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  • Patrick Cabasset

WHAT IS PASTEL?

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

ESMOD invites you to attend a unique workshop to mark Earth Week 2022. Bruno Berthoumieux, master pastel producer at the Château des Plantes, talks to us about natural pastel dyeing and conducts a few practical experiments using this essential plant. Interview.


Bruno Berthoumieux, Director of Pastel de la Serre


The passionate Bruno Berthoumieux was born in the beautiful residence that is the Château de La Serre in Cambounet-sur-le-Sor, in the Toulouse area, where he now cultivates a magical plant, pastel, which can be used to naturally dye any fabric blue, on this land that has been in his family since 1800. This traditional plant from the Pays de Cocagne provided work for up to 250,000 people in the region in the 16th century. And the famous towers of pride, or capitular towers, of the Toulouse region were, in fact, born of the fortunes accumulated thanks to pastel. This craft has since been replaced by industrial dyeing, and the chemical colourings and ecological disasters that this development has brought with it. “The dyeing of jeans, as practised today, for example, requires some 5,000 litres of water per garment and is extremely polluting!”, Bruno Berthoumieux explains.


The Château de la Serre stands at the heart of the Domaine du Pastel de la Serre


“Our approach with Pastel de la Serre over the past 12 years has been to adopt the old-fashioned practice of plant-based dyeing”, he explains. “We rely on natural reduction using fructose, which is also hypoallergenic, resulting in very light and irregular blues, very pastel-like, actually, unlike those processes that use hydrosulphites, which produce very vibrant blues.” That’s why the industrial jeans produced today can only be produced in light colours if they undergo water and energy-intensive washing and fading processes.

A few examples of naturally pastel-dyed scarves



Having studied to be an agricultural technician, and with a desire to take over the family land, Bruno Berthoumieux initially went into marketing, selling natural fertilisers, before moving to the family estate where his brother had already started a business creating essential oils. In 2010, the siblings decided to start growing and extracting pastel.


Just like rapeseed, pastel is an indigoferous plant, and one that requires large quantities of leaves rather than flowers to produce the dye. A kilo or so of pigment can be extracted from a ton of leaves. Unlike most plant-based dyes, however, pastel is not water soluble and therefore does not require a chemical fixative. It is, in fact, the oxidation that occurs upon contact with the air that gives rise to the beautiful pale blues of pastel dyes.

A pastel field at Domaine de la Serre


“Nowadays, there is only a small eco-tourism market for pastel”, Bruno says. “We offer historical tours of our site, explain how we grow the pigment and the technique we use, but we only dye in small quantities and to order as it’s not a very competitive business. Here prices are around €10 per dyed garment, as opposed to around €1.50 per garment with chemical dyeing. That said, this process is great for small runs and products that are to be sold at the higher end of the market. We’d have to patent and protect the cultivation of pastel if we were to make it profitable”.


Master pastel producer Bruno Berthoumieux in action


Having been recognised as part of France’s intangible heritage by the Ministry of Culture a year ago, the pastel produced at the Château des Plantes is cultivated with the sort of traceability worthy of the cosmetics industry and could claim AOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) status, for example, in the future. The distillation site, with its 800-litre tanks, already operates on behalf of pharmaceutical group Pierre Fabre, for example.


“Our policy here is to work exclusively with local products”, Bruno continues. “Even the fabrics we use are locally produced. I’ve been fighting to produce a scarf made of Tarn wool, woven in Castre, made in Carmaux and dyed here at our site, in Cambounet-sur-le-Sor, for two years now, and it’s paid off. Another of our scarves is made of 60% hemp and 40% cotton. This hemp is grown in Cahors and we intend to do the same with flax. It’s also vital that we maintain our entirely organic approach to sourcing”.


“Pastel reflects the story of the Pays de Cocagne”, Bruno concludes. “My aim in using this unique technique is not to go down the industrial route but rather to remain in the high-end market to preserve the natural aspect of every product we produce”.


Visit ESMOD from 3-6 May 2022 for a greater insight into the fascinating history of pastel and the expertise involved.

12 rue Catherine de La Rochefoucauld, 75009 Paris.

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