Natural Dyes

Posted on December 01 2015

Natural Dyes

Over the past few recent years we have witnessed a revival of the craft and DIY culture. With all the advancement in technology for industrially manufactured and mass produced goods people have come to appreciate the beauty in authentic and handmade artefacts more than ever. Websites and social media platforms such as Pinterest and Etsy, as well as a host of various books and publications, have encouraged crafts and DIY projects either as hobby, business or simply ad hoc design solutions within the house. Naturally dyeing fibre and surface treatment have been among the revived crafts. Before the creation of synthetic dyes, natural dyestuff such as cochineal, madder root and indigo were used to dye yarns. Due to the laborious process and shortage of certain dyestuff, some colours such as purple and red became signs of wealth and royalty. In certain places, the normal citizens were not allowed to wear or use red or purple fabrics even if they could get their hands on them. Those colours were signs of class difference and were meant to be used by the royalty only. Upon the invention of the first synthetic dye in 1856 by the English chemist, William Henry Perkin, the whole world of dye making went through a revolution. More dyestuff could be achieved in shorter time resulting in vibrant colours that were not easy to produce otherwise. They were now available to all social classes. At this time natural dyestuff were still being produced and were in demand since the synthetic dyes used to fade over time. However, by 1868 another discovery by two German researchers resulted in a dye that could withstand light and washing.The world of natural dye making was in a free fall.

Since then, technological advancements have secured our power over final products with impeccable consistency. However, over time we have gone back to appreciate the beauty in natural dyes and handmade crafts as means of luxury. Since 1990s the trend in naturally dyeing yarns has been steadily rising. It is those inconsistencies that we seek in a piece, the imperfect perfections. The term is abrash. “The abrash is the slightly uneven hues that emerge as a carpet ages. The reason is that different dye lots, even of the same colour, can fade at different rates.” This effect is so well sought after that synthetic dyers and carpet makers try to replicate that look through fake methods.

In the book Root of Wild Madder, previously posted about here, the author visits a natural dye factory that is very modern and up to speed with technology where they try to control dyeing results with strict formulas. In a conversation with one of the employees, the man tells him: “We can try and try but nature is always one step ahead of us. It’s a humbling lesson. We have all this machinery and computers, but we are still left at the mercy of the madder root or the walnut or the pomegranate. We can get very close to making the same colour. You may not even be able to see it well with your eyes. But you know in your heart it can’t be done. No two natural colours are exactly the same. This is the mystery. This is infinity.”  In the presence of a handmade carpet, one can’t help but wonder about the immense time, skill and craftsmanship that have gone in producing a single piece. This is how handmade carpets become more like art objects and carry a strong sense of history.

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