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Announcing the CWM Natural Dye Club 2017

Published November 16, 2016.
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

We are so pleased to offer the inaugural Custom Woolen Mills Natural Dye Club subscription; a collaboration with fibre artist, Megan Samms. This subscription is a knit-along with a twist - it is also a grow-along and dye-along. What does that mean? That means we send you a kit with dye plant seeds for growing, natural 100% wool yarn, an original pattern, and instructions for signing in with the group. Once you sign in you'll start receiving email correspondence as, together, we go through the process of growing our dye plants, harvesting ripe dye-stuff, preparing and mordanting our yarn for dyeing, dyeing our yarn, and then knitting up the finished project.

You may be thinking to yourself, "Ya, that's a fun idea.", but the truth is it's about sooo much more than just good fun. It's actually part of a big conversation we should be having about colour. It's about the environment. It's about social sustainability. It's about taking ownership of the impact that the textiles we use have in our world, one small step at a time.

Let's break that down a bit. Traditionally, colour was obtained from plants, trees, bugs, and other things growing in the natural world. It was one of the main commodities driving world exploration and trade. Vibrant, hard to come by colours, such as deep blues and bright reds, were highly valued and never taken for granted in daily life (if you are interested in some of the history of colour, a fun place to start is by checking out the book,  A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield). Today we are very privileged to have easy access to vibrant colour all around us. If you look up from where you are reading this you will probably see at least 10 different coloured items within your immediate view. This is thanks to monetarily inexpensive synthetic dyes that go into our textiles, our paints, and our inks. But there are hidden environmental and social costs to those dyes that we are not currently taking responsibility for.

The most prominent techniques for manufacturing and using chemical dyes cause a lot of pollution (this is particularly noticeable as water pollution). The dye industry was listed as one of the top 10 polluters in the world in the 2016 Worst Polluted Report by Pure Earth Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross. Many dye-stuff are produced and used in countries that don't enforce high environmental standards, so polluted dye water is simply dumped into the river rather than responsibly (and expensively) dealt with. In addition to causing what can only be considered an environmental disaster, this deprives huge populations of people downstream of access to safe water, translating into a social disaster of exploited people, many of whom are forced to work in the dye industry under sub-par health and safety conditions, who are sick from toxic exposure.


In contrast, with conscientious use of natural dyes there are no adverse environmental impacts (when I say conscientious use, I mean with a mordant such as alum or iron, rather than a mordant such as chrome, and careful choice of what dyes stuffs you choose to use). Dye plants can contribute to healthy and vibrant ecosystems and water used in the process of natural dyeing is not rendered toxic but, rather, can be used for watering further dye or food crops. The challenge is natural dyes are labour intensive to produce and use, and the process is slow. Colours are grown over seasons, or even years, before harvesting and dyeing - it is a process within the confines of mother nature and as a result they are relatively expensive compared to chemical dyes (that are subsidized by inexpensive, non-renewable petrochemicals, exploited labour, and poor environmental practices). To make the transition to more sustainable colour consumers have to be willing to pay out considerably more for a naturally dyed product and/or choose to have a little less colour in their man-made items, but why would they when a bright red chemically dyed sweater can be purchased for dirt cheap, not realizing the unseen cost of that sweater? We, as a society, have a major addiction to cheap colour.

How do we overcome that addiction? It's a question we spend a lot of time thinking about here at the mill. For us the answer always seems to come back to education and awareness. As we learn more about the impact our choices have we can begin to look at alternative ways of acting in the world. On a grand scale the subject is complicated and can feel insurmountable, however, if you take it one step at a time, changes can be made.


So, once again, we are pleased to offer the inaugural Custom Woolen Mills Natural Dye Club subscription. With our guidance, and the peer support of fellow subscription members, you will be responsible for a little piece of colour in your world - something we hope you learn to recognize as highly valuable!

This year's project is a great one for the beginner gardener, beginner dyer, and beginner knitter alike. Designed by Megan Samms, the ksikwekewiku's gloves, or, 'fruit and berry ripening moon' gloves, are a beautiful little pair of fingerless gloves made for harvesting - colour, food, life name it! We'll be growing marigolds to dye with. If you love knitting with naturally dyed yarns but hate growing stuff or vice versa, consider getting two subscriptions and partnering up with a friend - one of you does the growing, you both get together to do the dyeing, and one of you does the knitting!


This subscription is available for a limited time only while quantities last.  You can purchase the subscription from our online store, or in person here at the mill. We will also have it available at Market Collective Nov. 25th to 27th, at the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre, where we will have a booth set up.

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