Dyer Consequences

As a girl who most often wears black, you wouldn't think I'd have a relationship with color. And truly I don't. I struggle with color. The names and value given to certain colors nowadays seem arbitrary and impersonal to me. A stark emphasis on quantity of color over quality seems to follow trends; each year defined by a new color mandated by a company, brand, or icon. The color of the year before forgotten, almost as quickly as it came.

As a seamstress and striving artist, I work with other people's definitions of colors rather than my own, without control over aspects of the work. However, the rich history of color and its cultural significance around the world has always fascinated me. Why would one culture choose black for mourning garb and another red? What is it about color that brings about certain associations?

Seeking a better understanding of color, I turned to books and came across Kristen Vejar's The Natural Modern Dyer. I fell in love with her pictures of dyestuffs and their resulting color. As I learned more, Vejar's experiences with natural dye and her motivations began to sound familiar. She discussed her evolving relationship with color through natural dye, a relationship I was desperately trying to cultivate; it was then that my adventure with natural dyeing began.

Since the creation of cloth, there has existed the desire to color to it. Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when, archeologists have discovered samples of naturally dyed fabric and written evidence of dying as a practice dating from 100 CE. Synthetic dyes were not invented until 1856 (by mistake!), leaving a 1,700 year span during which every culture in the world relied on natural dye.

In the Textile Hive's Collection there are several examples of textiles dyed using natural methods that acted as motivation and inspiration for me. Oshima, for example, is a method of dyeing fiber from Oshima, Japan, where the yarn is buried deep in the ground in order to absorb the color of the soil.

Another favorite, indigo, became widely used around the world, but its uses varied by region and culture. In Japan for example, indigo is used in a process called Shibori, a type of tie and dye, where the folds of the fabric are dyed to result in a chaotic but controlled surface design.

Color acted as a form of nonverbal communication within a community; indicating a persons age, social status, and heritage; something foreign to me living within the United States. Certain colors were so sought after that they motivated trade and promoted interaction among peoples of all cultures. I can only imagine the great journeys undertaken in search of the perfect color.

Pigments, found in a variety of plant and insect material, are what give natural dyes their colors. Natural dyes are either substantive, able to directly fix to a fiber, or adjective, able to indirectly affix to a fiber, with a pretreatment of a mordant, a metal, most commonly aluminum, copper, or tin. Mordanting allows colors to bind for longer to any given fiber and can influence the final color. It is unknown when mordants were added to the process of natural dying, but it is theorized that the introduction of metal pots and their use in the dying process is what resulted in this discovery. Tannins are another common natural dye, such as those found in tea. Protein fibers react differently to individual pigments than cellulose fibers, and pigments themselves can be affected by the age, climate, or soil.

The evolution of the natural dying process is most intriguing to me, because it's not intuitive. Who first thought of using certain dyestuffs? Were they at home one day and realized the stains those dyestuffs left behind could be applied intentionally? Who first incorporated heat in the process to better open the fibers pores? If colors do not always correspond to their dyestuff, how did people create the colors they desired? The innovation of natural dye and its process comes from trial and error, and patience, as I soon found out.

Last summer I took a photo of a controlled burn at Yellowstone National Park in which a cloud of smoke is colored by the sunset. It spoke to me, and I knew I wanted to do something special with this image. I decided to recreate it as a fabric painting, composed out of layers of sculpted silk organza. Since the picture relied so heavily on the organic nature of color, it seemed only appropriate to recreate those colors with natural dye. I chose to use logwood and madder, both exotic wood sawdusts, for pinks and purples. I also used yellow onion skins for yellows, oranges, and reds. Upon completing the dyeing, I would then sculpt the layers of fabric into shapes within the smoke cloud, and hang it.

The dyes I used were adjective and I first had to mordant my fabric to allow the natural dyes to affix more permanently. I did not buy my fabric in a raw, untreated state, so mordanting also removed any harsh chemical treatment that was used to finish the fabric for stain resistance, sheen, hand, etc. This chemical finish could contaminate the natural dye pot and result in a different color, a variable I was eager to eliminate.

I used an alum mordant, recommended for silk, and in a small pot, mordanted the fabric in two yard increments. It took nearly a full day to complete 13 yards. Each piece was brought to a boil, simmered for an hour, cooled, then rinsed, and finally air dried. A good deal of effort for no color! I was astounded at the amount of time consumed. No wonder people devoted their entire lives to dyeing fabric.

The reward was in the next phase of the undertaking. Having never used any natural dyes before, I had no idea how successful my dye tests would be. I didn't know if my timing or the resulting color intensity would be satisfactory. And here I was thinking natural dyeing would be my gateway to regaining control with color.

I started with onion skins, which seemed the least intimidating, crumbling the skins into the water to soak, like tea. Stirring slowly, I watched as the water pulled the pigment out of the onion skins, and to my surprise became a deep orange, not the brown/red of the onion skins that I added to the pot. Rarely, the color of the dyestuff influences the actual color of the dye, something I did not expect. If I was out collecting dyestuffs from nature, I'd be inclined to rely on my eye to pick the colors. No wonder the experience and documented knowledge that goes with this practice is so vital. It was easy to be wrong.

I expected the onion skins to create a vibrant single color, but I was able to get more variety than I ever thought possible, by a simple change in pH. With a bit of white vinegar that orange turned to a deep red, with ammonia, a pale yellow. Astounding, with only one dyestuff I managed to get over 4 different colors!

Feeling more confident, I worked with the logwood and madder, repeating the same slow process, watching the colors change shade by shade over time. Again, the range in color was astounding, and the vibrancy was unlike any synthetic dyes I had worked with before. I was happily surprised by the colors I produced, confident that eventually I could arrive at colors I liked.

Now, color is a deeply personal and individual experience for me. I have never felt more rewarded by color than when I created my own. I came to treat the dye process as a moment of meditation and as something I look forward to further integrating into my process.I catch myself looking for color palates in everything around me, and have even started to wear more color. The colors I created for this project have expanded into a more powerful personal narrative about a girl in black embracing color.

Further reading:

Kolander, Cheryl. Brilliant Colours with Natural Dyes on Silk and Other Natural Textiles. Portland, OR: Mama D.O.C., 2004. Print.

Vejar, Kristine, and Sara Remington. The Modern Natural Dyer: A Comprehensive Guide to Dyeing Silk, Wool, Linen, and Cotton at Home. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, an Imprint of Abrams, 2015. Print.

World Textiles: A Sourcebook. London: British Museum, 2012. Print.

Author: Mimi Loughney

Mimi Loughney is a Multimedia Artist and Seamstress navigating the fine line between art and craft.  Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, she draws her inspiration from the surrounding natural beauty, local museums and fabric stores.