By Maureen LeBourdais —
Since antiquity, fabrics have been dyed with extracts from minerals, plants, and animals. In fact, historically, dyeing was a secretive art form. The most beautiful and exotic pigments were reserved for those who had the status to wear them.
Things began to change around 1856 when scientists discovered how to make synthetic dyes. Cheaper to produce, brighter, more colour-fast, and easy to apply to fabric, these new dyes changed the playing field. Scientists raced to formulate gorgeous new colours and before long, dyed fabric was available to all and natural dyes had become obsolete for most applications.
This brightly coloured, changed new world was not without a down side, however. Dyes are so problematic because the families of chemical compounds that make good dyes are frequently toxic to humans. The chemicals used to produce dyes today are often highly toxic, carcinogenic, or even explosive. Each new synthetic dye developed is a brand new compound, and because it’s new, no one knows its risks to humans.
What is a fibre artist to do?
It is sometimes suggested that making dyes from scratch belongs more in the realm of the textile purist than in that of the contemporary fibre artist and craftsperson—likened to the earnest gourmet who grinds his or her own flour for bread. Increasingly, modern craftspersons are turning to natural dyes as a logical extension of their aesthetic concerns in weaving, spinning, knitting, crocheting, and stitchery. Furthermore, it is encouraging to see that plant dyes are now as often made by schoolchildren in their classrooms as by folklorists and devotees intent on relearning ancient skills.
Natural dyes create the most beautiful colours, while creating no harm to the earth and all of life. A full rainbow of colours can be achieved without using harmful chemicals”
Making dyes from plants can expand the whole concept of fiber and its contemporary application. On a personal level, plant dyeing greatly affects my response to colour. No two dye baths are ever exactly the same. Plant dyed fibers and the dyeing process itself are stimulants to the nuances of colour that can lead me to consider new combinations and unexplored juxtapositions. Their natural harmony is a special kind of perfection that appeals to those who learn to trust their senses.
Natural dyes produce an extraordinary diversity of rich and complex colours, making them exciting to use. Natural colours are great motivators and easy to design with. It can also be very satisfying to grow your own dye plants and produce your own colours.
Dyers who love their craft frequently become gardeners. Some actually start out as avid gardeners, and dyeing is taken up as another aspect of their initial interest in plants. Most of us grow some flowers and vegetables without consciously thinking specific species that will yield a dye. Marigolds, chamomile, calendula, cornflower, daisies, chard, onion, and parsley are all fair game for the dyer’s craft. Going for a walk? Take along a basket, for horsetail, dandelion, fern, clover, burdock, and mullein are all common and easy to use dye plants.
Natural dyes create the most beautiful colours, while creating no harm to the earth and all of life. A full rainbow of colours can be achieved without using harmful chemicals. Working with natural dyes is pleasant and the dyestuffs lend creativity and inspiration to the process. I love growing and gathering the dye plants. I love preparing the dye bath and smelling the earthy aromas. When I look at a skein of yarn or fabric that I have dyed, the delightful memory of the process is always there, from gathering goldenrod blossoms in the warm sun on a late summer day to meal preparations from which onion skins are saved for the dye pot. The eyes do not tire of gazing upon colours from nature, just as they do not tire of gazing upon a sunlit field of flowers in bloom. The process of collecting and dyeing with bits of earth, and in the process doing no harm to the earth, nourishes my soul.
Maureen LeBourdais is a fibre artist who grows much of her own dyestuffs in her beautiful garden in Beaver Valley, near Horsefly. She is also the owner of MamaQuilla Textiles, an import business with a mission to celebrate the art of handmade cloth from around the world. www.mamaquillatextiles.com