Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


Natural dyes are colorants derived from specific items found in the natural environment: plants, insects, animals, and minerals. A natural material that produces a dye is called a dyestuff. For example, the dye, madder, is extracted from madder dyestuff, the roots of a sprawling perennial, Rubia tinctorum. Many natural dyes require a mordant to permanently bond with a fiber. Mordants are usually chemical salts such as ferrous sulfate or aluminum potassium sulfate that form a bridge between the dye and the fiber. Natural dyes can be processed in several ways, including one or more water based extractions of the dye from the dyestuff, dyestuff fermentation to produce a useable dye, immersion in a dyebath, or repeated immersions in a dyebath. The traditional process usually involves at least three steps: preparing the textile to be dyed by mordanting it before dyeing; extracting the dye from the dyestuff in a water bath; and heating the mordanted textile in the water-based dye extract to produce a level color and strong bond between the dye and the fiber. However, there are many other options open to dyers including contact dyeing, extracting with a solvent other than water, fermentation, and low immersion dyeing where the water to fiber ratio is low. Commonly used mordants include aluminum potassium sulfate, iron sulfate, copper sulfate, stannous chloride, and potassium dichromate, although there are health and environmental concerns about the last three. Each paper in this section focuses on an individual dimension of natural dyes and represents a small sample of the work created with natural dyes. None of us covers the entire spectrum possible with the hundreds of natural dyes used by dyers today and in the past.

Natural dyers often describe dyed fabric by identifying the dyestuff; the mordant, and the processes used to extract the dye and dye the fabric. Cultural expression reveals the multi-dimensional environment in which a fiber artist lives and works and reflects the technologies within that environment. The use of natural dyes reflects my personal philosophy. The images shown in this paper reflect my work. All these pieces are dyed with natural dyes, but use a variety of dyes, mordants, and processes. Natural dyes ground me in the present, but they also connect me to the past and future. Most of my Iowa-grown dyes are used fresh. So, in the present, I harvest and dye, usually on the same day. Often, I use contact dyeing,1 a process making use of solar energy, fresh and found materials, liquids, and mordants to develop color and bond the dye to the fiber. Several textiles described in this paper were made using this dyeing method. I also use traditional immersion dyeing, resist dyeing methods, additional extractions, and repeated dips. Historical connections occur as I explore the techniques, processes and resources that have been used by various cultures to achieve specific colors and create visual impressions and patterns. Future connections occur as I explore innovations in processes, mordants, and new dyestuffs that minimize environmental problems. Natural dyes motivate me to be more experimental, more creative, and more expressive.