In 2012, a small seed of an idea was planted during a workshop at the University of North Texas. For two days, visiting artist Sasha Duerr led students from the Fibers Program through a series of explorations of natural dyes that opened new ways of seeing color, chemistry, and the natural world. Plant matter collected from our surrounding environment transformed silk and cotton cloth into a myriad of colors and visual textures. This workshop catalyzed conversations that turned an idea into a tangible, interactive space.
In 2013, supported by the UNT We Mean Green Fund, a small team of students transformed a patch of grass into the UNT Natural Dye Garden. This student designed and managed space was created to serve the entire UNT community. As a dye garden, the space houses fifteen varieties of dye plants ranging from experimental dye plants – purple basil, iris, and bluebonnets - to tried and true varieties such as madder, weld, woad, and coreopsis. The experimental nature of this space begins with each plant variety and extends to explorations of what these plants will produce on cloth - harvested Black-eyed Susan release a golden hue on silk, plains coreopsis blooms will create varieties of oranges, weld produces rich greens and yellows. As each plant variety begins to mature, students will explore the color variations, record the recipes for dyes, and find innovative ways to educate the local community.
Bringing the community into the garden is an important aspect of the garden’s function and design. The student designers thought beyond mundane plant beds and turned a rectangular patch of ground into a web of paths that wind from end to end. Decomposed granite pathways undulate in and around each plant bed, creating organic islands that create multifunctional spaces. In collaboration with Greenememe Design and MAP (Make Art With Purpose), a sculptural seating area was designed to create a visual lift from the horizontal plane of the garden. Titled Knotty Nest, ten hammock-like chairs surround a center rotunda that is covered with re-purposed lace rope. This sculpture has changed the garden from a functional space to one that encourages anyone who passes by to stop and sit (or in some cases, sleep).
From the first seed of this idea, the garden was communicated as an experimental project. Each season will bring something new – a plant that is finally ready to dye with, a community group ready to try their hand at textile techniques, or someone just figuring out that you can actually sit on the sculpture. As a part of a university focused on student engagement and sustainable practices, the opportunity for a group of undergraduate students to turn an idea into a reality could happen, and did.
Lesli Robertson is a Senior Lecturer in Fibers at the University of North Texas and faculty mentor on the UNT Natural Dye Garden. The UNT Natural Dye Garden and sculpture was made possible through the vision of these students: Morgan Kuster, Analise Minjarez, Abby Sherrill – and the support of private donations, the UNT grounds department, and the UNT We Mean Green Fund.