Saturday, 30 April 2011

ISEND 2011 - the Wrap

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.


  1. great synposionopsis! agreed.
    ha! my word verification is anthurts

  2. san fransisco ...WHAT a good idea!

  3. one more time..
    san francisco ..Wh@+ a good idea!

  4. wish I had a comment worthy of that rant....

  5. permacouture? I thought you'd hit the wrong keys on that word.... but nooo - what a rippa link!

    and yes - don't take things that aren't yours for the taking (you know what I mean)..... and anyone finding a dye use for 'fireweed' aka Senecio madagascariensis (grrrrrr nasty little declared weed! grrrrr!!!!) please come to my place - you can harvest as much as you can bear - with my blessing!

  6. All sounds extremely worrying and I think your thoughts are extremely valuable. I cant see that murex collected in large quantities would not make it an endangered shellfish quite soon.
    I like the idea of San Francisco next.

  7. great update but its a bit sad that one has to shout, you would think by now there would be a bit more awareness about these issues - we will all just have to shout with you jxx

  8. Food for thought.
    Thank you for educating us newbies.
    Talking of education - you're coming to Nova Scotia....and i just registered...excited!

  9. Sounds interesting if frustrating for you! The Uk Govt are trying to prevent the continued protection of wildlife and the environment, they say its nowt but 'red tape' adhereing to these rules of the game.
    But by stopping them or preventing their legal standing, the wildlife and environment could all too easily suffer.
    The 38degrees online lobby over here is strong but still needs additional support.
    I have bought pictoral books at last, so I can recognise what Im looking at, trees, wildflowers and the herbal, edibles too. WOW what a boon! Should have done this ages ago!
    I had No idea how many of our wild species were SO lethal!
    Theres a great poison garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland if anyones visiting the a by the by !

  10. Hi India - thanks for keeping us up to date with what's going on (although it's depressing news about the seeming lack of education and plain consideration) and thanks for continuing to rant. You might feel like yours is a lone voice - but be assured, we are listening!

  11. Yep... keep up the rant ... we're listening... gives us something to pass on too.. should occasion come up!

    and maybe ...the little book of India rants could be published as well... heaven knows we need it!

  12. i was a bit dusty toward the end of friday but i believe ISEND2012 will be in Mylasia...i vote SF

  13. Thank you for your strong sentiments on this matter. Those thoughts flew around in my head many years ago when I was at a fungus talk in Oslo, Norway. All of your points were extremely important and I hope by sharing your link around more dye people will choose to come to this point of view and live by it when they work on projects and need to sample and gather.

  14. Hi India
    lovely to meet you at ISEND. I am in the SF supporters camp too....
    just got goosebumps reading your little pearl at the bottom of the page, as I am about to go make a piece for a competition which has been inspired by those very words.... thank you for your wonderful inspiring words.. keep ranting!!
    aviva (slowstuff)

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  16. you're right, of course. education is key; think of how many children were taught to "love the rainforest". well, if they loved their watershed first, had the concept brought home to them, wouldn't the awareness of local ecosystems inform them as they walked into adulthood and the world of decisions... most of my kids seem to think that their clothing grows in factories somewhere.

  17. What was most infuriating at ISEND was the large gap between large scale industrialized application of natural dyes and the artisans. Most of the R&D dept work in a kind of vacuum as if there was no natural dyeing ever done before them, and as Ruby said in her last presentation (presented by Jenny B-P), it seems as if everyone has to try to invent the wheel over and over again. The methods are here, we need to exchange them. Which works fine on the artisan level but on the scientific level it sucks.
    And the next thing that didn't get stressed enough was your point about careful identifying of plants and environmental cosiderations in collecting them. (Esp lichen are a good example. I got thrown out of more than one Inet-group for pointing out that we shouldn't collect lichen for dyeing - like never) Roman Jashenko was the only one on the board who advocated these considerations strongly. All other voices in that direction came from the auditorium. I loved being at ISEND, it was a great experience, esp being able to meet you in person and to see Michel Garcia's reduction vat in action. But I didn't like the strong focus on industrialized use of natural dyes. We can't and we shouldn't exchange one devil (synthetic dyes) for another (natural dyes on an industrial scale). The only resonable thing we can do is reduce our consumption to a very low level. Which is to be supported by using natural dyes coming from windfall or very careful plantations. I liked the idea at the end of proposing natural dyers as world heritage to the UNESCO. I don't think JB-P will do a lot in this direction but I wish someone else with her celeb status was willing to work for it. And I think, it is important to stress the environmental damaging effects of using exotic natural dyes imported from somewhere else and to support indigineous projects to use native plants in a sustainable fashion. Everywhere in the world. Global communication and local production and consumption seems to me a very important part in globalization in the near future.
    Meeting like-minded people (and there were quite a few only not on the podium) was a very inspiring part in ISEND.
    Ulrike, the awestruck fan from Germany ;o)

  18. Thanks for those weblinks. There's also Plants for a future -

  19. wow sounded a good meeting. I love everything everyone has said..don't think l can add anything elsexxlynda

  20. thank you everybody for your thoughtful contributions -
    i'm grateful you've taken the time to read and respond

    as regards ISEND 2012, the cards advertising it were being handed out on the very first day of this year's symposium
    rather pre-empting any discussion as to what the future might hold...

  21. Hi India, Sorry I only got to meet you at the end of Saturday as we were packing down - would have loved to talk for longer!
    Brilliant synopsis, I was not impressed by what I heard about labelling and organics etc - will be working on THAT committee big time!
    My big disappointment was the indigo round table - was it just for the growers that were up on the stage? Very controlled I felt!
    The other thing is - Who actually controls when and where there is an ISEND?

  22. I live in San Francisco and I'm very excited about using invasive "weed" species for dye. Just beginning with natural dyes - making a transition from chemical dyes. Eucalyptus are plentiful here and considered an invasive pest. Leaf collection beginning soon! Any thoughts on dry versus wet leaves on the ground?

  23. re eucalyptus...dry, fresh, wet, toasted...all lead to different colours!