I’ve been figuring out the best way to approach talking about this idea of “Slow Color” that I’m in love with. I’ve created an entire business, albeit a very small one, around this idea of slow color, and the value of it. I look outside and see the colors of fall in the leaves and in the trees, and I realize that those are reflected in all the colors that are produced using natural dyes. The colors of my fibers are the colors of the natural world, as it is now and as it always has been.
There are many wonderful things about synthetic dyes. I wish I could get those deep, vibrant, vivid color ways in the same way other Indie Dyers can. Techniques such as speckles are infinitely more effective when you’re using synthetic dyes also. However, I made a choice a few years ago to use 100% natural dyes. There were several reasons I chose this for Nutmeg. However, the main one was that I connected most with the technique and methods used to create the natural dye colorways. It is a bit slower, sometimes more labor intensive but ultimately, for my own process as an artisan, it was the most rewarding dye method I could find. (again…I’m only talking about my own personal preference).
There’s something supremely comforting to me in the idea of creating colors in the same method that was being used 200, 500, 1000 years ago. What I do with my colors here at Nutmeg is in no way “groundbreaking”, haha! It’s in fact, the exact opposite. But, as I work in my studio, stirring batches of wool in a bath of logwood, indigo or madder root, or whatever other dyestuff, I often think about those that came before me, working in the same way, but in such a different time in the world. It feels almost like time traveling. It’s something that connects me back to those that came before, and I hope, connects those after us to these traditions as well.
I’ve been doing a little digging on the traditions of natural dyeing as I’ve been prepping this blog post, and discovered a rich and vibrant history for dyers, weavers and spinners. In 2600 BCE we find the earliest written record of the use of dyestuffs in China. Alexander the Great found the remarkable craftsmanship in the printed cottons of India in 327 BCE. Germany’s first written record of a Wool Dyer’s Guild was found in 925 ACE, and by 1212 ACE Florence, Italy was a city bursting with over 200 dyers, fullers, tailors, weavers and spinners. From these ancient days, natural dyes and natural dye techniques were being passed down from generation to generation of families, craftsmen, artisans and more. While visiting museums this summer in Seoul, Korea there were garments dyed with red clay, cochineal, walnuts, and more from the Goryeo era (app. 900 ACE). A more recent visit to the new Tennessee State Museum saw garments dyed with indigo, logwood and more. It wasn’t until William Henry Perkin discovered synthetic dyes in 1856 that this all began to change…but that’s not what I’m here to write about. Haha!
Slow Color On A Small Scale
“Back in the day” makers would use the slow, cold winter months that had to be spent inside as the time to rebuild their hard-working wardrobe. Harvest season was over, so time was spent spinning, weaving fabric, dyeing fabric or wool and knitting or sewing garments together so that when warmer weather came, their new garments would be ready to wear. It was about necessity and not consumption. Colors for dyeing came from the garden, from roots and trees nearby, from the neighbor’s indigo vat that was still producing great color. Now, when I say necessity, I don’t mean that people didn’t spend time to make things look beautiful just because they needed clothes. There is always time to add a bit of detail work, some extra fitting and other garment making techniques to make a project shine. Aran Fishermen’s sweaters are stunning examples of cable knitting techniques. But they weren’t created to show off. They were made to keep fishermen warm on the cold seas. They were made for a purpose. But they were also made beautifully.
When I think of Slow Color, I think of ways that we encourage the world to slow down a bit. I think of the importance of carrying on traditions and craft methods that are centuries old, and the need to not lose that information just because there is a more modern way.
Slow Color Concerns & Questions Answered
As a business person, I also understand that not everyone wants to work with natural dyes. They often “crock”, or rub off on your fingers as you work. Some people worry that the overall fabric will be too variegated. Dye lots are often small and people worry that they won’t be able to match skein to skein. Customers are concerned about colorfastnesss and whether the project will last if it’s not been dyed with synthetic dyes. I completely understand all those concerns.
My response to those concerns is, well, if you don’t want to use natural dyes then that’s ok! There are so many wonderful and beautiful Indie Dyers out there doing their badass thing that are able to reproduce colors very similar to natural dyes if it’s the “look” you are going for.
However, you CAN make an entire sweater from yarn that is naturally dyed. And, it doesn’t have to look variegated. Unless you want it to. I always dye in sweater quantity amounts, because I love the idea that someone today can make an entire sweater out of a colorway that a knitter 500 years ago also made a sweater from. It’s that idea of connecting with our past while we are sitting there with the yarn in our hands, working away.
Also, good dyers always mark their dye lots, so you’ll be able to know which skeins came from the exact same pot. The dye colors on natural dyes should last a long time, at least 10 years, if it was dyed correctly. In fact, one of the reasons a lot of my colorways are more muted is because we wash them 3-4 times before we skein them up to sell so that the color you see when you buy it is the color that you will be seeing for years to come. Also…I just like muted colors. Haha! I wouldn’t want to have worked hours and hours on a project, just to have it fade within a year of finishing it. So, I completely understand. But, also, all colors fade in sunlight over time. So this isn’t unique to natural dyes.
Well…I can’t think of anything more to say right now, really, regarding Slow Color. I felt that during Slow Fashion October was the right time to finally post this. I’ve been mulling this over for a long time now, especially as I’ve met more people at trade shows and events around the world. I want to get better at expressing the WHY behind Nutmeg Fibers, instead of just “Here I Am”…if that makes sense. Happy Knitting!