Dyeing is the process of adding color to textile products such as fibers, yarns, and fabrics. Archaeologists have found evidence of textile dyeing dating back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, suggesting that multicolored fabrics may developed in the 3rd or 2nd millennium BCE. Indeed, dyeing with plants, bark, and insects has been traced back more than 5000 years in China, although the essential processes have changed little over time.

Throughout history, people have dyed their textiles using common, locally available materials made from plant and animal bases. Wikipedia mentions many plant-based dyes, such as catechu or cutch tree for brown; gamboge tree resin for dark mustard yellow; Himalayan rubhada root for yellow; indigofera plant for blue; kamala tree for red; madder root for red, pink, and orange; myrabolan fruit for yellow, green, and black; pomegranate peel, weld herb, saffron, and turmeric for yellow; and woad (isatistinctoria) for purple. Wikipedia also lists animal-based dyes, such as cochineal for red; cow urine for yellow; lac for red and violet; murex snail for purple; and octopus and cuttlefish for brown. Historically, the primary source of dyes has been nature, and thus we call them natural dyes.

Little is known about the date in which the natural dyeing process began in Bhutan, but we know that it is a traditional practice. For many years, locals have been dyeing textiles with indigenous materials found abundantly throughout Bhutan and neighbouring Himalayan regions.

Synthetic dyes became available in Bhutan after William Henry Perkin discovered the first aniline dye called “mauveine” in 1858 while he was searching for a malaria cure. He then introduced synthetic dyes (tshosar ཚོས་གསར་) in Europe. By 1880 these dyes were commercially available in India, and over the passage of time they were supplied to neighbouring countries. In the late 1940s, easily available powder dyes became fashionable in Bhutan, replacing the time consuming and complex procedures of natural dyeing. The real dyers, however, those who know the intricacies of natural dyes, still opt to use the natural process, supplemented by commercial powder colors. As a result, in Bhutan we still find many dyers who are using the process of natural dyeing.

At the centre for nettle textiles (run by the Tarayana Foundation) in Langthel, Trongsa, locals practice the natural dyeing process. They use the following basic dye ingredients, which are locally available: symplocos (zim); stic lac (jatsoe); madder (tsoe); buckwheat flour བྱཱོ་ཕྱེ་ (jopshe); turmeric powder ཡོང་ཀའི་ཕྱེ་ (yongka); indigo (ram); tea leaves (jashing); pomegranate peel (sindu); onion peel (gop); beetle nut (doma); artimesia (khenpa); black dal; myrobalan (aru); cosmos flower stem (sersho metok); yeast (phab); wheat (kar); and ash water (thekhu).

The process of natural dyeing

Dyeing always take place in a location separate from the main house, but where a stove and water source are available. The process of dyeing has traditionally been a secret, passed down from mother to daughter and not normally shared with outsiders. Locals believe that outsiders and strangers will remove the colour if they witness the process. Pregnant women are also not allowed to dye yarn because it is believed that the color could be removed by the baby.

The following are the general steps locals use to obtain a red colour, but these processes can also be applied to other colors:

  • Rinse the yarn with soda and lemon shampoo for half an hour, then dry the yarn.
  • Boil zim tree leaves until their light yellow color emerges.
  • Place the dried yarn in clean water, then into the zim tree water until the yarn turns light yellow. This water combines with the dye to form an insoluble compound, which fixes the dye to the yarn. Without this step, directly dyeing the yarn would be a waste.
  • Boil madder for 45 minutes until a red color emerges, and then sieve it into another dye bath.
  • Squeeze the yarn well, and steep it into boiled madder water for at least half an hour. Stir again and again to ensure that all the yarn is dyed properly. The longer the soaking time, the better the results will be. This madder water should be kept on a slow fire to ensure that the liquid remains hot but not boiling.
  • Hang the dyed yarn in the shade for a day and night without squeezing the water out of it.
  • The following day, rinse the dyed yarn with lemon shampoo, and dry it in a location where it will receive both shade and wind. Drying the yarn in the sun would consume the dye, with the result that it would fade quickly.

Growing a market for natural dyeing in the 21st century

Many of today’s consumers have become concerned about their health and the environmental impact of synthetic dyes used in manufacturing. This concern has created a growing market for natural dyes and an increasing demand for naturally dyed products. In Bhutan, dyers have come to recognize that both tourists and locals prefer a natural process, so they are now increasing production of yarn products using natural dyes, which in turn has made their businesses more meaningful to them.

Aum Tsuendu Choden, head weaver at the centre for nettle textiles, Tarayana Foundation, Bayling, Langthel, Trongsa

Tshering Uden Penjor (2011). “Bhutanese Textiles.” In Intangible Heritage. 6th Colloquium. Paro: The National Museum of Bhutan. Pp. 492–3.
Bean, Susan. S., and Mayers, Diana K. (1994). “From the Land of the Thunder Dragon.” London: Serina Publications. Pp.193–7.
Dye. (20 July 2015). In Wikipedia online. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyeing
——. (2 July 2015). In Wikipedia online. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_dye
Druding, Susan C. Dye History from 2600 BC to the 20th Century. Retrieved from www.straw.com/sig/dyehist.html

Researcher and Photographer
Tenzin Dorji, Lecturer, Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Royal University of Bhutan, 2015

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