Two days ago I had the opportunity to accompany Betsy Bruce and Karen Long on their yearly pilgrimage to Mill Hollow Metroparks in Vermillion, Ohio as they presented the natural dyeing process to groups of middle school children.
The whole natural dyeing process is fascinating, as it is a craft that was once practiced frequently from rural Ohio to the mountains of Morocco. This continued until the uptick of chemical dyes earlier this century. In Morocco there are very few women who still use natural dyes, although, recently, there has been an increasing prevalence of natural dyes in certain regions of Morocco, in response to tourists' demands.
As I approached Karen's station I had to peer through the smoke billowing up from between the 12 vats to catch a glimpse of her as she tended to the wool skeins that were simmering in the various shades of natural dyes.
Karen and Betsy explained the natural dyeing process in easily digestible parts. The layman's version of this complex chemical process is that for the best results and brightest colors, wool must cook gently in a mordant for at least an hour. A mordant is a chemical compound that helps the color bind to the wool more thoroughly; mordants can be made from tin, alum, copper, chrome, and iron, with each metal having varying levels of causticity. While the fiber is stewing with the mordant, the natural dyes must boil in a separate vat for at least an hour to cast off their many colors.
Once both the mordanted wool and the color-filled vats are ready, the wool is introduced into the vats. Depending upon the mordants used, each natural dye vat will produce a spectrum of different colors. For instance, wool that has been mordanted with tin produces a much more vibrant, vivid color than those mordanted with copper regardless of the color with which it is mixed. The wool churns and simmers for another hour or two in the dye bath before it is removed and hung to dry.
The effort that goes into setting up the vats, tending the fire, and preparing the dye baths is one challenge, but the knowledge of chemical compounds, colors, and types of natural dyes is something else entirely. I was thoroughly impressed by Karen and Betsy's command of the material.
Natural dyeing is one subject that we will continue to return to as we continue to learn more and discover how the Moroccan weavers are incorporating natural dyes into their craftsmanship.