Pasts & Futures | Interventions

Natural Dyes for Activewear: Experiments with Synthetics

Denise N. Green


Denise Nicole Green, PhD is an Associate Professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, American Indian and Indigenous Studies, Anthropology, and American Studies at Cornell University, where she also directs the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection. In 2015, she founded the Cornell Natural Dye Garden and began integrating natural dyes into the textile and fashion design curriculum at Cornell. Since then, she and the students in the Cornell Natural Dye Studio have produced exhibitions, offered public lectures and workshops, and collaborated with various fashion brands and community organizations.


Natural dyers tend to work with cellulosic or protein fibers; however, nylon is a synthetic fiber that holds great potential for natural dyers because its chemistry is similar to silk. While natural fibers have many benefits and come from renewable and biodegradable resources, their fiber properties do not always meet the needs of athletes and yoga practitioners. When nylon is blended with elastane or Lycra it becomes an ideal fabric for swimming, running, yoga practice, and other activities that require physical movement. In this intervention, I discuss my research and creative design process to develop more sustainable methods of naturally dyeing athleticwear fabrics. Safer environmental practices were incorporated in two ways: first, diversion of food waste from the university’s dining halls and kitchens of nearby friends; and second, experimentation with the process of contact dyeing, also referred to as eco-printing, which is one of the least water-intensive natural dye methods. Jersey knit fabrics with fiber content of 80% Nylon and 20% Lycra spandex were mordanted with aluminum sulfate (12% weight of fiber), and contact dyed with marigolds, coreopsis, dahlias, zinnias, and Hopi dye sunflowers grown in the Cornell Natural Dye Garden and sourced from a local flower farm, Plenty of Posies. I hope this intervention inspires others to experiment with natural dyes on nylon and nylon blends to create environmentally friendly activewear that is simultaneously beautiful and functional.