For millennia, silk threads were dyed using natural ingredients. The creation of synthetic dyes transformed this practice, and natural dyeing is an art that’s slowly fading away. Yet, natural ingredients create some of the most vibrant colours ever known and are biodegradable. This festive season, after more than a decade of research, we’ve revived the use of natural dyes with an exclusive collection of handwoven Kanchipuram silk sarees called ‘Naturals’.
When RmKV was founded in 1924, naturally-dyed Kanchipuram silks were still common, their colours unique and deep. The rich crimson of lac resin, locally called arraku, was preferred for weddings, and turmeric was used to colour silk a mellow gold. These days, those natural dyes have disappeared, along with the craftsmen who knew how to create them.
However, natural ingredients have myriad ecological and medicinal benefits, and natural dyeing is a craft that we cannot afford to forget. So, we spent nearly 14 years researching natural dyes at our facilities in Tamil Nadu. The result is Naturals, a collection of Kanchipuram silk sarees that have been dyed by our artisans and woven by our master weavers. In other words, these exceptional sarees have been coloured by Nature and crafted by RmKV.
What are natural dyes?
Colouring agents that are derived directly from Nature, rather than being manmade, are called natural dyes. These include substances sourced from plants, invertebrates and minerals. For example, mulberry leaves and marigold flowers have been used to dye the handwoven Kanchipuram silk sarees in our Naturals collection the use of lac – an insect resin – as a natural dye has been revived in this collection, and even red soil and iron are commonly used as dyeing agents.
What is natural dyeing?
The process of colouring fabrics using natural ingredients is called natural dyeing.
The first part of the process is preparing the natural ingredients. This step is often the most time-consuming. For example, indigo leaves are dried and formed into blocks, before being powdered and left to ferment in a pot for weeks. The fabric is then dipped into the pot and dyed through oxidation. The entire process, which takes 45 days, has been documented in this video.
In the case of pomegranate shells and marigold flowers, the ingredients have to be dried for several days before they can be used. Indian madder roots and stems, which produce red tones, have to be thoroughly cleaned to remove any impurities.
Once the ingredients are prepared, they are boiled in water at various temperatures till they release their colours. The dyes can be mixed and boiled in specially-treated ‘baths’ to create more nuanced shades. The textiles are dipped into the dyebaths, raised, rolled and then dipped again till the dye has spread evenly. Mordants such as myrobalan or other natural ingredients are used to lock the colours into the fabric and make them last longer.
The yarns for the Naturals collection were dyed at the RmKV facilities in Tamil Nadu using our scientific dyeing process. Here’s a glimpse at the many hands and processes that contributed to the creation of these naturally-dyed, handwoven Kanchipuram silk sarees.
The history of natural dyes :
Natural dyes are as old as civilisation itself; the earliest fabrics and records show that red and ochre dyes were prevalent in ancient Egypt, the Levant and China. Cotton threads found in the archeological remains of the Indus Valley civilisation point to the extensive use of Indian madder (manjistha). Yet, the dye most famously associated with India is indigo, which has also been mentioned in the Vedas.
The indigofera tinctoria plant from which indigo is harvested grows abundantly in India. The natural dye was exported to the Mediterranean, where it was prized as a luxury. In fact, the word ‘indigo’ has its origin in the word ‘indicum’, which is Latin for ‘India’.
Over thousands of years, natural elements were tapped for their colours. Henna and peels of pomegranate are a well-known source of yellows and reds; turmeric was widely used for yellow; mulberry leaves produced green; lichens imparted colours as diverse as purple and orange. Each region developed natural dyes depending on what was available locally.
Till 1856, natural dyes were the only dyes in existence. With the invention of synthetic dyes that year, the textile industry began to quickly adopt these more cost-effective and convenient dyes.
In just decades, natural dyeing was relegated to a few craft clusters, its secrets preserved by the few remaining artisans who’d chosen craftsmanship over capitalism.
As a result of production of garments on an industrial scale, synthetic dyes are being used and discarded in huge quantities. One study states that the global textile injury releases nearly 50,000 tonnes of dyes into the water system. The toxic chemical compounds in synthetic dyes affect the soil, impede plant growth, enter the food chain and are harmful to humans and animals. In contrast, natural dyes are biodegradable and have no toxic effects on the environment.
RmKV Naturals – Reviving the lost art of natural dyeing :
Our first collection of naturally-dyed, handwoven Kanchipuram silk sarees was launched in 2008. Even back then, the craft of developing natural dyes and mordants was quickly disappearing. Natural dyeing was mostly limited to cotton sarees, where natural colours were used for block printing after the saree was woven.
For a Kanchipuram silk saree, however, the silk yarns have to be dyed before the garment is woven. So, we decided to unearth long-lost dyeing recipes and revive the craft of naturally dyeing Kanchipuram silk sarees.
Our skilled dyeing team at the RmKV facility in Tamil Nadu spent more than a decade researching natural dyes and even creating colour innovations. So far, we’ve recreated 45 natural colours. The Naturals collection showcases a select few, which have been chosen for their rich tones and long-lasting colours.
The dyes of the Naturals collection :
The natural dye was one of India’s primary exports, because the best indigo is believed to come from India. This earned indigo the title ‘blue gold’. Interestingly, indigo also has medicinal properties; it’s a common herbal remedy in the areas in which it is grown. The deep blue tones of natural indigo take 45 days to extract, but this indigo-dyed Kanchipuram silk saree shows, the colours are inimitable.
Sappan wood :
The source of soft pink tones, sappan wood is a highly sustainable natural dye. The tree from which it is harvested grows quickly and abundantly across southern and eastern India. Also called East Indian red wood, sappan wood is the main ingredient used to naturally dye the elegant pink kamalam (lotus) butti saree in our Naturals collection.
Lac has a wide variety of uses, apart from being one of the most commonly-used natural dyes; it has medicinal properties and is also used to make lacquerware and jewellery. Lac can produce myriad shades from light orange to dark brown; you’ll see them all in the handwoven Kanchipuram silk sarees of the Naturals collection, but the showstopper is undoubtedly the zari checks silk saree.
Mulberry Leaves :
Mulberry leaves have always been associated with the production of fine silk, but their uses go far beyond just nourishing silk worms. The leaves can also be used to create a wide range of green shades, from mellow mint to deep olive. In the Naturals collection, mulberry leaves lend their shades to a stunning green saree with a 11-inch border.
From light yellow to lilac and brown, pomegranate has been used to create an array of natural colours. For the Naturals collection, we dried the peels and soaked them overnight to obtain the gorgeous lilac shade of the rising border silk saree.
The fragrant flowers are used on auspicious occasions around the world, so it isn’t surprising that they are also a popular natural dye. Marigold flowers are harvested for soft yellows, oranges and bold greens. The flowers are dried, powdered and then boiled to release their colours. In the Naturals collection, marigold has been overdyed with indigo to create the nuanced tones of a silk saree with kamalam motifs.
Indian Madder :
Popular from the days of the Indus Valley civilisation, Indian madder or manjistha yields shades of yellow, red and brown. These days, it’s better known as a herbal remedy due to its antioxidant properties. Indian madder has been generously used in the Naturals collection, and its rich colours are on full display in the handwoven silk saree with Persian-style floral motifs.
Extracted from the nuts of the Terminalia chebula tree, myrobalan creates soft yellow tones. It is also used as a mordant for other natural dyes, to seal in the colours and make them more long-lasting. The yellow and light green shades of myrobalan are beautifully captured in this dual-tone handwoven Kanchipuram silk saree.
Mesquite bark :
The mesquite tree has a number of uses, from antibacterial medicine and furniture to food and natural dyes. When shredded and mixed with boiling water, mesquite bark releases shades of brown and purple. Its unique shades are best represented in the malli moggu (jasmine bud) Kanchipuram silk saree in the Naturals collection.
Natural dyes have been expressions of our culture and creativity throughout recorded history. They’ve enriched and softened the textiles they’ve coloured, leaving very little trace on the environment. Their revival is essential to the textile industry and natural ecosystem, now more than ever.