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Natural Dyes in Northeast America: Challenges, Opportunities and Future Directions

Thank you for your interest in attending our conference, Natural Dyes in Northeast America: Challenges, Opportunities and Future Directions. Given the growing concerns around COVID-19, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone the conference. 

If you have already registered for the conference, we will be in touch soon about reimbursements for your registration fees. Unfortunately, we are not able to reimburse accommodation or travel expenses. 

In the meantime, please stay connected with us via our website, external link where we will have announcements about our future plans for this conference and associated activities. 



Conference Hosted by: The Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change at Ryerson University and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Dates: April 23-27, 2020.

Locations: Royal Ontario Museum, Textile Museum of Canada, The Catalyst at Ryerson University, Contemporary Textile Studio Co-op

Keynote Speakers: Dominique Cardon (CNRS, France), Kathy Hattori (Botanical Colors, USA), Rowland Ricketts (Ricketts Indigo, USA)

Almost obliterated in the 19th century with the invention of synthetic dyes, today natural dyes derived from organic materials found in the environment (e.g. plants, minerals, insects, etc.) are undergoing a revival worldwide. Such revival is a response to the pollution, socio-economic violence and harmful practices of the mainstream textile industry and has led to both a rediscovery of the many historical, non-western and indigenous dyeing practices worldwide as well as innovations through scientific partnership (e.g. bio-dyes using bacterias). Yet, in comparison with other regions in the world, Northeast America lags behind. Knowledge and cultivation of plants suitable for natural dyeing in Northeast America is still in its infancy. With regards to skills and knowledge, there is a glaring gap in educating future generations of fashion and textile professionals: there is no certification in natural dyes in any academic institutions in North America, let alone the Northeast. In terms of communities of professionals, natural dyeing is not simply about learning techniques in the narrow sense, it demands commitment and practice over many years: it is a long-term learning process that requires establishing a network and community of professional and dedicated natural dyers with local and global roots. These lead to the main challenge to be addressed for this conference: how to establish a vibrant natural dye sector in Northeast America to answer to the linked concerns with the protection of environments, health promotion, socio-economically just relations, cultural growth and creative expression?

The purpose of this conference is therefore three-fold: First, to further promote natural dyes as a crucial response to contemporary environmental concerns, health and socio-economic disparities, and creative fields. Second, to foster new knowledge networks to support the development of the natural dye sector in Northeast America and third, to offer a space for the natural dye community to come together to explore and further develop best practices. In that regard, developing a natural dye sector involves multi-faceted, interdisciplinary challenges and opportunities:

  1. Natural Dyes and Sustainability: how natural dyes practices are integrated in sustainable projects (e.g. regenerative farming, reviving an environmentally conscious local textile sector).
  2. Chemistry and Technical Innovation: the chemistry of natural dye processes needs to be fully understood and mastered to produce consistently reliable colours and to innovate on new processes for dye manipulation and for the creation of new dyes (e.g. bio-dyes)
  3. Engaging with Non-Western and Indigenous Knowledge: being a natural dye practitioner necessarily involves encountering non-western and indigenous knowledge, and the delineation of what constitutes in practice mutually beneficial dialogue and exchange as opposed to cultural and technical appropriation still remains to be defined. 
  4. Social and Economic Justice: the formulation of economic alternatives to mainstream production processes that ignore environmental and social impacts also needs to be integrated in the natural dyer's practice.
  5. Public Outreach: natural dye practitioners are often tasked with reaching out, educating and communicating with the broader public about the benefits of natural dyes, what are some of the best practices for doing so?
  6. Scaling up + Industry: how do we move from small-scale applications to reliable large-scale applications of natural dyes with industry impact?
  7. Safe Environmental Practices: Natural dye knowledge requires the proper, safe and adequate use of resources. What are the best practices that should be developed?
  8. Education and Certification: what role can professionals and institutions play in promoting natural dyes education and certification?

This conference will feature keynote lectures by world-renowned scholars, practitioners and artists, paper presentations and roundtable discussions starting in the evening of April 24, 2020 and continuing over two days at Ryerson University (April 25 and 26). It will also feature a variety of optional events over five days (April 23-27) to showcase the interdisciplinary nature of natural dyes to the public, professionals and students, including: 

  • A guided tour of the The Cloth that Changed the World: India's Painted and Printed Cottons exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in conjunction with the ROM’s symposium on India’s Painted and Printed Cottons: Cotton, Colour, Regeneration (April 24, 2019).
  • A behind the scenes tour of the natural dye textile collections at the Textile Museum of Canada.
  • Workshops on madder printing and safflower shibori dyeing at the Contemporary Textile Studio Co-op.
  • An exhibition at Ryerson University which will cover work by artists, designers, scientists, and researchers and will look at the scope and breadth of contemporary natural dye research, creation, education and implementation.

Dominique Cardon  

Cultures of colours : a new era for natural dyes

Natural colorants, used worldwide by all civilisations since prehistoric periods, are mostly extracted from the plant world, and also from some sea molluscs, sources of the true purple, and some  coccid insects, sources of the prestigious scarlet and crimson reds. Their applications concern not only textiles, mats and basketry, but also painting and dyeing of skin, leather, hair and furs, etc. Some civilizations became illustrious for their expertise in the use of particular colorants and dyeing techniques: an appropriate example is India with its production of indiennes (the French 18th century name for chintz). With the emergence of a society increasingly conscious of the environmental challenges faced by our globe and the development of a new « green economy », natural colorants currently attract strong renewed interest, due to their chromatic richness, to the beneficial biological activities presented by most of them and to their potential applications in various industrial branches (agro-food and cosmetics industries, besides textiles). Dominique Cardon will present an up-to-date picture of this important field, in the light of recent interdisciplinary research in the botany, chemistry, history and anthropology of natural dyes, with examples from collaborative projects she has participated in, or been informed about, as the scientific director of several international Symposiums on natural dyes. 

Kathy Hattori  

Natural Dyes and Sustainable Regional Development

Natural dyes are part of an exciting regional model that supports purpose-grown feedstocks, carbon capture, waste management, economic development and cultural practice opportunities. I will discuss how natural dyes and dye practitioners are viewing the regional landscape with fresh eyes, looking at the potential of the blending of regional resources and practices to address larger scale challenges within local areas and beyond. Examples will draw from North American and global projects and initiatives.

Rowland Ricketts  

In this presentation I will discuss my work growing, processing, and dyeing with indigo within the context of this dye’s global history. Special emphasis will be placed on how the legacy of colonialism and capitalist definitions of value have shaped the way we favor some indigo traditions while disregarding others, and why these overlooked indigo systems of making offer profound opportunities for re-thinking what we truly value.

Funded by

  • Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Connection Grant
  • FCAD Centre for Fashion Diversity & Social Change, Ryerson University
  • Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University
  • Research & Innovation, York University


  • The Royal Ontario Museum
  • Textile Museum of Canada
  • Contemporary Textile Studio Co-op
  • The Catalyst at FCAD, Ryerson University
  • Ganaele Langlois (York University)
  • Joseph Medaglia (Ryerson University)
  • Rachel MacHenry (OCADU)
  • Anika Kozlowski (Ryerson University)
  • Colleen Schindler-Lynch (Ryerson University)
  • Jenna Reid (Ryerson University)