Colors of the Earth

Avani Society

Reviving the art of natural dyeing

The dye plants of Kumaon
Like most other art and craft forms, the history of natural dyeing in India dates back to ancient times. The tinctorial properties of various dye plants were known by the artisans throughout the subcontinent. In Kumaon, it was the Bhotiya community that had been most actively involved in practising this craft and keeping it alive. Though their diminishing trade almost made them give it up. The plants more popularly used in Kumaon for dyeing were - Walnut, Kilmora roots, Kaphal (Box myrtle) tree bark, Tatri. Since the way they used some of the plants were harmful to the ecology, Avani started working to find ways of using other plants that would not be harmful to the environment, rather help in the regeneration of the same. 

The process of natural dyeing requires very basic equipment. But in order to repeat the same colour, it is important to maintain the right pH, the right temperature and the right amount of dye material, each time.

Equipment from top left to bottom right:
- a digital weighing scale
- a pH meter
- a stainless steel container
- spoon
- thermometer
- a glass rod
- gloves
- measuring cups

With an exception of Indigo dyeing, all natural dyeing begins with the mordanting of the fibres, yarns or fabrics, that are to be dyed. A mordant is a basically a dye fixer, i.e a substance that is used to set the dyes on the fabric. It does so by forming a complex with the dye molecules, eventually fixing the color to the fabric. Mordanting is usually done before dyeing but in some cases can also be done after the dyeing to modify or strengthen the color of the dye. Alum is the most common mordant used before dyeing. Some other commonly used mordants are iron and myrobolan. 

All quantities are measured with respect to the weight of the yarn.

For the mordanting, the mordant used is 2-3% of the weight of the yarn that is to dyed. The amount of water used to dissolve will also be 2-3% of the weight of the yarn.

Indian Madder
Indian Madder (Rubia Cordifolia) is one of the most popular dye plants all over the world, after the Indigofera tinctoria. Locally known as Manjistha, the plant takes a couple of years to grow to their full length and be ready for harvest. Like most other dye yielding plant, Manjistha is also known for its medicinal properties. 

It is the roots of the plants and in some cases also the thicker lower stems that are cut, dried and used for dyeing purposes.

Like in the case of mordanting, the amount of dye material used will depend on the weight of the yarn. Usually the quantity of dye material used varies from 50% - 200% of the weight of the yarn to be dyed.

Walnut Hull
Walnuts are grown extensively around Himalayan Uttarakhand and the outer hull of ready nuts have great tinctorial properties. Once sun dried, the outer hull, which is green, turns hard, brown and brittle and can be stored for long periods of time. The colors one can get from walnut hulls are all shades of brown. 

Soaking the dried walnut outer hull

In order to use them for dyeing, the walnut hulls are soaked overnight in plain water. This releases their colour. The next day they are heated on low flame for half an hour and then they is ready to be used!

Eupatorium or Basunti as it is locally known, is an invasive plant specie found abundantly in the Kumaon region of India. Used not only as a dye material, the leaves of this plant are also used for their healing properties, on cuts and wounds. The color that they are used to achieve is golden yellow. 

Eupatorium can be used to create quite a few number of shades. From dull khakhi and bright golden yellows to brilliant greens. As a dye plant, Eupatorium is very flexible by itself and also works well with other dye materials.

Local name - Harda. Myrobolan is another fruit abundantly found in Kumaon and is a popular dye material used by many natural dyers. A variety of cherry plum, Harda is plucked out in its raw state. While it's original color is beige, it's popularly used to make blacks. The process of usage is similar to the other dyes. 
Lac is the resinous secretion from the lac insects. A unique dye material as it is neither a fruit not a plant. The lac insects grow in huge numbers along the bark of a tree. Even a very small quantity of lac pigment is sufficient to dye very deep reds. 

The story of color is an old and important one. Since the beginning of time there has been color, be it in textiles, in paintings, in architecture,even cosmetics. Today, with the fashion industry being in such a serious need for ecological reforms, it is time to remember the past and once again get inspired by the colors of nature and innovate with it. Avani aims to bring back the use of such natural dyes to put the story of color back into the hands of the farmer and re-link the lands, farmers and industries.

Avani Society
Credits: Story

Products made by - Kumaon-Earthcraft Co-operative
Text: Prachi Gupta
Images & Video: Prachi Gupta, Avani archives (courtesy of previous volunteers)

Credits: All media
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