The first two days of “The sustainability of natural dyes” conference took place at Eastend hotel in Munnar, followed by two days of natural dyeing workshops (at an extra cost) at Aranya Natural’s HQ. Due to limited numbers, all the spaces for the workshops filled up quickly, but many conference attendees requested to stand by and watch, which subsequently overfilled the workshops on the first day.
It was hard to blame those who wanted to watch the workshops as it was a rare opportunity to learn from three leading natural dyeing experts and a group of Japanese indigo farmers and dyers. Since the process of natural dyeing involves the understanding of chemistry, many of the experts would focus more on the chemistry rather than the aesthetics. To me, this is quite valuable, as I believe it is crucial to understand the science behind it all in order to achieve the desired results.
The first workshop that I attended was conducted by Michel Garcia, a world-renowned botanist, chemist, dyer, and naturalist. He is the founder of Couleur Garance (1998) in Lauris, France, and established Le Jardin Conservatoire de Plantes Tinctoriales (Botanical Garden of Dye Plants) in 2000. I have long wanted to attend a workshop by Michel, but he doesn’t seem to conduct many regular workshops, and I can only watch his videos online. In person, he is very funny, passionate and creative, you can really feel his passion for plants and natural dyeing.
In natural dyeing, a mordant is often needed to fix the dyes onto the textiles, and the most common mordant used is alum/potassium aluminium sulfate. At the workshop, Michel demonstrated how to use old tea leaves as a natural mordant, which was very interesting. However, the workshop was extremely packed, which made it difficult for us to hear and follow him properly. It was a shame that this issue was only addressed on the next day.
Screen printing workshop using natural dyes with Michel Garcia
The afternoon workshop was conducted by Jagada Rajappa, who is an independent textile entrepreneur/consultant on natural dyes. She demonstrated dyeing silk yarn with kapila (mellotus Phllipinces) and lac (coccous Lacca), which resulted in vibrant red and yellow. The results revealed that naturally dyed colours are not dull and muted as many would expect.
Jagada Rajappa‘s workshop and ceremony
The next day, the workshops were restricted to those who had originally enrolled, which made more sense. The first workshop was conducted by Linda LaBelle, who is a weaver and natural dyer specialising in indigo. She also runs the website The Yarn Tree that sells fair-trade indigo and other natural dyed items. After yesterday’s observational workshops, I was longing to get my hands dirty. Finally, we got to do some doodling with natural indigo on some cotton fabric that has been pre-dyed in myrobalan. It was a fun session and we got to taste some indigo tea grown by Linda.
Indigo Doodles workshop with Linda LaBelle
The last session was the one I had been looking forward to since I signed up months ago. Buaisou was established in Tokushima by a collective of indigo farmers in 2015, and it is partly responsible for the revival of natural indigo worldwide in recent years. Not only it has over 44K followers on Instagram, it also collaborates frequently with other fashion and textiles companies to promote Japanese indigo and the colour ‘Japan Blue’. Buaisou is renowned for its indigo leaf farming – from cultivating the raw indigo, fermenting the indigo leaves (Sukumo), dyeing, and designing, all the way to production. Since the fermentation process takes around 10 days, Kyoko (the manager) had to arrive 2 weeks earlier to set up the vat.
Since I have previously tried katagami (making paper stencils for dyeing textiles) and katazome (the Japanese method of dyeing fabrics using a resist paste applied through a stencil) with Bryan Whitehead in Japan (see my earlier post), I was quite familiar with the process. This time, I didn’t need to design and cut my own stencils as there were many beautiful and complex precut designs to choose from. We were all given a cotton bandana to work on, and after applying the paste through the stencils, we all took turns to dip the fabric into the indigo vat with some guidance.
I would say this was a taster workshop, and would love to learn more from them when I next visit Tokushima (which was supposed to happen this year but it got cancelled because of COVID-19).
After the workshop, it was time to say goodbye to everyone. Over the four days, I made many new friends from around the world who share the same passion as me, and got the opportunity to chat to many experts in the field, hence the conference has exceeded all my expectations. The fact that it managed to take place just before COVID-19 became a pandemic was extremely lucky.
After exchanging contacts with many attendees, a few of us decided to walk back to town and have dinner together. It was a pleasant walk downhill and we had a fun girls’ night out – something that I haven’t done for a long time.
In the past few years, the pursue of natural dyeing has opened doors for me and enabled me to make new friends from around the world. This was completely unexpected, and it made me realise that I am on the right path.