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My (reluctant) Return to Natural Dye

Updated: Mar 15

A few weekends ago my daughter and I attended a dye shop training hosted by the Range Fiber Art Guild in Cotton, Minnesota, which is just a short 3 1/2-hour drive if you don’t miss your turn off (!). The Guild booked into The Old School Lives, which is a high school turned local event centre with a dorm room for sleep overs and a cafeteria for workshops among other things. Our fellow weavers and spinners were fabulous hostesses (many thanks to Alana for making the last-minute arrangements for us to attend!). The Saturday baking is to die for, and the gift shop is impressive so definitely stop in if you are passing through Cotton. But we were there for the dye workshops. Our instructor was Chiaki O’Brien and she was teaching us how to use the Bengala mud dyes from Japan.

Full disclosure: I don’t like natural dyes. And I really see red when people who have only a few hours experience say beets dye fabric (exception: Jean Bolt’s pickled beets. But I’m still thinking it was the dirt in her well not the beets) or make any other claim about plant dyes without any peer established review. I dislike the pale muted palate that natural dyes often produce, as well as the huge number of resources, both in terms of the amount of energy used and the quantity of plants used, needed. I find the mordants (which aren’t always safe) fade even in diffuse light or in the wash which I don’t think should happen. So, I was super skeptical that mud dyes would be any different. Well, they are, and they aren’t.

Mud dyes are known around the world to many indigenous people. They work because of the iron oxide mordant (a safe one) present in mud. In Japan, mud dyes have historically been used to persevere and colour wood. Fast forward to today: in their current reincarnation, they have been adapted to dye fibre. A full range of colour is available from Bengala Dye Company.

As we learned, the process is very simple. The fibre is dipped in an ionizing bath and then in the mud mixture with a squeezing – dipping action. For those familiar with using indigo to dye, the action is similar. However, unlike most natural dyes, a small amount of cold water is used which means a more minimal environmental impact. And your hands don’t change colour – no gloves needed! The tiny stone particles stick to the yarn due to polarization- but the particles don’t completely bond. To increase the wearability/bond a natural latex from Portugal Cork is part of the dye matter.

The result is a colour soft on the eyes that has great depth. It is light fast but not completely wash fast, as harsh soaps (e.g. Orvus paste) quickly reduce its intensity. The dye also continues to rub off on the hands while spinning, as well as when knitting so it is going to be best for things that don’t get washed (e.g. wall hangings). But in reality it could have broader application, as I think we wash our woolens far too often! This is the education piece of this product - less handling (including washing) would increase the lifespan of certain items (hats, scarves) and so this information will be important to include, along with all the eco benefits of Bengala dyes. So, I think I have found a natural dye that I will want to create a line of yarn with!

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