TWISP — As a textile artist, Sara Ashford has used silk, linen and wool as her canvass for 30 years.
For the last 15 years, she has studied natural dyes, and has gathered or imported the flowers, leaves, roots and occasionally insects to make her own colors.
This fall, she will plant her first dye garden, in a public space just outside the door of her Culler Studio at TwispWorks.
TwispWorks is the project of a Twisp City agency, formed to improve the local economy through art, education, agriculture and technology. On Sept. 21, it will host a fundraiser to help Ashford raise $3,000 for soil, plants and a garden gate.
Once it’s finished, the garden will be open to the public so people can look at the plants, which will be labeled by name, and with color samples demonstrating the beautiful hues they create.
Ashford envisions a sitting area, where people can relax and enjoy the garden.
She’s hoping the space will raise awareness about the use of natural dyes.
“People often don’t talk about where their dye is coming from,” she said, adding, “The textile industry is one of the largest polluting industries in the world. I can’t change that on a large scale, but I can do my part to change it on a small scale.”
As an artist, Ashford said she finds people are misinformed about natural dyes, assuming they encompass mostly the duller colors of dirt.
“Natural dyes are not just blah. That’s what people think — it’s all brown,” she said.
A walk through her studio proves her point.
A recent art class left behind swaths of linen where purple and yellow flowers left colorful marks. Skeins of yarn dyed in deep reds, bright yellows and deep blues hang from a wall.
And much of her own work on hand-painted material is tacked up around the room.
One of her finished pieces includes a hanging featured last year at the International Plant Dyeing Art Exhibition and Conference in Beijing.
Around the corner, in her studio kitchen, a big bowl of chartreuse-colored wolf lichen sits on the counter next to two bags of onion skins, that create a golden-colored dye.
“I start picking and drying all summer, trying to make enough for the winter,” she said of the fresh plant materials laid out to dry.
Her shelves are filled with jars of dried flowers, leaves and roots. One holds dead cochineal bugs, a cactus parasite that she imports from Mexico or Peru. Huge canning pots which she uses for dyeing are stacked above the stove.
Hand-dyeing is a laborious process. Ashford first soaks the material, usually for at least two weeks, in alum or another agent that helps hold the color. When it’s time to dye them, she carefully weighs out grams of plant material, and heats the water to a specific temperature to make sure the color holds.
Whether the water is hard or soft can change the outcome. But after years of experimenting, she said, “You get a sense of what will work and what won’t.”
Her daughter calls her a botanical alchemist, but her methods are quite scientific, even if the outcome appears magical.
Ashford won’t stop gathering many of the plants that she uses for dyeing. “I can’t go on a trip for very long without wanting to step out and grab some wild sumac or something.” But when her garden is in, she can step outside her studio door and harvest hops and coreopsis, madder root or indigo for her next adventure with color.