VIDEO: An Exploration of Place and Natural Dyes, Cordova Alaska

Food and Fibers Project shoot, Cordova, Alaska
Anna Brones image, Cordova, Alaska

Paul Gaugin was once quoted as saying “Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.”

It’s true. Those who stop to marvel at the color all around them easily see the mysteries- looking deeply into the crashing roll of a wave, the veins on a leaf, the back of a beetle tooling slowly across the yard…nature is always busy showing off. As a sustainable fashion writer and lover of natural dyes (thanks in big part to Botanical Colors), I too am in awe of how natural dyes latch on to fiber and never tire of seeing something come out of a vat.

In June, I, along with two friends, tagged along with Botanical Colors founder Kathy Hattori to Cordova, Alaska. In a small, fishing town packed with some big personality and an almost spiritual take on regeneration in both food and fiber, we filmed Kathy in action. Between the slough of amazing locals and mind-blowing landscape, this was truly a dream trip.


Amy DuFault image, Cordova, Alaska

As an experiment into the crossover of food and fiber, long-time friend and author Anna Brones, founder of the literary magazine Comestible and Foodie Underground, and I set out with International League of Conservation Photographers/filmmaker and Pongo Media principal Jenny Nichols into the wilds of Alaska.
(You can stay tuned for that project as it unfolds but take this sweet little sampler video of the collision of fiber and plant and get a taste.)

Kathy taught a run of classes as part of The Net Loft’s Cordova Gansey Project. Dotty Widmann, the founder of the project says the hope and desire of the Cordova Gansey Project is to educate and promote the making and wearing of hand knit wool gear and to reintroduce ‘fishermen sweaters’ to the active and present commercial fishing industry, “especially the next generation youth who are transitioning into leadership and ownership, as well as for those whose outdoor lifestyle would benefit from wool handmade garments custom knit for them by loved ones.”

I guess just based on this you might get a basic feel for what the backbone of Cordova feels like.

Cordova Harbor, AK
Jenny Nichols image, Cordova Harbor, AK,

This is a tight-knit community whose very independence relies on the Copper River Delta and salmon fishing, on a heritage so deeply intrinsic to their everyday life it’s almost like going to church to hear them talk about it. But the other part we three discovered was the idea of regeneration not just in salmon fishing but in sustainable foraging.

And while Kathy deals mainly in sourcing sustainable, natural dye materials from around the world, (she is an expert at natural dyeing, teaching  and consulting brands) this trip was all about experimenting with foraged local color. The results were breathtaking: willow, Mountain Lupine, fireweed, spruce, yarrow and lichen were cut up and boiled in pots while the rain came down lightly above us. Clad in rain gear and metal stirring spoons to watch color and yarn shape shift in pots, the fibers came out with what Gaugin called a “deep and mysterious language,” of new color and a barrage of “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the crowd of dyers.


Amy DuFault image, Cordova, Alaska

The women who signed up for her classes were consistently in awe and amazement at the hues that were all around them without their even knowing. Some of the colors we used like ground madder root came from Kathy’s stash of Botanical Colors’ dyes that were mixed into the local color along with an entire weekend of Botanical Colors’ indigo.

Not shown in this video but life altering for me, was the community indigo dip where over 100 people came out to dip something blue. Where 8 year-olds brought tank tops and others brought things like yarn, t-shirts, old wool sweaters and even a seal pelt. Every time a new group came to dip, that astonishment that a boiling pot of blue can have magical properties to transform something and to give one new eyes to see it with.


Anna Brones image, Cordova Community Indigo Dip

If in fact color can be a storyteller of place, what a rich tale Cordova told us. From the giving community who made us delicious food all week to the soft earth that gave us plants and the clean air that allowed us deep breaths to contemplate place, we were truly smitten.

Thanks to Kathy for being a willing test subject for our passion for all things food and fiber and for helping us better understand her love of natural dyes and why she does what she does. You might be surprised to watch this video and see just how passionate she is and how inspired she was with Cordova, Alaska.

No doubt we three left that small fishing town heavy-hearted but ready if possible, to return again next year.

Cheers to color explorations.

Botanical Colors from Anna Brones on Vimeo.