Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Copyright © 2008 Sara J. Kadolph


Cultural expression reflects the multi-dimensional environment in which an individual lives and works. Art and craft function as technologies within that environment. The materials used say who we are, and how we think and feel. The use of natural dyes expresses philosophy and intent. In my case, renewable resources (natural dyes) used in my art work connect me to horticulture. I grow many of the natural dyes I use and sell both dye seeds and goods dyed with Iowa-grown and exotic natural dyes. Using natural dyes also connects a dyer to the past and future. The historical connection occurs as I explore the techniques, processes and resources that have been used by earlier cultures to achieve specific colours and create visual impressions. The future connection occurs as I rediscover traditional methods and explore innovations in the process, with mordants, and by means of new dyestuffs that minimize environmental problems. Natural dyes motivate the fiber artist to be more experimental, more creative, and more expressive.

In my work as a professor, author, artist, and textile researcher, natural dyes reflect technology and they express empirical and ecological knowledge. My materials are a renewable resource. My work is designed to do two things: to help consumers understand the possibilities of natural dyes as renewable materials; and also to expand the applications of natural dyes in commercial use. In my work I use a variety of natural dyes applied through innovative methods (e.g. dyeing in zip lock bags to conserve water). My approach conveys that I am concerned about the land, crops, climate, and the interconnections that link me to farm women in earlier generations of my own family. Dyes go beyond craft in my case, for growing natural dyes locates me within the winder family of humankind where cloth production, including dyeing, was for thousands of years part of women’s daily experience.