The art of dyeing fabric has been around for thousands of years, the oldest written record of natural dyes can be traced back to Chinese writings from 2600 BC. In their tombs, the ancient Egyptians left hieroglyphics depicting the extraction and application process of natural dyes. Even before this time people were using pigments derived from natural sources to color their skin, clothing, artifacts, and to create beautiful cave paintings, some of which date past 17,000 BC.
The earliest forms of pigment were derived from earth substrate, such as ochres; additionally, charcoal and ash from burnt sticks or fires were used to draw upon cave walls by ancient man. Ochre can come in a variety of earthen colors, such as yellows, reds, oranges, purples and browns, which can be combined and altered by heating to create additional colors for use. As culture evolved and humans expanded their knowledge about the natural world, additional techniques were developed to create pigments.
Up until the 19th century textile dyes were derived from a variety of sources: insects, plants, roots, shells and other substances were used in some fashion to create a variety of colors. Long before the advent of modern tie dye, a common method for adhering pigment to fiber was through the use of vat, or tub dyeing. This method typically involves making up vats of color from natural sources, such as indigo from woad plants, which are then made soluble through the addition of reducing agents. Once the solution is soluble, cloth is dipped repeatedly into the vat and then exposed to oxygen, wherein it undergoes oxidation, changing colors and converting the dye back into its water-insoluble state.
The process of traditional vat dying is not well suited for home use due to preparation of the materials and the larger space needed to work. Luckily for us, modern dyes are much easier to use at home, require less prep work than traditional vat dyes and produce more vibrant colors than natural dye. We’ve been interested in attempting a home cooked version of vat dying for some time and are now ready to give it a go.
While there are many recipes for vat dyeing (also know as tub, bucket or dip dyeing), we decided to do things slightly different. Instead of mixing up a large batch of dye with the necessary chemicals in a 5 gallon bucket or tub, we took our pre-mixed liquid dyes and transfer them into bowls large enough to dye one adult and one child’s shirt. They were soaked in soda ash and rung out before folding. Although most dyers prefer to use vats for dyeing whole garments one color (such as with indigo), many tie or fold before taking the plunge. Traditional techniques such as Shibori are a perfect example of how material is bound, gathered, tied and folded before being dyed.
If you choose to fold or tie your garment, it is important to decide on a design in which there are no interior folds. For example, the pattern we chose for the adult shirt was folded in such a way that it was not turned in on itself but rather folded back and forth to expose as much material as possible. For the child’s shirt, we chose an off center spiral.
Check out the photo tutorial below for more detailed information:
Thank you for stopping by today. We hope this brief history and alternative to vat dyeing has inspired you to give it a try yourself! Please feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments section. As always, sources for the history are listed below; check them out if you are curious to learn more about vat dyeing and natural pigments!
-Brent, Gina and Nia