BY LOU PARDI
FABRIC HAS BEEN PART OF HUMANITY FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS. AS SOCIETIES TURN THEIR EYE TO A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE, IT BECOMES APPARENT THAT THE FUTURE IS ROOTED IN THE PAST. LOU PARDI EXPLORES.
Where to from here?
Modern production of clothing is an environmental and social disaster. We’re all increasingly aware of the issues: be they the burden on the environment in terms of water used, chemicals released, carbon footprint or the human issues of child labour, unsafe workplaces, unfair pay… the list goes on. But where do we go from here? It seems a minefield – even cotton, once our pin-up of socially acceptable natural fabric, turns out to be so water-hungry in process that it’s not a friendly option for the environment (although yes, it does breathe). Not to mention the fact that many cotton pieces have more frequent flyer miles than a migrating goose, flying around the world trying to get the best price on weaving, cutting and packaging before being distributed to its final retail space.
So what is the way forward? It’s this question the fashion industry is finally asking itself (slowly, and somewhat quietly, at the fringe, but it is asking). The answer is not yet clear, but in part, it seems that questions of process could be addressed by going back to the past. Textile production has existed probably since the beginning of human existence. Do we count Adam and Eve’s leaves? Maybe. In any case, there are records of textiles existing in times BC. The point? Textile production is something that humans were doing well, and sustainably, long before industrialisation. The benefits are not only environmental either – traditions passed through generations built community and preserved culture and symbols.
It was with this naive (albeit well-intentioned) idea that I sat down to speak with Ilka White, Fashion and Textiles Teacher at RMIT University, and respected textile artist in her own right. I’d told her we were wanting to look at methods of textile production of the world, for our global issue. “I have to admit to you that I laughed out loud,” said Ilka in her kind-hearted and affable way. For good reason too. “There’s so much to it and there are so many ways you could divide it. For every continent on the planet there are hundreds of approaches to weaving traditions, then you could move onto knits and then printing and then dyeing.” I did suggest to our editor that we make this issue a kind of 50-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica special edition but quite rightly, the paper investment, even if it is 100% post-consumer recycled, just didn’t seem justified.
With a certain amount of disappointment, I narrowed our journey to a few distinctive approaches to textiles: the tais of Timor, and the indigo cloth and mudcloth (bogolanfini) of Mali, Africa. Along the way I met respected contemporary fabric dyers, Australia’s India Flint and creator of Permacouture Institute, Californian, Sasha Duerr.
To find out more about the beautifully woven tais (pronounced to rhyme with ’dice’), I speak with Australian Deb Salvagno. In 2004, Deb started ETWA (East Timor Women Australia). “I had a bit of a personal crisis and I thought, ‘what am I going to do with my life? I want to contribute more to a better world’” she says.
ETWA works with the CTCD (the Cooperative for Tais and Cultural Development), which is made up of 86 women from three weaving collectives, Feto Kiak Buka Moris (Poor Women Looking for Life) in central Los Palos and Materestu (The Survivors) and Feto Faluk Buka Moris (Widows looking for life) in Iliomar. The Survivors are aptly named, explains weaver Marcelina Pinto, “During the war between 1975 and 2000, we defended our lives and our land because we wanted independence. We didn’t want a kind of puppet government and so I named our group Materestu.”
East Timor is a great example of fabric production from scratch. Whilst some cotton is brought in, a large amount is grown locally. The women take the cotton from the vine for ‘ginning’ – where the fibres are separated from the seeds. They then hand spin the cotton into balls.
A mortar and pestle is used to prepare dyes. Good dyers are considered treasured alchemists and they select bark, roots, soil, mango skin, leaf of potato, cactus flowers, turmeric, leaves, ash and clay for their recipes, which are kept secret.
Colours have particular meaning, in particular red is often used to represent new and lasting life, sacrifice and courage. Red appears on the Timorese Flag and is considered to represent the struggle for liberation, alongside black which represents triumph, yellow for colonial remnants and the light of peace represented by the white star.
Tais are distinguishable in many ways. Like Scottish kilts, they represent ancestral heritage. They are also important in most ceremonies in East Timor: some of the most beautiful tais are those created for matrimonial sets, made up of a Tais Feto (women’s Tais) and Tais Mane (man’s Tais) which are designed to reflect the union of two communities. Tais have a role in birth ceremonies, and bodies of the dead are wrapped in tais as it is believed they will protect the person in the next life.
It’s exciting to learn that the tais which have been so much a part of the East Timorese people’s lives for so long now also allow them greater independence. Money is made not only through sale of the tais but through weaving tours.
“The weaving tours give the women a sense of what happens to their product when it leaves the country,” says Deb. “It also heightens their understanding of the importance of their culture. It gives the women an understanding that not all western consumers are just interested in the product as a product, that they’re also interested in the symbolism and the meaning behind that product,” says Deb. The exchange does not end there though, “There’s a role for the communities to play in terms of engaging us and teaching us in these more traditional practices and living life more sustainably”, she says.
The success of the project means that weaving centres are due to be built this year, and Deb has a plan for making tais more marketable. “One of the things that we really need is designers,” says Deb, “We’d love people to come over and work directly with the weavers in terms of incorporating some of the symbols and motifs into products for western markets.” Deb would particularly like to hear from any interested Peppermint readers who happen to be designers to participate in a design incubator.
African Indigo cloth
Africa is a goldmine of traditional fabrics and dyeing techniques. Fabric fiend and African fusion musician Bec Matthews visited Mali, and uses many African fabrics in costumes for her partner, King Marong’s band, Afro Mandinko, not to mention that her home doesn’t have curtains, but beautiful African fabrics hung from the rods. “Dogon country Mali, a place that is pretty much a throw back to the land before time, is an isolated valley in the middle of Mali,” she says. “You will be blown away by the history, the folklore and by the simple and technology-free way of life that exists there.”
One of Mali’s beautiful fabrics is indigo cloth. Indigo dyeing was common in Africa before it was used in India and Europe. But even in Mali, a place where traditional dyeing has been practiced for centuries, the plant, (Lonchocarpus or Indigofera tinctorial) is increasingly being replaced as a dye by synthetics. Interestingly, natural dye is often still added to the mix for its brilliant colour. It also has a sweet scent, an advantage in dyeing plants (nothing like a foul-smelling brew outside your house for months on end to make you friends).
Approaches vary amongst different artisans in Africa, but in general terms, to make traditional indigo dye, the leaves are soaked for days, fermenting to create a green mix to which lye is often added. In some parts of Africa plants are collected during the rainy season and made into indigo balls – balls of the plant which are sold at market to create the dye.
The artisans choose strips of cloth or whole sheets and then begin designing their pieces. Patterns range from simple ties to small stitches which appear as fine lines and dots and each and every cloth pattern is unique. The cloth is then carefully put into the dye baths and moved regularly over the next few days to ensure an even colour. Once it is removed and begins to dry, the contact with oxygen turns the dye blue. Some cloths are dyed numerous times and they are often washed with salt or vinegar to fix the dye. Once the stitches which make the patterns are cut, they are sometimes not removed in order to guarantee to buyers that the piece is new.
Indigo cloth is often not rinsed, as Bec found out on her trek, “I bought a piece at the start of the trek and carried it for three days, my hands were a sickly shade of blue for about three months after,” she says, but wouldn’t give it up for the world.
African Mud cloth (Bogolanfini)
Mud cloth (or bogolanfini), as the name suggests, is cloth dyed using mud. The mud colouring is used to make up the negative space (the background) in a design, leaving the cloth, which is meant to stay white, as the main pattern. In contemporary pieces, the approach has been reversed to create mud patterns on a white background.
Bogolanfini was traditionally made for important ceremonies and milestones, including births, marriages, and deaths. Bogolanfini was also commonly used by hunters who used the cloth, together with leather amulets, to ward off danger. Certain bogolanfini patterns can also indicate the wearer’s social status or occupation. Long ago, the fabric was considered as peasant’s cloth, or rural non-Islamic dress.
The technique was traditionally passed on from mother to daughter. Recently the unique patterns have inspired fashion from the catwalk to converse shoes and in South Africa particularly, bogolanfini is used for soft furnishings. Tradition continues though, as around the world bogolanfini is still recognised as an expression of Malian national identity and African culture.
Traditional bogolanfini production is, as with most ancient fabrics, a local affair. The cotton is grown and harvested, and transported to the neighbourhood where it is hand-spun and prepared, typically by men, with a loom. It is formed into long cotton strips called finimugu, which are in turn sewn together into a panel.
The cloth is first washed in boiling water to shrink it. A solution of pounded leaves from the Bogolan tree is prepared and once the cloth is dry, it is soaked in the solution, which turns the fabric a yellowish colour and allows the fabric to take up the mud dye.
Mud is collected from ponds, which are increasingly further away due to drought, and can be set aside to ferment for up to a year which produces a black colour. The mud is painted onto the cloth using sticks, reeds, bamboo, palm brushes, feathers, and in recent times, toothbrushes, saturating the area. Scientifically speaking, the dye in the mud is iron oxide, which together with the tannic acid in the leaf solutions combines into a dye of iron tannate.
The dry cloths are treated with a solution of leaves, grasses and herbs to fix the mud dye and sometimes, the painting and fixing process is repeated to achieve darker or brighter colours. After the artisan is finished, the cloth is washed and rinsed in another solution made of boiling leaves, which enhances the colour, and the unpainted parts of the design are treated with a caustic soda (called sodani), bleaching the yellow parts white to complete the design.
Particular colours of mudcloth have different meanings. A rust colour indicates the strong supernatural powers that protect hunters and represents blood from hunting or warfare. Rust and the rarer grey are also a useful camouflage. White is worn by women and girls in ceremonial events. Red, purple, yellow and orange are contemporary colours, often frowned upon by elders.
India Flint, dyeing guru
Broadly regarded as Australia’s expert on natural dyeing, author of Ecocolour: environmentally sustainable dyes, India Flint, took the long road to natural dyeing. She first became an architect (albeit a fashion-obsessed one) then used bought dyes. “I have to admit with some shame that I didn’t really take this very seriously until I had children myself and I realised the ghastly synthetic and lurid dyes I was using were really, really dangerous,” she says.
India was shown the way by one of her hens. “Being half Latvian we’ve always dyed our Easter eggs using onion skins and little leaves and made prints on the surface of eggshells,” she says. “One day when I was heavily pregnant and didn’t go and collect the eggs, I had this broody chicken who was sitting on a nest.” As it turned out the nest was made of some eucalyptus leaves and the combination of warmth and damp leaves had resulted in some fantastically decorated eggs.
Taking note from her chook, India decided to put eucalyptus leaves to the test. “I bundled up four metres of silk, (start big) scattered them with blue grey leaves of eucalyptus and when I opened it there were orange blobs everywhere and I just couldn’t believe my eyes – you could hear me screaming on the moon here it was such fun – and I haven’t stopped since.”
India has since learnt of many cultures’ dyeing techniques, but like many modern textile experts, rather than copy traditional approaches, she takes on the knowledge and continues on her own path. “Every culture has got an amazing dye history and they’re all different,” she says. “The funny thing is that worldwide when people talk about natural dyes they talk about really a handful of things that are accepted – eucalypt is still very much ignored by traditional dyers. Practically every plant will give you some kind of colour, you just have to know how to coax it out. I think that the interesting thing for fashion in the future is that each bioregion has its own colour palette and if we explored that palette that would make fashion so much more interesting.”
After culling her wardrobe back, India now wears natural fibred outfits of trousers, cardigans, shifts and aprons. Because they’re all dyed from her own garden, producing a complimentary colour palette, she says can get dressed in the dark. So long as everything is the right way out, it’s a match every time!
There are a few pieces in India’s wardrobe though that are from plants far away, as she is invited to conduct dyeing tours or participate in collaborations all over the world. Over the years she has adopted a particular way of selecting plants, or rather having them select her. “My way of dyeing is very much driven by the plants themselves because increasingly I restrict myself to windfalls, which kind of adds an element of chance – the colour that I’m given is very much dependent on what leaf I’ve picked up and put in my pocked – 90% of the time I can tell with a fair amount of exactitude what colour I will get, but sometimes you get a wonderful surprise.” India is now working her new learnings into a textiles book to be called Second Skin.
Sasha Duerr, Permacouture Institute
Californian Sasha Duerr is founder of the Permacouture Institute, a project with the Trust for Conservation Innovation to encourage sustainable fashion and textiles. She is a university lecturer and together with Mr Larkin’s Casey Larkin, she presented a Sustainable Textile and Dye Workshop as part of an educational series preceding the Fashion Summit held during COP15. You might say she’s a world leader in sustainable fashion.
Sasha started Permacouture Institute to educate people on where their fashion comes from, and how it can be achieved more sustainably. “I started realising that there were a lot of similarities between our lack of understanding of where our clothes come from and our lack of understanding of where our foods come from,” she says. She takes a broad approach to her learning and teaching. “It’s very integrated –with gardening and biology and plant science and cooking and herbal studies, it’s a really fun realm to be in.” As a result one of the courses involves Sasha taking students through a dyeing class with popular plants, followed by a meal cooked by a professional using the exact same produce. It’s a tasty and ingenious approach.
For Mr Larkin, Casey and Sasha worked together with Casey’s designs, and Sasha’s dyeing. Garments were dyed with blackberries and even leaves from local trees. “For me it was really satisfying to see the Japanese Maple end up in New York Fashion Week, because it was collected from the sidewalks in front of our house.”
Together with Casey, Sasha is working on tightening and streamlining the path of garments from fleece to fashion. Working with farmers and spinners and dyeing the garments with the help of students who have become her assistants, to create a range of knits called Adie+George. The collection is not only producing beautiful knits, but working through the challenges and opportunities of local production from beginning to end. Once Casey and Sasha master the model, they can help others to achieve sustainable practices. Amongst her many projects, Sasha is looking forward to the upcoming release of her book, The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes.
“It’s kind of like fashion is going on a cleanse, it’s great to see what we really need right now, and how we can still have beautiful and creative things and maybe not have it be as detrimentally disastrous as it was towards the later half of this last century.”
It sounds like we’re in good hands.
This article first appeared in Peppermint magazine. Peppermint #06_The Global Issue_Social Fabric