The Alchemy of a Dress

By Outerknown Journey

We partnered with fiber artist and natural dyer Maria Calderon on an extremely limited run of dresses — so special, we only made 10! Bethany, our Director of Design, recounts a magical day of dyeing in the canyons and shares the alchemy behind the rainbow. . .


I had the pleasure of sitting beneath a California Sycamore in the Orange County Canyons, listening to the song of a scrub jay, while taking in a full day’s education on the plant dyes that call Maria Calderon’s outdoor dye studio home. The canyon’s soft rolling hills, flora, and whispering breeze is an idyllic setting to let the mind be free, to create, and experiment. To say Maria simply dyes with plants is an understatement — she is an alchemical creator, yielding vivid colors crafted over time by experimenting with the leaves, resins, and barks that create her palette.

Maria planted the seed for her craft in 2010 and it took root in 2013 during an artist’s residency at Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her residency launched her from narrative airbrush painting on canvas into working with plant color directly on textiles. In the beginning, she was dyeing silk and cotton fabrics, wool roving, and then moved on to dimensional shapes. Those shapes began to take form as clothing sold to friends, eventually evolving into the namesake brand that she currently runs today.

At her studio, I learned about bark, herbs, beetles, and indigo — how they play together to create color and saturation, and the wisdom Maria holds for how these dyes act on their own and in combination with each other.

On this day, she was crafting a special co-creation for Outerknown — a limited run of rainbow-dyed Canyon Dresses. At first glance, these dresses look simple, with their bright red, yellow, and blue. But as you get closer, you see the smooth transition into orange and green where the dyes softly meld together. There is a formula to this rainbow — there are three steps before the dress even touches dye, four different dye vats, plus a homemade sprouted soy milk bath in the middle of it all to remove excess indigo (seriously!). When I look at Maria’s colors, they are so vibrant and alive, and part of the reason is that the dyes are food grade organic material. Instead of growing her own dyes, her materials come from areas where the plants are indigenous. Maria then works with local groups and co-ops to get those plants to her studio where she can work her magic.


Here’s what went into the Calderon Canyon Dress:

  • Cochineal: This dyestuff has been in use for thousands of years. Sourced from beetles harvested in Peru, it creates a bright rosy red shade.
  • Cutch: On top of the Cochineal, Maria dyes this ayurvedic herb to calm the pink of the cochineal into a deeper saturated red (it’s more of a brown shade on its own).
  • Haritaki: This ground seed pod gives the fabric a nice shade of mustard yellow.
  • Japanese Indigo: Fermented Japanese indigo leaves create the bright blue band at the bottom of the dress.

TO ORDER THE CALDERON CANYON DRESS send an email to customercare@outerknown.com for more details, and head here for sizing information.