The Colors of the Summer

Piece of paper with the title "Colors of the Summer" at the top and different squares of wool, cotton, and linen fabric died in shades of blue (indigo), purple (pincushion), grey-browns (amaranth, hollyhock, calendula), orange-brown (cosmo), and dark brown (walnut).
Kat’s dye pallet featuring all of the colors of dyed fabric she created this summer.

For this blog post our Programs Lead, Ryan Dostal, interviewed our Floriculture and Programs Intern, Kat Sehgal, to learn more about her work this past summer. Much of Kat’s work involved dying fabric with plants. In the winter, the garden worked with faculty in the School of Human Ecology, built a plant list, and read a book. The Garden team didn’t have a lot of experience and so, we learned a lot together! 


To start us off, Kat could you share a little bit about yourself?

I am a recent graduate interested in hands-on environmental education for people of all ages. I enjoy art and gardening and think it’s a great way to get people connected to the outdoors, being a part of nature and enjoying their experiences outside. I have loved getting to learn a variety of ways to create with plants like flower pounding, bouquet making and flower crowns, plant based dying, and gardening overall. It’s been exciting being able to share these skills with others. I think it is important for people to interact with nature in a hands-on way.


I have heard that mordants are challenging, can you tell us what a mordant and why they can be hard to work with?

A mordant is a substance that is applied to fabric so the fabric can be more light and color fast. Some mordants that you would find in your kitchen would include white vinegar and alum powder. You can also harvest rhubarb leaves or any plant with a high tannin content to make your own. Or you can buy chemical powders in the forms of iron, aluminum, and copper. Because these are pretty potent, we bought them in bulk.


Mordants involve adding your leaf material or powder mordant to a vat of water and bringing it to boiling so the material fully dissolves or extracts from the plant to create a mordant solution. Then the fibers are added to the mordant solution. These are simmered for up to an hour, which allows the mordants to open the pores of the fabric and helps to integrate the mordant into their composition. This changes the makeup of the fiber to make it color and light fast. Once I got the hang of it, they weren’t too difficult to use. At first, it was challenging to figure out because I had no idea how effective different types and quantities of mordants were, so it involved a lot of experimenting. 


Okay, I am also wondering about the dye garden. What was successful this year?

I think it was very successful in helping us run our workshops and for me to have materials to learn about dying and flower pounding. Whether you’re hammering the flower into cloth or making a pot of dye, it takes a lot of flowers, leaves, or bark. It’s been helpful to learn how to grow flowers like cosmo, marigold, amaranth, sunflower, and indigo, and I hope it was successful in showing visitors what types of plants have been used for traditional dyeing methods. I have enjoyed showing visitors where in the past different colors came from in clothing and fabric.


Your dye project sounds like it has been quite successful despite the challenges, but that hasn’t been all you’ve worked on this past summer. What other projects have you been involved in?

Dying has been a huge part of the summer. Along with this, I have been making a book of my dye baths, which can be used for future UW class visits and during public tours and workshops. I have been doing other plant art and dye based workshops. We’ve had paid workshops like flower pounding, bouquet making, and arranging. Dip-dying pots, We’ve done drop in bouquet making. I’ve supported the summer concerts, and worked  with lots of kid’s groups visiting campus, UW summer camps, schools, grandparents and kids as part of Grandparents University. We’ve explored flower pounding, making plant based water colors, learning garden techniques, harvesting seed saving, scavenger hunts and nature journaling. It’s been great to think about different techniques, and how to lead and facilitate these activities.


Thank you Kat! You did an awesome job working on all the different projects in the Garden. Anyone reading should know It was a successful summer and one that will allow the garden to build on its dye knowledge and improve the quality of what we’re able to share with the public!


Large metal pot filled with dark flowers submerged in dark liquid.
Pincushion flowers in the dye vat.
Hands holding fabric dyed in various shades of purple.
Different types of fabric freshly dyed with pincushion.