On Friday April 29th Charllotte Kwon delivered a talk to the ISEND Natural Dye Conference. We are pleased to give the text for her talk in this post. The talk was accompanied by 63 still images which were shown as she talked. We've included a few of them in the text below. Comments are welcome.
Are the qualities of natural dyes advantages or disadvantages? The answer depends on the values we promote when we begin marketing them. Miawa works primarily in India, but also in Mexico, Peru, Morocco and Ethiopia.
There is a marketing paradox with natural dyes, because we want them to behave both like natural dyes (that is, have a depth of character, reflect their origins and communicate something of the season, time and place of their growing) and we want them to behave as as manufactured items (that is, be regular, uniform and exactly the same from batch to batch). From the viewpoint of those engaged in commerce in an industrial, consumer society; natural dyes require standardization, certification and regulation. These steps provide assurance that natural dyes and naturally dyed textiles have the uniformity needed for mass marketing.
There is a paradox associated with each step. Standardization may eliminate diversity, experimentation, and innovation. Certification may not be an option for traditional artisans (often the same artisans who have kept natural dye knowledge intact for hundreds of years), and regulation may significantly change the viability of working with natural dyes for many groups, shifting control from artisan to regulator.
In my talk I will examine each point in as much detail as my time will permit.
Although the artisan dyer may be an indigenous craftsperson, collecting dyestuff from a local area, to service a small village-based clientele; the artisans I work with today more closely resemble their European guild counterparts in three main areas. 1) Meters of fabric dyed, 2) Number of workers employed, 3) range and distance of trade relations. And I make the following claim: In many aspects, artisan dyers rival their contemporary “industrial” counterparts in terms of natural dye use.
For the Maiwa account, the Khatri’s naturally dye and blockprint over 15,000 metres of organic cotton per year. This is for our bedding line. They employ 50 workers and trade globally.
For our clothing line, the Dosaya family naturally dye and blockprint over 30,000 metres of silk, linen and organic cotton. They employ 75 workers.
We understand, I think, the advantages of certification, standardization and regulation outlined above. My reasons for suggesting that each of these steps may involve a paradox, is to open up discussions of the potentially disastrous effects on artisan dyers. I occasionally hear comments on topics like certification which are accompanied by a shaking of the head and the thoughts that, yes unfortunately, certification may not work out well for some artisans. I’m here to tell you it HAS to work for them.
Anyone who has visited the souks of Morocco, or the kilm dealers of Turkey … in fact anyone who has purchased a textile in an open market would like to see a trusted certification system. But could any certification system work to give us what we want?
And what about dye processes? I would like to suggest that we consider dye processes, as the end result of successful knowledge sharing. I will give two recent examples of this. I would like to point out that we are indebted to the practical expertise of Michel Garcia for both examples.
These changes are the result of direct knowledge sharing between artisan groups. The idea is that by raising the standard of natural dye use everywhere (or to put it another way: by eliminating bad dyeing) we largely eliminate the need for standardization.
As I have a captive audience of scientists, researchers and natural dye experts here, I would like to suggest, as strongly as possible, that this kind of practical applied science, that investigates and solves the problems of the production dyer, is absolutely necessary. But even beyond the research itself, the sharing of results is invaluable to the natural dye community. It is necessary for the health of the environment, for the integrity of artisan dyers and for the public profile of natural dyes.
We sponsored the artisans to attend the workshop and we paid our visiting expert – in this case Michel Garcia. The costs of the workshop was invaluable to the dyers and therefore also invaluable to our trading partnership.
By regulation, generally what we mean is some formalization of the certification and standardization process. This may or may not come with penalties and enforcement. In theory it is welcome. In practice, natural dye use clearly fits within the realm of expert knowledge; it cannot be regulated without adding an additional layer of costs (2).
I feel the case of natural dyes is considerably more complex than that of other artisan goods.
And so I am brought back to marketing. What we try to do – through our retail stores, our website, blog, symposia, workshops, lectures, documentaries, social media, youtube, and every available means – is attempt to share as much knowledge as possible and educate the public about the qualities and behaviors of natural dyes.
Am I against certification, standardization and regulation?
Not if it works for the artisan dyer.
1. The sale and use of the dyes were banned but not the manufacturing of them.
2. My point here is that for artisan dyers, certification costs may be prohibitive. At the final session of ISEND a participant asked Ms Esther Rewitz, (who delivered a presentation on expanding the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to include the use of natural dyestuff) for an estimate of the cost of certifying an item. The answer was that the estimated cost would be in the range of 1000 to 2000 euros plus travel costs if a site inspection was necessary. Even without the site inspection this works out to $1400 - $2800 Canadian dollars. or 64,000 - 128,000 Indian rupees per item. In contrast, a "good" yearly wage for unskilled labour in rural India is in the range of 26,000 rps.