There are many things that inspire me to travel, and colour plays a huge part in my adventures. From the bright tuk tuks in South East Asia to crystal blue waters in the Caribbean, taking a moment to stop and admire your surroundings keeps me energized abroad. When given the chance to participate in a Natural Dye class at Ock Pop Tok’s Living Crafts Centre, I could not wait to create my own colour.
This particular class seemed intriguing to me for many reasons. Growing up in North Carolina, I have always been surrounded by plentiful gardens that never fail to provide me with food, flowers, and herbal remedies. The natural dye class begins by walking the beautiful grounds at Ock Pop Tok’s Living Crafts Centre and gathering the plants that will deliver your chosen colour scheme. I decided on blue and orange for my scarf, which meant harvesting leaves from the Indigo bushes and seeds from the Annatto trees.
Indigo is among the oldest dyes to be used in textiles and print. Originating in India where 50 different species are said to be growing, indigo made its way to Europe, Africa, Central America, China and Indonesia via trade routes. Through experimentation, these civilizations discovered that the rich colour produced by the plant would become active once fermented. In the Mediterranean, Indigo was used for pigment in paintings as well as for cosmetics, making it a highly valued commodity. Foi me, Indigo is one of those colours that captivates. It is warm and welcoming, steeped in history and reminiscent of luxury.
In Luang Prabang, the legacy of the Annatto seed can be seen every day. Novices in orange robes grace the streets at 6am for Buddhist alms-giving and can be seen around town, amplifying the already colourful streets. This spiky annatto seed is quite deceiving. It looks like it would poke your fingers apart as a defense mechanism, but in reality the seed is comprised of soft, yet stiff hairs. Once mature, the pods split open exposing red seeds inside. The seeds are then taken out of the pod and smashed using a mortar and pestle to create the luscious colour seen all around. Historically used for to add colour to both food and textiles, this vibrant seed is now used as an inexpensive alternative to saffron and in cosmetic products.
With all of this newly discovered knowledge swimming around in my brain, I was ready to start dismantling my collected leaves and seeds. I headed back to the studio, aproned up and prepared to get my hands dirty. Pounding the indigo leaves was just an indication of the strength needed to operate the mortal and pestle. The real job was deseeding the Annatto and grinding it up to a thick, mushy paste. After this process, I poured the leaves and paste into boiling pots of water to activate the pigment. Stirring, smelling and watching steam rise reminded me of cooking pasta. After ten minutes, the water was taken off the heat and poured into a bowl, ready to be utilized. My silk skeins were then dipped into the annatto water and my soon to be tie-dyed scarf took a deep swim in the fermented Indigo buckets.
Like many ancient arts, the history of natural dyes has come along way. What amazes me about natural dyes is how far the knowledge and ideas on dyeing have spread. From China to Central America, people have been spicing up their lives with colour for centuries, and continue to do so today. To learn about this timeless process at Ock Pop Tok and be able to create colour right before my very own eyes was inspiring. My finished product was an item I will cherish forever. I know where every part of my scarf originates, from the silk fibers, to the person who wove it, and to the plants that gave it colour.
If you are interested in more of the dyeing process, check out a past student’s thoughts on her experience at Ock Pop Tok’s dyeing and ½ day weaving class and if you feel like creating your own masterpiece, feel free to book a class online and start picking out your natural colours today!