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Natural Dyes: Colorful Collections from Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the Textile Initiative investigated the natural dying process and its potential as a prospective market for Sri Lanka. Throughout our stay, we collected various materials from local markets, a dye shop and some rural villages. After we returned we tested these materials in RISD’s Dye Lab. Our goal was to find some native materials that might be used in future projects to color products. We feel that products made using natural dyes could help industries produce jobs, create a product that is unique to Sri Lanka and be in line with Sri Lanka’s tendency to be environmentally conscious manufacturing. While natural dying was a heavily practiced and ceremonial tradition many years ago, we saw crafts people mostly using synthetic dyes. The knowledge of natural dying techniques is being lost quickly and so documenting and recording some of these traditions also became an imperative part of our project. The country’s natural vegetation covers about one-third of the total land area, a resource that is both plentiful and a potential market for agriculture, textiles and product development. Sri Lanka is committed to economic development that is sustainable and economically friendly. In this context, the use of natural dyes is consistent with this policy. It offers the growth of more plant life, non-toxic chemical means of coloring and could ensure products that are completely unique to Sri Lanka.

“...then we ventured up the road to find some of the traditional weaving from the fibers of a yucca gloriosa plant (sri lankan jute). All the colors in this piece are natural. The red and orange come from patangi (brazil wood) and the black from a mixture of bulu nuts and rice patty mud” -Alexandra Azbel on finding a naturally dyed mat weaving at a remote village in Sri Lanka


Natural Dye Catalog

Kasturi Kuala (Turmeric)

Upon returning to the US, the Textile Initiative returned promptly to the dye lab to begin cataloging the the colors and affects of potential natural dyes found in Sri Lanka. We tested various natural materials for their vibrancy and absorption of color. Many elements were in play (including material, time, heat, limited dyestuff etc.) so results may vary. Each dye bath included a long, brittle fiber called patangi (which is extracted from the Pantgi plant and used in Pan Padura or mat weaving); a skein of cotton (a common fiber used for weaving); both a raw and bleached cotton swatch; and a skein of wool (although not commonly seen in Sri Lanka we felt it may be a potential fiber for Sri Lanka’s colder regions and an interesting comparison to cotton because wool absorbs color more readily). We also experimented with some resist techniques and an Alkaline and Copper over-dye in an attempt to achieve a larger range of color. These are our just some of our findings and observations, we hope to continue exploring in the future.

Tumeric

From Left: Patango, Cotton, Wool, Bleached Cotton, Raw Cotton

Tumeric

Tumeric + Alkaline

Tumeric + Copper

Turmeric was the most vibrate of the colors we tested. Water was brought to a simmer as the dye powder was stirred into the water and dissolved. Next, we added the materials into the dye bath and let simmer for approximately an hour before rinsing. Turmeric seemed to only achieve a slightly darker shade of yellow when over-dyed with Alkaline but was dramatically affected by copper. It should be noted that Turmeric is not wash-fast and will fade after a period of time.

Sivanguva:

Key 1

2 3

2 3

Dyestuff

2 3

Original Color

Dyestuff+Alkaline

Dyestuff+Copper

Resist Technique Applied

Resist Technique Applied

Resist Technique Applied

1. Patangi

. Cotton 3. Wool

Each dyestuff tested follows the key above. Please use as refrence to technique and material.

Sivanguva

Sivanguva

Sivanguva + Alkaline

Sivanguva + Copper

There is not a lot of information on this powder. We bought it at the dye shop and were told it produces a brown color. Both the cotton and the wool took well to this dye--although the fabric felt a little dusty--we are a little skeptical about the washfast character of this fabric as well. Also, only the wool seemed to be greatly affected by the alkaline and copper over dye.


Velma Atiya

Velma Atiya

Sandalwood

Velma Atiya

Velma Atiya + Alkaline

Velma Atiya + Copper

Sandalwood

Sandalwood

Sandalwood + Alkaline

Sandalwood + Copper

Velma Atiya is a type of wood which produces as pink color when boiled. To extract the color we broke the branches into small pieces and tried to strip the bark off of the twigs. We think that the color comes from the core although in the pot we boiled both the bark and the branch. Some of the bright pink marks on the resist samples on the right where accomplished from wrapping the sticks in the cloth and boiling them. The resist sample on the left was wrapped around a wooden block and clamped. The green and blue color are reminets of previous dyed samples. This serendipitious incident made question the potential of natural and synthtic dyes working together on a piece of fabric.

Sandalwood is a common name of many species of plants and their wood and oils. We bought a powder so the specifics are a little unclear. It produced a beigy yellow color when combined with simmering water. The dyestuff turned a darker shade when overdyed with Alkaline and more tended toward a yellow when overdyed with copper. This was another sample in which the wool took the color a lot more dramatically then the cotton samples.

Cardamom

Madam Potha

Cardamom

Cardamom

Cardamom + Alkaline

Cardamom + Copper

Cardomon, a species of plant brewed using both its leaves and seeds was served at many tea breaks during our stay in Sri Lanka. In addition to flavoring food and drink, it is used in Ayurveda medicine. Intrigued by its prevalnce, we were curious to see its potential as a dyestuff. Cardomon produced a very soft beige color. While we didn’t see much of a change when overdyed with Alkaline, when overdyed with copper the cotton turned a bit darker and the wool took to a dark orange color.

Madam Potha

Madam Potha

Madam Potha + Alkaline

Madam Potha + Copper

Madam Potha was said to produce a purple color; however, we were only able to produce a warm grey. We did face the issue of extracting the color from the tree chunks. Ideally the wood would have been pulverized, but we settled for boiling it for over three hours and letting the dyestuff and materials soak overnight. The dye didn’t seem to react with copper. When over-dyed with alkaline it turned a slight pinky-grey.


Bael Fruit

Natural Dyes in Kilinochchi As part of our work in Kilinochchi we held a natural dye workshop for the war widows. They experimented with resist techniques and quite took to it. Seeing the color change because of the natural dye was fun for everyone.

Bael Fruit

Bael Fruit

Bael Fruit + Alkaline

Bael Fruit + Copper

This was another total experiement--we found these dried fruit rinds at a local market and were told they were used to make tea. The result was a really soft pinky color. The wool turned darker when overdyed with alkeline, but the copper showed no significant changes.

Blackseed

Blackseed

Blackseed

Blackseed + Alkaline

Blackseed + Copper

Blackseed we were told would turn our fabrics black. We attempted to boil the seeds for thier color, but even after several hours of boiling we were only left with a light green colored dyebath. We strained the seeds and let our fabric soak overnight. The resulting color was a pale beige. The fabric and wool seemd unaffected by both alkaline and copper.

Photographs by Lucas Vasilko


Weaving Weaving is a craft that is practiced all over the island of Sri Lanka. We ventured far and wide to see many different artist and crafts people practice their artform.

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The first textile village we went to see was in Kundasale. We had read that this village was still producing Tilak’s work. To get to this remote village we had to take a tuktuk through a bump winding forest path, across rice paddy fields and up a rocky road. The people of Kundasale spoke almost no english so we communicated mostly with drawings and our limited Sinhalese. They had a small building with three or so looms in it. We learned that they were no longer producing Tilak pieces, but instead weaving linen which they sold at their local markets. The second weaving village we went to was in the Thalagune district. The textile’s produced there were overseen by an award-winning designer named Priyantha Premachandra. Priyantha was really pushing the medium of weaving with his bright colors and color-blocking techniques. He told us that he drew a lot of his inspiration from painting. At the time of our visit he was experimenting with using rolled and colored newspapers as a weft for woven place mats. Priyantha used to work with Tilak but now sells his own work to Barefoot. Priyantha was an interesting designer to look at because he seemed to be taking many of the traditional techniques of weaving but made them more contemporary through his use of color or material.

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In the Kundasale Providence we came across a much more traditional village. They were producing Dumbara mats. This village was unique to others we saw because almost all the materials being used to make the mats was local. They started with the leaves of a Sisal plant, extracted and dyed the fiber and then wove the fiber. On our final day in Sri Lanka we met with greatly respected textile artist, Marie Gnanaraj. She was creating some of the most unique textiles we saw in Sri Lanka. She creates textiles based on the colors and textures she sees around her. She said that she began creating art because she wanted to see something new. Her pieces are just that, new and inventive. In some works, she brings a 3-dimesional quality to them (either with strips of spiraling fabric or by attaching actual object to the woven), in others she use utilitarian objects like rope and coconut coir bring new meaning and beauty to these every day objects. My favorite part of her artwork however, is her choice and use of color. Marie spends a lot of her time premixing and experimenting with different colored yarns. The results are stunning pieces of fabric and one of a kind pieces.


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Sisal at Kundasale

A fiber similar to Jute, extracted from the leaves of the Sisal (Hana) plant- a hemp grown wild in the marshy lands of Sri Lanka, is processed, dyed, and woven in patterns. Sisal is a species of the Agave plant, and it’s fiber is used for the making of various products in Sri Lanka from Dumbara mat weaving, such as wall hangings, bags, and place mats.

Clockwise from left to right: Coconut coir seen as a fiber. It is collected and either spun by hand, spun using a mechanical wheel.

In a visit to a weaving village in the Kundasale province near Kandy, we were exposed to a wide variety of traditional weaving techniques. One of the materials that was being weaved came from the harvested leaves from the Sisal plant. We were shown by one of the weavers the process by which they extract the fibers from the plant. First a leaf is set against a plane wooden background to be scraped by a knife or sharp object. Once the fibers are scraped from the leaf, they are then dried in the sun. If the weaver chooses to dye the fiber, they dip it into the dye solution and then dry it once again. After words the fiber is then twisted by a drop spindle. Lastly, fiber is then weaved with a floor loom into the whichever pattern is desired for the final product. The outcome of this seemingly thin fiber is a strong and durable material that is able to be manipulated into a unique end product. To keep up with the demands of modern consumer the weaving craftsmen have introduced innovative uses of mat weaving. We were shown a variety of interesting products that the weavers had made, from a laptop cases to place mats, pencil cases, and coasters. Observing the aesthetic and physical potential of a single plant allowed for us to understand this cultural tradition of mat weaving and the durability behind natural materials.


Recycled Materials of Sri Lanka

Woven Rice bags

Women at Killonochi weaving recycled fabrics scraps upcycled from a nearby intimates factory.

In Sri Lanka, it is very evident how environmentally conscious the people are. Throughout our travels, we consistently saw materials such as plastic, rice bags, newspaper, and scrap fabrics being recycled and reused to make utilitarian objects and markadable products.

Right: Woven bags bags made from recycled plastic; Left: Woven basket made from recycled plastic.

Fiberous dung dyed six different colors, ready to be made into paper.

Experimentation by textile artist, Priyantha Premachandra. Strips of rolled up newspaper used to make woven surface

Label from “Poo Paper”

Strips of recycled plastic and newspaper are commonly woven to make placemats, bags, and baskets. In the local markets, a majority of the women carry grocery bags from recycled plastic strips. These bags are extremely durable, and can be washed very easily. In fact, in a town outside of Anuradhapura, woman are employed by the government to weave these bags out of recycled plastic strips. Later, in a weaving village near Kandy we witnessed newspaper being woven to make placemats. Newspaper is also recycled to make drink coasters, cups, and baskets. Even the paper can be made from upcycled material. Some places in Sri Lanka are using elephant dung to make what they call “poo paper.” Because elephants are poor digesters, 50 % of the plants they eat comes straight out of them. Therefore, their dung is very fibrous and largely cellulose, which is ideal for paper making. Another common material that we saw repurposed was rice bages. We saw rice bags used as containers in markets to hold vegetables, fruit, spices, herbs and rice, as well as sewn together and hung from windows and architectural frames as temporary shelter from sunlight, and for privacy. One of the most exciting experiences I had with recycled materials was in Kilinoche. When we arrived we were told, women were using the scrap fabric from a nearby intimates factory to stuff pillows. The group saw the potential for a workshop in which we could think about upcycling matierals and reinvented common places object to be made into unique products ready for the marketplace. We held a workshop in where we asked the women to take the scrap fabric and change it somehow. We experimented with various techniques (weaving, knitting, dying etc.). Some women made rugs, some women made puppets, some even used the fabric to add texture and frill to flip flops. I really enjoyed watching these women being so creative with the material and hope that the experience may spark further inspiration of upcycling.


Palmyra Palm fibers Palmyra Palm fibers were a fequently used matieral in Sri Lanka. Most oftern seen as material for fences, the Textile Intitive had fun both buidling our own and spotting them all over Sri Lanka.

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1 Alexandra Azbel (Arch ‘14) spent some time working with some girls in Kilinochchi weaving a Palmyra Pam structure to be used to construct a shelter. The girls had fun bring nature into and literally as the structure for their small “home�. 2 We were able to observe a man in Lunuganga rebuild the fence of his home with Palmyrah leaves. Each leaf interlocks with the other through a manual hand weave. This is done by one leaf being brought to face the opposite direction and then being weaved through the previous leaves. The result is both an aesthetically stimulating and functional product that serves a plethora of purposes within the region. The Palmyrah leaves are also able to be manipulated into a variety of objects as well, such as large baskets. Palmyrah leaves are woven right after the leaves are cut from the tree as it is easier to flex the leaves. After it is woven, the plant is then dried over time and turns into a more frigid and courser material, adding on to its strength. The abundance of the Plamyrah tree (known as Borassus) throughout Sri Lanka allows for locals to take advantage of this natural material, not only significantly reducing waste but also costs. The constant reuse and recycling of materials in Sri Lanka also allows for the material to be used for countless purposes. The concept of using raw, eco-friendly, sustainable, and biodegradable materials is an almost inherent trait among Sri Lankan villages, and one that is commonly seen with the Palmyrah leaf.

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Coconut Coir Craft seems to be a common thread throughout Sri Lanka, tying North to South; farmer to crafts person, craftsperson to industry. One of the most interesting things to observe during our travels was the transformation of material into product, and from product into the marketplace. Coconut Coir was one product which we saw take form. Lyza Balm (TX ‘15) followed the coconut from North to South.

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1 Coconut Coir, a natural fiber extracted from the husk of a coconut, is a valuable resource to Sri Lanka. In fact, Sri Lanka is known to have the best source of coconut coir in the world. We saw it in markets all over Sri Lanka. 2 During our stay in Polhena, we stumbled upon local women and men harvesting the coconut husk that would later be used to produce rope. After stopping to observe and ask questions, we were introduced to a man who owns four acres of coconut trees in Polhena. He told us to meet him in half an hour and he would show us where the coconut husks were collected and spun into rope. We followed him and his wooden cart full of coconut husks strapped to a water buffalo down the road, where we met two older women that spin the coconut coir. The two women demonstrated how the coconut coir is extracted and spun into rope. Coconut Coir is removed from the fibrous outer shell of a coconut fruit. The coconut husk is broken and beaten to loosen the long fibers. After the husk is loosened the long fibers are removed and collected. The fibers are used to make robe by using two spinning wheels. The coir is spun into yarn by one wheel, and then attached to a second wheel which spins the yarn into a two ply rope. The women also demonstrated how they spin the coir into robe just by using their hands. The coconut rope is also spun by a mechanical machine to produce a large amount of robe at a quicker rate. He makes a business by producing coconut rope and selling it to apparel factories and weaving factories. At the weaving factories, the rope is woven to make mats. Coconut coir is also used to make brooms, using the stiff, straight, long strands of the fiber. Coir can also be used for other various industrial purposes because of its strength, durability, and environmentally friendly characteristic. He has been in the coconut industry for the past ten years, however the four acres of coconut trees have been in his family for 3 generations. Although a lot of his land was destroyed during the tsunami, he told us his business is continuing to do well. 3 The coconut ropes made a final appearance in the beautiful textiles of Marie Gnanaraj, whom we had the honor of meeting. The ropes were bound by white and black warp, exposed in some areas, and tightly wrapped in other. Marie said that she liked reinventing the use of such a utilitarian object, and found it interesting to challenge the context of the natural material.


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Coconut Coir at Polhena

Counter Clockwise from left to right: We saw coconut being used as utilitarian object in spoons and for hanging clothes. We also saw it being reinterpreted in the artwork of Marie Gnanaraj.

Clockwise from left to right: Coconut coir seen as a fiber. It is collected and either spun by hand, spun using a mechanical wheel.


Batik Throughout our stay in Sri Lanka, we had the pleasure of both working with and meeting many artists and craftspeople practicing thier artform. Alyssa Spytman (TX ‘15) shares some of her experiences with Batik.

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1 Batik is found all around the island of Sri Lanka. I was immediately drawn to the crackle effect used in batik and the beautiful vibrant colors that are often seen in the designs. Batik is a technique of printing cloth using molten wax to create a pattern/surface design. As a textile student myself I was extremely interested in this process, as it is something we are not allowed to experiment with in the Dye lab in College Building. Not only is batik used as a material for apparel, its is used for furnishing fabrics, heavy canvas wall hangings, tablecloths and household accessories. Many artisans will spends 6 months working on just a single piece. The process takes a lot of patience and a steady hand. It took me a while to get used to using the tool which was a sturdy stick with copper wire wrapped around the end to allow the wax to stay hot and fluid while trying to fill in large areas on a piece of fabric. 2 I did get a chance to experiment with batik at the first batik place we visited just outside of Negombo. This batik I made was inspired off of the vegetation I saw around me that day, and also the shape of the boda leaf. When making this sample I learned how to use the tool with two women who were excellent at their craft. They were very excited by the design I had drawn out. It was wonderful to sit next to them working and sharing the bowl of wax with them. I also think they really loved to see me creating a design that they have never seen because they are always producing the same motifs that will cater to their customer and don’t really make batik designs for fun or creative enjoyment. This was definitely the case when talking to the woman who worked under Ena De Silva. They claimed their baik work was purely just work for them. 3 Having the opportunity to do a workshop at JEZ-BATIKS was an amazing opportunity for me, I was thrilled to be able to see the unique ways in which the woman at this location worked. Jezmine is an amazing business woman. She has created designs unlike anything else. This is because of how she experiments with the material outside of the normal way in which batik designs are created. This makes her stand out amongst the other artists. I personally love the silk batiks she does along with the beadwork on top. I found this type of fabric manipulation to be exquisitely beautiful.

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4 We also visited another Batik Artist, Ena De Silva. Her work is beautiful because of the unique way in which she does her batiks because they are extremely narrative often having illustrations of animals and plant life. I truly love Enas spirit and the way in which she looks at life. She claims she adores color and nature and just follows her heart when it comes to making designs. I wish I could have met her because although she is elder now it seems as though she still has a beautiful spirit. I have been inspired by her work in the Bowa Hotel. The ceiling made my jaw drop in awe.


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Materials of Batik

The batik artists of Sri Lanka use a concoction of melted beeswax, paraffin wax, and tree resin. The combination and percentage of these three materials in the wax mixture are crucial to the batik process. Beeswax is a more malleable material than paraffin and tree resin increases the wax mixtures ability to adhere to the cloth. The percentage of paraffin wax is a very important factor because paraffin is a brittle wax, therefore it cracks very easily on the cloth. By controlling the amount of paraffin used, the batik artist can regulate how much they want the wax to crack. When the wax is applied on the cloth and dried, it can be cracked to created a surface of small veins that run through the designs on the batik. Some batik artists use more paraffin wax in their wax mixture to achieve more of the crackling effect. Traditionally starting in Sri Lanka, the crackle technique was seen on many batiks all over the island. I found the crackles to be a very organic and beautiful addition to either intricate or simple designs. Although one can control the amount of crackles through the percentage of paraffin used, the results are always unique and unexpected, making each batik an individual. While traveling the island, I noticed similar crackle textures on old eroded buildings, trees, nature, rocks, and elephants. I found it really fascinating to see the crackle surfaces manifest in different locations, surfaces, and architecture.

Photographs by Lucas Vasilko Lyza Baum (TX ‘15) compares batik wax to the textures she found on buildings and animals throughout Sri Lanka


Experiments with Batik While at the textile workshops, the Textile Initiative experimented with various techniques. Some chose to focus on resist techniques with batik overlay while other chose to apply batik to their own designs. The group did try to explore themes of the cascading water system in Sri Lanka. Water is supplied from the North, and distributed southward throughout the country. Since water is such a unique and important characteristic of the North we found it inspiring. Ideally we would like to have some of these samples inspire further work in the North.

This batik is pretty simple. I started by drawing lines across the fabric. The intersecting lines formed interesting geometries. I wanted to create a geometric pattern that would contrast the organic and unpredictable nature of the crackle. I wanted to further highlight this opposition by using black and white. The “crackle� effect is a design element that began in Sri Lanka and is a direct result of the various waxes used to coat the piece. Since the crack is so distinct and creates really beautiful effects I hope to see used in products/projects used in the north.

This batik is inspired by the cascading water system from North to South. I wanted to capture the feeling of water as well as a growing and shrinking feel. I used a motif that could be interpreted as water, fish scales, arrows showing direction. The underlayer is blue. I used a resist technique on the fist layer to create an interesting and inconsistent wash, then I went over the areas I wanted to keep blue with wax in order to create the undulating triangle pattern.


Dye Resis is a simple and easy application that produces unexpectedly stunning result. By simply using a rubber band, a fbric can be coiled enough to resist color. The following samples are experiements with resist techniques, starting from the simplest to the more complex.

In this sample, I wanted to explore ways the cascading water system in Sri Lanka could be presented. The water tank and irrigation systems in Sri Lanka have an almost flourishing and progressive design to them. The water system starts small in the South and then blooms into a larger image in the North. This sample attempts to portray this sense of flourishing and progression using rectilinear shapes and a cool color palette. This batik was made with two wax applications to represent the progression, and the crackling to represent the water. This batik sample was made in two parts, first the drawing and waxing of the background floral figure, then with the rewaxing and crackling of the entire fabric. This allows for an controlled image/design to be presented, while also allowing for the mystery and .suprise of the crackling to come through

This second sample, I twisted and tied several knots in the same piece of fabric with the addition found rocks. The fabric was twisted around the rocks and then tied with rubber bands.

The third sample shown was made using found objects in nature. By knotting rocks and twigs with rubber bands, more interesting and complex shapes were achieved. After doing one side of the fabric, I covered the other with wax and dipped it into a different dye, thus achieving two colors.

This first sample was made by twisting the fabric into a ball on one end and then randomly scrunshing the otherside with a few rubber bands


This batik I made was inspired off of the vegetation I saw around me that day, and also the shape of the boda leaf. When making this sample I learned how to use the tool with two women who were excellent at their craft. They were very excited by the design I had drawn out. It was wonderful to sit next to them working and sharing the bowl of wax with them. I also think they really loved to see me creating a design that they have never seen because they are always producing the same motifs that will cater to their customer and don’t really make batik designs for fun or creative enjoyment. This was definitely the case when talking to the woman who worked under Ena De Silva. They claimed their baik work was purely just work for them.

The design for my batik was initially inspired by the cascading water systems in Sri Lanka. From the south to the north of the island the water systems expand and become larger in the north. While I was sketching I was thinking about the movement of the water systems, drawing inspiration from the idea of expansion, movement, fluidity, and water.

Colorful Collections From Sri Lanka  

Natural dyes and textile techniques from Sri Lanka.

Colorful Collections From Sri Lanka  

Natural dyes and textile techniques from Sri Lanka.

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