Hand dyed felt squares by The Rainbow Girl
The art of dyeing threads and fabrics has accompanied the evolution of the textile arts throughout history and around the world. Colors are achieved through various minerals, plants and insects, each involving intimate knowledge of how to best achieve steadfastness through the use of mordants, temperatures, length of dye baths, and recipes handed down through the generations. The dyer is a chemist, a scientist, and an explorer.
The subject is vast and TAFA members represent this chemical world in a variety of ways: sourcing the supplies for non-toxic dyeing, dyeing materials for other artists, dyeing materials for their own work, working with communities around the world which dye their own supplies, buying dyed supplies, and teaching others how to dye. Exploring all of this would mean writing a book! So, for this post, we'll look at just a few of what our TAFA members are doing on the subject of dyeing.
First, let's take a quick look at how dyes impact the world. I've been working with ethnic textiles since the late 1980's. Back in those early days, there was an abundance of native textiles hitting the American markets as small importers traveled the world and brought in handmade textiles. They were cheap and easy to find. By the mid-1990's, prices were going up significantly and handmade workshops churned out replicas using synthetic dyes, acrylic yarns, polyester fabrics, all using inferior techniques.
By the 1970's commercial fabrics and dyes had become available all over the world and native people enjoyed the reduction of labor and the vibrancy of the materials: colors that would never fade and polyester that would never wear out. They loved it! Here is an example of how these materials changed the products they made:
Vintage bicycle seat cover from Afghanistan, embroidered silk thread on silk fabric.
Circa 1960, Afghan Tribal Arts
Vintage motorcycle seat cover from Afghanistan, embroidered acrylic yarn on silk and commercial fabric.
Circa 1980, Afghan Tribal Arts
See the difference? The newer piece is still handmade, fun and exotic, an interesting piece. Natural dyes can also be vibrant when newly dyed, but over time, most take on a soft, warm look. Embracing synthetics happened everywhere. I'll never forget when my sister was given a quilt for her highschool graduation, made by a quilter from my Dad's church. It was made of squares of that thick, bright polyester from the 1970's, the kind that makes most of us go, "Ewwwww.....". The quilter was so excited and proud and told my sister that she would never have to iron it, that the colors would never fade and that it would last forever! I visited her once with my Dad and she had stacks of these squares all over the house. She told me that she thought this fabric would become valuable some day because it wasn't being made anymore...
Appreciation for the natural dyes was spurred by textile enthusiasts in the West (Europe and North America). Collectors were grabbing what they could as country by country was "pillaged" by small importers and travellers. There has been a visible trend in the acquisition of these textiles that is tied closely with political and economic turmoil around the world. Basically, it happens like this: poor country suffers tragedy or big change (natural disaster, war, isolation, etc.), aid pours in from the West, travelers and tourists start exploring the out of the way places and offer to buy up that old pot, the cracked bench, and anything else the villagers want to sell. People want modernity: tennis shoes, windows, a TV, refrigerator, etc, so they sell these old things. Those things end up in galleries and museums. Adventurous traders head out to get more. If the villagers are hungry enough, they will give up their treasures, their dowry items, their ancestral goods for a pittance. Once it is all gone, people start realizing that something good has disappeared. Alliances form to bring back the old knowledge, to keep it going, and to continue to make things in the old ways.
This revival is happening all over the world, and with it, textile artists are documenting the processes, making it there own and changing it to fit their own needs, aesthetic and curiosity. Coupled with this historical interest in the techniques, the stories that go with them, and the challenge of becoming the "textile chemist" is also the growing awareness of how harmful commercial dyes can be to the environment.
Indonesian batiks became a huge export in the 1980's. A great majority of them were made in small family cottage industries, using traditional techniques which included washing the textiles in local rivers. Large factories were set up to make hand-batiked sarongs. Both they and the small workshops moved over to using toxic dyes that polluted their rivers. I read an article years ago that many of these dyes were made in the US but banned here, yet exported elsewhere. GreenPeace published a slide show of images of the Tullahan River in Manila, which also has dye factories upstream. Click on the image to see their slide show:
As you can see, this is a huge problem. Natural dyes also have their own issues. O Ecotextiles has a series of posts on dyes that explain the hazards that both natural and synthetic dyes pose for the Textile Chemist. Read here. Their "moral of the story" is that natural does not necessarily mean "good for you" and that the critical issue is how water is used in the dye process and then disposed of.
Without a doubt, exploring dye techniques and using hand dyed fabrics is fun and produces beautiful results. Like anything we produce these days (food, cloth, computers, etc.) we just need to think about the environmental impact these things have on our yard, our septic system, our water supplies, our communities and our world. The best way to do it is to look for mentors who can answer those questions and provide guidance in local solutions that work for that community.
Several of our members are engaged with traditional communities which use natural dyes indigenous to their region for centuries: TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles (Thailand and Laos), Unique Batik (Guatemala), Threads of Peru, and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator (Mexico). The four videos below give a window into their projects and each touches on how dyes are used in their product development. These four happen to work with weavers who dye their own yarn.
The exchange happening between traditional communities around the world and contemporary artists inspires and opens new doors! Although the end result may seem to have little in common, the conversation and connection propels new ideas. To give you an idea of how hand dyed materials inform a modern piece, here are some of our TAFA studio artists:
Susan Fennell Studio: Inspired by Japan, big indigo fan!
Jefferson Street Studios: Helene Davis dyes her own fabric and also sells it.
Fiber Visions: Hand dyed clothing.
fabric8tions: Clairan Ferrono dyes her own fabric, prints on it and manipulates it.
There are many, many more! See them here.
Of our textile chemists, we also have many who teach their techniques and document their work. Of these, India Flint is beloved for her love of the earth and its gifts. She has written books and traveled around the world, teaching her eco-dyeing methods:
Arlee Barr pushes herself into new territories with her dyeing experiments and then translates the results into works accented by embroidery:
TAFA's members are an amazing resource! The collective knowledge reflects the serious study, often of a lifetime, that constantly explore the possibilities they see hidden in the fibers imagined through their muse. Color is at the core of how each of us relates to the object of our affection, how a shape is accented, or a mood perceived. Use them and what they have learned to open new possibilities for you, too!
A few of our member resources who offer supplies follow below.
The Rainbow Girl (lots of different things)
Jefferson Street Studios (fabric)
Arlee Barr (fabric)
Julaine Lofquist-Birch (burlap)
Studio Jules (fabric)
TAMMACHAT Natural Textiles (fabric- yardage)
Swoon Fibers (yarn)
FurugiStar (vintage Japanese fabric)
Cultured Expressions (Indonesian batiks and African fabric)
Ananse Village (African fabric)
New World Textiles (fabric)
Little Mango Imports (fabric)
Darn Good Yarn (yarn)
Spanglish Fabrics (Guatemalan Fabric)
Fabricadabra (Yardage from around the world.)
Search the site for dyed and see what comes up! Explore our member's links, connect with them and don't be afraid to ask them questions. They all love what they do and are happy to talk about it with you.
It's all to dye for!