In the Catskills, a Textile Artist and Designer Creates Dyes From Her Own Garden

Christi Johnson might be best known for stylishly embroidering vintage garments. But she’s also developed a reputation for her earth-toned natural dyes.

Christi Johnson first came to the botanical colorants after working in the fashion industry in Los Angeles. Turned off by the toxicity of conventional dyes, she began using natural ones that could be purchased or created from things she foraged, like black walnut hulls. After moving to New York City, where she took courses in natural dying at the Textile Arts Center, she eventually relocated to the Catskills, where she and her partner turned an overgrown weed patch into a thriving dye and vegetable garden.

Christi Johnson makes botanical dyes from plants grown outside her studio, Mixed Color, in Sullivan County, New York. She sells her fashions online, teaches workshops on textile arts and natural dyeing, and is the author of Mystical Stitches: Embroidery for Personal Empowerment and Magical Embellishment.

To Johnson, gardening and sewing are more similar than you’d think. "Both require patience. You can’t make anything happen faster," she says. "With embroidery I’ll have this image in my head, and no matter what, it’s going to take X number of hours to execute. And the garden is similar. I really want to grow madder root to dye things with, and that’s going to take me three years. It all serves as a regular reminder that rushing through life is kind of missing the point entirely." Here, Johnson shares her favorite botanical dye sources, her laborious working process, and what it’s like to garden in the Catskills during torrential rains.

Dwell: What do you grow in your garden?

Johnson: I have been growing indigo since the beginning. Japanese indigo, or Persicaria tinctoria, does really well in New York State. Some people preserve the dried leaf and process it, but I use it in fresh leaf form. It’s an incredible shade of turquoise blue-green. You can’t get it anywhere else. I also grow marigold—an amazing garden and dye plant—weld, a biennial that produces a bright yellow dye, and woad. I also have vegetables with lots of flowers mixed in to keep the pollinators around—and because flowers are beautiful, of course.

Is there a good beginner dye plant?

Marigold flowers. They yield a bright yellow orange. It’s one of those dyes that actually look like the color of the flower. Hollyhock flowers are good, too, and they’re a pretty garden flower. The dark black hollyhocks are best.

Are there dye plants that grow in the wild that you forage?

Goldenrod, which produces a yellow dye. It’s an incredible self-spreader, and when my boyfriend and I moved here, we actually tried to eradicate it from our property. But there are still some stands of it left and I do use it for dye. I just have to chop it all down before it flowers and seeds all over the place. We also have a lot of mugwort growing on the property. In the early spring it yields a vibrant pale mint color, while in the fall it’s more like Band-Aid brown.

Johnson models a shirt she painted using natural dyes processed from plants in her garden.

Can you grow whatever you want in the Catskills?

Not really. It depends on your specific site—your soil and the way you get sun. Some things are supposedly easy to grow here and we just cannot grow them. Spinach and arugula just never work. But we can grow lettuce and kale. We have neighbors a few miles away who grow spinach every year. There are microclimates in the soil, so, maybe we have more clay and they have more sand or vice versa. I believe in growing what your soil wants to grow.

What’s the most laborious part of your process? 

The weeding, and the prep—tilling and getting it all ready at the beginning of the season. The natural dye process is also a lot of physical work. You’re harvesting all the plant matter and then soaking it for however many hours or days. You’ve got to process your fabric in three or four different pots of liquid. And then wash the fabric after you’ve dyed it. Wringing it out requires lots of upper body work!

How do you deal with adverse weather?

In really rainy years we cannot for the life of us get the garden dried out. By the time it’s July we start to get those torrential rains. It causes a lot of rot. You just have to harvest early. We’ll cover some plants, like the tomatoes, to try to reduce the amount of direct rain, but at some point they just start to rot. You just have to harvest what you’ve got, even if it's not going to be the ripest.

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