Natural Dyes

Nowadays, Lao weavers are still seeking their colors from the world of nature around them. The harvesting and preparation of natural dye materials can be a very time-consuming process. Bark or wood, for instance, might not be available from nearby sources and therefore require a hike into the forest and a long walk home. Some dye materials, too, are cultivated, and this usually means allowing them to grow for a season or more before a dye can be produced.

In general the required wood or bark is boiled with salt for hours over a slow wood fire. When the wood appears to have no more color left in it, the pieces are taken out and the dyeing commences.

The yarn is always well soaked and pounded before dyeing. In some cases a single, preliminary dip for cotton is made in the grey dye ‘pot’of mak gleua (ebony wood) to ensure fastness of the dyes. The yarns are normally boiled in their various dye pots. When the color appears to be dark enough, the yarns are removed, soaked in an alum solution for thirty minutes, rinsed, and then dried in the wind, in a shady place away from the sun.

Some Common Natural Dyed Color:

a. Red Dye
The source of the natural red dye so popular in northern Lao textiles is the lacquer produced by the Coccus Lacca insect boring into the bark of certain trees. The best color is obtained from dton sam sa (Samanea saman-raintree or sirus) and sangkae (breadfruit) trees, so this often means collecting the insects from other trees in the forest and rearing them specially. This requires a minimum of one year, after which harvesting is done by beating the branches of the tree so that the resinous deposits left by the insects fall off and can be collected. This lacquer is pounded to a fine dust and soaked in the juice of mak grut fruit (Citrus hystrix-crinkle-skin lime). The following boiling process extracts the red dye which is also dissolved by the acidic plant adaptive. The yarns are boiled in the dye.

b. Black Dye
The preparation of black dye is used cold. The mak gleua (ebony seeds) are soaked in water to soften them and then pounded to a pulp. The pulp is mixed with lye and the wetted yarns are immersed for thirty minutes and dried in the shade. This process is repeated approximately four times, until the color is a deep black. The yarns are then wrapped overnight in leaves and in the morning thoroughly rinsed.

c. Indigo Dye
The preparation of indigo involves quite a different process from those described above. The main difference is that fermentation, which‘reduces’ oxygen out of the dye, is required. It is only in its reduced state that indigo is effective – this is the secret of indigo and its illusive character. Thus the dyers commonly talk about their indigo being ‘alive’ or ‘dead’. In Lao the indigofera tinctoria plant grows wild, but it is also in fact cultivated by weavers to ensure a good harvest. Each weaver is independent and self-sufficient not only in her indigo production but also in her cotton plant crop and her rearing of silk-worms. Approximately twenty plants are required to make 100 grams of indigo paste.

Fermentation of indigo paste

Boiling of bark

Leaves to use for indigo dye

Dyeing of plain textiles

The dyed yarn is being rinsed



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