A Natural Dye Workshop

I teach a great deal, which I love doing.   Yet occasionally I relish the opportunity to learn from someone else – someone who has different experiences and who causes me to look at my own process in a different way. Last week I took a class in natural dyeing at Shakerag in Sewanee, TN with Charllotte and Sophena Kwon of Maiwa. When I immerse myself in a class such as this, I know that I will come away with new understandings but I can never be sure what the lessons will be.

Charllotte organized a week that included dyeing  cellulose and protein fibers in many different dyes, combinations of dyes, and with some ferrous applications. The palette was extensive and yet I knew that we were just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Charlotte Kwon, laying out samples to dry
Charlotte Kwon, laying out samples to dry

We used the classic dyes – those that have been tried and true over many years and used in production and industry in different parts of the world. When one invests so much time preparing and mordanting fibers, it’s important to have the best dyes possible and ones that will last as long as the fiber. All the dyeing was done using formulas that are easily repeated.  Maiwa produces a line of naturally dyed clothing and as a result they have refined their processes and dye choices. We found plenty of inspiration in Maiwa’s collection of masterfully dyed fabrics from all over the world.

The “palette”
The “palette”

When it became time to dye with indigo, I was surprised that we used chemical vats reduced with thiourea dioxide. Both Charllotte and I learned the organic indigo vats from Michel Garcia, where the reduction comes from plants or fruit sugars.  I have spent the last 8 years using only these organic vats in my studio work: how to start them, to read them, keep them alive, and dye successfully with them. I didn’t think I would ever return to the chemical vats.

Stock solutions, ready to be added to the vats
Stock solutions, ready to be added to the vats

It was a revelation to be re-introduced to the “thiox vat”, a real “work-horse” indigo vat that is most appropriate for quick samples or when a hard-working vat is needed for a group of people or an intense dyeing period. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the dominant smell of the vat came from the natural indigo and not the reduction chemical.

Indigo vat, fully reduced
Indigo vat, fully reduced

We made 8 indigo vats one morning and all the vats worked successfully well into the night.  The organic vats would have required more rest time, more fussing, and ultimately may not have been as rewarding for the dyers in such a setting. The thiox vats were not without maintenance; we checked the pH, added thiox or lye water as necessary, and more indigo when needed.

Indigo dyeing into the night….
Indigo dyeing into the night….

The lesson for me last week was to always keep an open mind. My studio practice will continue to include an organic indigo vat. Had I not spent these years committed to these organic vats, I wouldn’t understand them and they would not be an integral part of my studio. But I left last week’s class with a new attitude about choosing a process most appropriate for the setting. I am sure that there will  be a few chemical indigo vats in my future.

4 thoughts on “A Natural Dye Workshop

  1. Funny, I was thinking about this issue yesterday when I was dyeing 4 lbs of wool in indigo. I thought of trying the organic vats but realized there was no way I would get through it in the couple of hours it took. And the vat did smell like indigo! However, I did wonder if the organic vat had merit if one was using cochineal as an under dye as the chemical vats tend to discharge the cochineal.

    1. I’m not sure if the organic vat would be easier on the cochineal, but I have learned to dye my indigo first, then mordant and dye any other color. It’s not the way most of us learned to dye, and it’s taken some real effort to make this sequence a regular practice but the results are rewarding. Yellows, such as weld, are often damaged – seemingly not by the indigo but the neutralizing of indigo. I’m guess that the bond between dye and mordant might be compromised by the acid. When dyeing indigo first, the mordant bath also helps to neutralize the fiber.

  2. Catherine, I learned about Organic Indigo vats from a workshop I took with you in Asheville a few years ago. I tried to keep an Organic vat for awhile but found it was too much “fuss” for me. Now, in my studio I keep a thiox vat for many of the same reasons you cited. When teaching my classes, we always start the day creating a new vat and consistently get great results that my students are able to see.

    I too, love to get away and learn new techniques. I’m excited now because I leave Saturday for a 2 week “fiber immersion” at Arrowmont. In addition to what I learn from the instructors, I always bring home new ideas and techniques from my fellow fiber students. Your words “to keep an open mind” are just what I needed to hear this morning!

  3. Wonderful! I *just* discovered your blog and am so happy! Reading about this workshop was grand, and now I shall go back in time here, enjoying your blog. happy me!

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