Colors of the Earth

Reviving the art of natural dyeing

By Avani Society

Avani Society

A few dye plants found in Kumaon. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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. 

Dyed Eupatorium yarns (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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.

Natural Dyeing by Bhotiyas of Kumaon (2009-09-25)Avani Society

Watch this short film about Avani's efforts to revive the natural dyeing tradition of the Bhotiya community, also known as Shaukas, of Kumaon.

Equipment needed for a natural dyeing workshop. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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

The 3 most commonly used mordants - Iron, Alum and Myrobolan (2017-04-08)Avani Society


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. 

Wool yarns soaking in alum solution (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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.

Rubia Cordifolia or Indian Madder or Manjistha. It is used for the red pigment derived from its roots. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Indian Madder

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

Cut and dried madder roots (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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.

Soaking the madder roots (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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.

Dyeing the yarns in a light shade of red. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Woolen yarns being dyed in madder.

Bright reds and oranges dyed with madder. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Madder roots and stems are ground into fine powder for ease in storing and dyeing. A wide color palette, ranging from bright orange to crimson, can be created by changing the quantity of the dye used.

Dried walnut peels (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Walnut Hull

Walnuts are grown extensively around Himalayan Uttarakhand and the outer hull of ready nuts has 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. All shades of brown can be obtained from these walnut hulls.  

The outer hull of the walnut is also a great dyeing raw material. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Once the walnuts are ready, they break off from their green outer shells. These shells or hulls are then dried for use as dye material.

Soaking the dried walnut outer hulls. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

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

Dyeing a small wool hank in walnut (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Here, a small hank of woolen yarn is being dyed in the brown walnut water.

The final color of the yarns dyed in walnut peels. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Rich, chocolaty browns from the walnut hulls!

Mood board of the different shades possible through Walnut (2017-04-08)Avani Society

For ease in storage and in dyeing, the walnut hulls are crushed into fine powder.

A range of lighter and darker shades of brown can be achieved from this amazing natural raw material.

Eupatorium leaves for Yellows. (2017-04-08)Avani Society


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 for is golden yellow. 

Collecting Eupatorium leaves from around Tripuradevi (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Being an invasive plant specie, Eupatorium leaves are easily available all year round across the region. Here, an Avani employee and a volunteer harvest the leaves growing around the Avani campus.

Drying the Eupatorium leaves. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

After harvest, the leaves are dried in the sun and then stored for later use. They can also be powdered for ease in storing and dyeing.

Dyeing the yarns in Eupatorium extract (2017-04-08)Avani Society

For dyeing, the leaves, in the required quantity, are boiled in water. Once they start secreting their color, the yarn or cloth that is to be dyed is added to the water.

A mood board of different shades possible with Eupatorium (2017-04-08)Avani Society

Eupatorium can be used to create quite a 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.

Myrobolan or Harda as it is locally known is a variety of cherry plum. (2017-04-08)Avani Society


Myrobolan, locally called 'harda', is another fruit abundantly found in Kumaon which is also a popular dye material used by many natural dyers. A variety of cherry plum, harda is plucked out in its raw state. While the basic color it gives is beige, harda is most famously used to dye blacks. 

The fruit is deseeded and left to dry in the sun (2015-01-10)Avani Society

Its process of usage is similar to the other dyes. The fruit is first de-seeded and dried in the sun.

The deseeded fruit is sun-dried and kept for later use. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

The dried up myrobolan fruits.

The yarns are dyed in myrobolan (2017-04-08)Avani Society

The dried fruit is then boiled in water and once it releases its color, the yarn or cloth to be dyed is added. Here, we see a container with a hank of wool being soaked up in harda water.

A yarn hank dyed in myrobolan (2017-04-08)Avani Society

By itself, harda or myrobolan produces a beige color.

Myrobolan, with its high tannin content can also be used to make rich blacks. (2017-04-08)Avani Society

But due to its high tannin content, myrobolan is more famously used to create rich blacks.

Mood board of the different products made using myrobolan dyed yarn (2016-08-10)Avani Society

Like other natural materials, the dried harda fruits are also ground into a powder for ease storage and dyeing.

A range of blacks and greys can achieved though this raw material.

Black printing paste made by sedimenting the myrobolan dye solution.Avani Society

Rich dye paste made using myrobolan, is being used here for block printing.

Lac - Obtained from the resinous secretion of the lac insects. (2017-04-08)Avani Society


Lac is the resinous secretion from the lac insects. The lac insects grow in huge numbers along the bark of a tree from where the pigment is later collected. It is a unique dye material as it is neither a fruit not a plant and even a very small quantity of lac pigment is sufficient to dye very deep reds. 

A silk wool stole dyed in lac (2017-04-08)Avani Society

A silk wool stole, lac dyed and handwoven at one of the many village centers of Avani.

Shades of lac (2016-08-01)Avani Society

A range of shades, from deep reds to precious purples can be obtained using Lac, by simply changing its dye content or by combining it with other natural dyes.

Dye Plants and wool yarns dyed using natural dye plants (2017-04-08)Avani Society

The story of color is an old and important one. Since the beginning of time there has been color, be it in textiles, in cosmetics, in paintings, in architecture.

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.

Credits: Story

Products made by - Kumaon-Earthcraft Co-operative
Text: Prachi Gupta
Images: Prachi Gupta, Avani archives
Video: Avani archives

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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