Friday, May 06, 2011

Local colour in our regional fibreshed

"Every place has a local-colour. This colour is significant within a region and can be best understood as permeating indigenous material. The specific hue of a local-colour can become synonymous with a historic, cultural or regional identity. However, in our modern epoch, we are less aware of these connections due to the consumeristic tendency to provide a repeatable brand which has made it all but impossible for our daily objects and materials to still connect us with such a local narrative.

This narrative is important in that it provides ways of defining worth, and worthlessness outside the industry-controlled concepts of supply and demand, and setting quarterly trends for the consumer. When a person works long and hard to create something, its personal value is assured. That value is not diminished as it is passed from one generation to another. In bestowing that effort on a material of local significance, the effect is even more strong as it becomes something of value for the whole community.” -- Christopher van DonKelaar - artist

I was asked recently whether natural dyes were an important part of the parameters of a "local fibershed".  My thoughts about the importance of natural dyes have been shaped in a large part by the journey I've walked with my daughter in exploring woad-indigo.  We learned that industrial textile production is one of the largest polluters in the world.  That the dyeing and laundering process causes sickness, debilitation and crop failures downstream from the factories where these works are carried out.  That artisans using chemical dyes suffer from sickness, cancers and skin diseases and that these problems didn't disappear when our culture's clothing needs moved off-shore -- they just impacted a different culture.  The textile workers of today are like the charcoal burners and woadies of yesteryear.

Dyer's chamomile

In my journey with Sarah through history, in our study of dyes and textiles, we saw that the colour palette dramatically changed with the discovery of mauve.  And the textile palette exploded with chemical dyes.  Some of these caused death and sickness to the ones who wore the clothes.  Others changed the culture of society.  For instance, where red was once the colour of the wealthy and the rising middle class, once red came from a chemical bottle -- the wealthy shunned it and the prostitutes took it on.

Woad dyed wool, silk and mohair

Colour evokes a story of a culture.  And to move from the natural colours that reside in an area in the form of plants, minerals and insects -- to a bottle of dye powder -- changes the story.  We lose our identity.  We become like so many copies of a magazine folio.  "Little boxes on a hillside, little boxes made of ticky, tacky" goes a song describing the non culture of modern life.

Colours from locally grown Isatis tinctoria

Our local fibershed will embrace our local culture.  As Mr. van DonKelaar states, local colour is sacred to a region and has cultural value.  Each regions fibershed will look a little different -- different fibers dyed with different colours that steep in a different water.  Did you know that each location's water is a bit different and has a chemical fingerprint so that researchers can pin point the provenance of a bottle of water?

Tapestry with yarns dyed with Isatis tinctoria leaves

In SE Asia the local dye plants are rich in blues, reds and purples.  Many cultures are defined by a local indigo plant and deep, shiny blue defines the cultural garb of the population.  In Scotland the clan colours were once defined by lichens, woad and bedstraw -- giving earthy greens and blues, madder reds and crottle browns.  Local colour is also aromatic and garments are perfumed by regional scents left behind by the dye plants.

What does the colour palette of your region look like?  How does your local water affect the colours that you can produce in a local fibreshed?

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  1. I LOVE this Chris - I was even dreaming about it last night after it came up in our email discussion. Thanks for posting the info and your thoughts!


  2. Have been experimenting with local and kitchen color. Suing "weeds" and natives. LIve far to the south of you and wanted to find herbs and spices in the natives(still will probably get cinnamun though). Have seen dyers chamolmile miles away. No woad here.
    Lynn D

  3. Thanks for your comment, Lynn. If you live far to the south of me, Indigo will grow for you, I'm sure. It needs a long growing season and even Washington has a longer season than I do. Anywhere that can grow cotton can grow indigo.

    Regulare chamomile that you use for tea will dye yellow as well. You want to mordant it with alum, calcium, or sea water to make the colour permanent. Or you can grey it with the addition of a few rusty rail spikes or green it with a few copper pipes left in the water for a week or more.

    Let me know what you come up with.


  4. Dear Chris,

    I read your post with interest. I'd never thought about water as being local before, so I'll be looking at the Conestoga River differently this morning as I walk. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about local colour.

    Yours sincerely,
    Christopher van Donkelaar