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Photography by Elevine Berje

Want to know what Brooklyn dye artist Cara Marie Piazza is working with at any given moment? Just look at her fingers. If they’re stained yellow, she might just be dip-dyeing a top with marigold extract sourced from Peconic’s Treiber Farms. An orange-y hue? Maybe it’s from the onion skins for that fashion collab. A mix of colors? Probably the floral petals from a bride’s wedding bouquet for that heirloom robe. Whatever the material, you can be sure it was sourced naturally, often from the North Fork, and used to create an item infused with meaning. 

Piazza comes to fashion via a fine art path. A New York City native, she obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in textile design from the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, and has been treating her artisanally dyed creations as true works of art ever since. Always interested in creating sustainable, nontoxic textiles, she convinced her professor to let her do her thesis on natural dyeing after getting hooked from a class workshop. 

Twelve years later, Piazza runs her custom dye business in her Brooklyn studio, creating everything from home textiles to fashion collections that walk down the runways (a Mara Hoffman capsule is currently in stores) — be they colored as solids, ombre, dip-dyes, hand-painted prints, or one-of-a-kind swirled patterns enhanced with ice and salt. 

The process can surprise and delight. “What provides us with the most color are actually shells, rinds and barks from nature — think avocado pits, pomegranate rinds, onion skins — things that would typically be thrown away can be harvested as dye,” Piazza says. It’s a misconception that any plant, seed or root with color — think beets or turmeric — can be used to naturally dye garments, as many don’t have the color-fastness to retain the hue through wear and washings. “I guess it’s nature’s way of saying we should eat what we can eat and dye what we can dye with!” laughs Piazza. Another edict from nature? Only natural fabrics like silk, wool cotton, linen or hemp will properly absorb natural dye.

Dyes also tell a story. Globalization and technology have blurred today’s borders, but fashion and color used to be highly localized. “Centuries and millennia ago, color was also used to instill a sense of place and community,” says Piazza. “Clans of people would be recognized by the color of their clothing, which was dyed by flora only found in those regions.” Color can also indicate status. In Ancient Rome, a purple dye made from a rare sea snail in Tyre (Phoenicia) was so precious that only the wealthiest monarchs could afford it. “Tyrian Purple” represents royalty to this day. 

The North Fork, with its abundance of farms, wildflowers, rocks and shells, has its own colorful connections and offers unbounded inspiration. “The pace and the environment of the North Fork really helps me to tap into why I dye in the first place,” says Piazza, who has been coming to the North Fork since she was little to her family’s Cutchogue house. “There are so many ecosystems out here, and a thousand different invasive weeds you can forage as dye, such as goldenrod and mugwort,” she says. “A few years ago, I was talking to Peter Treiber, a dear friend of mine, about growing dye plants, and he told me to send him a list of what I wanted to use. The next spring, he said, ‘They’re grown!’ ” Piazza now uses Treiber’s marigolds, coreopsis, scabiosa (pincushion flowers) and dyer’s chamomile, and has held dyeing workshops on the farm as well. 

“The pace and the environment of the North Fork really helps me to tap into why I dye in the first place. There are so many ecosystems out here, and a thousand different invasive weeds you can forage as dye, such as goldenrod and mugwort.”

Cara Marie Piazza

Flowers are a large part of Piazza’s craft as well. She has partnered with North Fork Flower Farm in Southold for dyeing workshops and is planning one with dried flower artist Nathaniel Savage at the new floral space by White Flower Farmhouse in Southold. She also sells do-it-yourself dye kits with botanicals for creative at-home projects. 

The abundance of local flowers dovetails nicely with the vast wedding business on the North Fork, letting brides and grooms get a sentimentally dyed robe, tie or handkerchief made from their wedding flowers. “It’s a very special keepsake from their special day,” she says. 

Beyond the North Fork, Piazza works with florists and event planners in New York to gather spent blooms — namely post-event floral composting company Garbage Goddess — to source viable flower waste for dye. “The floral industry supplies thousands of pounds of flowers every day, and all of that typically goes into the garbage afterwards,” she said. 

Artisanal dyeing is also a viable option for consumers who would rather repurpose existing items in their closet than buy new. “We have no minimum orders, so someone can give us a garment, say a white dress, and we can turn it into a beautifully dyed creation,” says Piazza, who hand-writes the hang tags for each garment to add an artisanal sensibility. 

And when in doubt, though, dye it black. The Charcoal Community Bath lets people send as many garments as they want to be overdyed a rich charcoal color (the dye is created from oak gall and cutch). 

Piazza says picking a favorite technique would be akin to picking a favorite child, but notes that Shibori, a Japanese tie-dye technique made from indigo, has been trending lately and consumers should expect to see even more of it come fall. Regarding color, she admits she’s been in a very happy yellow phase, lately. 

“I love using marigold extract because it’s a big beautiful bright yellow, so bright and optimistic,” she says. “And we all need a little bit of that now.” 


Natural dyeing has its own language. A cheat sheet: 

Scouring: Pre-washing fibers to strip the fabrics of residue, dirt and oils to achieve a solid color. 

Mordant: A chemical substance, typically an inorganic oxide, that combines with a dye or stain and fixes the dyestuff to the cloth. 

Tannin: An astringent property of seed pods, barks and nuts used in the dyeing and mordanting process. 

Natural dyestuff: A natural material usually comprised of barks, seeds, petals, plants that yields a dye color. 

Cellulose fibers: Fibers created from plants (cotton, hemp, linen, jute, ramie and lyocell. 

Protein fibers: Fibers created from animals (silk and wool). 

Crocking: The transfer of dye from processed fiber onto other surfaces. 

pH-neutral soap: A gentle, nonreactive soap that is suggested for the wash care of natural dyes. 

Tonal variance: Areas of the garment that may vary in hue, due to the organic nature of dyestuffs.