It’s been a big week at La Rochelle
Here’s what I feel like at the end of it
In summary for those who weren’t able to attend
Here’s a quick wrap of the ISEND 2011 Natural Dye Symposium
The pre-dominant preoccupation was with indigo and with shellfish purple. Even though assured that the local species were a predator of the oyster farms and therefore fair game
I still have my reservations
On the last day there was much talk of the need for regulation
For labelling and authentication and for a whirled data bank of plants together with recipes and details of books where the information has been published
[although somebody voiced concerns about books being copied and what author's rights might be infringed]
There was talk about industrial scale production
All very well
But what about the plants themselves?
It seemed to me that still, after many international meetings
There’s still little public acknowledgement about the need for plant protection
There are laudable efforts to cultivate dyes as crops [especially here in Europe] but in economically challenged countries I suspect food production may be more important
New sources of dye are being discovered [especially in the rapidly diminishing tropical forests]
But very few are expressing concern about wild harvesting
It doesn’t matter how abundant a plant is in the wild
The dinnerparty cheese theory will get it in the end.
You haven’t heard of the dinnerparty cheese theory?
Let me explain. It goes like this. Let's say I discover an unprotected common local plant and make a dye being careful to take only 10% of the population. My friend Betty-Lou loves the colour. She goes out and collects some too, but only 10% of the population. Then Ella who lives across from Betty-Lou is blown away by the amazing cloth drying on the washing line in the front yard and wants to learn about it too
You can see where this is going. The plant group gets whittled away, bit by bit. Each time each person thinks they’re being responsible by only taking 10% but, just like the last morsel of cheese at a dinnerparty, that plant is doomed to disappear.
So here’s what I think. Learn the names of your local plants. Do the research. Identify the weeds, because those you can harvest with impunity. Think very carefully about the consequences of the others. [The students at Massey University, Wellington NZ are doing great work with weeds such as Berberis darwinii and Ulex europaeus but I have reservations about their use of plants from the Chinese Medicine shop…who knows where or how the latter were harvested?]
THIS IS WHY I’M SO VERY KEEN ON WINDFALL HARVESTING. And even with windfall harvesting, if doing it out in the wild we need to consider how our removal leaf litter from the earth may affect the local ecology and proceed with care. That means taking a modest selection, not a wheelbarrow full
We had a lovely guided walk by the seaside, looking at local [wild] dyeplants [fleurs sauvages] as well as a few introduced species but I gulped when I heard the guide suggesting people should eat the flowers of Robinia pseudoacacia. The species is poisonous. We were shown Rubia peregrina [wandering madder] – but I’d hesitate to go collecting it in the quanitites needed for a dyebath as the colour [like that of the traditional madder] comes from the roots.
So DO NOT, ON ANY ACCOUNT [and sorry to shout but it’s so important] go out and gather anything you can’t identify. It might be toxic, protected or simply so slow-growing that the population won't be replaced in a human lifetime.
I’m still shuddering at the presentation of that unidentified collection of lichens and dye samples in the poster section of the symposium. Of even more concern was that it came from a group of people purporting to be professionals, one of whom was making a case for industrialisation of production methods.
One of the industrial possibilities that I can see [in addition to companies like Couleur des Plantes and large scale indigo and madder cultivations] would be the use of eucalyptus leaves that are dumped when plantation trees are felled for timber and paper production.
But because eucalyptus still isn’t really taken seriously by the academics of the northern hemisphere [it’s not one of the old-school dyes, you see], or the southern hemisphere for that matter nobody really wants to know.
Perhaps it’s the sheer simplicity of the eucalyptus dye process that throws them. leaves + water + heat = dye
And when applied to protein fibres, no mordants are needed.
You’d think that in countries like India and South America, where eucalypts have been introduced and become a weed, using the leaves would be a doddle [rather than some of the very complex methods I’ve seen to make brown this week]
So while it’s been very, very interesting to hear the stories and see many beautiful examples of work; I think I’ll keeping exploring my bundle-dyeing using bio-regional windfalls. I’m really only dancing on the tip of the iceberg there.
The most exciting demonstration I was privileged to watch was that of Michel Garcia, reducing indigo with simple ingredients like fructose and henna. It was worth crossing the oceans just for that. Respect.
Oh and one last thing…in case anyone out there is thinking about where the next ISEND meeting should be held
I’m suggesting San Francisco, USA would be a splendid location. They have fascinating collections at the Asian Art Museum and the de Young Museum [the latter situated conveniently in Golden Gate Park along with the Botanic Gardens and the Science Exploratorium]. Across the Bay the Permacouture Institute and several Art Colleges have already established practices in plant dyeing and there’s another splendid botanic garden in Berkeley.
If someone over there wants to begin planning and doesn’t mind having this Australia-based gypsy on the team, I’d be happy to put my hand up to help – especially if the next meeting were to take WEEDS as a focus.
There’s a list of EXOTIC PEST PLANTS OF GREATEST ECOLOGICAL CONCERN IN CALIFORNIA that is updated regularly. [They have an excellent check-list for the assessment of potentially invasive species.] So far as I’m aware, most municipal/local governments have plant lists of this kind.
Comparing these records internationally and exploring the dye and fibre potential of the plants listed would, I think, be a really sensible research project.
Here endeth the rant for the day.