From this fine art you find the secret of imitating what is most beautiful and charming in nature
– Gioachin Burani, Venetian Dyer in Treatise on the art of dyeing (Trattato dell’arte della tintura)
Embarrassing perhaps, but I think I’ve always wanted to be Martha Stewart – the craftswoman, not the tax evader! Unfortunately, my accounting skills have always surpassed my creative skills. Still, persevere I must! Baking workshop? I’m in! Fermenting class? I’m in! So I jumped with joy when I came across a local workshop on natural dyes hosted by the Tris Elies Art and Nature Club.
Discussing the history and sources of natural dyes, as well as their practical use today, I was fascinated with how a discarded avocado pit and skin could be used to give a beautiful purple hue to clothes. How vibrant colour could extracted from vegetables, fruits, flowers and nuts and applied to fabric, be it a woollen sweater or a Persian carpet!
Naturally dyed fabrics last a long time, and are often considered more valuable than their synthetically dyed compatriots. This is especially so for carpets as natural dyes emit a greater spectre of colours, and thus initiate a deeper richness and feeling of aliveness.
On my global journey, I have often been impressed with the resourceful use of vegetables and fruits in cooking, but their use in dyeing of fabrics and other household items just brought home how important, versatile and amazing plants really are!
With their journeys across land route and sea, natural dyes travelled the world in a similar fashion to food, and so it is only fitting that I give you a very brief peek today into this wonderful tradition.
Gift to the Gods
Evidence of textile dyeing traces as far back as the Neolithic period and in China, textiles have been dyed naturally from around 3000 B.C. The tradition was established in Ancient Rome and Greece as well.
Given the proliferation of traditional arts and crafts across Cyprus, it should come as no surprise that natural dyeing once too played an important role in Cypriot society and commerce.
Under Lusignan rule in the Middle Ages (remember them and Commandaria from my article on Cyprus?), both the towns of Nicosia and Famagusta became important centres of textile manufacturing, and some years later under Venetian Rule (1489-1570), both embraced the art of dyeing. A profitable venture, dyed fabrics were gifted to Egyptian and European rulers, and thus travelled across Europe and the Middle East.
In Mali and other parts of West Africa, the Bogolan, or mud cloth, has been produced for centuries from the bark of local trees and natural earth.
Don’t throw those peels away!
Whilst natural dyes can also be obtained from minerals or invertebrates, the majority of dyes came from plant sources. The entire plant, including roots, bark, berries/fruits/vegetables, leaves and wood can be used in the dyeing process.
Red was one of the most preferred colours of the 18th and 19th century. It was obtained from the madder root, whose plant thrived in the Cypriot climate then, as it does today too. Only when the plant is at least three years old, can its roots be harvested and used for dyeing. It is this root that gave Cypriot wedding outfits the rich scarlet tones they are known for.
Natural dyes were the only way that one could colour fabrics, carpets or crockery, until the late 19th century when synthetic dyes began to be manufactured. Indeed, it was Adolf von Baeyer, the Nobel Award winning scientist who discovered, aspirin, who made the greatest strides in understanding the molecular structure of indigo. This allowed him to adopt a synthetic alternative, and natural dyes slowly began to lose appeal. Today, it is estimated that over 10,000 different synthetic dyes and pigments are used for industrial and commercial use.
Red or black?
Numerous elements can affect the final colour obtained from the dyeing process, including when the plant source was harvested! Contrary to popular perception, beetroot, for example, is not a good dye source, as the resulting colour will be lost through washing the fabric. The original colour of the vegetable or other plant source is no firm indication of the final colour, and some colours can only be obtained by overlapping dyes, and others adding compounds such as iron.
In Cyprus, the following plant sources give these colours:
Red – madder
Yellow – pomegranate, onion, eucalyptus
Brown – walnuts, sumac berries, loquat leaves
Black is obtained by adding iron to a source containing tannin e.g. sumac or oak.
As with many natural processes, this type of dyeing can be time and energy-consuming, but the process itself is simple and satisfying. It involves:
- Cleaning the fabric (scouring) to remove any additives, chemicals or dirt.
- Adding a natural compound to allow the dye to stick to the fabric (mordanting)
- Extracting the dye from the plant source, normally through boiling
- Soaking the fabric in the dye solution
- Drying the fabric
Gift from the Gods
And that’s it! Well, almost. The natural dyeing process takes time and patience to understand the nuances and properties of how plants work. It’s probably not ideal for everyday use but done occasionally, will give you a wonderful appreciation of the lengthy transformation of fabric before you wear it, as well as the gift of vegetables and fruits in nature and culture.
If you’re interested to find out more about natural plant dyes, a great place to get started is with India Flint’s book, Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles, where you can also have a go at solar dyeing.
One of my most favourite countries, and soon to be featured as a vegetarian’s paradise on this blog, is Japan, with its Shibori natural dyeing technique. Why not have a go?
I had a magical experience at the workshop, watching the transformation of fabric from natural to vibrant, using just vegetables and flowers. If you want to check out more of the workshop and have a closer look at the process of natural dyeing, check out my feature on the workshop on Steller.
One of my favourite songs speaks of the love between a woman and a local dyer, and I can’t help but feel a certain romantic air simmering in the dye pot.
Color my amazement of you,
Come paint the desires of my heart too,
Color away our union,
And if you can’t, forget not to paint our separation.