Colors of Earlham

The Colors of Earlham: A Ford/Knight Project

By Nancy Taylor, Hannah Fox, Yoni Glogower, Risa Nisiguchi, Caitlin McGrath, Joann Quiñones, Natalie Reitz, and Elizabeth Tipton.

Website by Natalie Reitz

Until the first textile dye was synthesized in 1856, all color on fiber came from natural dyes.  All color, for peasant dress and the most elegant of court costumes, for decorative tapestries and pile rugs, required a lot of skill and a lot of time. Most dyes were from plant materials, though there were several significant animal sources as well. The trade in dye materials was an important part of economies world wide, whether those dyes had been gathered from natural areas or grown as crops.  But, imported dyes were expensive, and many dyers were dependent on far more local dye sources, those they could grow in gardens or gather in the wild.  This raised the question: What if we could only have colors from Earlham College?

For this Ford/Knight course we explored the range of colors we could create from the plants that grow on Earlham’s properties: Back Campus, Reller’s Woods and Wildman Woods. We worked only with wild growing, native and non-native plants, and only those that we could collect sustainably, without damaging plant populations. In one sense, this is not original research. A great deal has been written about natural dyes, including those native to the Midwest.  However, most local dyers made heavy use of non-native plants grown in gardens.  Also, the color that comes from wild plants varies according to local growing conditions.  Our research goal was, then, to discover the palette available from Earlham.

This course had a series of learning goals and anticipated outcomes:

  1.  To develop an in depth understanding of the dyeing process.
  2. To enhance our “sense of place”, using resources from our very local area.
  3. To have direct experience with Earlham’s natural environment and wild plants.
  4. To experiment (and keep records) to create and duplicate colors.
  5. To enhance our ability to understand the labor-intensive ways that textiles were made before the industrial revolution, and to compare that to modern methods.
  6. To increase our understanding of what life and work was like before the industrial revolution.

 After many hours collecting plant materials, dyeing fibers, documenting results, sorting yarns and creating final projects, we all feel pretty assured that we have made reasonable progress on all of our course goals! This website is designed to document our results. We realize there is still so much more to learn about natural dyeing, and so many more dyes to gather from Earlham. But for now, we hope you enjoy the results of our Ford/Knight course research.