Travels in Textiles


Sunday, 20 June 2010

Colour to dye for!

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.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

...Whitworth wanderings continued 'Shindigo Space' and 'Walls are talking'

Not knowing this was on I was pleasantly surprised to walk into this beautiful display of indigo resist dyed hemp fabric and sculptures aptly named Shindigo Space. They are by a Japanese artist called Hiroyuki Shindo who is a master dyer and leading textile artist in Japan. He has successfully combined traditional shibori and other resist techniques to create contemporary pieces that compliments and are complimented by the architectural space they inhabit. It is a display you should go to see in person because of this. The whole experience of viewing the layers of long hanging indigo and white textured fabrics against the sculpted sumptuously textured thread spheres wouldn't be the same viewing the pieces in a book or singularly on their own.

There's something about a strong indigo and bright white that is pleasing to the eye yet something so simple and a dyeing tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years.

The Walls are talking exhibition gave new lights to wallpaper. I loved seeing the different and diverse interpretations of a medium that is mostly seen as an everyday nondescript surrounding by artists who were challenging concepts of wallpaper.
Two wallpapers that were particularly interesting to me because of their relevance to my research were ones by Zineb Sedira. She was born in France to Algerian immigrant parents and her cultural background plays an important part in her art.

(This picture is from the artist's website, the piece in the exhibition is a smaller version of this)

From afar the paper appeared to be patterned in a traditionally Islamic perfectly symmetrical geometric pattern, but on looking closely portraits of Sedira, her mother, grandmother and daughter were placed inside the dense, intricate patterns. Une generation de Femmes and Quatre generations de femmes (1997) challenged notions of the female / male divide and each's role in society. As the making of these intricate mathematical patterns is traditionally a male occupation in Islamic culture, Sedira was reminding us that women's role in this society is integral to familial society but often disguised or not realised.

Whitworth wanderings

Took a trip to the Whitworth gallery in Manchester today.
I could have spent a whole day there if time permitted, there was such a variety of exciting exhibitions. Some of the textiles on display had changed since I was there last. There was some beautiful Kutchi embroidery and Pakistani ralli quilts (above). And also the Bengali kantha embroidery which I love the stitches and quirky figurative motifs of -

I re-visited The Manchester Indian exhibition displaying a selection of Indian silk collected by Thomas Wardle in the 1800s.

I particularly liked this tunic from Peshawar that Wardle purchased in 1886. It is decorated with rogan work. A technique of painting with castor oil that creates a sort of relief wax effect. It could easily be mistaken for embroidery from afar. I visited one family still producing rogan work in Kutch a couple of years ago. They were one of only a few keeping the craft going.
Peshawar town was strategically located close to the Khyber pass, the main route to and from Afghanistan. A lot of the textiles for sale here would come from Bokhara in Central Asia.

This also explains a lot of the brightly coloured fabrics not typically Indian you see stitched into quilts and worn as scarves by communities such as the Jats in Kutch and other parts of Gujarat and I presume Pakistan too. These are clearly Russian in origin, have been sold in Central Asian bazaars and brought to India with nomads and along the trade routes.

Some good books to read about Central Asia's trade routes and history are The Road to Oxiana By Robert Byron, A short walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby and The heart of Central Asia, which I am currently reading, by Colin Thubron. There are also many books documenting the silk road.

Arts Chat success!

I am pleased to say my talk for the Chorlton Arts Festival went well and received a good turn out. It was a great opportunity to share my experiences with people interested in Indian textiles, are textile artists or researchers themselves or are generally interested in Indian culture.
Thanks to everyone who came!
Hopefuly there will be more to come..