Maggie VanceComment

Dyeing for Color

Maggie VanceComment
Dyeing for Color
Photo credit Matt Holben

Photo credit Matt Holben

Dyeing for Color

Color is a tool of communication - how we wear it can say a lot about our personality.  Color that we wear has the power to accentuate our own natural skin, eye, and hair palettes, but it can come at a cost.  

There are three general ways that color is transferred to fibers.  Synthetic dyeing is the the most commonly used and also the most destructive.  During this process, fibers are bleached, treated with chemicals to get the color to stick (mordant), and finally dyed.  Most of these processes take place overseas in third world countries where environmental regulations are little to none.  Thus, many of these incredibly toxic chemicals end up directly in rivers and waterways, causing huge environmental and public health issues. 

Secondly, there is the natural dyeing process.  There are some incredible artists that play in this realm. One of my favorites is India Flint, an eco-dyer/fiber artist from Australia.  I have a beautiful book of hers and would love to attend one of her workshops! I also had a wonderful experience as a studio assistant of Kelly McKaig, a Chicago based artist.  My time with her was spent eco-dyeing in her studio and helping to make some of the bracelets, both of which are featured in the photos below.  

Natural dyeing uses only natural materials for pigment.  However, sometimes certain fibers and pigments do not stick well, and chemicals are used as a mordant to bind them - making it not so natural.  Another downside to natural dyeing is that colors don’t always turn out as vibrantly.  While working with Kelly, I learned that animal fibers, such as wool and silk, are a lot more compatible with natural pigments.  This is because the color bonds to the proteins in the fibers, resulting in colors that turned out quite saturated.  We also made yogurt and used the whey byproduct as a protein mordant on plant fibers, which was a cool process and a tasty snack!

Lastly, there is low-impact dyeing, which is probably the best form of dyeing for ready to wear fashion.  It is used in a closed loop system, so the water used can be recycled back into dyeing other batches.  Mordants are for the most part unnecessary, and these dyes are free of heavy metals.  Though these dyes are still synthetic, low-impact dyes use less water and are free of many of the harmful toxins.  

Since there is no regulation on listing how our clothes are processed, the best way to tell where you get your colors from is by looking for companies that advertise low-impact dyes.  Many companies are proud to show their corporate responsibility and many of the brands I have been wearing in previous posts create apparel with low-impact dyes.