Natural Colour A Bengal Story - Part Three

by - Monday, June 25, 2018

Madder dye. Bright, colourfast, relatively easy to work with, and well priced for the local economy. It's the red of choice for many dyers.

It was January of 2018 when our team of dyeing instructors arrived in Bengal. The team consisted of four people: Charllotte Kwon: owner of Maiwa and well-known natural dye instructor. Charllotte's vision to document natural dyes and promote their use has always been one of the founding principles of Maiwa. Alongside Charllotte was her daughter Sophena, who has co-taught natural dyes for many years and who has gained her own following for her remarkable Indigo Social events. Veteran staff and Maiwa Supply manager Danielle Bush was present. She has taught the use of thickened natural dyes for printing and painting for many years. And our new addition, Amber Muenz, who is a quick study and an amazing organizer. The team flew into Kolkata, repacked into a van, and headed north.

Scoured, mordanted and ready to dye — rows of yarns at the ready.

Our goal for the visit is for the artisans to be comfortable using natural dyes in production. If enthusiasm was going to be necessary for success, then we had nothing to worry about. On the first day the yarns were ready, the outdoor studio was scrubbed down and we hit the ground running. We worked until the light was gone and then we kept going. By the light of cell phones and flashlights we worked the indigo vats until we got what we wanted. Success comes slowly, a little bit at a time, but it does arrive.

Working into the night by the light of cell phones. 

Sophena and Charllotte check the indigo vats again during the day.

Our students are all experienced yarn handlers. Fine silks and cottons presented no problems for them. While working with large hanks in batches of one or two kilos they could keep the yarns moving in a way that resulted in even dyeing. We realized that if we could build the right dye vats for them - they had the mechanical skill to work the yarns. Our goals became clear. Make the right pots of natural colour and then give them the confidence to make those same pots for themselves.

We talked about proper preparation (scouring is essential for even dyeing), and then returned to the indigo dye which had been the focus of our November trip and the inspiration from the Indigo Sutra conference.

Natural indigo on the bamboo drying racks,
undyed yarns awaiting their turn to wear a natural colour.

With blues complete, we launched into the other colours: lac, madder, pomegranate, marigold, cutch. Outside in the yard you could see a record of our progress. Curious eyes of neighbours peered over the fence. The bamboo poles that held the drying yarns became a kind of chromatic clock. At first they were all shades of natural yarns — all whites and creams — but over the next four days they became blue, yellow, gold, red, brown and purple. You’ve never seen such happiness as when a dyer places the first freshly dyed hank of yarn, the first new colour, beside the others on the pole.

Our experience of colour is unlike anything else. Our joy in this experience is only made deeper when the colours are the reward for our own hard work.

Marigold in the dyepot. Yes, cooking colour out of flowers is a magical experience - especially as surprisingly few flowers give fast colours.

Skeins of yarns. We were constantly impressed by the skill of these artisans at handling yarns. Not a strand broken. Never any tangles.

Colour was not the only sensation being shared during that visit. At the end of each day there was a Bengali meal. Often it was cooked on top of the wood fire in the yard. Tandoor chicken, eggplant, vegetables and the wonderful local fish. It was during this time, as the scent of pungent spices mixed with the smoke of the fire and we sat in a circle at dusk, that the stories would come out. Sparked by some incident during the day or some memory brought on by the conversation, a leisurely tale would take shape. Often following a thread as tenuous as the yarns we had dyed that day; talk of childhood, of growing up on tea plantations in the foothills of northern Bengal; talk of monsoon storms and favourite foods; talk of weavers and aunties and the eccentric character that each village and family seems to have.

Children of the village. We never forgot our initial motivation to help the weavers: to help them transition back to natural processes and protect their health and their environment.

We had put down roots. The weaving skills were strong and the dyeing skills were growing stronger each day. Was there a market for naturally dyed cloth? Even naturally dyed yarn? We knew the answer was yes. We backed up that answer with some orders and a promise to return next year. 

Those who know Maiwa’s history know that these projects (like our embroidery revivals) can take years. A surprising number of years at times. But we are committed. The artisans are committed. Together we are working to return to traditional colour and to continuing this Bengal story.

Natural Colour: A Bengal Story


Honest Yarns. Fast colours made with natural dyes. Available in 4 weights and 18 colours on linen. Wholesale lots are also available. These yarns are dyed by a different community than the one featured above.

Visit Maiwa & Maiwa Supply on Granville Island 7 days a week between 10am and 7pm
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