Assam - Testing the Silks

by - Monday, August 31, 2009

Returning to Canada after having committed to a natural dye workshop in Assam, we had to unpack our samples of silks and see if they could be dyed successfully.

When we were in Assam we tried our best to gather local knowledge about silk dyeing. Popular opinion is that the local silks cannot be dyed.

We are working mainly with Eri and Muga. The Muga (shown left) is very valuable and is found only in Assam. Traditional weaving styles incorporate some coloured threads in small patterns on the edge of the weave. Contemporary practice is to work these with synthetic yarns dyed in rather harsh shades of red and green. The effect of cheap synthetics woven into the muga silk is similar to getting an order of McDonald's fries served up with your gourmet dinner. If the weavers can dye the local silk themselves they will have a cloth that is truly exquisite.

Our concerns with testing are with the fineness of the muga - the reeled silk is exceptionally thin. And we do not want the muga to loose it's sheen when it completes the dye process. Muga is also spun and pot-reeled (mainly from the imperfect cocoons and the ones from which the adult moths have emerged). Some of the yarns have a "slub" and they might take the dye unevenly. The Eri, which is spun and behaves more like cotton, has a tendency to pill. We are worried that it will felt or become hopelessly tangled when it enters the dyebath.

Much to our satisfaction, the tests are successful. We experiment with a range of mordanting strengths using two forms of Alum: Potassium aluminum sulphate and alum acetate. Those of you who wandered into the Maiwa Supply store in December of 2008 would have been fortunate enough to see the tests being done.

We test with a selection of natural dyes that can be found in Assam or within India in nearby states. Our intention is that artisans be self sufficient, which raises a curious point. We sell natural dyes that we import from Assam. But the artisans don't know what dyes are local or where to get them. So, in addition to a complete set of recipes for mordants, dyes and the best colour on silks we prepare a list of local dyes and where to get them in Assam or neighbouring states. This information all goes into the student books which we prepare. The books also show artisans working with dyes on the village level in other countries all over the world. It is important that the artisans not feel they are working alone or in isolation trying to master strange techniques. Moreover, most of the dye knowledge contained in the book has originally come from artisans: in a way we are giving them back their own knowledge.

We now have a sample set of silk dyed a range of colours; firsthand knowledge of how the fibers behave under dyeing conditions; student books ready with mordant recipes, dye recipes, and dye information. We are feeling prepared and ready to go.


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  1. Do you have a copy of the student books available for sale? I would love to read your findings, and learn more!


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