fiber, handspun and woven by Maria Choque, an Aymara Weaver from Colchane, Chile. The yarn is made with a hand spindle, using fleece from her own herd of Alpacas that are free-range animals of the Chilean Altiplano (Chilean Highland). The design is by Gabriela Farias Zurita and the shawls are hand-woven on a European Two Pedal Loom. The colours are made with Cochineal (rose) and Sipo Tola (yellow).

Chromatic Geography is generously supported by the Ontario Arts Council







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Formerly the Ontario Crafts Council, Craft Ontario is a not-for-profit service organization that works to have craft recognized as a valuable part of life. We promote and celebrate professional craft through providing member opportunities, and advocate for craft practice by educating and empowering diverse audiences.