Permacouture: Where Slow Food and Slow Fashion Meet, an Interview with Sasha Duerr

When we talk about food, we often talk about a broken food system, and we talk about ways of fixing that system. One of those ways is to grow our own food, not only because growing our own food allows us to feed ourselves – and therefore remove ourselves from the larger, more industrial, system at hand – but also because the act of growing our own food makes us more aware of the complexities of the food system. We have a better understanding of what it takes to get something from seed to vegetable. We know what it feels like to be a farmer, to have our hands in the dirt, to be affected by the seasons. We appreciate what’s on our plate.

Turns out, fashion is exactly the same.

As I have written here before, there are many parallels between fashion and food, and the production of these two things, at the most basic level, is one of the main ones. If we are to eat, we need farmers. If we are to wear clothes, we need farmers too. Agriculture and eating go hand in hand, and agriculture and fashion go hand in hand. Are you wearing a cotton t-shirt today? Or a pair of jeans? Where did those fibers come from? These are questions we need to start asking, because if we have a better understanding of who grew our fibers and who made our clothes, we will have a better appreciation of them. And we will refuse to pay $5 for a t-shirt, just like we will refuse to pay $1 for a hamburger.

We shouldn’t just grow plants to eat, we should wear them too.

Just like growing our own food, even on a small scale, helps us to rethink our understanding of the food system, the same goes for using natural dyes (dyes made from plants that we can easily grow in our own gardens) and making our own clothes. We might not makeover our entire wardrobe, but when we learn that we have the tools at our fingertips to dye a piece of fabric with plants we grew, sew it together by hand and wear the final product, we have a better connection to all of the clothes that we wear. We understand what it actually takes to make that t-shirt.

That’s where Sasha Duerr,  the founder of Permacouture – an educational non-profit organization founded to support regenerative design for fashion and textiles – comes in. You may have caught the play on words with “permaculture” in the organization’s name. Any sustainable act needs to be regenerative, and just like we can focus on regenerative agriculture to improve soil health, we can apply the same principles of regenerative design to fashion and textiles as well.

I have a deep respect for Duerr’s work, and I was so excited when she agreed to take part in this series on food and fashion and answer a few questions about Permacouture. She is coming out with a new book this year – Natural Color: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe – so if you get excited about her work while reading this interview, feel free to go and pre-order (the book is out in August).

In this interview you’ll learn a little bit more about her organization Permacouture, as well as the intersection of slow food and slow fashion, and what seeds have to do with fashion. Seeds? Yes, seeds. Fashion and food are connected far more than most of us think, and if we are really going to commit to planning a sustainable path forward, they both need to be a part of our plan.

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Tell us a little bit about Permacouture.

Sasha Duerr: Permaculture is an integrated approach to agriculture that considers the whole ecosystem. What I admire about permaculture is that when practitioners make design decisions, people and planet are considered equally. Permacouture (an obvious play on words and homage to the movement) I founded as an experimental way to explore regenerative design and principles found in permaculture and apply them to fashion and textiles. My work with Permacouture has inspired me to look at fibers and dyes and the communities and social practice that supports regenerative design processes in holistic ways.

For you, how do food and fashion intersect? Why do you want people to think about this intersection?

Food and textiles have had a practical and creative collaboration throughout most of human history. It seems far fetched now, but truly weaving, dyeing and making garments were much more of an intertwined artistic and agriculture act – one that was in sync with cooking and making medicine (many natural dye plants are also highly medicinal/or byproducts of edibles). Another fascinating aspect about textile history is that at one time food and textiles were both so biodegradable that they left no trace. Textiles and fashion was not meant to be as permanent as we view them today they had natural life cycles (much the same as with food!). “Permanence” often equals chemicals that don’t break down well – often not good for food OR fashion.

Another way that I see slow fashion and slow food interacting and intersecting today is through cultural continuation, celebration of biodiversity, and awareness and appreciation of supply chain and the labor involved in creating and making, additionally there is stewardship of resources and care of materials.

The Slow Food movement has really helped to challenge people to rethink their food. How do you think that movement can help the sustainable fashion movement?

Slow food has also taught us that sustainability is as equally rooted in social connection and care as it is in environmental stewardship – this is also fundamentally true for slow fashion and textiles.

Manufactured fashion “seasons” move quickly and relentlessly. The term “fast fashion” suggests that an article of clothing may continue to be functional but is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate. Unfortunately, everyone, as well as the environment and the people who expend labor, pay for the bargain bin. As with fast food, there’s little emphasis on the fallout of production or the negative social and environmental effects of rapid consumption.

When you are working with natural fibers and color as well as with fair and just labor, in contrast, you’re constantly aware that you are working on nature’s schedule, not just your own. This allows you to be directly involved with the natural world, communities and individuals, as well as with a plant or animal’s life cycle in relationship to your own.

Permacouture: Where Slow Food and Slow Fashion Meet

Thanks to the rise of farmers markets and CSAs, if we want to, most of us can meet the person who grew our food. Fashion is a little bit different; most of us wear clothes that were produced far from home. What can we do to have a more direct connection to our clothing?

Navigating the complexities of our wardrobes and where things come from can be nothing less than overwhelming to the average wearer. One way that plant dyeing has been a very successful tool for the slow fashion and textile movement is in how easy the process (which is nearly, if not identical to the process of cooking) of applying plant based color to anything that you already may have in your home or wardrobe as a connective and sensory process, thus allowing you to WANT to know more. This act of infusing your clothing with handmade plant palettes can help you care for your clothing and connect to them – as well as to care and connect to the plants that provide those palette – giving old items in your closet a renewed sense of life and you a renewed way of seeing the creative and connective potential of the world around you.

In my own practice of working with plant-based color, I often use whole plants rather than extracts, I need to be aware of their seasonal availability, growth cycles, and color potential. With this knowledge I can develop a color palette specific to a time of year; much like planning a seasonal menu. Working with plant color is one of the easiest and most accessible ways of connecting with the cycle of our ecologies and applying that knowledge directly to my design practice… there is a creative freedom in that it’s as easy as using wayward white wool sweater in the back of my closet and the leftover by-products of my favorite meal before it hits my compost pile.

Natural dyes and fibers can be sourced from renewable resources—like waste and weeds found in byproducts of agriculture and even in urban centers. Many plants discarded from agricultural crops are also dye sources; these include cover crops, like fava bean leaves and stalks and California poppy roots, and gleaned byproducts, like artichoke leaves and avocado pits that make rich natural colors. And many everyday waste products from our urban, suburban, and rural kitchens, restaurants, and grocery stores—such as onion skins, carrot tops, and pomegranate rinds—can also be upcycled from waste bins to make beautiful color palettes.

Just like with food, plant based color palettes that follow the seasons are also a celebration of the time of year and their locality. Our Dinner to Dye For workshops with Permacouture allowed textile designers to collaborate with slow food chefs, and guests to experience pomegranates at their peak in season and then to use the rinds to dye beautiful textiles. These collaborations built solidarity and instilled in the participants a deeper connection and sensory experience. This is also the role of artists, whether they are working with food or fiber – is to instill a deeper appreciation and a moving experience. It’s difficult, and rarely successful to change people with scientific facts alone, it often takes a deeper route.

Seasonal Color Wheel by Sasha Duerr

Connecting to the experience of knowing the value of wardrobe and your waste and weeds – and how to transform what you already to have to create something beautiful, stylish and meaningful – can be a moving, sensory and very powerful environmental and creative act. This is much like knowing where your food has come from, or learning to grow food or cook for yourself. Re-imagining how we connect and care for color in our lives – also inspired me to create a Seasonal Color Wheel – based upon local and seasonal byproducts of plants that grow commonly in urban areas. Meanwhile, if you don’t naturally dye yourself – supporting local dye artisans, working with color from a natural and medicinal standpoint is also an act of creating connection, supporting non-toxic color and community-based economies.

Beyond caring for your clothing through natural color, caring about your fibers by supporting organic and local farmers who grow your textiles and then those who turn that fiber into yarn, textiles, and garments is a an act that needs as much momentum as possible. Organizations like Fibershed are doing a tremendous job in unifying, educating and supporting this process of connecting farmers to consumers and cheering on the supply chain links for deeper sustainability in every step of the way.

What most people don’t realize is that although we think we do not literally eat our clothing, we actually do literally eat our clothing. This is because how it is grown, dyed, or disposed of occupies the same environmental resources as our food systems, utilizing the same air, water and soil that then becomes our food base and thus ourselves. So yes, we are what we wear. We need to care about design processes of how are clothes are made, consumed, and disposed of in just the same way as we would care about our food.

Permacouture: Where Slow Food and Slow Fashion Meet

We think a lot about seeds in the world of food, particularly in terms of saving heirloom seeds so that we maintain biodiversity and don’t just eat the same things the world over. Permacouture has the Seeds to Sew & Fiber project. How are seeds important to fashion and textiles?

Saving heirloom seeds is supporting biodiversity. Just like with food on the industrial, fashion on the industrial level has streamlined our choices. There are hundreds of thousands of plant based fibers and dyes to choose from and due to both our collective knowledge being dimmed by corporate and synthetic options, so we many have never heard of the vast array of heirloom plants that provide incredible natural color and fiber opportunities.

Through Permacouture projects we have tagged seeds in public seed libraries for common shared plants as also having bi-products that are fiber or dye producing. My textile students at California College of the Arts are currently adding to their Seed Library by growing heirloom dye plants (like madder root, Japanese indigo, Hopi black sunflowers) and saving their seeds. These seed are then available to any CCA student, faculty, or staff that has a library card on campus. Knowing the full and unique dimensions that plants can provide- food, medicine, color, fiber supports deeper roots in our communities, culturally expands design possibilities for food and textiles, and purely from an ecological perspective a healthier and happier future not just for people-but for all life.

Thank you Sasha!

Images: Sasha Duerr

Comments 1

  1. Cassie

    Wasting resources is SUCH a problem in our world today–water, food, technology, oils, gases, infrastructure, and we have to resort to other plants to obtain these resources. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but why wouldn’t people consider just trying to remedy the Earthly habits first? I think Permacouture is a great organization and part of the movement to stand for environmental rights. It’s important to know what we are wearing, what we are eating and what we are using.

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