Natural Color: Fiber and Dye

Wool textile, Xinjiang Regional Museum
Wool textile, Xinjiang Regional Museum

Last fall, I was in China for the 9th International Shibori Symposium (9ISS). Following the conference, I travelled with 20 other adventurers on a remarkable tour of the Silk Road in Xinjiang Province. We began at the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi.  My first introduction to this part of the world was through Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book, Mummies of Urumqi. We viewed these mummies and dozens of remarkable textiles dating back 2,000-3,000 years. I couldn’t help but think about the fibers, the colors, and of course the dyes: brilliant, deep reds that have truly survived the test of time. Madder is the dye. It has been documented. I have never seen such richness.

Wool textile, Xinjiang Regional Museum
Wool textile, Xinjiang Regional Museum

Early one morning we visited an animal market in Kashgar.  This is where locals came to buy and sell camels, goats, donkeys, and of course sheep. What struck me as significant were the different colors of sheep. Today, in the larger commercial wool industry, nearly every color has been bred out, leaving only pristine white wool. White fiber is typically where we begin our dyeing.

Animal market, Kashgar
Animal market, Kashgar

When the starting point for dyeing is already shaded with tones of brown, beige, and grey, the colors we dye will take on an added depth and richness. Michel Garcia refers to this the DVD, Colors of the Americas. He begins with dark colored wools to obtain near black with combinations of madder, cochineal and indigo. Two thousand years ago in China, it’s likely that there was very little white wool. Naturally, the question I ask is “what if I use different colors of animal fibers in my woven textiles and dye the fabric afterwards for various shades from a single dye bath?”

Alpaca, various colors in warp and weft, dyed with madder (rubia tincotia) and weld (reseda luteola)
Alpaca, various natural colors in warp and weft, dyed with madder (rubia tincoria) and weld (reseda luteola)

It proved a challenge to find commercial sources of colored wools in a weight suitable for my weaving. I settled for alpaca, which was readily available in a variety of grey and brown, light to dark. I wove fabric with multiple shades in the warp, and then chose some of those yarns for the weft.

Alpaca, various colors in warp and weft, dyed with madder (rubia cordifolia)
Alpaca, various natural colors in warp and weft, dyed with madder (rubia cordifolia)

I have grasped a deeper appreciation for fiber and natural color. Our starting point deeply affects the ultimate result. We’re not just dyeing cloth, but yarn and ultimately the fiber itself. I have a new appreciation for diversity of that fiber. Many of our local breeders raise naturally-colored sheep, but these wools rarely become commercially spun yarns. During the plenary sessions at 9ISS both Zhao Feng, Director of the China National Silk Museum and Alejandro De Avila, Director of the Ethnobotanical Gardens in Oaxaca Mexico, referred to similar historical fabrics, from their respective countries. Each of the fabrics was woven in a simple check pattern of natural brown and white fiber. The fabrics were resisted with similar tie-dye processes and then dyed red. Resourceful and creative weavers and dyers have used naturally colored yarns for centuries.

Alpaca, woven shibori resist, dyed with madder (rubia tinctoria), inspired by  check patterned textile from China and Mexico
Alpaca, woven shibori resist, dyed with madder (rubia tinctoria), inspired by historical check patterned textiles from China and Mexico

The presentations by both Zhao Feng, and Alejandro de Avila, as part of the 9ISS proceedings, may be viewed here.

4 thoughts on “Natural Color: Fiber and Dye

  1. Love, love, love. I have always loved the over-dyed dark wools of South American textiles. And while living in Finland I realized that their one breed of Finnsheep provided, in combination with blending and carding an elemental range of white, light gray, med. gray, dark gray, and several browns. They generally do not over-dye the browns but for all those lovely Ryjyu carpet color gradations of sunsets and landscapes it’s the over-dyeing of these four basic foundation colors. I am planning on a trip to Peru this November, so give me some research errands. Thank you for the wonderful post. Jorie

  2. Hi Catharine! I just want to say that I enjoyed reading about your work with wool and shibori. This summer I’m having an internship at a wool spinneri in Sweden, and now I’m inspired to do some dyeing as well with this lovely material, so thank you 🙂 Johanna

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