Soil to Studio: Rediscovering the Oakland Campus with Sasha Duerr

A student works in the garden

Fast food generally isn't healthy. But it is easy, quick, and cheap.

You could say the same about the synthetic chemical dyes that are used to color our clothes. And just as the "slow food" movement first took hold in the Bay Area—where the population is more socially sensitive, health conscious, and willing to experiment—the Bay Area is also home to the "slow textiles" movement, promoting sustainable, whole-systems thinking in the realms of textiles and fashion.

Sasha Duerr has emerged as a key player in this. She is a lecturer in CCA's Textiles Program, and a widely known textile artist and designer whose work has been exhibited across the country. She is passionately dedicated to education, specifically the promotion of ecoliteracy—an understanding of the natural world that is grounded in direct experience, an enhanced sense of place.

If there's anything Duerr doesn't lack, it's a sense of place. For her wedding last summer she hand-dyed all of her bridesmaids' dresses using fennel that she gathered around her neighborhood in the Mission District.

She also has gained a new appreciation recently for CCA's Oakland campus. Despite all the hundreds of days she spent there while earning her MFA in 2001–3, she says she never really saw the campus until she began working on the Fiber and Dye Map, now available at the campus and online.

"I've gotten to know that fig tree, for instance, and how it's been coming back just in the last couple of weeks. I care for this campus now in a way that I didn't before. There are some crazy plants here, like the monkey puzzle tree. We're pretty sure that many of the specimens here today were intentionally planted in this configuration back in the 1920s by the school's founder, Frederick Meyer."

The Fiber and Dye Map project involved combing the campus with CCA facilities staff and staff from the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley, identifying plants that produce fibers and dyes. The map details the plant names, their various uses and properties, and the colors and textures that their leaves, fruit, and bark are capable of producing.

Did you know that aloe, that standard ingredient in skin lotion, is also a dye producer? "Ivy and juniper are dye producers, too, and all over the campus. The tannin in native oak can be used as a dye, but it's also a binder, which means it helps other dyes bind to natural fibers. We even have a maple tree of the type that can be tapped to make maple syrup!"

Digging in the dirt

The Fiber and Dye Map was just one part of Duerr's fall 2008 Textiles course, titled Soil to Studio. Another major component was the creation of a brand-new plot dedicated to edible fiber and dye plants at the Berkeley botanical garden. The "edible" aspect was important, to give the students experience specifically with nontoxic species that can be safely grown at home, around pets and children. For many it was their very first exposure to gardening, and a powerful encounter with the raw materials that eventually become their studio materials.

The botanical garden has long-standing relationships with Mills College, San Francisco State University, the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other Bay Area educational institutions, but those courses are all of the "introduction to botany" or "landscape design" sort. To tie in textiles and fashion is an exciting and important next step, and a natural one for the botanical garden to take with CCA.

Emma Fowler, a Ceramics student, says it wasn't at all a stretch for her to enroll in the Soil to Studio course. "I transferred here from Baltimore specifically because I wanted to learn about sustainability and the things this environment has to offer. There's not a lot of discussion about sustainability in ceramics. I'm experimenting with using natural clay and fibers in my work, and staining and dyeing porcelain with natural dyes."

One natural dye producer that our grandmothers' generation used all the time was onion skins. Onion skins were once essential for Easter egg dyeing, but of course these days it's all about the little synthetic chemical tablets. "All it takes is one or two generations for our culture literally to forget," observes Duerr. "I love rediscovering and experimenting with 'lost' recipes. Recovering knowledge can be a creative process. I've been going to a lot of old bookstores and library sales, finding books from the 1800s called, say, Plants and Wildflowers Every Child Should Know. We've become so disconnected from our environment—even places we're in every day—which makes it really hard to care for it."

The slow textiles revolution

"Food is leading the way in the sustainability revolution," Duerr continues. "Clothing and architecture are coming next. They occupy a different time frame. Food is immediate; you're actually putting it in your body."

We don't consume clothing quite so literally, but the production of textiles uses the same resources that are required to make food: land, water, air, soil. Questions of biodiversity and whole-systems thinking apply equally to both. Both use (literally) tons of toxic fertilizers and chemicals. And also like food, Duerr points out, clothing is not just a basic need, but a mode of personal and cultural expression.

"We have to raise awareness of how rich our world is, of how many possibilities there are. You go to the store and there are only three or four different kinds of apples to choose from. With fiber and dye plants it's the same way. There is so much more out there for us to explore!

"I like to pose the question of how we move forward from organic to actually regenerative. How can we use things that are byproducts or waste products? What systems are already in place that we can tap into, become participants in? You can glean onion skins at the grocery store, for instance. They don't cost anything, don't weigh anything, and would get thrown away otherwise. Similarly, we're working with the gardeners on CCA's Oakland campus to collect their clippings to dye fabrics in Textiles courses. And I've started an educational nonprofit, the Permacouture Institute, to further spread the word."

Lydia West, a Textiles student, is excited about the possibilities and processes shes explored in Soil to Studio, even if they are, by definition, slow. "I really wanted some exposure to making my own dyes in an ecofriendly way," she says. "We do a lot of our own dyeing as part of the program, but not much with natural dyes, I think largely because it's harder to make them last and you don't get such a large range of colors. And obviously it takes a lot longer, so it's harder to fit into a semester. Sasha is the only one teaching this. It involves a lot of experimentation, and it's fascinating."

The fall 2008 Soil to Studio course also included local foraging and visits to urban gardens; meetings with pioneers in ecological and regenerative design; hands-on practice with dyeing and felting; upcycling T-shirts with Alabama Chanin; field trips to the Innovative Fashion Council and Ocelot Clothing Company in San Francisco; and a final exhibition at the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley that featured student work from all aspects of the course.

Many thanks to Deepa Natarajan and Jeff Vadney of the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley and Roland Pitschel, CCA's Oakland facilities supervisor, for their help in identifying plants on the Oakland campus for the Fiber and Dye Map project. Thanks also to Sputnik graphic designer Jamie Lee for her beautiful work on the map. Many thanks to Christine Manoux, the botanical garden's education program coordinator, for her help in the creation of the new fiber and dye plot there.