An Interview with Lost in Fiber’s Abigail Doan on Tumbleweeds & Urban Seeds

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Flotsam orbs by Abigail Doan on the work table at the Textile Arts Center in Manhattan

Brooklyn and Manhattan based Textile Arts Center’s Sewing Seeds program provides accessible and inspired information on natural dyes, to bring awareness for their use as a sustainable art medium. Currently in its fundraising mode, TAC uses Sewing Seeds to partner with community gardens, urban farms, parks and other green spaces to create educational natural dye gardens.  TAC says on their site “In these gardens, the public can interact and learn from a number of plant species that can be used to obtain color. Through the gardening season the Natural Dye Gardens are also a backdrop for workshops, lectures and other events.”

Now in its 5th successful year of teaching city dwellers about sustainability, creativity, and exploration of new frontiers of natural dyes, TAC presents “TUMBLEWEED COLONY,” a site-specific gathering by Lost in Fiber’s Abigail Doan, inspired by urban resilience, botanical finds, and gathered flotsam.

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Custom-made knit tube necklace by Gamma Folk incorporating naturally-dyed fiber scraps

Join Lost in Fiber, the Textile Arts Center and a host of friends May 7th, from 7-11PM, at the Wythe Hotel, for an evening of celebration of all these community efforts by buying tickets for their benefit party HERE.

We caught up with Abigail Doan (and a little with natural dye guru Sasha Duerr and Textile Arts Center co-founder Isa Rodrigues) to talk more about Sewing Seeds, sexy things like bioremediation and human existence in an ever-changing urban palette.

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The aloe family is also very important in bioremediation practices and much testing has been done throughout India with its intake of heavy metals (Photo by Sasha Duerr at California College of the Arts Urban Community Garden in Oakland)

With Sewing Seeds being a “site-specific gathering inspired by urban resilience, botanical finds, and gathered flotsam,” give me several examples of how you’ll represent this urban resilience.

I decided to explore the idea of ‘urban resilience’ in the development of Tumbleweed Colony, as it seemed like an ideal opportunity to explore how info-laden city dwellers drift through the complexity of urban space. Each of us has their own strategy for navigating neighborhoods or linked pathways that are densely populated, commercial or industrial, and seemingly in-organic in nature. We are, as tumbleweeds ourselves, picking up random data bits and delivering them to new surfaces and zones that comprise our interwoven threads of daily existence.

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Distillation process at Industry City Distillery, a beverage sponsor and creative contributor to Tumbleweed Colony

The Textile Arts Center’s Sewing Seeds program is all about resilience in my opinion, as they are actively searching for ways to add more authentic color and site-specific sensory experiences to the community.

The creative contributors for the event range from bioremediation/natural dye experts to handmade soap makers incorporating true street grit to local distillers who are quite literally putting down roots in vacant lots that have been abandoned for decades. Together we are proposing a way for individuals to explore the wilder side of natural dyes while also tuning in to auditory and tactile phenomena.

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Wrapped Manzanita branches with recycled plastic bags and twine 

Natural dyes have been used since caveman days as a way to document history, to communicate, and of course through time, to change clothing a new hue. But in recent days, how have you seen things like natural dyes and fibers being a form of activism?

Natural dyes are the DIY pride of the sustainable textile movement. One of the most empowering aspects of dyeing with botanicals, weeds, food wastes, as well as extracts (historically) known to dyers, is that the very act of sharing this information is, in essence, rooted in the seductive nature of color stories. I have always believed that it is more effective to lure folks in with beauty (fabrication authenticity) and then reveal the more complex issues at play via the unfolding of deeper (controversial) layers. Linked to this is the language of biological and cultural diversity and the daily loss of this richness as modern life allows for materials and methods to tragically fade away.

I have been an avid follower of the natural dye expert, author, and artist Sasha Duerr, as the way that she describes our connection to place serves as a visionary platform for crafting environmental actions and genius loci.

Sasha shared these thoughts during the course of recent dialogues:

“It is tragic but true, that we are on the brink of major losses in both cultural memory and biodiversity. As we are often out of sync with our natural environment, learning to identify plants of this world, the pleasure of growing our own food, or how to create a color palette ‘from soil to studio’ are direct actions we can take to support and encourage eco literacy.

Through experimentation with weeds, food and floral bi-products, bioremediation and the biodiversity of local and seasonal plant-based colors, it is the hope that we share strengthening relationships of nature and nurture – as one can not be un-twined from the other.”

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Forage + Sundry airplants being prepped for a fiber/filter installation

Talk about urban bioremediation. It seems the term means to employ the use of organisms to remove or neutralize pollutants from a contaminated site (ex. a city). Does Sewing Seeds touch on how the natural world can serve as a filter in a city? The idea that nature can neutralize pollutants but also perhaps neutralize habits created from a fast-paced society?

I am not an expert on bioremediation, but I wanted to incorporate research on the topic in relation to natural dyes as a new direction for Sewing Seeds and its urban outreach efforts. I reached out to artist, natural dyer, and  ‘Soil to Studio’ advocate, Sasha Duerr, as she has been researching this topic for some time and is a wealth of information.

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Sasha Duerr’s medicinal tincture making from dye plants in the California College of the Arts Urban Community Garden in Oakland

We collectively felt that it was an essential to address the role that natural dye plants might play in actually improving soil quality, urban plots, and toxic zones deemed unusable. Sasha and her assistant, Laurin, have shared a unique bioremediation plant list that our creative contributors have been working from as they craft the event’s botanical dye tinctures (“palette cleansers”), air plant filtering garlands, the colony of tumbleweed flotsam orbs, and our desert soundscape. As a special offering to all general admission guests for the evening, Sasha will be creating a special bioremediation dye recipe card for everyone to take home and consider for future use.

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Installation materials being prepped by Abigail Doan at Lost in Fiber studio in NYC (includes textiles and yarns dyed with plant extracts from Botanical Colors during an Earth Day open house at the Textile Arts Center in Manhattan. 

It was also important for me to consider creative ways to include folks who perhaps had no knowledge of or specific interest in natural dyes or textiles, but as local residents might relate to the sensory aspects of day-to-day environmental factors and the stresses of pollutants: dust, city smells, noise, street grime, fatigue, and even chronic malaise in terms of disassociation with place making.

Is there something of more worth than we realize about the use of hands, the art of making, that they are a sort of material cleansing?

This is something that the Textile Art Center and Sewing Seeds address pro-actively, and for this reason, I feel that they are unique resources for an urban setting. I think that everyone needs to define for themselves what sensory authenticity and material connection entails. For some this might involve seed saving, repairing an old sweater, saving food scraps for dyes, or simply changing the course of their walk in order to identify plants filtering through the cracks of neighborhood sidewalks. Material cleansing is also the art of the drift.

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Laser cut prototyping for flotsam forms with Abigail Doan and Annelie Berner of New Inc.

Why does Sewing Seeds need to exist?

Abigail Doan:
Tumbleweed Colony proposes a new crossroad for natural dyes and community involvement via the cultivation of the wilder side of urban living.
We live in an era where information overload and environmental shifts have us navigating realms that feel increasingly de-humanized and de-saturated. Fortunately, there are bold new indicators that sustainable solutions for environmental balance and regional biodiversity exist within the complexity of our urban networks and the soil of vacant plots.

We invite you to drift into a world that poetically and resiliently distills the atmospheric dust, cast-off flotsam, and botanical finds of your everyday environs. The tinctured glow of tumbleweed pods and bioremediation dye concoctions lure us into examining site-specific remedies that transport our spirits. This is an occasion to cleanse your personal palette while also connecting more deeply with auditory and tactile sensations from near and far.

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Hand made grit soap experiments by The Greater Goods in Brooklyn

Sasha Duerr:
Living color and textile ecologies are vital elements in the alchemy of sustainable cultural practice and slow fashion. There is an atlas of color making emerging, connecting plant dyes to a vital movement, to the mundane  wonders of our everyday, to the awe inspiring of new connections, and to the social and ecological fabric that supports and nourishes the process.
I am happy to be witnessing the new wave (and new new wave as demonstrated in my students) of textile art and social practice emerging quite verdantly. This is a really interesting and exciting time.

Isa Rodrigues:
When we talk about sustainability in our lives, including art, very often there aren’t simple answers. It all depends on the prism through which we’re looking. Natural dyes are no different. Since early in the age of humanity, we learned how to extract precious colors out of natural materials, such as roots, flowers, or barks and even beetles, and mastered this art of natural dyeing through experimentation and alchemy. In the past few years, natural dyes have become a major topic amongst the sustainable fashion movement. However, the demands of the modern world make it challenging to dye with natural dyes in a truly sustainable way. It is time to take natural dyes a step further – to learn how to grow these colorant materials in a more sustainable way for communities and eco-systems, identify ‘eco-friendly’ sources of natural color in our local environment, such as food waste, invasive and even bio-remediative species, and explore alternative ways to use these colorants in our lives.

To continue the conversation and support Sewing Seeds, go here to attend the 2015 Benefit Party on May 7th, at the Wythe Hotel.