The textiles of India are a collection of diverse techniques and methods of weaving, dyeing, and processing. Each of these activities becoming a craft practice in themselves arrived at after years of development; the tricks of the trade often passed down by word of mouth as closely guarded secrets within craft communities. Colour dyeing is one such integral part of the textile manufacturing process in the subcontinent of India.
Natural dyes have been extracted from organic and mineral sources – that is to say from plant matter as well as the earth. These dyes are then applied onto the yarn or fabric, as the textile manufacturing would require, in several different methods. These methods vary from region to region within India. Methods to extract colours from natural sources have found mention in ancient texts, and to a large extent, traditional craftspersons to date carry out very similar practices of developing dyes for fabric.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common and popular sources of natural colour dye and their extraction, and application processes. A dye that is probably as old as textile manufacturing in India is Indigo. Indigo is said to be the most ancient colour known to us that was cultivated along the banks of the Indus River. The word Indigo comes from the Greek word Indikon - blue dye from India, reference to which dates back to the notes of Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and philosopher, of the early Roman Empire.
The production and usage of the indigo dye have been for the longest time been associated with the Kutch region and the Khatri community of textile artisans. It is said that if Kachchh were to be identified as a colour, it would be Indigo. Removed from the jaded history of nila (blue) color in India, which was the main crop industry exploited by the British during colonialism, Indigo in Kachchh has always been a source of pride to the people who wear it. The cooling property of that deep blue is irresistible under the harsh sun of the Rann besides many Khatris believe that Indigo serves as a natural antiseptic. Khatris need only dip their finger in the pot of fermenting Indigo and taste it, to declare what kind of shade it will render. The sourer the dye, the darker the shade of blue.
Process: Large maats (terracotta urns placed in the ground) are filled with crushed leaves, lime, and salt, and left to ferment for a month. Indigo dust sediments at the bottom of these maats. The sediments are filtered and crushed to form a mixture. The perfect pH for Indigo dye is 11-12 and so lime or jaggery are added to balance the pH if and when required. This thick mixture is tied in cotton sacks and kept under the ground where the hot sand sucks away excess water for about two months, leaving behind an Indigo cake. The Indigo cake is pounded on a stone slab with water and Acacia torta seeds /henna leaves/jaggery/date palm is added until it becomes an even, yellowish-green slurry. This is stored in underground maat to maintain the right temperature.
As this traditional process of natural dyeing is time-consuming and requires a lot of labour, natural Indigo cakes are now procured from Kadappa, Andhra Pradesh. These Indigo cakes are mixed with water and Sodium Hydrosulphite and left to ferment. After resting it for some time the solution is ready to use for dyeing.
While indigo is a prominent source of the cool blue hues for textiles in India, let us now look at how the warm reds are extracted. Traces of madder dyed textiles were found at the Mohenjo-Daro excavation site, placing the use of madder as a dye as early as 1100 BCE. Trade documents prove that Kachchh was exporting dyed fabric in the 1600s to other parts of the globe. The red cloth was most favoured by the Indonesian market where it was considered a colour of religious identity for the Hindu communities.
Reds come from the Rubiaceae botanical family, roots of Manjistha (Rubia cordifolia or Indian Madder), the root bark of the Aal tree (Morinda citrifolia L. or Indian Mulberry) and from Rubia tinctorum L. which has its origins in West Asia and Europe. (Rosenfield, 2016)
Process: Red is often applied to fabric through resist-mordant technique. Alum is used as a mordant to cover the area where red colour is desired. The organic cloth is then washed and boiled in Alizarin to produce a fast-red colour. This red dye is fast, lasting longer than other colours and stays bright for years on end.
Blacks: Many of the antique block printed and Batik cloth pieces found in homes across Kachchh were generally made using black and red. The colour black is essential to giving the varied designs of Kachchh structure and contrast. Like the natural reds of Kachchh, the Khatri black has always been a strong, fast dye. This means it is less prone to running and fading compared to other natural colours. The earliest black shade was achieved by dipping a cloth into indigo over and over again. Even today, older Rabari women will wear black odhanis (scarf) that have been dipped in indigo several times to achieve a dark tone.
Khatris can make many kinds of black - a jet black, a reddish black and a dark chocolate reddish black. Jet black is made by cooking the rusted iron in combination with water and jaggery by the sun. The reddish-black is achieved by using a reddish mitti (mud) that is rich in iron content. The woollen cloth used by the Dhebaria Rabari community is dyed a dark chocolate red using lac in combination with tamarind seed powder.
Process: Waste iron is burnt to remove the rust. This burnt iron is then mixed with water and jaggery and is exposed to sunlight to speed up the fermentation process. The jaggery helps ferment the mixture, (adding gram flour can further speed up the process of fermentation). The strained water is then cooked with tamarind seed powder to make into a paste-like consistency. Khatris play with the ratio of water to produce a range of earthy blacks. This experimentation with shade and dyeing recipes gives each printer’s work a unique touch - the cloth from some household’s sports soft black and whites while others have high contrast, graphic, bold look. Although Indigo, reds, and blacks are the major colours used, several other colours are also extracted naturally. Other earth colours that are used are:
Brown: Kathha is soaked overnight in water. It is then added to boiling water along with the slow addition of sodium carbonate. Alum and ferrous solution are then added to the solution as per the shade required for dyeing.
Green: The fabric is first dyed in Indigo and then boiled for two hours with pomegranate peels. Then a solution containing Haldi (turmeric powder) is sprayed onto the fabric. The cloth is then dyed in a water-based, alum solution. This results in the colour transforming from blue to green.
Yellow: Anar ki Chaal (pomegranate peels) is boiled in water, strained and kept overnight. The water is then sprayed onto the cloth. After it dries, turmeric water is sprayed on the cloth in a similar manner. The cloth is then soaked in alum water to help fix the colour on the fabric before finally being rinsed in fresh water a few times. The colour achieved is not 100% permanent as it begins to fade after a few washes.
White: Limestone and Baaval no Gundar (Gum Arabic) are mixed to form a resist paste. The fabric is printed using this paste and then dyed in a colour. On washing, the areas that were printed using the paste are left white in colour.
A mordant (from the French word to bite) is an agent that helps to set dyes to cloth by combining with the dye material and fixing the colour onto fabric fibres. Mordants are used to help the dye deliver its colour promise.
Alum, known as Phitkari in Hindi and Phatakdi in Gujarati is found as a mineral in the ground and is used as a mordant in the dyeing process. The darkness or lightness of the mineral affects the colour of the dyed cloth. Pliny the Elder, one of the earliest scholars who documented natural dyestuffs, called it alumen, describing it as “a sort of brine which exudes from the earth”, and the Khatris describe it as a tart-tasting element.
“Indicum, production of India, being a slime, adheres to the scum upon the reeds there. When powdered, it is black in appearance, but when diluted in water it yields a marvellous combination of purple and cerulean. There is another kind, also, which floats upon the surface of the pans in the purple dye-houses, being the scum, which rises upon the purple dye.” - Pliny the Elder (Latin Texts & Translations, n.d.)