Hues of Change: How Fibershed Affiliates Are Building Local Knowledge of Natural Pigments

Our textiles have the ability to tell a story about the origins of their material components and the hands that harvested, milled, or otherwise crafted them. When adding color to a fiber, designers and artisans may choose to use synthetic or natural dyes. Natural dyes provide rich evidence of a garment’s story while offering biodegradable non-toxic alternatives to petroleum-derived and often harmful synthetic dyes. As one Fibershed affiliate says, “Each region has its own identity, which can be seen in the expression of pigment on our textiles.” When we regionalize how our clothing is made, we are enriched by a deeper and more meaningful story of color — one tied to the land from which our clothes are borrowed. 

Fibershed affiliates are at the forefront of discovering new (or rediscovering old) ways of natural dyeing that work in harmony with nature. In the Chesapeake watershed, Chesapeake Fibershed is capturing bioregion-specific knowledge and research on plant cultivation, history, and usage from local experts. The Nederland Fibershed is developing scaleable techniques that can be made available to the Dutch textile industry while nurturing and safeguarding biodiversity and healthy soil. Fibershed Affiliate Southeastern New England is studying the impacts of wastewater fertilizers on soils (the initial data looks promising!) for growing natural dye plants, and developing the necessary infrastructure to expand the model. Together, these affiliates seek solutions that increase environmental resilience, counteract the harmful effects of synthetic dyes, and contribute to a growing movement of place-based textile cultures. 

Continue reading to learn more about three Fibershed affiliates advancing natural dyes and strengthening the fibershed network. We asked them questions about their work and what it means to their communities. These are their responses in their own words. 

Chesapeake Fibershed: Plant and Mineral Source Book for Vibrant and Sustainable Textile Dyes

Covers 120 mile radius from Washington, DC

“Each region has its own identity, which can be seen in the expression of pigment on our textiles.”

Tell us about your project: 

Chesapeake Fibershed’s natural dye project focuses on color from locally cultivated, native, and historically utilized dye plants. We envision this as an ongoing project which will include work with mineral pigments from our region and widening the knowledge of plant dyes each year. We are working with models of sustainability to develop relationships with the growth and exploration of colorants on natural fiber. All of our findings will be captured in a book that will also be available online. Our research will include essays on plant cultivation, history, medicinal usage, and interviews with local dyers, gardeners, and educators.

What do you hope to accomplish with your book? 

We hope our source book will prompt meaningful community conversations and share our research more broadly. We hope it will foster new innovations and lead us toward establishing the infrastructure necessary to produce and support a robust natural dye community. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? 

At this moment, we see many people exploring natural and local dyes from our bioregion. It seems essential to bring our voices together to share our knowledge and inspiration by initiating a dyer’s circle that will develop further conversations.  

We are not trying to write another dye book but rather to open the dialog with how a dyer might work with the plants in their own space. There are many resources readily available. We want people to be looking in their own backyard or neighborhood space, just as Rebecca did when researching her book Harvesting Color. Each region has its own identity, which can be seen in the expression of pigment on our textiles.

Continue following Chesapeake Fibershed’s work at their website,, and learn more about the source book initiative on their project page, A Natural Dyer’s Journal in the Kitchen. You can also follow their work on social media: @chesapeakefibershed on Instagram and Facebook

Fibershed Nederland: Herb-to-Color, Biodiversity and Natural Dyes Project

Covers The Netherlands

“I believe in the magic of our nature and its resources. Over time much of the knowledge about natural dyes and their use has been lost. During this project, we focus on our local raw materials to develop local natural pigments. I use the knowledge and recipes I received from my Syrian grandmother and apply this in a new innovative way.” Roua ALHalabi, Lead Color Researcher

Tell us about your project: 

Fibershed Nederland is advancing a project called ‘Kruid-tot-Kleur’ (herb-to-color), which focuses on developing scalable techniques for growing, harvesting, processing and preserving natural dyes and pigments. The demand for natural biodegradable materials is increasing, and with it, the need for natural dyes. But in the Netherlands, those who really want to use natural dyes must produce them on a small scale or purchase natural dyes from abroad.

We know from history that plants, trees, roots, bark and other biodegradable organic materials can be used as natural dyes, but (textile) artists and fashion designers in the Netherlands hardly have access to them. No natural dyes are produced locally, and there is very little knowledge about their application among artists, designers, and other stakeholders in the creative industry. 

Through the ‘Kruid-tot-Kleur’ project, these techniques are being made available to the creative industry in the Netherlands, and provided with the correct recipes for the sustainable and colourfast dyeing of yarns, textiles and clothing.

Our project is being developed around native crops that contribute to biodiversity and soil enrichment, specifically in areas that suffered from monoculture in the past. 

What do you hope to accomplish with your project? 

Developing local natural dyes, making them suitable and available for scale application within the Dutch creative sector, clothing & textile industry, while stimulating and safeguarding biodiversity and healthy soil. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? 

This project is such an inspiration for all involved! Even though all participating partners have never worked together before and are each coming from different sectors and professional backgrounds, the collaboration on this project seems so natural. 

Kruid-tot Kleur involves local farmers, a processing partner from the food industry, a sheltered workshop with experience in drying and preserving food, a textile artist and researcher, and a fashion designer with a manufacturing facility that is associated with the healthcare sector.

This project has brought us all new connections that form the foundation for new, exciting partnerships laying the foundation for our local value network. That in itself is a great result, but the most inspiring thing about this project is aligning with our diverse stakeholders on a common goal and shared values.

Continue following Nederland Fibershed’s work at their website,, and learn more about the Herb-to-Color project here. You can also follow their work on social media: on Instagram and Facebook

Southeastern New England Fibershed: Scaling Natural Dye Farming Systems Using Wastewater

Covers Massachusetts and Rhode Island

“How will thoughtful and beautiful design change people’s minds about this wastewater fertilizer? I can’t wait to see the change over the course of this year.”

Tell us about your project: 

Southeastern New England Fibershed is experimenting with wastewater’s impact on natural dye plants’ growth and color. Last year, we worked with the nation’s leading innovative/alternative septic test center in the U.S. (MASSTC) to develop a test site. On this test site, we grew natural dye plants in various conditions all spring and summer. These conditions included wastewater hydroponics, plots that wicked or were dosed on a timer with wastewater (blackwater), an indigo bed only fed urine, and a waste wool gardening project that grew plants so well even when it didn’t receive water during a drought.

We were in awe of how massive the blooms were and how prolifically they grew all summer. Last summer was a fun test run for what we are doing now, which will be a lot more data-driven. 

For year two, our team will look a lot closer at data surrounding nutrients in the soil. While last year was all about seeing if wastewater would impact color and/or growth (it did!), this year is a lot more focused on urine fertilization of plants and the ability to scale it as a fertilizer. We’ll be looking at urine’s impacts on both the plants as well as the soil and effluent that comes out through the soil. We’ll also be using a pasteurizer for the urine, and our hope is that MASSTC also can become a “urine depot.”

Our dream would be to get more students involved and to think outside the box about how we can make this a reality. How will thoughtful and beautiful design change people’s minds about this wastewater fertilizer? We can’t wait to see the change over the course of this year.

What do you hope to accomplish with your project? 

For the second year of this research, we are working with a small team to create fertilizer from wastewater, specifically urine. The program will help us develop the infrastructure and services necessary to collect, transport, process, and apply urine-derived fertilizers and humanure-based soil amendments. It’s incredibly interesting to work with scientists and soil experts to look at the impact of wastewater on soil as well as watch how incredible it is as a fertilizer. 

We have watched the project grow into something that could have lasting (positive) future impacts on natural dye (and all agricultural) farmers worldwide.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned? 

Education! Any talk about the bathroom repulses people, but we have major wastewater problems worldwide because of poop and pee. There, we said it.

One of the major efforts we aim to achieve with all of this is to get people to consider that waste isn’t waste. When processed correctly, urine and humanure are incredible fertilizers. We can turn this “waste” into an opportunity that could result in huge savings for farmers, less intensive mining of minerals, and less runoff from round-up ready fertilizers into ponds, streams, and oceans. 

When we brought people to the test site last summer, they could not believe how large and aggressively the plants had grown. They are shocked when they find out it’s thanks to pee and poop. All of this is heavily controlled at this test site, so the big push is how we can make it safe and scale it legally. That will require not only the public’s support but the local government’s as well.

Continue following Southeastern New England Fibershed’s work at their website,, and learn more about wastewater’s impacts on natural dye plants on their blog. You can also follow their work on social media: @senewenglandfibershed on Instagram and Facebook.  

These projects inspire and energize us, reflecting local communities’ deep history, knowledge, and actions toward developing regional fiber systems. Together this work demonstrates how grassroots actions can galvanize into system-changing movements. These projects are just a glimpse of the incredible work happening on the ground across the Fibershed Affiliate Program. Learn more about the Fibershed Affiliate network through our Threading Resilience Zine, and get involved in your bioregion by visiting the Affiliate Directory.

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Images courtesy of Chesapeake Fibershed, Fibershed Nederland, Southeastern New England Fibershed, and Hope Millham Photography.