Rich dyes flow from a small college garden

Paul Clark

One a warm, overcast day last week, Melanie Wilder and her crew at Warren Wilson College were scratching the hard ground in the college's dye garden, working around color-yielding plants that were stirring way too early.

Aquilla Sellew, a sophomore from Athens, Georgia, pulls dead weeds from Warren Wilson College's dye garden.

Wilder and five of her students grabbed fistfuls of weeds, cleaning out the beds to give weld, madder root and Japanese Indigo room to grow once the plants kick in fully this spring. The work atmosphere in the garden at the top of a rounded field on the outskirts of campus was lively but respectful, an indication that the fiber arts crew was mindful it was helping revive a craft whose roots run deep in the Appalachian Mountains.

For the past three years, Wilder has led the fiber arts crew in making runners and rugs, bags and scarves from wool that comes from sheep on the college farm and from cotton it buys from Eileen Hallman in Black Mountain. What Wilder really loves about the school's revived fiber arts program is that her crew grows the plants that dye the cotton, wool and fabric.

“Things are just now coming out of the ground,” Wilder said of the bright green dye plants that looked vulnerable under the heavy skies. “This is a month too early, like all the crocuses and daffodils around here.”

Yarn dyed from plants grown in Warren Wilson College's dye garden, in background.

Wilder sounded concerned, but Hallman believes she has the program on the right track. Hallman’s small, web-based cotton fibers business that she runs from her Black Mountain home sells pounds and pounds of organic cotton to Wilder's crew for dyeing.

“They have a great program there,” said Hallman, whose business - New World Textiles ( – is 22 years old. “Natural dyeing is really popular with the younger set right now, possibly because it’s very individual and personalized. I think the younger set is really interested in wanting to be their own person.”

The work of the college’s fiber arts crew fits into the region’s growing fiber arts industry, Hallman said. In a survey she conducted five years ago for Local Cloth, a Western North Carolina-based nonprofit that seeks to grow the fiber economy in a 100-mile radius around Asheville by encouraging collaboration among textile artists, designers, fiber producers, suppliers and related small businesses, Hallman found 405 fiber arts professionals, 80 galleries with fiber arts, 83 textile-related retail shops and 51 yarn shops.

She tallied 462 fiber animal farms with more than 5,000 animals. She learned of 21 cotton farms within Local Cloth’s 100-mile radius, found seven schools and colleges that taught fiber arts and counted 12 textile mills. There are probably more mills now, she said last week.

Warren Wilson College had a rich weaving program from the 1940s to 1960s (and even before, at Dorland Bell School, which merged with Asheville Farm School in 1942 to become the Warren H. Wilson Vocational Junior College). Decades ago, students worked 15 hours a week to produce towels, baby bibs, pillowcases and other fine woven goods for sale, according to the college’s website.

The items were sold through the Southern Highland Craft Guild and through a catalog that the Presbyterian Church put out, said Melanie Wilder, supervisor of the college’s fiber arts crew. She helped the crew get started in 2009 by finding looms and space on campus for a group of students interested in reviving the college’s weaving program. Wilder supplied many of her own tools. Local residents contributed looms.

“It’s neat that we’re picking back up on that tradition,” Wilder said. The program has grown every year and now has 10 looms and a two-story studio.

And for the past three years, it has grown its own dyes.

Just now stirring from the ground in the current spring-like weather are Japanese Indigo - “the best blue dye that our climate can grow,” Wilder said - weld (for yellow) and madder root (oranges and reds). The plants and others such as sunflower and coreopsis were used throughout the Appalachian Mountains to color fabric before commercial dyeing became prevalent in the late 1800s.

Madder was grown by traditional weavers of the Southern Appalachians until the early 1900s, Wilder said. Those weavers would have also extracted dyes from golden rod, black walnut, butternut and fleabane, she said. The first American flag was made from fabric dyed with indigo and madder grown in the Colonies, Wilder said.

Every year, the college’s fiber arts crew adds to its dye garden. Cultivating the plants allows the students to have more control over the colors than if they were “wild harvesting” them, or picking them out of the woods and fields, Wilder said. Workers can make the fire colors of madder root more intense by adding lime to the soil, for instance.

The garden also gives the college’s many sustainable agriculture majors the opportunity to practice what they’re learning in the classroom, Wilder said. “It’s a neat way for them to put their studies into action,” she said. One student is doing her senior research in the color possibilities of Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant that grows all over campus.

Internationally and here at home, Hallman teaches people how to spin cotton on the charkha wheel, which is wheel Gandhi used to make the point that even the powerful should be humble. (Hallman will teach next at the Local Cloth studio in the Asheville Area Arts Council building in Asheville on March 24).

The local fiber industry is growing regionally - there are Icelandic sheep at Earthaven Ecovillage near Black Mountain, Coopworth sheep at Warren Wilson and Cornwell sheep near the college – in part, Hallman said, because of the professional crafts program at Haywood Community College, “one of the best in the United States,” she said. “The people that go through the program in textiles, wood, clay, jewelry, they have to write a business plan, so they’re prepared not only to make really great things but also for how to market them.”

Additionally, people come from all over the country to Asheville every October for the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair at the WNC Ag Center near the airport. All that bolsters the regional and national market that members of the Warren Wilson fiber arts crew can contribute to (Warren Wilson College is working on a plan to sell products created by the fiber arts, blacksmithing and woodworking crews, Wilder said).

Wilder, who studied herbal and plant medicine for 20 years, has been working in natural fibers and dyes and local materials for years. Wilder, who sells dye flowers and naturally dyed yarn, fabric and items online at, said she learned a lot of what she knows from Hallman.

Hallman extracts dyes from plants she grows at her home and sells them to Wilder. Wilder has been preaching the virtues of natural dyes at local farmers markets the past couple of years.

“The first step is education,” Wilder said. “Many people that are fiber artists think that natural dying is too much to take on. But once you open that door, you open this whole new world.