The Art of Using Plant & Vegetable Based Dyes

The art of hand block printing with plant or vegetable based dyes, known as Kalamkari, began on the principals of foraging. However, this process is not as simple as mixing fruits and seeds from one’s own backyard. The various materials: fruits, leaves, bark, vegetables, etc. that are used in printing are found throughout the state of India and must be bought in large wholesale markets.

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This type of dyeing requires time, experience, attention to detail and good weather! From the pre-treatment to the finishing of the fabrics every step of the process uses natural elements and not man-made chemicals.

So for all those textile enthusiasts, here is the detailed process. 

1. Natural Bleaching: As weird as it may sound, cow dung is used as a natural, safe and chemical free method to bleach cotton into the pure white color we all love. The unbleached cotton is mixed with cow dung and water in a large mud pot and then the fabric is placed on the ground overnight. The cow dung helps to remove the excess starch in cotton and helps the fabric to absorb the dyes.

Natural bleaching of fabrics: kalamkari

The next day the fabric is taken to a local pond and beaten on the rocks. The fabrics are then laid on top of the foliage and fungus of the pond and the fabric floats on top of the water. If it is summer time and no water is in the pond, then the cloth is sprayed with water and covered with leaves. The cloth is left in the sun all day, it is collected from the pond in the evening and the next morning it is placed again in the pond for a full half of a day. In the afternoon of the second day, the fabrics are boiled in water to remove all the excess starch, cow dung and debris.

2. Myrabalan Treatment: The fabrics are pre-treated with myrabalan (a medicinal Indian fruit), so the dyes will penetrate the fabric. The myrabalan seed is crushed and soaked in water for one day, and then filtered through a burlap cloth to create a juice. The juice is carefully and evenly applied to the cloth. Now the cloth is ready for printing. 

Natural dyeing of fabrics: kalamkari

3. Color Making: A combination of naturally found materials are used to create a few different basic colors, which can then be mixed together to make several different colors. For example, pomegranate is boiled with water to create a mustard yellow color. Black dye is made with pieces of metal scraps and sugar that are placed in a mud jar 6” below the earth. The lid must be kept tightly closed for 21 days for the black color to develop. And brown is made when red and black are mixed together.

Natural Indian dyes

Another interesting thing to note is that the age of the tree or plant determines the shade of color it will produce; an older tree produces a darker shade and a younger tree a lighter shade. All colors are finally mixed with gaur gaum, which comes from the Indian legume gaur and helps to fix the dye. 

4. Printing: The fabrics are pulled tightly and pinned to a long table. A hand carved block that features the desired design is evenly dipped in a plastic tray with the dye. A block printer then stamps the fabric by hand from left to right, bottom to top until the entire piece of fabric is printed.

Hand block printing

5. Washing: The printed cloth must be washed for two hours in flowing water or a large fresh water pond that does not have any fungus or foliage, so smudges or stains do not damage the fabric.Natural bleaching of fabrics: kalamkari

6. Boiling: The dried fabric is then boiled in copper vessels using more leaves, roots, barks and flowers in order to create the desired color. The fabric then needs to be washed again to remove the excess natural materials. After washing, the fabric is hung to dry in the sun. Strong sun allows the dyes to develop to a brighter print; a cloudy day creates dull colors.

Natural dyeing of fabrics: kalamkari

7. Starch: A starch is created with rice and applied to the fabric in order to fix the dyes onto the fabric.

8. Second and Third Color: Depending on the design, the fabric may require a second or third color that must be applied as the first color was applied. It is important that the fabric goes through all the washing, boiling and starching procedures in between dyes, so the dyes do not bleed.

Hand block printing

9. Final Washing: The fabric is then washed with soap, dried in the sun and pressed and folded. Now the fabric is ready to be cut and stitched into our beautiful Passion Lilie garments.

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