Living “The Good Life” in the Himalayas

People often wonder how I ended up this weird. My best guess is that I was deeply, subconsciously affected by the BBC show “Good Neighbors” (original title “The Good Life”), in particular this episode.

So it was with barely contained mirth that I helped my new BFF Nirmala collect stinging nettles from the footpath to test out a green dye bath. She and Tripura found a suitable pair of grinding stones and set them under a tree, cued up some tunes on her mobile, and got to work.


She demonstrated grinding up the leaves “like chutney” to extract the pigment, and directed us to add lime juice and salt. We put bits of carded, alum-mordanted wool in, and also some unmordanted wool yarn.


Ranbir and Tripura were very excited and started plucking flowers to test as dyes. I’m 99% sure they won’t work, but I figure they have to experience that for themselves before they believe me. All the neighbors that passed by were quite entertained watching our mad scientist laboratory in action.

100_1994So far results are inconclusive. My brother may still have to wait a while for his nettle suit.

Natural Dye: A Tale of Failure and Redemption

So a few months ago I was flipping through a friend’s copy of Jenny Dean’s The Craft of Natural Dyeing. I was most excited when I got to the page about using apple bark. Aha! I thought. I know someone with an apple orchard.

The orchard in question, conveniently located in the Misty Mountains. I mean Himalayas. Same diff.
The orchard in question, conveniently located in the Misty Mountains. I mean Himalayas. Same diff.

Dean claims that a range of colors can be obtained from apple bark, from yellows (meh) to reds and purples (oh yeah). But I was skeptical, because (1) the color swatches are just printed patches, not photos of actual dyed goods and (2) it is always wise to be skeptical of dye recipes claiming any result other than yellow. Or brown. So I got on the internets to see if I could find anybody who’d actually tried it, and lo and behold, found a blog post by some folks who have a textile studio nestled in an apple orchard outside of Manali and live there half the year. Curses! Why does somebody always have to steal my dream?

Anyway, they didn’t get such great results (pale yellow) but of course that didn’t stop me from trying anyway. You never know. So one of my first tasks when I got here was to scrape bark off some pruned branches and set them soaking in a brass pot in a sunny spot in the yard. After a couple days’ soak, we put the pot on the tandoor to heat.

Ranbir is very curious about this project.
Ranbir is very curious about this project.

Not much seemed to be happening, so we let the wool soak for a few more days and also gave it a second boil. I know it’s bad form to let the dye-pot boil, but the wool we have absolutely refuses to felt, so it wasn’t a problem. But it was a lot of work for this result:

Yay. Yucky yellow. Ranbir gave me no end of shit for this.
Yay. Yucky yellow. Ranbir gave me no end of shit for this.

After this initial disappointment, we got to work with some walnut bark (which seems to be the only dye material any of the locals are familiar with). Since the bark contains much less dye than the hulls that I usually use, we got…yellow. But it’s a much nicer yellow than the apple bark. I also salvaged some rusty nails from the wood pile and set them soaking in some lime juice, so I did an iron after-bath on half of each yellow. They shifted to two very nice greens, so finally: yay for natural dyes.

Top to bottom: walnut, walnut + iron, apple + iron, apple.
Top to bottom: walnut, walnut + iron, apple + iron, apple.

Adventures in Ethnobotany, aka Bungle in the Jungle

Yesterday morning I sat down with Ranbir and showed him a list I had of potential dye plants. He thought he might recognize a couple of the local names, and consulted with a neighbor sitting on the roof next door, but we didn’t get very far. We thought it might help to look up pictures and see if he recognized the plants by sight, since the lists I had were from different areas of the Himalayas and he might know things under different names. This was much more successful, and we came up with about a dozen matches. The neighbor kid was over, and every so often would run off to grab a sample of a plant he recognized out in the yard. I was the most excited about locating a local indigo, Indigofera dosua, known here as “kathi.” So in the afternoon, we took the goats and headed up to the jungle (which is actually a pine forest above the town). Ranbir was sure we would be able to collect leaves, but his sister said the leaves wouldn’t come until next month. In the jungle, we stopped to ask villagers gathering firewood if they had seen any kathi growing. They pointed us to some trees, which hadn’t yet leafed out. I was skeptical–I was pretty sure we were looking for a small shrub, not a tree. But everyone kept insisting yes, this is kathi. When we got back home I looked it up again, and found that there is another indigo (I. heterantha) which grows 2-3 meters tall. In the evening, a “brother” (actually cousin) stopped by, and we told him about our kathi quest. He happens to work in forest conservation, and was able to tell us some plants which produce dyes. He said that the leaves of the kathi will produce greens, and the flowers will produce purples. So…maybe promising? But we’ll have to wait a month or 2 to try.

Not Fade Away

Continuing adventures with alkanet: partial success. The color faded a lot as the skeins of yarn were drying/airing. I re-oiled a couple times, and after close to a month of airing, rinsed out the oil–which meant, more alkaline baths! This process has been very harsh on the fibers, especially the wool, which started to felt. I had two skeins of each fiber, so I gave half of them a vinegar soak. It did indeed shift the color back to red (well, since the dye had already faded so much, pink). Unfortunately, the pH change also seems to have made the dye even more fugitive! Here are the test skeins:

left to right: silk, wool, cotton; re-acidified and not
left to right: silk, wool, cotton; re-acidified and not

Part of the wool skein didn’t seem to get as much vinegar. It stayed more purple, and also retained more color. But they are all still very pale, and it was a lot of work for not much color in the end. I’d say it was most successful on the silk, but I think all the alkalinity would ruin the luster on a shinier silk than what I used here. I’ll cut short samples off each of these skeins, and then try overdyeing to see what happens. Maybe be able to get some greens and oranges?

Ratanjot Reprise, Surprise

So some of y’all may remember the ratanjot experiment, which didn’t work out so well. But I still had Ideas. I’d seen that the ratanjot (also known as alkanet, Alkanna tinctoria) does indeed turn oil red. And I remembered reading in my favorite natural dye book about Turkey red, which uses madder (another red root) with an oil-based mordant. And I thought, what if I did the oil process with pigment-infused oil? I read up on the Turkey red process, which is rather lengthy and involves rancid oil, alkaline emulsions, and optional dung. I’m forgoing the dung (you’re welcome, housemates). Otherwise, I am not one to be deterred from a project which promises to make a big mess of the kitchen. So.

I procured some rancid olive oil, and put some ratanjot in to steep. It started turning red right away.


And got redder, and redder. Here it is after one week, and after several weeks–this is as intense as the color saturation got, so I moved on to the next step, making the oil emulsion.


This, I thought, would for sure at least turn some fiber pink.

Or it could turn blue and precipitate out of solution.


Fun with home chemistry. I threw some fiber in anyway to see what happens next, and it does seem to be absorbing the color, so there is (maybe) hope.


The wool (top) is taking the color the most evenly. Cotton (middle) is quite uneven, but with the most intense saturation in sections. Silk (bottom) is taking on a slightly greenish cast.The Turkey red process that I’m modifying requires several oilings and airings, taking about a month, so it will be a while before I can really test for fastness. It’s also possible that the repeated workings will even out the color a bit. And, maybe if I do an acidic afterbath, it will shift back to red?

Fibrous Yes Adventurous Not So Much

This is the part where the blog gets really boring and fiber-nerdy. Not so much adventure these days, back to my hermit-crab home-body ways. BUT.

Last weekend I went to the fibershed symposium on ecologically sustainable production of wool. It was nerdy, and inspiring, and also squelched any lingering fantasies about shepherdessing as a potential career move. (For example: dogs. I don’t think sheepcats would work so well.) The morning talks focused on carbon sequestration in rangelands. In the afternoon, some shepherds talked about their work with contract grazing (hiring out sheep as lawn mowers, basically). The last speaker explored the potential for a vertically integrated production chain for locally produced, ecologically beneficial garments. Woah. Even just the people-watching was great–there were climate scientists with button-up shirts tucked into their khakis, and dudes with beard-dreds, and knitters with funky shawls, and no-nonsense boots-and-flannel ranchers.

Maybe I do still want to live in a yurt, though.

Since we were already at Pt. Reyes, my friend and I drove a bit further to a beach where we collected seawater for mordanting fiber (the first step in working with natural dyes). We happened to get there right as the sun was setting over the waves, and the full moon was rising over the hills behind us. Let us give thanks for small magics.

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Last Day…

…so of course that means it’s time for dye experiments! We decided to play around with ratanjot, a plant we encountered a lot in the Himalayas.


Nisha has some to use on her hair, so we’re working with that. Ratanjot turns out to be alkanet, which is familiar from my dye books. Unfortunately, I didn’t pack any of them, so we’re just working with what we can find on the internet. First things first: mordanting the wool. We needed to obtain alum. At home, if I want to do a small experiment, I’ll just pop down to the grocery store and get a little jar in the spice section. Here…we tried the grocery store with no luck. So we took an auto (a little 3-wheeled putt-putting thing) to a temple supply shop. We waited in between baskets of turmeric root and shelves stacked with incense while a shop employee looked for alum in the back. He returned holding a big crystal of the stuff. Okay…we asked if they had it as a powder, and he went and sat on the floor of the stockroom pounding it with a rock.

Next: extracting the dye from the bark. We learned that the pigment is not water soluble, and is usually extracted with alcohol. One blog we looked at said that with alcohol extraction, the results were all brown (oh, yay). But just grinding it to a paste and boiling in water gave purples (oh, yay!). So we decided to try that. The directions said to make a paste and let it sit overnight, then add more water and heat to make the dye bath. The next morning we simmered the wool in the dye for a while. The power went out a couple times during the process, but the dye bath stayed pretty hot. When we squeezed out the wool to see what was happening, it looked disappointingly like a slightly bluish gray, but under brighter light it was definitely purplish. We were hoping to try an acidic afterbath to see if we could shift the color to a more reddish purple, but my cab was already waiting to take me to the airport. Nisha will continue the experiment and let me know what happens.ImageImageImage

So, as usual for me, further research is necessary. Trying the alcohol extraction, seeing if I can grow the plant at home (it’s related to borage, so possible). Also, people here put it in oil to use on their hair, and it turns the oil an intense red. So I’m wondering about some sort of oil mordanting process, maybe similar to making Turkey red. (I say that as if I have a clue what I’m talking about.) Rah Rah Ratanjot!

The Colours of Nature


Happy fiber artist is happy.

Today we made it to The Colours of Nature, a natural dye company here in Auroville. Yesterday we rode our janky single-speed cruisers about 5 km over sandy, rocky, rutty roads in search of the place—we were pretty close, but didn’t ever find it. Today we were determined, and also had slightly better directions. It was a glorious sight when we found the sign out front!

TCoN uses pomegranate, jackfruit, cutch, madder, lac, and indigo to dye organic cotton for various clothing designers. Their main focus is indigo, which they do with natural fermentation vats. Anybody who’s lived with me knows I have a special fondness for projects involving mystery buckets of stink, so I was in heaven.


The dye room floor was covered with little wicker bumps, which are the lids to the dye vats. The vats have been going for 19 years—they add water and indigo to them, but never empty them out. I commented that it didn’t really smell too bad, but Robyn gave me a look. Later she said, “it STANK in there, Jen!”  It really didn’t bother me, though.

One of the master dyers came and dyed some cloth for us. He sat right down next to the vat, stuck his gloved hand in and swished around the foamy mess at the top. He put in the cloth, worked it for a few minutes, then pulled it out and immediately snapped it open and started flapping it around in the air. In a matter of seconds, it changed from green to blue–which I knew would happen, but man, is it magic.

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This was after one dip–depending on the depth of shade desired, a piece may be dipped up to 16 times. Which is a lot of work. Just maintaining the vats is a lot of work, too–he has to come in and tend to them every day–“it’s like having a baby.”

We were hoping to get some information about growing indigo, but this company purchases indigo from a farmer, so they couldn’t help us there. It was still pretty awesome, and now I have lots of fabric to lug around for the next few days.