Weighing our Options from the Natural World

We’re faced with alarming news about the climate crisis every day, so encouraging news about the important work of artisan activists is welcomed. True Colors author Keith Recker offers an inspiring look at sustainability in fashion and design and shares real world examples for a hopeful future. Thank you, Keith!

Natural Inspiration

Over 20 years ago, while I was at Saks Fifth Avenue, I met a natural dyer who assured me that she could match any Pantone color with all-natural ingredients. In spite of what I fear was obvious disbelief, Michele Wipplinger later showed up at my office with several sample cases filled with hanks of wool, cotton, silk, rayon, ramie and more, dyed in a vast range of gorgeous natural colors. Her business, Earthues, still sells the natural dye extracts she used. I was completely knocked down by this encyclopedia of color knowledge that was almost completely outside the mainstream.

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Shades of indigo dyed by Andro Wipplinger using the formulas and methods of Michele Wipplinger. Photo by Joe coca from the book True Colors

As my retail career unfolded alongside deep involvement with nonprofits like the International Folk Art Market, I’ve been really fortunate to have learned from so many masterful creatives working with great skill—largely outside the spotlight. Beyond their obvious skill, and the beauty of their work, they open up a door to stories of culture and nature and personal expression. Their work suggests that we could be in a constantly enriching conversation with what we wear and what we live with. These artisans have changed my whole outlook on fashion, design, consumption, and have enriched my life immeasurably.

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Rashmi Bharti, Avani’s cofounder with silk cloth dyed using a plant invasive to the Himalayas. Photo by Didier Binetruy.

Abundant Resources 

Many organizations are producing natural dyes at scale, which is so promising. Living Blue, whose indigo-based social business in Bangladesh is profiled in True Colors, is a force to be reckoned with. Their work with Hermès and others is certainly a testament to their quality. Adiv Pure Nature, profiled in the yellow section of the book, uses thousands of kilos of wilted flower offerings from one of Mumbai’s largest temples in their dye work. Even when supplying Eileen Fisher and others with natural textiles, they are hardly scratching the surface of the many tons of flower waste produced every day. Another group in the Himalayas, Avani Kumaon, is harvesting a harmful and invasive alien plant species from which they make greens and yellows. They too are far from exhausting this abundant resource.

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Adiv Pure Nature uses up to 900 kilos of marigold metals a week in their natural dye workshop. Photo by Julie Hall from the book True Colors.

Natural Dyes—Embracing the Options

Often, in the the design industry, there’s a lot of waste involved in ensuring that every product is identical to the one pushed out right before it. Embracing the gorgeous variations of natural dyeing rather than snuffing them out in the name of uniformity is a coming wave. Imagine the hunter-gatherer excitement of spotting the shade or texture that best suits you. It surely beats the numbing sameness of only one option. We were designed to perceive and to weigh the vibrant options constantly given us by the natural world, and it’s time we put our toes back into that marvelous flow.

—Keith Recker


Be inspired by the stories of nature and culture and personal expression in True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments by Keith Recker.

Embrace the genius of color with the True Colors companion note cards.

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