Workshopping Natural Dyes — Sophia Marie Poulos, Designer

When we chatted, Sophia was completing her B.F.A. in Textile Design on a presidential scholarship at the Academy of Art (AAU) in San Francisco. For her senior thesis, Sophia plans to incorporate sustainable textiles like hemp, cactus leather and natural dyes. Sophia’s father is from Sydney, Australia, so she holds dual citizenship both there and in the U.S. She completed a degree in Fashion Journalism at Fashion Business Institute (FBI) in Sydney, returning full circle to San Francisco in 2013  — the city where she was born and raised. Upon her return, Sophia obtained a design certificate from City College of San Francisco (CCSF) where her senior collection won her a scholarship to AAU. She is currently on track to complete her second fashion degree in fall of 2023. This time, instead of journalism, she will graduate on the design side of fashion.

Sophia grew up enamored with fashion. Her mother was a lead hair stylist at fashion shows and being immersed in these environments at a young age sparked her interest. When she graduated from high school, she wanted to be a fashion journalist, to sit front row at fashion shows, among the models and garments, like she experienced in her childhood backstage. However, after graduating from her fashion journalism program, she describes a feeling of being lost, seeking inspiration and finding little. Ever the hungry learner, she enrolled in a sewing class at CCSF. Sophia says “By the end of that class, I’d learned how to sew a bag and I was so ecstatic. I felt like, ‘Oh my god, I just made something from nothing. This is fun!’ I ended up taking apparel construction classes and then I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to study to become a fashion designer.’

Halfway through my studies at City College, I watched a documentary called True Cost on Netflix. I remember this moment, sitting on the couch eating popcorn and I just stopped. I was looking at the [screen] in disgust, in hate, in distrust. I loved [fashion] so much but it felt like I’d been lied to.” It is little wonder that Sophia felt betrayed. Industrial textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally and it typically takes 2,000 gallons of water to make a pair of jeans.[1] The documentary, which you can stream for free online, explores the human and environmental costs of fast fashion. The filmmakers tackle issues of environmental harm driven by overconsumption, among others. As of 2017, the U.S. was estimated to produce more than 11 million tons of textile waste per year.[2] How does someone who hopes to design fashion contend with these numbers?

In the textile design program at Academy of Art, Sophia’s focus has shifted from away from the runway toward processes behind fashion news headlines: “I wanted to create things that are new and innovative and upcycled and reconstructed. I’m going to textiles because everything is made out of textiles and it’s not so [constrained] to the human form. It goes into home goods, it goes into cars, it goes into everything. I feel like I’m breaking it down and getting into what things are made of because that is what I’m really passionate about — textiles are a base.” She is now working on apparel and art for a gallery showcase to be exhibited in the fall. River Blue, a documentary that discusses how synthetic dyes are polluting public waterways, will play alongside a variety of naturally dyed wall art, as well as upcycled clothing she is arranging with a fellow sustainable designer. The entire collection will be made from upcycled white dress shirts, a nod to the Akkan term for secondhand clothing in Ghana, obroni wawu, meaning that the white man must have died in order to give up such a huge quantity of material belongings. This expression implies that excess is foreign to Ghanaians and the endless flood of clothing donated, in bales (roughly 120 to 200 pounds each), to the Global South becomes pollution when swathes of it cannot be traded or sold.[3] The OR Foundation, created in conjunction with the research project Dead White Man’s Clothes, by the same founders, deems the fashion industry exploitative of consumers. Its goal is to catalyze a justice-led circular economy.[4] Sophia’s revolutionary approach to textiles is admittedly unorthodox, “I would say the majority of what I learned textile-wise has been through travel and testing different methods at home. In school, they don’t teach about natural dyes. I am going against the grain with my textile design methods.”

Sophia’s love of creating something from nothing has accompanied her advocacy. When Sophia went looking for solutions, she discovered community in Remake. Working with the nonprofit organization has allowed Sophia to transform her work into a more community-based practice. She describes the work she does with them: “We have monthly ambassador meetings, where Remake fills us in about current advocacy movements, transparency reports, leadership events, and so on. As a community organizer, I arrange monthly events, either to campaign, to fundraise, or just to create engagement, all within the areas of sustainability. It’s amazing, it’s a great resource. I feel like my voice has only gotten stronger since [joining] them. They focus heavily on advocacy campaigns. I feel sustainable fashion can be very elusive. I could natural dye so much, I could reconstruct and recycle so much but if there’s not changes [resulting from] campaigns or the legal system, [then] it’s not really shifting.”

When asked who she hopes to reach with her sustainability messaging, Sophia answered, “The youth — because if we are going to teach anything about sustainability, the next generation [needs] to know what’s happening and be given new ways of thinking and new ways of creating and designing. When I say new ways, they’re not new, it’s just what our ancestors have done.” Sophia is able to revive traditional textiles practices by sharing her craft with youth in a community-based environment. “In terms of talking about sustainability with people who don’t know about [it], people are more willing to listen if it’s backed by community involvement, so that’s why we make it fun through hosting sustainable fashion shows or clothing swaps, or natural dye workshops.” Leading natural dyeing workshops through Remake is a creative way for Sophia to engage her community with sustainability, allowing her audience to produce beautiful and functional items.

Sophia’s aim in these workshops is to invite participants to seek inspiration in materials both familiar and unexpected. “My favorite dyeing material is cochineal. It’s a bug.” Cochineal (dactylopius coccus) produces carmine red and is available in dye supply houses domestically. This insect is predominantly imported from Central and South America where the climate is best suited for its growth.[5] Other materials she dyes fabrics with are fruits and vegetables, scraps that would otherwise be wasted, such as red cabbage, berries, onion skins and avocado pits. On this low-waste approach Sophia says, “It’s so cool because … nature provides, and that’s written in tradition.”

Knowledge, of both traditional dyeing techniques and industrial methods, proves useful in Sophia’s natural dyeing toolkit. In industrial dyeing processes, mordants such as iodine, iron, salts of aluminum, copper, tin, and chromium are used to make textiles colorfast. Familiarity with these processes allows Sophia to find sustainably sourced alternatives: “I was natural-dyeing when I lived abroad, and I needed a mordant. I thought, ‘Okay, what can you use?’ And it occurred to me, you use iron as a mordant. I went around to bike shops, and I asked for old bicycle chains and I just mixed the recycled chains with some vinegar and created my own mordant. It was super cool and you can also use the chains to [imprint] dye.” To save a trip to the bike shop, Sophia suggests trying soymilk as a mordant in natural dyeing. It doesn’t take much to reap the benefits of natural dyes, and because the process is nontoxic, you can use tools you likely already have in your kitchen. All you’ll need are a pot/saucepan, stovetop or other heat source, strainer, funnel, vessels for dyeing and the dyeing materials of your choice (i.e. flowers, berries, food scraps, turmeric, etc.) and a (ideally pre-loved) textile of your choosing.

Not all fabrics will take dye in the same way and Sophia talks about her favorites, “I love using silk because it’s a filament yarn so it’s able to take dye easier. It shows up brighter and still has a sheen to it. It’s just gorgeous.” She is particularly enthusiastic about hemp, “It’s like the miracle textile. It can regenerate, it doesn’t take a lot of water, it’s fast growing. In terms of wearability, it’s breathable. It takes dye easily and only in recent years did it get legalized to grow in the United States again, which is so bizarre.” Sophia recommends the documentary Hemp for Victory for anyone who is interested in the history and future of this biogenic material. “As a student learning about textiles, hemp was glanced over.” Hemp originated in Central Asia and its cultivation for fiber was first known in 2800 B.C. The practice spread to Mediterranean countries of Europe, when Christianity gained traction, and was adopted during the Middle Ages by the rest of Europe. Chile grew hemp in the 1500s, and a century later, so did North America.[6] In antiquity, the material was commonly used for simple garments. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), therefore permitting its use in apparel and other practical applications, like insulation.[7] While Sophia is a proponent of naturally derived textiles, she encourages her audience to look at what they already own for inspiration. Perhaps instead of a brand-new top, an existing article of clothing can be repurposed.

Sophia describes working creatively to fulfill both practical and ideological consumer needs: “When it comes to designing … if I wanted to create a pillowcase, cool, but who needs another pillowcase? The need behind it would be that people need to know about natural fibers. So I could tell the story through this textile, and I could present it as something lovely, like a pillowcase. The need could be as simple as what is materially needed right now, but also what is the story that I need to tell?” In addition to natural-dyeing existing garments and textiles, Sophia creates unique pieces from upcycled clothes. These garments have their own lived histories and tell their stories through wear. The stories are that of transformation, of renewed perspective. This approach invites the old into the new, creating exciting new relationships between the two.

She reflects on her journey to date, from aspiring fashion journalist, to designer, to sustainability advocate, and where she hopes to go. “I think what led me down the path [to where I am] was [my need to understand] how the world works. Fashion business was very superficial … then, I wanted to be the designer.” Combining her sustainability concerns with the practical considerations of design, Sophia shares her ambitions, “Later on, I want to create relationships with farmers and artisans of natural dyes and create amazing textiles that I can wholesale to other designers, who can then create consumer products that are low in quantity, but high quality. My dream would be to create a vertical manufacturing space where things are created, dyed, grown and sewn in one place.” Sophia leads with curiosity in her work — curiosity for materials and material histories. She observes that her questions have only led to more questions, expanding into a philosophical line of questioning, bordering on the anthropological — her curiosity isn’t limited to the materials themselves, but extend to the habits and practices of her ancestors, how they may have interacted with those materials. Sophia also has the advantage of modern technological tools that will enable her to draw upon old ways and merge them with the new.





[5] (Burgess 2011)



Conversations with Calli Layton. Written by Calli Layton. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.

Page design by Tye Johnson.