Volume 23 Issue 1 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Fall 2018
 

 

Pedro Montaño dyeing with pericón in Teotitlán del Valle
Pedro Montaño dyeing with pericón in Teotitlán del Valle.
Photograph Copyright by Miranda Bennett

 

Miranda Bennett Studio and New Leaf Agriculture:
A Partnership Grows!

Bridget Mouton, Meg Erskine and Wandaka Musongera

Miranda Bennett Studio is a plant-dyed clothing company in Austin, Texas. Our fabric is dyed in house by a team of women who enjoy the unique challenge of working with natural dyes on a commercial scale. We currently cut, scour, mordant, dye, wash, dry, and roll up between forty and eighty yards of fabric a day, seven days a week.

The members of the dye team come from different backgrounds  fashion, fiber arts, education, and farming  and we are brought together by our love of natural dyes. For me it is a combination of things: the quality of the colors, the magical processes, the connection to nature, and the satisfaction of meaningful work. I am proud to be part of a company that values the environment and our fellow human beings.

Our clothing is sewn locally by our partners at Open Arms Studio, a social enterprise of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition. MRC is an organization that provides training and fair wage employment opportunities for refugees. We are proud that the growth of Miranda Bennett Studio contributes to the creation of more jobs for people who have had to leave their homes because of violence and are now building new lives in Austin.

MRC operates three initiatives. Open Arms Studio provides instruction and employment in sewing and textile manufacturing. Shared Voices Language Services is MRC s interpreter training program. New Leaf Agriculture promotes self-sufficiency through gardening and farming endeavors.

A year ago Meg Erskine, CEO and co-founder of MRC, contacted us about an exciting new development–they were starting a commercial farm and wanted to grow dye plants for the studio!

What to grow? It was an exciting question to ponder. There were two main conditions for our first crop: we wanted a reputable dye plant and one that could endure the heat and drought in central Texas. We were also interested in cultivating something that was a little off the beaten path.

Miranda had a beautiful ochre colored skein of yarn that she brought back from a trip to Oaxaca where she dyed with regional plants under the instruction of Pedro Montaño. It had been hanging out in the studio for a while and we admired the color very much. The yarn had been dyed with pericón, which was translated as "wild marigold." It is a popular source of yellow dye in Mexico. Pericón produces a range of colors, from light, buttery yellow to deep, brownish gold, depending on the fiber and the ratio of dye material to fiber. The entire plant–flowers, leaves, and stems–is traditionally used.

Miranda prepping yarn in Teotitlán del Valle Yarn dyed with Pericón
Miranda prepping yarn in Teotitlán del Valle
Yarn dyed with Pericon
Photograph Copyright by Naomi Clark Photograph Copyright by Miranda Bennett

By coincidence, I discovered on Catherine Ellis' blog that the botanical name for pericón is Tagetes lucida, otherwise known as Mexican Mint Marigold, a plant I had grown in my herb garden for many years!

Mexican Mint Marigold is an easy to grow perennial with many uses. It is an ancient culinary, medicinal, and ceremonial herb, as well as being a beneficial plant to have in the garden. The leaves have a strong anise or licorice flavor and are a good substitute for tarragon. The Aztecs used it to flavor cacao. Pericón tea is a remedy in Latin America for a wide variety of ailments including gastrointestinal issues, depression and anxiety, and the common cold. It has a rich history as a sacred herb known for its protective and cleansing properties as well as its ability to stimulate visions. The bright golden flowers that appear in the fall have ornamental value and attract pollinators. Tagetes lucida, like other marigolds, is a good companion plant as it repels unwanted nematodes and insects. It can be cut back in the winter to return again in the spring.

Tagetes lucida
  Tagetes lucida
 
  Photograph Copyright by Wandaka Musongera  

We found our first dye plant to grow! Tagetes lucida met both of our conditions. It is a hardy specimen that does well in our extreme growing conditions and it is a traditional dye plant with a long history of use in Mexico.

Pedro Montaño dyeing with pericón in Teotitlán del Valle Close-up of Pedro Montaño dyeing with pericón in Teotitlán del Valle
Pedro Montaño dyeing with pericón in Teotitlán del Valle
Close-up of Pedro Montaño dyeing with pericón in Teotitlán del Valle
Photograph Copyright by Miranda Bennett Photograph Copyright by Miranda Bennett

The team at New Leaf put our first plants in the ground this spring. Here is what Meg from MRC and Wandaka Musongera, New Leaf Farm Coordinator, have to say about the experience:

"The 12-acre New Leaf Farm is located within a 300-acre conservation trust about 25 miles east of Austin, Texas, in a small town called Littig. Currently 2 acres are in production, while on the remaining acres we are working on improving the soil through cover cropping. The soil is mostly clay with patches of loam and learning how best to work with this soil has been a big focus during our first year. We developed the farm using permaculture and regenerative farming methods, such as the creation of berms and swales along the contours of the farm, located it in an area that creates windbreaks, and made use of crop rotation and cover cropping.

Tagetes lucida planted along a berm and swale
Tagetes lucida planted along a berm and swale
Photograph Copyright by Wandaka Musongera

Wandaka, a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, runs the farm as well as 3 area community gardens that give refugees the opportunity to get their hands back in the dirt and connect to farming opportunities. He says that "farming is a common language" and is an important link to all refugees that are resettled to Austin. He enjoys leading a team of 5 refugee apprentices developing the farm together while sharing best practices and knowledge about organic growing methods in this climate of Central Texas. Together they have planted at least 400 Mexican Mint Marigold plants along the berms and swales and are waiting for them to flower this fall. The goal of this placement was to take advantage of the water collected as it flows through the berms and swales keeping the roots hydrated.

Wandaka Musongera, New Leaf Farm Coordinator Meg, Wandaka, and Bridget at New Leaf
Wandaka Musongera, New Leaf Farm Coordinator
Meg, Wandaka, and Bridget at New Leaf
Photograph Copyright by Miranda Bennett Photograph Copyright by Miranda Bennett

Growing dye plants isn't something that the MRC farmers have a lot of previous experience with in their home countries, but they have enjoyed learning about it through this process and appreciate the opportunity to partner in this growing relationship. Mexican Mint Marigold is an interesting plant to work with because it has a very long growing season, is very resilient as a native, smells wonderful and incorporates well with our permaculture plans.

For some of our farm apprentices this is the first chance they have had to receive an income due to lack of language, training or education. This makes them incredibly proud to be able to support their families by contributing their unique skills. Partnering with Miranda Bennett Studio is making it possible for refugees to have these livelihood opportunities at both the farm and Open Arms and we are all incredibly grateful to be linked to each other's success."

Our relationship with MRC continues to grow and inspire us. At the farm the plants are getting ready to bloom and back at the studio we are excited to start dyeing with pericón!

Yarn dyed with pericón hanging at the MBS studio
Yarn dyed with pericón hanging at the MBS studio
Photograph Copyright by Jalena Webster

This project, along with a suggestion from Andro Wipplinger, was the beginning of a significant shift in how we source our dyes. In the past we always worked with dye stuff from commercial suppliers. It seemed most practical considering the scale of our operation. Now, in addition to working with New Leaf to grow dye plants, we are starting to source dye materials locally using by-products of other industries that would often otherwise be considered waste. We are collecting sawdust and wood shavings from woodworkers and sawmills in the area as well as looking into options for using food waste from local farms, restaurants, and grocers. We are meeting soon with a nearby flower farmer to discuss using the flowers they cannot sell due to minor imperfections. We are of course also planning what colors our friends at New Leaf can grow for us next! It is very exciting to explore these new possibilities.

 


References:

Trujillo, Jaime. "An Experience with La Abuelita's Favorite Remedy: The Uses of Tagetes lucida (pericón)." Journal of the American Herbalists Guild. 15.1 (2017): 13-27.