Yesterday I went along to a natural dye workshope at Beetle Felt studio. I've had a go at natural dyeing on my own with books and whilst working with artisans in India and have been meaning to get back into it for a while. Like so many other things I've just not got round to it, so when I saw this workshop advertised I booked myself onto it. Having a go with people who've done lots of dyeing, and sharing tips and ideas is a great way to get you motivated, set your creativity off and get excited about a project.
The practice of applying colour to cloth using plants and vegetables goes back thousands of years. The earliest evidence is the excavations of madder dyed cloth at the Indus Valley civilisation site of Mohendjo Daro. In Britain madder was used to dye the coats of the British Redcoats. The colour comes from Alizarin which is found in the root of the madder plant.
Indigo is another ancient dye extracted from the Indigofera plant, native to countries of the tropics. India, China, Japan and South East Asia have all grown and used the plant for dyeing for many centuries.
In Europe Indigo is commonly associated with the dyeing of denim for jeans.
Treasures of Indian Textiles, a publication of the Calico museum, explains that many of the dyeing processes of madder and indigo and the use of the medical herb Harda, myrobalan, which is used in assisting the dyes, were discovered in alchemic laboratories, 'where the search for the elixir of life, the freeing of the body and mind from the onslaught of time were the main pursuit.' As well as discovering extracts and active principles for dyeing during this research, many valuable medicinal remedies were also discovered in plants. Plants discovered for having essential properties for dyeing also became the source of essential ingredients used in Ayervedic medicines.
Colour can be extracted from almost anything growing in your back garden, out in the countryside or lying around your kitchen. Onion skins, beetroot, tea leaves, berries, oak galls and much more.
The history of the cultivation and use of natural dyes is as fascinating as experimenting with the massive range of colours you can get. Discovering the array of colours you will achieve with the vast amount available and then when mixing with others and with mordants, you feel like your are constantly concocting a magical potion. The process can go on and on.
We dyed with four different dyes: madder, oak galls, blackcurrants and onion skins. The madder was in the form of a powder, which you can get in this form from many suppliers, There are loads of websites you can buy them off, some good ones are; dtcrafts, fibrecrafts and wild colours. The oak galls were picked off oak trees locally, the blackcurrants picked from the garden and the onions skins collected and kept after peeling for cooking. Each of these are simmered in hot water over a stove for about an hour, strained off and then the washed fabric or yarn is added. You can then leave the fabric in as long as it needs to get the colour you want. For this workshop we dyed without mordanting the fabrics beforehand as we didn't have the time in one morning to do so. The colour varies with and without the use of the mordant.
A mordant helps fix the dye and keep it colourfast. There are all sorts of mordants you can use, again many of which you can collect for free. Examples are iron which you can get from rusty nails, tin, wood ash and loads more. A common mordant, alum is available from chemists or websites such as the ones mentioned above.
We produced some beautiful colours with the dyes on their own. I had enjoyed it so much that I got home and did some more. This time I tried with dyeing with alum as a mordant.
My discoveries of colours through experimenting with different natural dyes brings me back to wondering about how the first people, these ancient alchemists must have felt on being the first to produce an amazing vibrant colour out of something so readily available.
I also wonder whether they were searching for particular colours or whether they came upon them by chance. This leads onto my current research into the block printed patterns of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In ancient times were the colours used just because they were available or were they used for particular reasons or to represent meanings?
In Treasures of Indian Textiles, it gives the ancient meanings within Hindu culture of colours: 'Red was the colour evoked between lovers'...of the three tones of red 'majitha, madder was the fastest to symbolise the love that could never be washed away'. ' Yellow was the colour of Vasant, spring, of young mango blossoms, swarms of bees....Nila, indigo, was the colour of Krishna who is likened to a rain filled cloud, another blue, Hari nila, the colour of water in which the sky is reflected. Gerua, saffron, was the colour of the earth and of the yogi the wandering minstrel, and the poet who renounces the earth'. These colours were worn to express the mood of a person, whether they were love sick, repentant or observing a vow.