The purpose of my trip to India in February was to attend a natural dyeing conference. And it took place before COVID-19 changed our lives. Aranya Natural is a natural dyeing organisation under Srishti Trust in Munnar, supported by TATA Global Beverages Limited, which runs programs for the education training and rehabilitation of the differently abled children of Munnar’s tea plantation workers. Last year, it was the organisation’s 25th anniversary, and “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference was organised as part of the celebration. However, the conference was postponed by a year after a major flood in Kerala devasted many parts of the state. It was fortunate that the conference managed to take place before COVID-19 started to spread in India, otherwise it would have been cancelled for the second time.
Honestly, I am not a big fan of conference and would rarely volunteerily attend one. Yet this conference was like no other, and I felt that it would be beneficial if I want to continue my natural dyeing practice. To me, natural dyeing is not merely a hobby, it has become my passion and aspiration in recent years. Currently, we are seeing a revival of natural and indigo dyeing as many people realise the harmful effects of synthetic dyes on our bodies and environment.
Left: The conference schedule; Right: A local indigo farmer and conference attendee
The 2-day conference took place at Eastend Hotel in Munnar, bringing dyers, manufacturers, teachers, designers, farmers, and enthusiasts etc together from Indian and around the world. One huge draw for me was the list of speakers, which included experts like Yoshiko Wada, Jenny Balfour Paul, Michel Garcia, Charlotte Kwon (Maiwa), Dominique Cardon, Jagada Rajappa and Buaisou… these are all big names in the natural dyeing and textiles world, so it was a rare opportunity to meet them all in one room.
One factor differentiates Aranya Natural from other organisations – it is an all-women team led by a visionary founder, Ratna Krishnakumar. Since India is a patriarchal society, it is inspiring to see the empowerment of women here. The fact is women in India are likely to face more challenges than women in the West, so being able to run an all-female team here is highly commendable.
The conference also addressed the most important issue that we are facing in the textiles and fashion industry today – sustainability. The rise of fast fashion has done immense damage to our environment in the past decade or so, hence the conference aimed to increase the awareness of natural dyes, and discuss how the industry can shift from using synthetic dyes to more sustainable ones.
Until recently, sustainability has been fashion industry’s last concern. If you trace the path of your favourite item from Primark, then you might be in for a surprise. Your ‘bargain’ £10 shirt probably costs about £3-4 to make, meanwhile the garment factory worker in Bangladesh would receive less than £1 for a day’s work (14-16 hours). Aside from exploitation of these workers, the environmental damage caused by the chemicals used is unaccountable. Although India has had a long history with natural dyes, many garment manufacturers have now switched to synthetic dyes to cope with the high demand from the fast fashion sector. Natural dyes have been pushed aside due to higher costs. lower production rate and more labour intensive.
So, how can we re-introduce natural dyes back into the profit-driven industry? There are no easy answers, but I did meet some young Indian designers at the conference who are using natural dyes to create beautiful designs. I do hope that they will change the landscape of Indian fashion in the future.
Soham Dave and his sustainable collection
When I was still a student years ago, I bought my first shibori book, “Shibori: The Inventive Art Of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing” by artist, author, and curator, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada. This is an important book to me and I never thought I would get the chance to meet Yoshiko in person, but I did – we even exchanged contacts, and later had dinner together, which all felt a bit surreal. Besides Yoshida, I also spoke to other speakers like Dominique Cardon, Michel Garcia, Axel Becker, Jagada Rajappa, William Ingram from Threads of Life, and Rashmi Bharti, the co-founder of Avani. The conference also enabled me to connect and make friends with attendees from around the world. Many of them are dyers, designers, textiles teachers, and shop owners etc, so I found the whole experience valuable and unforgettable.
The talks on both days covered a wide range of topics relating to sustainability and natural dyeing, but the word ‘indigo’ was a key term at the conference. Indigo is probably the most mysterious and complex natural dye of all. Indigofera is a flowering plant of over 750 species and belongs to the pea family, Fabaceae. It has been in cultivation in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide for many centuries, yet the characteristics of each specie varies and can yield different shades of blue. The world-renowned indigo expert writer, artist and curator, Jenny Balfour-Paul has published several indigo-related books, and she was the last speaker to give a talk on indigo. Not long ago, I read her novel “Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer“, hence it was interesting to hear her examine the colour ‘blue’ from many angles.
Talks and slides on indigo
On both evenings after the conference, there were entertainments including dance and music performances, violin recital, and fashion show. The fashion show featured natural dyed designs created by Riddhi Jain (Studio Medium), Sreejith Jeevan (Studio Rouka) and Sunita Shankar. Unlike other fashion shows, their show was modelled by workers at Srishti, which was more authentic and fun.
Based in New Dehli, Riddhi Jain is a rising star in India’s fashion world who has won the Elle Decor India Design Awards, International Craft Awards and India Story design awards amongst others. She told me that she employs a small team of artisans and designers to create beautiful hand-dyed and hand-stitched shibori pieces that are one of a kind. I love her designs, and honestly, I would rather spend my money on an unique handmade piece that supports a local craft community than a designer piece that supports its marketing campaigns and executives.
3rd row: Riddhi Jain and her collection; 4th row: Sunita Shankar and her collection; bottom row: Sreejith Jeevan and his collection.
I never knew that conferences could be so exhausting! Besides two full-day talks from 9am to 5pm, I did not anticipate two hours of evening entertainments, followed by dinners at 9 pm on both nights. Despite the lack of rest, I was still looking forward to attending two more days of workshops led by different experts. And I got to visit the beautiful site of Aranya Natural, which is located outside of the polluted town centre.
To be continued…
I loved my conference gift bag