Forest-to-Fashion, hosted by the Burrillville Land Trust, (BLT) immerses its participants in the forests, hills, and streams of northwest Rhode Island and explores themes of craft and sustainability. We hiked, foraged for plant material for our color samples, made a large collective goldenrod dye bath to dye yardage for clothes-making, learned how to print with plants on fabric, and some of us even learned how to use a sewing machine for the first time.

While the workshop dates where officially only two days we also reunited as a cohort for a community sewing day at the Burrillville Farmer’s market and even a little fashion show, in which we showed off and celebrated our naturally dyed creations. Each day of the workshop began with a calming set of yoga flows and moments of quiet, and each day we were treated to delicious and healthy meals prepared by the Land trust’s president, Paul Roselli. These nurturing activities ensured that we could be present in our environment and that our minds and bodies were ready to absorb the incredible amount of insight and thought the workshop conveyed and inspired.

Sampling the Ecosystem

We began our workshop by traversing the woods at the Edward D. Vock Conservation Area, 86 acre property owned and managed by the BLT, an organizations that works to preserve and protect the rural character of the Town of Burrillville, Rhode Island, through education, acquisition and advocacy. Botanist and artist Hope Leeson guided us on our expedition, helping us to understand what we were seeing, revealing to us the stories and magic of the plants around us. Meanwhile, Paul provided us with insight into the history of how this land was settled and developed in the early 20th century. We discussed safe and sustainable foraging practices and collected samples to bring back to our work station for testing.

Our bounty, once brought back to our home base, was further analyzed as we quizzed our ability to discern amongst the details of the plants and recall which species we encountered and harvested. Each participant sampled multiple pieces of plain fabric in the various jars of slowly steeping plant dyes. The next day we were able to see the results of our tests and further investigate ways to make marks on them and evaluate some of their chemical properties. 

These findings also triggered conversations on the history of natural dyes and their link to colonialization as European empires lusted for the saturated, bright reds and blues of other continents and cultures.

“Was a great environment, wonderful to be outdoors working with plants”— Workshop Student

The Powerful Goldenrod

The bright and medicinal Goldenrod was central to our workshop as we chose this abundant, flowering plant to dye yardage for our sewing projects. Most were surprised to learn about the critical role of Goldenrod in our meadows, its ability to be a healing plant for our bodies, to provide such brilliant color for textiles, and to nourish so many pollinators. Many have the misconception that Goldenrod is the source of their seasonal allergies, because of its abundance in our vacant landscapes in the late summer/early fall months, but this isn’t true. The culprit is most likely the inconspicuous ragweed, which disperses its pollen at the same time as that Goldenrod is blooming. Our participants, and even passersby, were fascinated to learn that this resilient flower isn’t “just a hardy weed” in their yard, but rather a source of much goodness.

When our project team of land trust volunteers was planning the workshop we preemptively planted a patch of goldenrod in a clearing of the woods where we led the workshop. We did this as a means to reciprocate the land for giving us her bounty to work with, and balancing out the give-and-take dynamic, acknowledging that sustainability can only truly happen when we can reciprocate the source that gives us nourishment in beauty, medicine, and food.

“the activities touched on ALL my interests”— Workshop student

Capturing Time and Place

Printing a botanical specimen onto fabric can teach us about its structure, its anatomy, its chemistry. The print is the momento of the plants state in that place and time. We were laying out our print designs outdoors and all the students were up against the erratic nature of the wind that afternoon. While somewhat stressful in the moment, as we wanted to control the situation to fulfill our visions and ideas, the printed results themselves captured the spirit of the day; full of movement and energy, the wind was a participant and an artist too in our outcomes. Everyone was excited and glowing with their printed fabric panels which were later used in the making of their individual garments and accessories, and kept as scarves and headbands.

“People really bonded over the magic of plant dyes”— Workshop Student

Indigenous Teachings 

On the second day of our workshop, while our prints were while our prints were steaming and the dyes setting on the fabric, we took another walk, but this time on a local bike path, and this time with the guidance of Dinalyn Spears -artist, herbalist, master gardener, and Narragansett Indian Tribe Director of the Community Planning & Natural Resources Department. Dinalyn pointed out and described the plants that were used, by the indigenous settlers of the land, medicinally, spiritually, and functionally, sharing with each of us another perspective through which to recognize and appreciate the natural world that surrounds us, the sustenance it gives us.

In our busy, every day lives, our places turn into a blur of surrounding, a noise and a texture in the background. Through these thoughtful walks and experiments we were able to pause and learn of history and time. Now we can look more closely, now we can appreciate the details of the vibrant world that gives us oxygen and filters our water, now we can be inspired and humbled by its potential and power, and acknowledge our own place within its constructs.

“There is always more to learn about the outdoors and the plants and animals that inhabit it with us.”— Workshop Student

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