Natural Colour: A Bengal Story Part One

by - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Throughout history, if you wanted to learn about natural dyes, India was the place to go. For a number of reasons that were historical, political, and cultural; hand-textile traditions survived and flourished in India. If you knew where to look, you could find weaving, spinning and dyeing being done in rural and urban areas using ingenious techniques. For 30 years Maiwa has documented much of that knowledge and shared it: in documentary films, in workshops, in artisan masterclasses, and in working with artisans using traditional techniques.

Maiwa teaching yarn dyeing, Bengal 2018


Everything changes. Natural dye knowledge that has been passed between generations for hundreds of years can be lost very quickly. Often this knowledge is closely associated with how a particular type of textile is produced. In Bengal for example, the humid climate demands an exceptionally fine, diaphanous weave. The resulting cloth is light and airy, able to catch the faintest breeze. Such cloths are known by the poetic term "woven air."  Traditional dye techniques evolved to work with these exceptionally fine threads without breaking them. Driven by price and economies of scale, however, many of Bengal's weaving communities turned to synthetic dyes to meet the demands of the market.


From the Maiwa Archive Washing block printed cloth, Rajasthan 1996


But what has been lost can also be recovered. Sometimes it is success that motivates a return to tradition. In Bengal, for example, artisans who had established themselves (and their families) wanted to have a more positive impact. During our visits we were told stories of young weavers who developed cancer and died too soon. Relatives and fellow artisans felt that it was time to return to natural dyes and commit to more ecologically sustainable processes.


Jamdani weaving, Bengal 2006. Note the pot of rice starch beside the weaver and the jacquard mechanism for the borders.

It gives us a great sense of satisfaction to be able to bring back the natural dye knowledge that we initially recorded in India. In many cases we are able to temper this knowledge with solutions to contemporary problems. Sometimes these are process-based and sometimes they involve renewing contact with the farming communities who grow natural dyes.


A young weaver works alongside an experienced master, Bengal 2006

Because we work with many craftspeople all over India we are able to share solutions. Often what worked for one group of artisans will bring renewed hope and commitment to others.

How did we come to be teaching natural dyes in Bengal? Find out next month when we post Natural Colour: A Bengal Story Part 2 ...

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