By Josephine Bow

Some of Warm Heart’s most beautiful production is our natural dyed silk and cotton scarves. I knew natural dyeing was complicated and labor-intensive but in the four years that I’ve been working with Microenterprise, I’d never yet participated in a yarn-dyeing session.  When I left Phrao in January 2015, as our dyed yarn supplies grew perilously low, I left Evelind with a full yarn-dyeing program to be carried out before my return in November so that I would have plenty of yarn to make new scarves in time for the year-end selling season.


One of our latest natural dye silk scarves 

Month after month, I waited (from my homebase in Spain) for the yarn dyeing to take place. Month after month, Evelind put it off. Apparently it was never the right time of the year to collect all the necessary organic materials. Finally in October, at the 11th hour, the 24kgs of yarn in three qualities of silk were dyed in seven hues. After I got here, I happily ordered 120pcs of natural dyed silk scarves for the season and most of next year and started selling. Early results showed that stores in Chiang Mai were in fact favoring the natural dye production over the commercially dyed styles.

When I still had a few weeks left in my two-month stay, I decided that I would undertake to dye all the yarn we currently had in stock to give busy Evelind a break next year. In addition to about 17kgs of the three qualities of silk, I also added another 10kgs of whatever we had in stock in cotton yarn in four different sizes, from thin machine spun to fat handspun.  I then once again made a detailed program showing the quantities to be dyed in each of nine colors for the seven qualities of yarn.

That’s when the fun began. Did you know that it takes 10-15kgs of vegetable matter to dye 1kg of yarn?  The leaves can’t be stockpiled – they have to be used immediately after collection.  The leaves also have to be chopped – luckily we now have a mechanized chopper – but 40kgs of leaves is still an impressive quantity of vegetable matter. Some of the leaves are found everywhere and are free except for the labor to collect them.  Others, like the precious hom leaves to make the difficult blues, are scarcer and farmers can charge for them and we had to drive over 80kms round trip to find them. All told, we would end up using about 150kgs of leaves this time.


40 kgs of hukwang leaves 

We also needed different mordants to fix the dyes including sanimlek, which is iron rust; sansom, which is alum, as well as rock salt, lime and soda ash. One crucial ingredient is krang, known as lac, which comes from insect nests and is necessary in the first or second bath of many colors. It costs a whopping 5350THB ($155) in powder form. Luckily you only need a few teaspoons of the precious stuff per dye bath.


Macerating eucalyptus leaves used for chamois yellow 

Thank goodness that we have the wonderful Maechi, Buddhist monk sisters, to carry out the dyeing. These two women never stop moving. They’re so used to working together that they hardly have to speak when one of them wants the other to do something.  When someone comes to visit, however, they then break into animated chatter, punctuated regularly by healthy howls or girlish giggles.


Skeins need to be rinsed over and over between each process

The dyeing shed of the workshop was a calm hubbub of continuous activity throughout the seven full days of dyeing.  I came to help every afternoon so I missed most of the actual preparation of the dye baths where the organic materials are macerated over slow heat.  Meanwhile the skeins of yarn have to be unwound and straightened, attached with plastic ties and then scoured (cleaned) so that the yarn takes the dyestuffs evenly.


Skeins constantly need straightening to minimize tangling

By the time I arrived after lunch, they would already be dyeing, batch after batch of each different kind of yarn.  We would ooh and aah if we liked the color – I’d use one of my few Thai words, “souei” for “beautiful”- and we’d collectively groan when a color suddenly changed for the worse after going through a mordant bath – they’d giggle and say “not souei”.


Color change after mordant bath

Everything was done by eye. Nothing was measured – handfuls of this or that mordant would be added when deemed necessary. Everything affects the final color – whether the yarn is silk or cotton (the colors are always more vibrant with the silk); the quality of the yarn; the ambient humidity and pH level of the water; the quantity of dyestuff used; the time of year.  And of course each dyer employs different techniques.  Each day as the skeins dried, I’d look at the final colors achieved and furiously rework the amounts on my table to ensure I’d have the right quantities – each different weave set-up requires that 20 pieces be made – of the right colors and yarn qualities for future production.


More manipulations

But in the end, I kind of gave up to the gods of natural dyeing.  Officially we will have nine colors – Oat, Chamois (yellow), Latte (milk coffee), Olive Green, Teal Blue, Nutmeg, Dusty Pink, Aubergine and Espresso (brown black).  Oat ended up looking like Chamois in silk so we did it again with less leaves; Latte in cotton looks almost the same as Olive Green.  And I wish I hadn’t dyed so much Espresso in cotton because the black is never black enough.


Skeins drying on bamboo pole away from direct sunlight

Each afternoon I did what I could to be helpful, from unwinding the skeins and prepping them, to soaking the dyed skeins in softener, putting them through the wringer and then hanging them to dry on bamboo poles.  It was Apple’s job to organize the massive deliveries of leaves and she had to make the 25km round trip drive to the weaving workshop several times a day. But without a doubt, the bulk of the work was carried out by the indefatigable Maechi.


Some dried silk skeins in chamois yellow and teal blue

By the end, I would finally understand why we never achieve the exact same hue twice, how it is impossible to really know how much the dyeing is actually costing and why nobody at Warm Heart is eager to yarn dye.  I’ll also know what to say to any customer who complains about the high prices of our natural dyed scarves.  And despite my worries, I look forward to when our finished scarf stock starts running low again and it’s time to start working out new weave designs and color combinations for our next natural dyed scarves.


The yarn-dyeing team: Yai (left), Leck (center), Apple (right)

(Josephine Bow comes to Phrao every winter since 2011 to coordinate Warm Heart’s Fashion Accessories Microenterprise activity)