Natural dyes have been used for thousands of years by nearly every civilization; however, these days most natural versions have largely been replaced by synthetics. With consumers today demanding to know more about what they wear and where it comes from, there is a resurgence of people who are learning and practicing the art of natural dyeing.
Today, we launch a full range of Natural Dye Organic Cotton Jersey in nine shades, some old, some new, each made with a variety of natural plants and minerals.
We previously shared information about the natural dyeing process and thought it important to take a moment to talk more about this process and the intricacies behind each of our new colors. Alesandra at Artisan Natural Dyeworks expounded on how the colors are created and perfected.
According to Alesandra, all the coral shades they produce are a result, primarily, of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum or Rubia cardiflora). She says, “Madder is an amazing dye plant that can create shades of red, orange, pink, coral, brown, and purple, depending on how the fabric to be dyed is prepared.” Alabama Chanin’s Coral and Light Coral shades come from chopped madder root dye baths; by varying temperatures (even by the slightest bit) or the number of times the fabric is soaked and boiled, the color of the fabric can be controlled and adjusted. The smallest variation in technique can create a significant difference in color. The madder root can be used again and again, each time yielding a lighter shade of pink or coral.
For our Light Golden and Goldenrod hues, they use myrobalan fruit and Osage orange wood in different ratios, depending upon the desired color. Both ingredients soak for several days before they are ready to have color extracted from them. The myrobalan lends the more olive-yellow base, while the Osage adds orange tones.
Brown dyes are more difficult to perfect. Alesandra provides quite a list of ingredients that play a part in creating the rich Alabama Chanin Chocolate fabric: black walnut hulls, sumac berries, madder root, Osage orange wood, and many others. She says, “Fans of elementary color theory will appreciate that what we are, in essence, trying to do is mix red, yellow, and blue tones together to get brown.” The warmth, depth, or vibrancy is completely dependent on the specific combination of ingredients.
For many years, we have worked with Father Andrew at Goods of Conscience to create our range of indigo shades. Artisan Natural Dyeworks also contribute their own shades of indigo to our palette. The Blue Gray, Plum, Light Indigo and Medium Indigo are all results of the indigo dyeing process, which is, by all accounts, quite labor intensive. Extracting indigo from the dyeplant is an intricate and extensive process. For our fabrics, the Artisan Natural Dyeworks uses tropical indigo (Indigofera tinctoria or Indigofera suffructicosa) or Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria).
Our new Blue Gray emerges from a fascinating combination of ingredients. The fabric starts with a base dye of sumac or myrobalan. It is then dipped in an iron solution – a solution literally made by soaking rusty nails and scrap metal in a bit of vinegar and molasses. This process creates a gray fabric, which is then dipped three to five times in the indigo vat to create a blue overtone.
The Plum color is a result of a combination of dyes and processes. It begins with a sumac tannin base, followed by madder. Alesandra says that she “holds it at a high temperature to bring out its reddish brown tones. Then I overdip the fabric in iron solution, which ‘saddens’ the madder and makes it darker.” Then, the fabric is dipped into the indigo vat one or two times to bring out a more purple range.
The process of creating and maintaining an indigo vat is complex and time consuming. Only the most skillful dyer can craft and maintain the chemical combinations necessary for long-term indigo dyeing. For traditional indigo colors, each individual shade requires at least four dips in the indigo fermentation vat, depending on the desired color depth or density. “All our work is done by-hand, a rhythmic and meditative process of dipping, oxidizing, and re-dipping,” she says. They hold the fabric under the vat’s surface anywhere from five to thirty minutes before removing the fabric and exposing it to the air. Only then does the true color really emerge.
Each of these colors has a unique story and has made a journey from bark, root, or berry, to our fabric. Come back tomorrow for more on indigo.