Handmaker's Factory

Colouring Cloth

Cotton and silk dyed with natural indig

Sustainability. Fairtrade. Organic.  Just some of the buzzwords we would all be familiar with, ubiquitous in this age of apparent enlightenment where the endeavour to tread lightly on this precious planet of ours is no longer considered just an enthusiastic preoccupation of idealist "hippy" types.
As many of our industry sectors are slowly reforming their practices either voluntarily or to conform with changing legal requirements, so too the textile and apparel industry must reconsider many of its entrenched production processes.

Quite often I'll see a garment advertised as being made from organic fibre, and/or produced by workers employed in Fairtrade arrangements to ensure they receive a living wage. Laudable initiatives that I hope will become commonplace. But I often pause to wonder, the fibre may have been grown organically, but what about the colourant used to dye it? What was its impact on the environment and the health and livelihood of the workers involved in its production?

Many of the colourants used in the textile industry are synthesised by reacting petrochemicals with pollutants such as formaldehyde, cyanide, various sodium compounds and heavy metals. Natural pigments on the other hand are extracted from dye plants, insects and mineral sources very simply using ingredients found in your average domestic kitchen. However natural doesn't necessarily mean safer or better. Some articles comparing synthetic versus natural dyes argue (fairly) that if synthetic dyes were to be substituted with natural dyes to supply what is currently required by industry, natural dyes would in fact be so demanding of resources and more polluting in comparison to synthetics as to be unsustainable. But of course natural dyes aren't appropriate for an industry that is producing textiles faster and more cheaply than ever before. Using natural dyes in a way that is sustainable and responsible requires patience and lots of time (amongst other things), until consumer behaviour and the needs of industry changes natural dyes probably won't be the solution to the use of synthetics. However, that said, it is very possible to use natural dyes safely at home using ingredients that you may already have in your fridge or growing in your backyard. 

Silk dyed with rose petals.

I started dying cloth as a child using plants from my mothers garden after discovering the late 70's children's classic 'Gnomes' by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen in which dyeing with plant material was roughly described. As I matured and began to make many of my own clothes I would find myself regularly disappointed by the poor quality and composition of the fabrics that I could afford. Several years ago I realised that I could buy quality undyed natural fabrics and colour them myself for a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest synthetic fabrics available in a store, and so my childhood fascination with natural dyeing was reignited.
Dying silk with Pomegranate
Pomegranates are not only a delicious and beautiful ornamental fruit, they are also a great source of dye. If the colour is extracted in a regular water based vat it will result in a lovely yellow but I have found that you can achieve several different colours by applying the fruit directly to the cloth and steaming.


Materials needed
Length of silk (pre-washed or scoured to remove any gums that may remain in the textile)
Pomegranates (enough to generously cover your fabric. As a rough guide: for a scarf 100cm x 100cm I use two pomegranates)
Aluminium foil
An old cooking pot with steamer insert and lid.
Half fill your pot with water and set to simmer. Soak your silk in water until it is wet through then remove and squeeze out the excess so that the silk is damp but not dripping wet.
On a flat surface lay out enough sheets of aluminium foil to envelop your length of silk, you don't need metres of foil, just enough to generously wrap the silk when it is rolled into a bundle. 
Lay out your silk on top. Then take your pomegranates and break open the fruit, scraping out the seeds and tearing the skin into pieces (I find it's easier to do this in a large bowl or sink). Spread out skin pieces and seeds over the surface of your fabric. Press down to release the juice from the seeds. Then, starting at one end, begin to roll the foil and silk together into a bundle enclosing the fruit as you go. Do this as tightly as you possibly can without tearing the foil too much or damaging the silk. You should end up with a fat foil sausage. Place your bundle into the steamer and simmer for approx one hour, topping up the water in the pot as required. Remove from heat and wait for your bundle to cool completely. Once your bundle is cool you can unwrap to discover that your silk has been dyed with gorgeous metallic golds, purples and shades of reds and orange through to browns. What you make with your silk is then up to you. Enjoy!


Myf is a tinkerer and maker of things. She owns Tinker Maker, a small business producing naturally dyed and hand made apparel, accessories and home wares from her studio in the Dandenong Ranges. www.tinkermaker.com.au

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