My first experience with natural dyeing occurred many years ago. My first teacher, Mabel Myers, was a Navajo weaver who taught at Navajo Community College in Arizona (now called Dine College), where I was studying for a year during college. After spinning wool for my first rug on a long Navajo spindle (my first spinning), we went to the Lukachukai Mountains, where we gathered some leaves (I don’t know what kind) and white, powdery alum from the ground. When I asked Mabel how she knew that this was “alum” she took a taste. That’s how she knew!
We returned to the classroom. The yarn, leaves, and alum mordant all went into a dyepot and cooked for a while. We obtained brown, gold, and orange colors. The hues were deep and rich and they are still in that wool today, nearly 50 years later.
Since that first experience with natural dyes I have learned a lot about dyeing. Now I know that the BEST method of dyeing is to apply the mordant first, and then the dye, after rinsing out any excess mordant. This is the approach used by professional dyers and in industry. It is the most economical use of both dye and mordant. When mordant and dye bind together, preferable IN the textile, an insoluble compound is made, called a lake. If mordant and dye go into the dyepot together, some of the mordant and dye will bind together in the bath before ever having a chance to penetrate inside the textile.
While in Madagascar last month, I watched dyers add bark (the dyestuff), raffia (the textile), and crystalized alum (the mordant), to the dyebath all at the same time. My “professional dye knowledge” told me this was not the best approach. But then I began to think.
All of the dyeing here was done over a small wood fire. Wood is scarce. Madagascar is a seriously de-forested country. Charcoal is still made regularly from wood and used for nearly all cooking. The women were very skilled at controlling temperature by increasing or decreasing the amount of wood on the fire or moving it closer or further away. Perhaps the process is optimized to conserve the most valuable resource: the fuel.
Maybe time is the most valuable resource. The women worked together but their dyeing activity went hand-in-hand with childcare and there were many small children around, observing and participating when appropriate. When everything goes into the pot together the dye process takes less time.
Or maybe the dyepot itself was the most valuable resource. I only saw two pots. Pre-mordanting would require not only a single use of a pot, but might also necessitate the storage of mordanted textiles while they awaited dyeing.
Exposure to dyers in different parts of the world causes me to have a more open mind about process. It encourages me to think more about what I am doing and why I do it. The “BEST” process is not always best for everyone.