Fermenting flowers for fibres

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In light of a rising trend to purchase locally-made, sustainable materials amid supply chain shortages and climate change a Southeast farmer and entrepreneur is changing the way people think about how their clothes get made and sharing her knowledge in the process.

Anna Hunter says using natural dyes is her contribution to making the textile industry a more sustainable business.

“I started dyeing wool out of necessity then fell in love with the process,” Hunter said.

NICOLE BUFFIE THE CARILLON Anna Hunter grows her own plants to dye the wool she processes on her farm, Long Way Homestead. This year’s crop is her biggest yet.

Hunter runs Long Way Homestead, a sheep farm and wool processing mill in Ste Genevieve and the only operational mill in Manitoba.

Once a wool store owner in B.C., Hunter learned about natural dyes to diversify her stock which consisted of mostly white wool. Upon moving to the prairies to take wool-making into her own hands she brought her knowledge with her.

Her specialty and a process she’s come to teach others through workshops is harvesting and processing Japanese Indigo plants.

The leafy green plants are unassuming, growing in bushes reminiscent of potato plants during the summer months. However, once fermented and dried the pigment produced is a brilliant blue used for dying wool and fabric.

The process is long but the final product is worth the wait, Hunter said.

“It’s kind of magical,” she said.

Between soaking and fermenting the leaves, transferring the water to a vat and mixing substances to allow the pigment to separate from the water, then decanting the mixture — the process can take up to a week after harvest.

It may seem simple on paper but Hunter said the process is a little bit of science and a lot of intuition.

NICOLE BUFFIE THE CARILLON After nearly a week of fermenting and decanting the remaining liquid Japanese Indigo plants bear a blue sludge which is dried and used as pigment for wool and fabric dyes.

“It’s almost best to learn it by someone telling you or showing you,” she said.

Unlike other plants used for natural dyes Japanese Indigo doesn’t grow to be the colour it is used for. Hunter grows 80 percent of the plants she uses to dye her wool across her acreage while the rest are foraged from plants around her.

The finished product is about as natural as it can get.

“You could literally throw it on your compost pile and all those nutrients will go back into the land base,” she said.

“That isn’t the same with synthetics.”

Plants used to create natural dyes also produce natural colours not needed with synthetic dyes, Hunter said; Marigolds yield warm yellow to green tones; Black Knight Scabiosas produce teal; onion skins can even be used to create gold colours.

Hunter is now sharing her wealth of knowledge through workshops hosted on her property.

While she primarily teaches textile enthusiasts the lengthy process of harvesting and processing Japanese Indigo she lends her knowledge of sustainability within the industry as well.

(double-click to edit) NICOLE BUFFIE THE CARILLON Japanese Indigo plants, while green in colour, produce a deep indigo pigment when fermented and processed.

Hunter said using natural, sustainable processes is a core value of Long Way Homestead. In light of climate change concerns across the globe Hunter said the need for local options will grow.

An infographic released by the European Parliament, a legislative body of the European Union, estimate the textile industry is responsible for 20 percent of global water pollution. Fast fashion — the term for the constant provision of new clothing styles sold at low prices — has led to a stark increase in the quantity of clothes produced and tossed, many of which end up in landfills.

Hunter said the first step towards sustainability is rethinking how to access necessities.

“It will be more and more critical we actually have access to the things that we need to feed and clothe ourselves within our different regions,” she said.

“What we’re trying to do here is build that resilience to a localized supply chain.”

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