at the 2010 Textile Society of America Symposium
By Heather Clark Hilliard
"If we want to preserve a tradition, the best way to preserve it is to let it evolve." Yo Yo Ma.
Global Color was the common hue running through the 2010 Textile Society of America (TSA) Biennial Symposium this October. With a generous grant from the Reed Foundation, New York, the innovative programs brought together international master dyers, historians, chemists, artists, and conservators. There was a pre-conference workshop with Dominique Cardon and Elena Phipps which used unusual natural dyes such as Rochella tinctoria (lichen), Lasallia postulate (orchil), Rubia cordifolia (madder) and cochineal from several different origins. The extensive two part panel session, "Dyes and Colors: Materials and Culture," organized by Elena Phipps, presented some of the most current thought, research, and practice concerning natural dyes. Other sessions explored the evolution and field research on natural colors.
Dominique Cardon's plenary session, "Natural Dyes: Our Global Heritage of Colors," discussed the history of natural colors, the impact of synthetic dyes on crafts-persons' lives, and the revitalization of the use of natural dyes. By supporting continuing research in history and human and applied sciences, we can create and discover new uses for natural dyes. Suggestions of new resources were presented, for example, food wastes such as coconut husks, which make a beautiful brown-maroon color, and the investigation of plants not yet known to have dye qualities, such as tropical fruits. Optimizing production methods for extraction and mordant processes and efficiently using resources such as water and fuel will help create a viable and productive future for the natural dye economy.
Silk Road Connect, a multi disciplinary initiative launched by The Silk Road Project for New York City public schools in 2009, uses indigo's rich and colored history to help students understand complex connections between various subjects. As Jenny Balfour-Paul, indigo scholar and author of Indigo, discussed her role in Silk Road Connect, she enthusiastically connected the geographic and cross-cultural stories of indigo. She says when you start with indigo "you can teach history anywhere."
Sachio Yoshiko, Japanese Master Dyer, comes from a family actively working with natural dyes in Kyoto for over two-hundred years. Sachio Yoshiko's presentations were translated by Rowland Ricketts. He eloquently discussed what was once a river of natural dyes in Japan but is now a trickle, and yet the river continues to flow as the history and practice of using natural dyes remains unbroken. Japan's dyeing and textile history has been documented for two-thousand years. The film, Crafting Rainbow Colours with Natural Dyes, highlights Sachio Yoshiko demonstrating the growing and dyeing processes of Benibana or safflower, Shikon, a purple hue extracted from the root of a plant, Indigo, and Kariyaso (Miscanthus sp.), a tall perennial grass harvested in September in Japan. Burning fresh Camellia leaves and branches are used for making lye water. The film is an affirmation of the beauty found in botanical colors.
Yellow represents the color of purity, victory, and sensuality. Bina Rao, founder of Creative Bee in Hyberdad, India, highlighted yellow dyes extracted from many sources, specifically pomegranate rind, myrobalan gall, and marigold flowers. She shared many images of textiles dyed with these dyes, as well as the processing methods used to extract the colors from each plant material. Rao utilizes a milk mordant in her dyeing process.
American textile conservator Susan Heald and chemist-conservation scientist Christina Cole, shared their research and observations about the dyes and methods used in Native American quill work, focusing on the Eastern Woodlands of North America. Apparently few studies have been done analyzing the dyes and methods used to color the quills. Heald and Cole shared their experience of working with quills; understanding how they are used in the construction of a material; locating quill-work pieces that pre-date aniline dyes; searching for references to the dyes which may have been collected or traded; accessing and sampling the actual work found in various collections; and writing letters of intent to tribal leaders. They analyzed 123 samples from 53 objects and detected 39 colorants from 49 different dyes. Among the interesting finds in their research was the surprise that there was no Oak identified in the results. This appears unusual because it is an abundant natural material in the area. Weld was also identified as a dye used on the quills, yet it is not yet known if the weld was obtained by trading with Europeans or was perhaps part of the natural ecology in the Eastern Woodlands of North America. Although California is not an area where any of the quill work originated, "Wolf Moss," which only grows in the dry forests of California, was identified as another quill dye. These results raise questions regarding trade routes where little information is known at this time. Their studies have presented fascinating questions about an unusual topic and encourage additional research.
The session "Slow Art" connected to the cycles of nature, with Korean-born artist Kyoung Ae Cho sharing her work with the natural materials she gathers, noting, "nature does not wait for you." Indigo artisan Rowland Ricketts opened his presentation, "Seeing Time in Blue," with a video showing the rolling and manipulating of fresh indigo leaves until his hands turned blue. Ricketts discussed how the process of growing and dyeing with indigo creates a deeper meaning and intent in his work. In another five minute video, Ricketts compressed the various stages of planting, harvesting, drying, and composting Polygonum tinctorium.
The history and practice of growing cochineal is as rich as the reds it produces. Elena Phipps, Metropolitan Museum of Art conservator, independent scholar, and TSA Vice President, described the story of cochineal through ancient textile collections, intersecting history, art, craftsmanship, and trade routes. Hector Manuel Meneses Lozano, textile conservator at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, presented "Red Gold: Raising Cochineal in Oaxaca." His presentation on colonial and contemporary cultivation techniques for cochineal featured nopal (the cactus), the infestation process for developing the nests, caring for the growing cochineal and protecting them from the elements and predators. Described also were harvesting tools and techniques, processing by boiling or drying, and conducting dyeing tests to determine which processing methods produced the best colors
The TSA Symposium was held in Lincoln, Nebraska, and hosted by the Textile, Clothing and Design Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. TSA was supported with over twenty concurrent textile exhibitions throughout Lincoln's museums and galleries. These included historic textile arts, work constructed using cutting edge technology, and innovative textile practices using simple materials. Some of these exhibits included artists working with natural dyes, such as Wendy Weiss—artist, professor at UNL, and co-chair of the TSA Nebraska Symposium Committee.
The "Carved Board Clamp Resist Dyeing: Historical Perspective and Contemporary Application" exhibit (curated by Jay Rich) included a session with Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada and Masanao Arai on Beni Itajimi, which is a shibori technique using safflower red dyeing on silk. Also, Ana Lisa Hedstrom and Tomoko Torimaru presented their field research on the blue and white Itajimi process in Zenjiang Province, China. Strobilanthes flaccidifolius is cultivated there for indigo dye but currently, there is little market for the dye.
Working with natural dyes integrates field research, preservation, and contemporary applications with time-honored techniques and processes. A presentation on walnut dyeing by Anjalie Karolia, a textile scientist and professor in Gujarat, India described the uses of the leaves, bark, and fruit of the walnut tree. These provide a color palette on wool and silk for a specific product line. Zhoa Feng, executive director of the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China, illustrated a five-color system of red, blue, yellow, black, and white used in ancient Chinese silk designs, each color relating to a direction, a planet, and an element.
Dominique Cardon, anthropologist and Senior Scientific Researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Lyons, France, described her research on true mollusk purple dye, found in textile fragments from Roman Egypt forts along caravan routes. This research may well change historians' views about the uses of true mollusk purple: perhaps purple mollusk baths were used until exhausted and turned blue, and then kermes or other red dye sources were used to over-dye the cloth, making it purple.
I am grateful to the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition for the Education Grant which provided me the opportunity to attend the 2010 TSA Symposium. And many thanks are extended to the TSA Board of Directors, co-chairs Wendy Weiss and Diana Vigna, all the volunteers, and the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, for creating an interesting and challenging symposium. The experience offered a rich exposure to an international community of artists and scholars who share the dedication and enthusiasm for textiles, art, and natural colors.