Natural Dyes and More: Local Color in Spin Off

The theme of the Spin Off Summer 2018 is “local color.” The scenery in Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico, is a study in tan, but the color I remember most vividly from my visit is red. The bold scarlet of cochineal insects, one of the world’s most important natural dyes, colors the rugs for which the village near Oaxaca is famous.

Where Color Hides

A dusty white powder covers cochineal insects when they grow on the dark green of the nopal cactus, so the intense red they produce when crushed comes as a surprise. Some of the weavers in the village use synthetic dyes, but these days everyone will tell you that their red comes from cochineal.

natural dyes

The woad plant is known for containing indigo blue dye, but did you know you can get orange, green, tan, and even pink from it?

A few years ago, some friends at a fiber retreat were playing with different natural dyes. One had brought some woad with her from England (which might have been forbidden, because woad can be an invasive plant). She wanted to try to dye not only indigo blue, but also the elusive woad pink. Gayle Vallance explains how in “Adventures in Woad.”

Beyond Natural Dyes

At first, local color might seem to be about only natural dyes, but local color can come from a tradition, a memory, or minerals and ions in the water. Even in the drabbest places, you can find a new hue.

natural dyes

Kimber Baldwin keeps a careful eye on the pH and chemistry of her water when she dyes for Fiber Optic Yarns.

The idea for Kimber Baldwin’s article in this issue, “Water, Washing & Dyes: How H2O Leads the Way to Color Success,” arose from a conversation that Spin Off Assistant Editor Elizabeth Prose had with her mother. Living in southwestern Oklahoma, Maryruth Prose found that she had to buy distilled water for dyeing the weft for her color-gradation tapestry weavings because the city water supply had too many chemicals to produce consistent colors.

Whether it’s indigo-dyed calico flapping in the Shanghai breeze, the bright primary colors of Scandinavian kitchens, or the green grass of England setting off the white locks of sheep, the color of fibers, yarns, and textiles is always linked to a place. Naturally dyed or not, color has an address.

What color is it where you are?


Featured Image: Stefanie Johnston found the colors for these mitts in black walnuts and marigolds gathered in her backyard. Photos by George Boe

Explore Color in Spin Off!


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