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Desert insects give fashion a rosy hue at Øgaard.

Designer Laura Schoorl makes sandals and tank tops using hides sourced from a sustainable tannery in upstate New York.

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Though ground cochineal can be purcahsed in the United States, artist Tessa Watson prefers to buy the dried insects whole in Mexico.

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The leather needs to be continuously massaged during the dye process to keep it from tightening up, leaving Watson red-handed.

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Watson (left) and Schoorl at their Oakland design and dye studio.

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The vibrancy of the color depends on the temperature of the dye bath and the length of time the garment spends in the vat. Schoorl's leather pieces are soaked overnight.

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These hot pink kicks? They’re bathed in bugs. That punchy shade comes from a metallic-purple insect called the cochineal, 10 pounds of which Oakland artist and gallerist Tessa Watson bought from a farm in Oaxaca and carted across the Mexico border.

“I was really nervous about going through customs with a million bugs in a giant plastic bag,” she says. “I looked like some kind of weird drug smuggler.” The insects feed on a particular species of cactus, filling their bellies with a fuchsia-colored acid called carmine that’s often used to tinge textiles, cosmetics, and food.

This month, that tint is taking over Watson’s Oakland gallery, Øgaard, where she’s hosting Gradient Pink, an exhibition and sale of cochineal-dyed clothing, art, and accessories by a dozen local artists. One collaboration on display will be designer Laura Schoorl’s handmade leather tanks and sandals ($150 to $200), which Watson painstakingly dyed a spectrum of pinks using her Oaxacan stash. Though natural dyes are more difficult to control than their synthetic counterparts, Watson and Schoorl welcome the challenge. “I like that I’m not stamping out a cookie-cutter product,” says Watson, up to her wrists in a vat of Kool-Aid-colored liquid. “My hands will be red for days,” she adds ruefully.

After this exhibit, Watson will be shelving the bugs to experiment with weld, a yellow-orange dye derived from an herbaceous plant. Gradient Yellow can’t be far behind. Oct. 4–5, Øgaard, 5861 San Pablo Ave. (near 59th St.)

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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