Deepa Natarajan: Ethnobotanist and natural fabric dyer

Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Deepa and Loka admire their young fig tree. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Deepa picks violas to pound into cloth. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

In the fourth part of a series on expert craftspeople in Berkeley, Melati Citrawireja, who was a photography intern with Berkeleyside in summer 2015, visits Deepa Natarajan, a natural fabric dyer and ethnobotanist. (Read Citrawireja’s stories on Klaus-Ullrich Rötzscher and the Pettingell Book Bindery, David Lance Goines at the St. Hieronymus Press, and coppersmith Audel Davis.)

“I call myself a plants person,” says Deepa Natarajan, a young mother, natural fabric dyer, and ethnobotanist. “Ethnobotany implies academia but that’s really what I love – plants and how people use them.”

I am chatting with Deepa in her softly lit, powder-blue living room while her two labradors excitedly compete for my affection with charming wet kisses. As Deepa talks, she keeps a wary eye on her adventurous 10-month old confection of a boy, Loka, to make sure he doesn’t knock down or swallow any of the colorful little objects that make up the household’s golu, an altar that celebrates Navratri, a South Indian holiday.

Deepa’s childhood trips to visit family in Southern India has inspired much of her fascination with plants, color, and textiles.


“The culture there is very much alive with using natural materials and plants … from simple things like eating from banana leaves to wearing jasmine flowers in your hair,” she says.

The ornate golu set up for the nine-day Navratri holiday. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Close up of the golu. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
A corner in Deepa’s living room. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

These vibrant childhood experiences led to a lifelong devotion to plants and to learning all the ways they can be used and treasured. In college Deepa was active in the campus’ organic garden and studied medical anthropology, spending summers with traditional healers in Eritrea. After accepting a position as a public education and events coordinator at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, she moved to the East Bay – a place she had always been drawn to – and it has been her home for the past ten years.

At the Botanical Garden, Deepa and her close friend and collaborator, Sasha Duerr, revitalized the plant dye exhibit that had been dormant for many years and nurtured it into a successful annual event. They hold a fiber and dye festival every March, filling the weekends with various workshops.

It was during this time of rebuilding the exhibit that Deepa became deeply interested in natural dyes. Since then, she has learned and practiced extensively, and now teaches her own workshops as well. Her workshops are often tailored to where they take place, using plants that are most abundantly available in the area during the season.

“I am most inspired by gardening, conservation, the natural world. Plants are really at the core,” she says. “I love doing natural dyes, but to me what’s almost more important is actually growing the plants, saving the seeds, and making sure that we have the natural materials to continue using them in these ways — for food, for dye, for fiber, for medicine — because that’s the core, right? If we don’t have the plants we can’t do any of these things!” She laughs. “That’s why I love working at the Botanical Garden, because our mission is definitely conservation, education, and research.”

Deepa wears an onion-skin dyed knitted vest — one of her early experiments — and an ornate necklace that her closest friends made for her during her pregnancy as a talisman of strength. She still wears it often to boost her through especially demanding days. Despite her busy life, she gives off a calm energy, effortlessly slinging her child around on her hips as shows me her home and the backyard where she demonstrates a flower-pounding technique with fresh violas from her garden.

Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Deepa pounds the violas into a piece of fabric. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Violas being imprinted onto fabric. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Deepa peels viola petals off the fabric. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Flowers imprinted onto fabric. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

The process of dyeing with plants is actually a relatively simple infusion method. The first step entails pre-mordanting the fabric with safe metallic salt compounds like alum (aluminum potassium sulfate) to assure the dye adheres, and then dipping it into a simmered plant bath. The plant can have simmered anywhere from one hour to overnight depending on the material. Soft fruits and foliage often only need to simmer briefly, while barks and roots, such as eucalyptus, take much longer.

Because natural dye is a living molecule, the fabric can eventually fade. It never dims to the  unattractive ghostly fade like chemically dyed fabric often does, but Deepa recommends re-dyeing as part of the caring process of the garment. Deepa likens the dye process to that of cooking — an enjoyable and approachable method that anyone can partake in. “It is a small practice that really changes the way we think about where color comes from and also connects us to the natural world and even our own backyard,” she says. “We take color for granted, but really it used to be so precious … it would be nice to think of it as something that is rare and beautiful, and value it in that way.”

Photo: Melati CItrawireja
Fabric dyed with Mexican marigolds and decorated with pounded flowers. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Dye swatches. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Bits and bobs in her workroom. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
More bits and bobs. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

“One of the most amazing discoveries I made was by accident,” Deepa says and her eyes sparkle with excitement as she reveals to me the moment when she discovered the magic of a redwood cone. She had set out with the intention of using the cone as a way to imprint shibori patterns onto fabric by tying them inside bundles of cloth and thread before dunking them into the dye bath. But, once the fabric was submerged, “those cones just started popping and bleeding out this color, and it was magic. It was total magic. And that’s what continues to keep me linked in and interested. There are traditional dyes that we know about, but there are also so many local and native plants that have yet to be discovered  — or rediscovered — and that was definitely a really inspiring moment for me.”

Deepa and her husband Gautam embrace the philosophies of slow processing, supporting local and handmade goods, and actively contributing to their vibrant community. Deepa teaches South Indian dance and her husband performs and teaches classical South Indian carnatic music through the non-profit Sangati Center that he founded. (I was lucky to be at their home during one of his practice sessions and heard brief moments of his mesmerizing music as it floated down the stairwell.)

“Knowing the story and the person that is behind these items in your life adds so much to the way you use them and the way you appreciate the world,” says Deepa. “And so, we try. It’s not always easy to have everything in your life fit that philosophy, but it’s definitely what we aspire to and has changed our lives for the better. Every year and every day we learn something new.”

Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Standing next to a curry plant that she uses for cooking. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Loka snacking on a frozen carrot cube. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
The dining room. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
The dining room. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
A shrine in the stairwell. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Loka standing next to his sheepskin, locally sourced from Meridian Jacobs in Vacaville. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
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Loka playing with his felted toys. The string of hearts above his crib was dyed and felted by Deepa, using madder root to achieve the vibrant color. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
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A chair ordained with indigo-dyed pillows. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Learn more about Deepa Natarajan’s work at PlantsPeople.

Melati Citrawireja, a development studies undergraduate at UC Berkeley, is currently pursuing a career in visual journalism. She was a summer 2015 photo intern at Berkeleyside. More of her work can be found online at Melati Photography.

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