Pioneering Modern Natural Dyes

Photographs by Paige Green Photography; story by Jess Daniels.

There’s a duality to natural dyeing that Kristine Vejar embraces: the naturalist and plant pigment explorer; the scientist and careful recipe creator. For years, Kristine has worked in this balance as a natural dyer, spinner, knitter, community-builder, and owner of the shop A Verb for Keeping Warm in Oakland. She approaches natural dyeing with detailed consideration, testing each recipe for reproducibility, scalability, and the subtle variation that occurs when dyeing on different yarn bases for the in-house A Verb for Keeping Warm yarn lines, and she has poured this approach into her forthcoming book, The Modern Natural Dyer (available for pre-order here).

The Modern Natural Dyer, photo by Paige Green

Lately, Vejar’s days in the dye studio and storefront have been punctuated with early mornings and late evenings in the fields at Viriditas Farm. There, alongside Sally Fox’s renowned, naturally colored cotton breeding plots, Vejar and her partner Adrienne Rodriguez are growing a 900-foot-long row of dye plants for A Verb for Keeping Warm, including coreopsis, marigolds, japanese indigo, dahlias, and cosmos. As to how the partnership began, Vejar says “I never know where to begin, it’s a long thread…”

dye plants at Viriditas Farm, photo by Paige Green

To trace the thread back to its seed, Vejar was immersed in fiber arts with her grandmother while growing up in Minnesota, and after studying art history in India in college, she returned to India on a Fulbright scholarship to support the continuation of traditional embroidery and natural dyeing techniques (she studied primarily with a family who does block printing mainly with indigo & madder, called ajarakh; and bound resist, bandhani). Returning to the US, she continued to learn natural dyeing and explored spinning, which became a new connection to textiles and a way to look at fibers and where they come from.

spinning wheel at A Verb for Keeping Warm, photo by Paige Green

Although she had heard of Sally Fox and was “really captivated by her story” Vejar says “she was this kind of magical, mystical person… you hear about someone and you think ‘Who am I? Why would I bother her?” Yet at the first Fibershed Wool Symposium, after Vejar (below, left) raised her hand during an audience comment period and talked about the cost and difficulties of finding ethical wool, it was Fox (below, right) who approached her and opened the conversation about what would become Verb’s first batch of farm yarn: Pioneer. While famous for Capay Valley cotton, Fox also stewards a flock of Merino sheep which fertilize the fields and contribute to biodynamic farming practices. Vejar “adore[s] that connection that the sheep have to the land,” adding value to each skein on the Verb shelves.

Kristine Vejar and Sally Fox

Now in production for its third batch, Pioneer is named after Fox: “a person who pushes forward and looks at new possibliities, her persistence in following her path was very inspirational to me” says Vejar. Indeed, over the years Fox and Vejar have grown beyond business associates to develop a friendship – “kindred spirits, as women, both working physical labor, business owners.”

And so, after a separate offer fell through for Verb to try a hand at dye farming, Vejar mentioned it to Fox and another collaboration was born: an educational exploration in the scalability of growing dyes. Rodriguez and Vejar have been involved in every step of the process, helping seed, weed, water, replanting to fill in gaps, and harvesting, all scheduled to avoid laboring in the midday heat of the Capay Valley. For Vejar, the project has gently forced her to set aside her methodical and “plan-oriented” nature, embracing the spontaneity of Fox and Rodriguez, and “a very special moment… not having to think about cause and effect… exploring with open eyes.

Below, (left) Rodriguez sits in the Verb dye garden clipping coreopsis flowers from Viriditas Farm, and (middle) Vejar prepares a dyepot, then (right) holds dyed skeins of Flock yarn in the shop.

coreopsis dye process, photo by Paige Green

The collaborators are also growing flax in the field, the wispy green stalks giving way to periwinkle flowers and opening further questions: should it be harvested for fiber, or just for seeds? How can the retting process (separating the woody outer layers of stalk to reveal the workable fiber staples) be handled at a small scale without damaging the environment with pectin runoff?

flax growing at Viriditas Farm, photo by Paige Green

For now, these questions remain open-ended, one of the many projects Vejar is balancing. Back at Verb, there is the new California-farmed yarn, Flock, to be dyed, a dye garden to be tended, full of madder, coreopsis, cochineal, indigo, dahlias, Mexican marigolds, weld, and Marcel, the angora rabbit, and special kits to be prepared for the launch of The Modern Natural Dyer (on sale October 20th).

madder root, Kristine and Adrienne

Inspired by the hues of the California landscape, Vejar’s custom-blended natural dye palette is crafted with wearability in mind. She knows that customers and clients have a specific artistic vision, yet she works to article those aims in a responsible and ethical way. This traces back to Vejar’s time in India, where fiber and textiles have a sordid history politically and environmentally. She mentions the movie Bitter Seeds, a documentary that chronicles the epidemic of farmer suicides in India, and for a moment her voice is strained with concern for the far-reaching impacts and potentially grave consequences of fabric. This awareness is something Vejar works hard to incorporate into the storefront side of Verb, but she knows how delicate it can be to attempt to change shopping habits, whether it’s a desirable shade of turquoise yarn that cannot be achieved with natural dyes, or a synthetic-blend fabric which is on-trend but of unknown origins.

Accessibility is important, but anything that sheds light on why things cost what they do is imperative.” This is why Verb strives to stock ethically and sustainably made products, from Alabama Chanin organic cotton jersey, to handspun and loomed khadi cloth from India, local wool yarn, and most recently, a shipment of fabric comprised of Sally Fox’s naturally colored cotton, woven in Japan after Fox’s US supply chain collapsed several decades ago.

fabrics and garments at A Verb for Keeping Warm, photo by Paige Green

Vejar’s concern for the true cost of materials is rooted in her experience in India, but today it takes shape in her commitment to the local Northern California Fibershed. Verb has been a sponsor for each of the Fibershed Wool and Fine Fiber Symposiums, is a Fibershed retailer and artisan producer, and stewards a fermentation vat of indigo from the first Japanese indigo harvest and compost process. Committed to California wool, Verb has brought both Pioneer yarn (Sally Fox’s merino) and Flock (a combination of Cormo from Sue Reuser, Mendocino Targhee, and Corriedale from Cloverdale), to hand knitters everywhere, and will soon launch a third yarn comprised of Estill Ranch Rambouillet.

indigo dyeing, photo by Paige Green

For the Grow Your Jeans fashion show, Vejar will take skeins of the Flock yarn she carefully sourced, dye it with the Fibershed indigo vat she expertly tends, and knit a top in collaboration with the knitwear designer Julie Weisenberger of CocoKnits. Paired with denim made of Fox’s cotton, it will be yet another manifestation of the many collaborations between friends.

Flock yarn dyed with coreopsis, Sally Fox cotton; photo by Paige Green

A local fiber and natural dye pioneer in her own right, Vejar’s work has a far and inspiring reach, which will no doubt continue to expand with the arrival of The Modern Natural Dyer. But if there’s one message she hopes will be the takeaway, it’s a sense of openness and letting go of judgment: “Maybe in the past I was really a stickler for light fastness, and while I still have an affinity for that, there’s also a really beautiful sentiment for seeing what’s around you… [for] having curiosity in the process, and [acknowledging] that one style isn’t necessarily better than another.” Leaving criticism behind in favor of incremental steps, “you hope that people are going to do the best they can, and then move forward, and continue revising their process to be as environmental as possible.

A Verb for Keeping Warm, photo by Paige Green