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Petal Peeker: Inside the Fascinating World of Plant Dye Art

Martha sewed this dress from handspun khadi cotton colored with dye produced from the tiny cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus), which she collected herself from local cactus.

The art and science of fabric dyeing, desert-style.

The term “garden artist” evokes a plethora of possibilities, from landscape designer to outdoor sculptor or plein-air painter, but one Valley resident takes garden art to a new level by extending the beauty of her outdoor garden into her home via the art of fabric dyeing. “Cultivating a garden that is visually beautiful and productive feels to me like an artist painting a canvas, choosing and mixing individual bloom colors, heights, textures and seasons to create an enticing scene,” says Martha, also known as “Petalpeeker” on social media. “Creating art from plants for use inside the home is a way of extending a garden’s joy and happiness.”

Martha first discovered her love for desert gardening a decade ago after purchasing a home with a barren backyard and turning it into a welcoming space for family and friends. “I love everything about cultivating a garden and nurturing plants and the earth,” she says, describing her current landscape as a low-water cottage garden filled with native and desert-adapted pollinator plants. She also grows edible flowers to complement her vegetable and fruit gardens, as well as herbs for making teas. But her newest obsession is her
dye garden.

During the pandemic, Martha found herself home with two young children, with only the backyard for entertainment. One day her young son pulled all the petals off sunflowers she was about to bring indoors. “I remembered reading in a seed catalog about beautiful Hopi black sunflowers that are used by Native American tribes to dye basketry and wool and thought—well, I might as well put these sunflower heads into a pot with water with some fabric and see what happens, since they aren’t all that cheerful in a vase without petals,” she recalls. “When the  material came out a dusky plum, I was hooked on the beautiful magic of creating colors with plants.”

From that auspicious beginning, Martha continued to experiment with techniques for fabric dyeing. “I think a person could spend a lifetime learning, experimenting and making with natural dyes and still not do it all,” she says. Her favorite techniques include eco-printing—capturing the likeness of a flower onto fabric—and immersion dyeing—soaking fabric in a pot containing water and dye extracted from the hidden colors of a plant. This year she plans to learn more about a third technique, block printing.

Sulfur cosmos (Cosmos sulphereus) were eco-printed onto silk fabric using steam and pressure, then cut into ribbons for use as Halloween decorations alongside mini pumpkins.

Natural fabric dyeing is both an art and a science. Research into centuries of process refinement, as well as personal experimentation, are keys to identifying plants best suited for the art. “The modern dyer can rely on the historical breadth of knowledge available for plants that have shown great colorfastness, such as madder, weld, indigo and cochineal, while also enjoying discovery and experimentation to find what colors are hiding in the native flora around their home,” Martha says. “While just about all plants can produce color (interestingly, yellow is the most common and easiest to come by), only a small subset of plants and a few insects contain the compounds that create long-lasting color. In fact, the word ‘tinctoria’ in a plant’s scientific name is an indicator that it is a reliable dye source,” she adds.

In addition to experimenting with different plants, Martha also tests different substrates. “The color that a plant imparts on fabric depends on many factors, from the type of fabric, to how the fabric is pretreated for dyeing, to the season a plant is harvested. If I put wool, silk, cotton and linen into the same pot of dye, they will all come out different shades of the same color,” she explains. Sometimes the color of the plant material will indicate the subsequent dye color, such as a sunshine yellow extracted from marigolds, but at other times, the plant provides no clue as to the dye compounds within. For instance, “the green leaves of indigo create a striking blue dye and the cheerful red skin of pomegranates creates a yellow dye,” she says.

The colorfastness of a particular plant dye depends on a combination of factors—the plant, the fabric and the pretreatment method used. Martha has found that wool and silk generally bond better with natural dyes than with cotton. She also avoids synthetic fabrics. “My approach is that natural dyes are for natural fabrics, and at the end of a fabric’s life, it can be returned to the earth and composted instead of contributing to fabric waste and pollution. I prefer to source my fabrics second-hand as much as possible, from old home textiles to thrift stores.”

1. These hand-sewn tank tops were printed with sulfur cosmos freshly picked from Martha’s dye garden using the simple technique of “flower pounding”—creating prints and patterns on fabric using fresh flowers and a hammer. 2. Martha plants two of her favorite dye garden flowers, sulfur cosmos and marigold (Tagetes erecta) to attract pollinators. 3. The four circles of this seasonal color wheel show the abundance of hues available from desert flora and fauna using a single source with different combinations of “mordants” (methods for pretreating fabric before dyeing).

As for the fruits of her labor, Martha makes a variety of unique apparel and home goods from her dyed fabrics. “I find so much joy in bringing the garden inside and decorating my home and special occasions with items from nature—whether it’s flower-dyed fabric used as a table runner, plant-dyed ribbons for seasonal wreaths, leaf-printed Christmas stockings and so on. I also enjoy sewing garments and quilts with my plant-dyed fabrics and imagine the recipient wrapped in my love and flowers.”

The artist also occasionally sells her plant-dyed ribbons and fabrics via Instagram. “Before dyeing fabrics to be sewn or sold, I thoroughly test the colorfastness of my experimental dyes to ensure they are heirloom-quality,” Martha says. “My plant-dyed ribbons are used for bridal and special occasion bouquets and wreaths. Colors from nature go together so well and have a luminous quality in a way that conventionally dyed colors simply lack.”

Her like-minded buyers certainly agree with that sentiment. Florist Christina Blodgett found that Martha’s natural dyed ribbons align perfectly with her mission of sustainable floral design. “Whether I’m wrapping a bouquet, crafting a boutonniere or integrating fabric into an installation, using ribbons or fabric that are unique to Arizona is crucial for delivering a floral service centered around mindfulness,” Blodgett says.

When Debby Mittelman hosted her first floral design workshop, she wanted to include local growers and artisans and commissioned a set of silk ribbons from Martha for use in bouquets and wearables. They settled on a palette of spring colors made from native chaparral, goldenrod, indigo and cochineal to dye the silk in shades of dusty pink and mauve, soft gold and yellow and ethereal blues. “The guests were delighted to have these ribbons to use at the workshop and to take home with them,” Mittelman says.

Wild cochineal collected from cactus and used as red dye produces shades of pink across a range of cotton and silk fabrics.
Martha flower pounded Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) leaves onto linen pretreated with soy milk, which serves as a binder for the dye.
Creosote, goldenrod, cochineal and locally grown native indigo served as dyes for this collection of Arizona-themed silk ribbons Martha created for a floral workshop that focused on local flowers and sustainability.
To Dye For

For beginners to the art of fabric dyeing, Martha recommends starting with solar dyeing, a low-impact and low-material method. “To create a solar dye jar, all you need is a clean glass jar with a lid, a handkerchief-sized piece of fabric and a dye plant. Pack the bottom half of the jar with plant material, add water to fill the jar nearly to the top, add fabric and place the jar in the sun for a few days. The sun will heat the water, which extracts colors and allows the fabric to be dyed,” she explains. Locally sourced plants that work well for this method include creosote, eucalyptus, oak, sweet acacia and Texas ebony.

Sources

Martha “Petalpeeker,” Scottsdale, @petalpeeker.

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