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