Reviving a Dyeing Craft


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I remember the first time I wove a rag rug on a loom- I was strangely proud of myself, like I had accomplished something important. All I had done was weave scraps of wool together, but now I had rug, and I felt a subtle but tangible delight from creating something I could put to use. I had gone from a sheep, a little Merino fellow that munched happily on clover to grow his coat, to produce a rug. I looked at things in a just a little different light afterwards.

A rug isn’t something you buy, it’s linen, or cotton, or wool, and it comes from somewhere, some plant or animal, and human hands were involved. It dawned on me: for my warmth, I do not stand isolated from other living things, from animals, fibers, grass, sunlight, and air. The workload to produce clothing from the land is incredible. That awareness left an imprint.

Imagine. You have a herd of sheep. They need land to graze, and nutrition to forage. Their precious fiber must be sheared, then carded, spun into yarn, woven, sewed, and dyed. Fields of flax or cotton must be grown, nurtured, harvested, then soaked, processed, spun, and woven. The process is slow and seasonal.

A linen blouse borne from fields of golden flax; a scarf dyed brilliant blue from fermenting an indigo plant. When seen in this light, just how much the Earth gives of herself to produce one shirt or pair of pants becomes evident. An awareness arises, creeping up from the craftwork of busy hands into a larger sense of interconnectedness. In a simple cashmere shawl is a web of connections, weaving us tightly into the internal logic of cycles and seasons.

Imagine if we still had to patiently work with the seasons and their cyclical fiber crops to clothe ourselves; it seems rather unthinkable now. So slow and burdensome, in fact, was the task of growing fiber plants, raising animals, and processing those fibers, that it’s been said that textile manufacturing is what drove the Industrial Revolution.

When we walk into a store now, it’s easy to not think about the source of the clothing we buy. For something as ubiquitous and necessary as what we wear, a curious disconnect looms between its earthly origins and our own hands.

Unravel the roots of textiles and one finds the familiar narrative of global outsourcing: America no longer has any working textile mills, we’ve outsourced nearly all textile manufacturing to a global market. Most of what we wear today is made offshore using heavily pesticide sprayed cotton and dyes of synthetic origin. Cheaply produced garments cycle through multiple countries and factories. Contrary to the past, we now live in a time of what is known as “fast fashion”, in which cheap clothes are being bought, worn briefly, and tossed into landfills.

Fast fashion has a steep cost, and it’s often invisible. This distance between us and the materials and processes that go into our clothing has a tendency to obscure devastating human and environmental costs.

Synthetic dyes are the number one polluter of freshwater sources in the world, and have the highest carbon footprint of the whole textile manufacturing process. Dye for denim jeans is made using copper, chrome, cobalt, and other heavy metals in high concentrations. The runoff from those plants dump toxic sludge into textile towns, turning the water undrinkable and making whole villages sick. The pesticides sprayed on the cotton for cheap clothing is causing massive toxicity and illness. In cheap manufacturing, which is where most of our fast fashion clothing comes from, unfixed dyes can remain on garments, and end up leaking into our own skin or waterways when washed.

Unraveling the hidden cost of clothing propels one to contemplate a fair trade, “slow fashion” movement, similar to the slow food movement. Here’s where the revivalists of handcrafting traditions come in. In a citizen response, they are looking for different ways of wearing and consuming, and they’re doing so for all sorts of reasons, from cultural to environmental to humanitarian.

All around the world, communities are revitalizing fiber arts using sustainably sourced materials like wool, silk, bamboo, hemp and linen, and dyeing with natural dyes like indigo plants. Spinning, weaving, felting and natural dyeing are experiencing a renaissance.

Felt-making is an ancient tradition and the oldest form of fabric known to humankind, predating weaving and knitting. It has been used for 12,000 years, found in tombs around the world. Many peoples have an ancient history of living on the wealth of their herds of sheep, camels or goats. In some cultures, felting was critical to survival, as well as steeped in cultural tradition and meaning.

Natural dyeing is another ancient craft. You can use dyes that come from the earth – plants, seeds, barks, flowers and fruits – to color any textile. Indigo dyeing is a living fermentation process that produces a vibrant azure hue. Traditionally, indigo leaves are ground with mortar and pestle, and allowed to ferment in a dyeing vat while the helpful bacteria that form there are fed often. By working with living organisms, you must respect their life to get the desired results. This is true everywhere you depend on nature for color.

Imagine the goat farmer’s unabashed delight at the calving of a cinnamon colored newborn, the color a surprise and an exciting addition to their cashmere color arsenal. Waiting for nature to surprise you with its unique colors teaches patience, fostering a system that works within limitations.

When we started paying attention to food we eat, the food industry listened, and powerful things happened. Increasingly, as our identities become more and more bound up in consumption than in citizenry, to make choices on things as simple as food and clothing becomes paramount to an ecological act.

Envision a future where, using natural fibers and dyes as a starting point, we create local fiber sheds in the same way we have brought about local food movements. Some of these projects are already up and running, such as Fibershed, a project born from one conscious consumer’s question: Can I clothe myself with materials from a 150 mile radius? Fibershed aims to develop regional fiber systems that build soil & protect the health of our biosphere.

Working with our hands with Earth’s materials feels very human indeed. Getting cozy from basic elements and materials is a task we’ve been accomplishing since time eternal; finding joy in the process of creation, and expressing ourselves through handiwork. Identity is to be found there, in small cultural traditions bound up in ecological cycles.

Fiber art seems to illustrate that timeless truth, as in history so into the future: Nature provides.