So much of history evolves around natural dye. It has been a huge component of every culture in existence through myth, medicine, ritual, trade, indigeneity and the seasons. Ancient dye practice was a journey of knowledge, exploration and wisdom - a life dedicated to the observation of nature, plants, alchemy and all things associated with colour.
Along with Khadi cloth, natural dye is a primary focus at Because of Nature. Traditionally in India, all Khadi was coloured with natural dyes. That was before the fast fashion industry and development of chemical dyes eroded these historic textile practices. Fortunately natural dyeing is celebrating a resurgence with a renewed interest in sustainable practice and attention to traditional skills and knowledge.
“Our goal is to reunite these elements and return to traditional practices in a modern context. Natural dyeing is a slow process beautifully aligned with nature and patience is always rewarded!” says the brand’s founder Kathy Williams.
Below are the four steps Kathy takes in her studio when she dyes Khadi for The Elemental Collection:
The cloth is brought to the boil and simmered in a vat for a minimum of 1 hour to strip the fibre of any plant/animal residue, rice paste from the weaving house or other foreign matter that may be present. We also add an environmentally-friendly detergent and washing soda to the vat to break the surface tension and wet out the fibre.
Natural dyes need to be fixed into the fabric and we call this process mordanting. We work primarily with cotton (a cellulose/plant fibre) and so our intention with this step is to prepare it for bonding with colourant. We soak the Khadi for at least 24 hours in a tannin bath then rinse it and proceed to soak the cloth in a metallic salt called alum for another 24 hours. The longer the fibre steeps, the higher level of lightfast property is gained. Often we repeat the alum vat for another 24 hours with a new vat.
By this stage, we have already been working on our Khadi for 4 days! All water is recycled onto the dye garden or the vat is reused. We are finally ready for dyeing to commence. Some dyes need to be prepared 24 hours prior to dyeing so the planning process is vital. We always leave our Khadi in the dye vats for 24 hours.
- WORKING WITH THE CLOTH
It is now day 5 and we can press the Khadi - ready for cutting and garment construction. Hooray!
This whole process may sound time-consuming but method and preparation are key features of a natural dyer’s life. Kathy says that the gifts her garden provide far outweigh the time spent, giving her a feeling akin to the rhythm of a farmer:
“I am often thinking of what I want to do in a week’s time or perhaps a season ahead for planting in our dye garden. The rhythm is a beautiful way to live one’s life - being sensitive to nature and having patience with the seasons. To be a successful natural dyer I believe one has to have the capacity to let go of all control and be open to serendipity. Everything impacts on your outcomes - soil quality, rain input, water pH, heat source, vat metals, quantity, time, temperature and I swear the mood of the dyer has an impact. I will never begin the dye process if I am feeling stressed or under pressure. Fortunately life as a dyer has minimal stress! In fact my dye garden helps to ease and cleanse my soul - every day wondering through my tiny garden there is a joy to be found."
Kathy takes great pleasure in tending her dye garden and working in the studio:
"Hour upon hour is spent tending my garden. Always thinking and preparing for the next season as each season brings its own colours. Each time I turn the soil and add compost or feed it this impacts on the colour I will create. Everything is a balance and a discovery. The heat of each season impacts on my colours, the pH of the water, the amount of water, who gets planted next to who and at what time I harvest the flowers. A never-ending world of discovery."
"My dye garden is not huge but the harvests are massive. If one puts thought and planning into their dye garden, I assure you, it can be abundant. It is very much a seasonal process so I am constantly rotating or preparing for the season to come. I can spend up to 2 hours each day harvesting flowers and another 2 - 3 hours preparing and sorting for drying. I also gather waste flowers from a local florist once a week so that is another 1 - 2 hours per week of sorting and preparing to dry. For my dyeing I try to use as much as possible from my garden. Madder is one of my favourite dyes but to grow madder through to harvest is three years in the ground. Last year I had a huge harvest of madder from my garden but that supply has dwindled to almost nothing. When I run out I will source it from India or an amazing supplier of natural dyestuff from Maiwa in Canada. I get most of my mordants from there as I can depend on the quality and consistency. Obviously I get my marigold dye from our Happy Hands Project in India although I do also grow a lot myself as I just love them."
"Three dyes are used for our latest collection - madder, cutch and weld.
Madder, Cutch and Weld are highly prized by natural dyers for their qualities of light-fastness and wash-fastness. The green has been created using weld and an iron mordant which will actually make the colour even more lightfast. I want customers to realise that natural dye isn’t always about colours that fade, a frequent comment a natural dyer will hear. My response is that yes the colours do fade eventually but if care is taken it happens incrementally and unlike chemical dyes that looked washed out when they fade, natural dyes instead go on a journey of colour. They actually throw different hues within the spectrum of their colour so it is quite beautiful. Another feature of natural dye is that if mordanted thoroughly they can be re-dyed multiple times throughout the garments life. With the garments from The Elemental Collection we offer the customer one free re-dye whenever they choose."
Many natural dyestuffs have medicinal properties that were incorporated into mainstream textile practices for centuries. And so the environment is not the only beneficiary from natural dye, we as humans also benefit from this practice. The known medicinal properties include anti-oxidants, antimicrobial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory.
As Kathy points out:
“Skin, the largest external organ on the human body, has the capacity to absorb varying external properties. Consider a new born baby and the care a mother takes to research the origin and ingredients in products that may come into contact with their child’s precious skin. They are right to be selective, unfortunately this enthusiasm fades or just gets lost in daily life. The chemicals and compounds modern textiles are derived from is just that……chemicals! The dyes used in many fast fashion textiles are quite toxic, to our skin and even worse our environment. Dye houses pump obscene amounts of waste directly into the waterways with disastrous ramifications. If that dye has such catastrophic effects on the environment think about the debilitating ramifications of contact with your skin ”
Kathy suggests this research paper by Kate Wells for further reading on the subject of colour, health and wellbeing.