Few people, perhaps, understand the seasonal alchemy of Mother Nature better than Jane Palmer, co-creator of the Noon Solar line of bags and now the founder of the first—and so far only—natural-dye production house in the United States. Launched in January and based out of Chicago, Noon Design Studio is committed to using sustainably harvested natural materials as a low-impact alternative to toxic fabric treatments. More significant, however, is that it endeavors to do so at a cost-efficient, production scale.

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Cutch wood chips used as dye feedstock

LIVE AND LET DYE

Natural dyeing, which uses naturally occurring materials to create color without chemicals, is an age-old process found universally in almost every culture. The ancient Egyptians, for one, used cotton dyed with madder root to mummify their Pharaohs, notes Palmer. “The Spanish became addicted to the pinks and reds made by cochineal [insects] after colonizing Central and South America,” she adds. “And indigo has long been used in Japan and Africa from peasants to nobles.”

The ancient Egyptians used red cotton dyed with madder root to mummify their Pharaohs.

Because of industrialization, most textiles today contain toxic substances such as lead, other heavy metals, and arsenic. Although naturally dyed fabrics are completely biodegradable and nontoxic, they’ve been consigned mostly to one-off, artisanal designs.

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A vat of scarlet dye extracted from cochineal insects.

COLOR SANS ANGUISH

It was during her time at Noon Solar that Palmer and her business partner, Marianne Fairbanks, determined a way to take natural textile dyeing on a broader production level. Thanks in large part to an industrial dye machine (basically a high-quality industrial washing machine that Palmer programmed to use with natural dyes), Noon Design Studio is able to dye fabrics in higher volumes.

The water and energy used in natural dyeing is minimal, and the water runoff can be returned to the water table.

Whether created from madder root, pomegranate, walnuts, indigo, or cochineal insects, natural dyes can yield some of the most brilliant hues imaginable. Plus, the water and energy used in the process is minimal, and the water runoff can be returned to the water table without any ill effects.

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Noon Design Studio’s first client was Annie Novotny of Frei Designs, whom Palmer helped dip-dye her organic cotton pieces in indigo.

GETTING A FIX

Despite their reputation for washing out, natural dyes can be just as colorfast as chemical ones. “I have an extensive mordanting process that lasts for seven days, which really helps set the dye in the fabric,” Palmer says. “My mordanting process is all-natural, as well. I mainly use alum-based mordants, which are refined from bauxite, the raw state of aluminum ore, which is a naturally occurring substance.”

Despite their reputation for washing out, natural dyes can be just as colorfast as chemical ones.

Clothing dyed with natural colors don’t need extra-special care, although Palmer advises us to follow the care labels. “Don’t throw your wool sweater in a hot washing machine, but wash and dry your cotton shirts,” she says. “If you are washing them for the first time, I would also suggest washing with similar colors first.”

+ Noon Design Studio