Gardening to dye for

By Dagney C. Ernest | Apr 03, 2013
Photo by: Astrig Tanguay A garden at Searsport Shores Ocean Campground contains plants that can be used for natural dyeing.

Searsport — The occasional snowflake still flies but the approach of the growing season also is in the air. Those itching to start their gardens can find inspiration Saturday afternoon, April 6, at the Penobscot Marine Museum’s Main Street Gallery when Astrig Tanguay caps the museum’s Keeping Warm lecture series with a 2 p.m. presentation titled Dyes From Your Garden: The Natural Colors of Our Lives.

Tanguay, who runs Searsport Shores Ocean Campground with her husband Steve, has 40 gardens to plan for and isn’t waiting for the last frost.

“We have wooden floors and they get destroyed this time of year. A lot of the dye plants you can only get as seed, so I’ve got them started inside,” Tanguay said a week before the talk.

Tanguay’s interest in natural dyes goes back to a time she was living in France and was learning about fabric design. She collected books from the “Whole Earth Catalog” days, which she still relies on.

“They’re full of details! Now, people see big, glossy photos in magazines and online … natural dyes have hit a popular spike, which I’m interested in and find hard to watch,” she said.

Her ambivalence comes from the fact that the colors produced by natural dyes have a soft, muted palette not always reflected in saturated “Photoshopped” images, and making the dyes fast takes a more mindful approach than the DIY articles imply.

“I worry people will try it and get disappointed. They dye something in beet juice and it comes out this brilliant color; a day later, it’s dull and looks gray,” she said, adding she is also a fan of bright acid dyes.

As part of her presentation, Tanguay will bring in “a ton” of examples of naturally dyed fabrics, including a project or two that went awry. She will talk about dyeing both protein — wool, silk — and cellulose — cotton, linen — fibers.

“Some are 4-years-old, some are 50-years-old … one is the most gorgeous blanket with eight different shades of indigo,” she said.

Indigo was the start of Tanguay’s dye plantings at the campground, which her parents bought 18 years ago. The soil of the site’s 40 acres is heavily clay, so they planted lots of indigo — Indigofera — for its ability to fix nitrogen. Indigo also is well known for its blue dye, which Tanguay has made use of over the years.

“We do have a little ‘show’ dye garden near the art studio, but most of what I use for dyeing is just part of the regular gardens … some of the plants are ornamental and some are edible,” she said, citing carrot tops, onion skins, marigolds and coreopsis as good dye candidates.

Dyes From Your Garden: The Natural Colors of Our Lives will include a PowerPoint slide show; many examples of dyed fabrics and fibers; including “upcycled” items from thrift stores; and handouts of dye recipes and plant lists. What it will not include is an actual demonstration of preparing natural dyes and using them.

“That’s definitely an outdoor thing! We do it during the summer,” she said, adding that natural dyeing is “neglectful,” in a good way.

“We’ll toss stuff into a pot while we’re gardening, cover it with water and by the time we remember it again, it’s ready to use,” she said.

Tanguay uses lobster pots and turkey-fryer burners for most of her natural dyeing, although she does have a much larger pot that gets put into service too.

“I have a huge crab pot, so I’ll make a big vat of walnut dye — you could bathe a St. Bernard in it,” she said.

Dyeing pets is not recommended, but Tanguay and her husband have three angora goats and, just arrived, a Navajo-Churro lamb whose fleece she processes, spins and dyes.

“We have enough to use for the family, and I put any extra in the [campground] store,” she said.

Come the first week after Labor Day, the campground becomes, for four days, Fiber College, the largest annual event dedicated to fiber arts education on the Eastern seaboard. This year’s lineup of classes, workshops and demos, just posted on, includes two natural dyeing classes and a weekend dyeing tent. Those who get bitten by the natural dyeing bug will find plenty to interest them at the annual event.

“The fascinating thing for me is that every place’s colors are different. Natural dyes from the Southwest are different from the ones in Florida … it’s almost like wine,” said Tanguay, who directs Fiber College.

She has experienced some of these distinctions in her dyeing career and will bring examples of fiber she dyed in Peru and Morocco. While shooting a photo to be used with the museum’s listings of her talk, she discovered a terroir connection much closer to home.

“I put some wool [skeins] in a shell on the beach and noticed the indigo was identical to the color of the mussel shells,” she said.

Admission to Tanguay’s April 6 presentation is free. Penobscot Marine Museum’s Main Street Gallery is downtown on Route 1.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or