Vacant Lot Becomes Canvas for Homegrown Dyes

A long-fallow vacant lot at the corner of East 156th Street and Corsica Avenue in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood is no longer barren. This year, thousands of plants, in scores of even rows, were flourishing by June.

But no one will be eating any part of these plants. The Praxis Natural Dye Garden will be providing organically raised traditional dyes for use by artists at Praxis Fiber Workshop several blocks away in the Waterloo Arts District.

The workshop/gallery/classroom was founded by fiber artist Jessica Pinsky in 2015, and she says that producing their own dyes has been on the drawing board since then.

“Having a dye garden has always been part of my vision for a community textile center,” she says, adding that raising money and doing the planning groundwork took time.

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“We renovated an urban vacant lot, which needed to be tilled, plowed, and amended with compost and minerals to make the soil appropriate for a very sensitive species of plant,” she says, describing the work that occupied her and two garden interns. “We found so many pieces of brick and stone and concrete. It’s the first year, so the weeds were really bad. We worked with Cleveland Seed Bank to start seeds six weeks before they were transferred to the garden. We invested in an irrigation system so our plants are watered evenly.”

They even partnered with Urban Lambscape Project to host four sheep to “mow” the lot and fertilize the soil, as well as to provide their sheared wool for workshops.

The main focus of the Praxis Garden is indigo, with about 3,000 plants, or a quarter acre’s worth. Marigold and amaranth, also used for creating dyes, are planted around the perimeter.

About “99.9% of the denim in the entire world is dyed with synthetic version of this natural color,” she says. “To have a natural indigo bath is a big deal. There are not many that exist in the world. It’s the oldest and most permanent natural dye.”

After the indigo is grown and harvested, it’s fermented during the winter. Praxis has purchased a house behind its storefront studio with a two-and-a-half car garage that will contain the fermentation facility. Then the fermented leaves are turned into liquid dye, something Jessica learned to do this summer while visiting textiles professor Rowland Ricketts’s IndiGrowing Blue Project at Indiana University, which she says was the inspiration for the Praxis Dye Garden.

“Fermentation turns it into anaerobic dye; the final ingredient is oxygen,” she says. “The bath is lime green, but when the cloth comes out and hits air, it turns blue. Depending on the mineral content and soil, there can be a range of color from cool blue to warm blue, but you can control the darkness. You dip your fabric into indigo, and the more times you dip it, the darker it gets. It’s really a magical process.”

To learn more about the project or classes at Praxis Fiber Workshop, call 216.644.8661 or visit PraxisFiberWorkshop.com.