Kashish and Indigo Natural Dyes: A 4,000 year-old river of craft, creativity and culture
When the world was mostly dun brown, color and pattern were vivid signifiers of luxury and status everywhere. India’s textile tradition goes back at least 4,000 years on two vectors. One vector is handweaving, which the market valued for sensory qualities of airiness, softness and coolness on the skin. The other is India’s unparalleled command of natural plant dyes, refined pattern designs and sophisticated, sequenced techniques of printing, dyeing and binding color to cloth.
Author William Dalrymple, writes that in 1599 the Indian Mughal Empire was producing about 37.6% of world GDP, much of it from the luxury textile trade. The capacity to embed cloth with long lasting color made Indian textiles highly desirable. The world craved saturated colors and sophisticated intellectual, poetic and personal storytelling that prints carry. India’s sophisticated color and pattern-imparting technologies, and they really are still that, were key to glorious Mughal court life. These technologies were also closely kept commercial secrets, analogous to what glass was to Venice or silk was to China. Shopping with us means you’ll buy a wonderful product. But, you’ll also step into a 4000 year-old river of craft, creativity and culture.
What Are Natural Dye Block Prints?There are many ways to block print color and pattern onto textiles but the two main traditions are direct printing on a plain background or resist printing, which preserves the natural cloth color, or allows the design to take background colors. We use combined techniques.
Kashish (the name for the gray patterns) and especially Indigo natural dyes (the distinctive blues), were two of the first colorfast dyeing techniques that yielded universally craveable color. In Bagru, a traditional center of block printing, locals claim the plants taught them how to use leaves, roots and mordants to create, apply and fix vibrant colors. (Mordants are metallic salts that add color and also bind hues to fabrics enduringly.)
Our block prints are part of a craft guild model that honors deep expertise. In the industrial model of printing, workers do one repetitive job. The craft model is a deeply interconnected and interdependent process that touches between 15-20 independent families with deep expertise. These artisan techniques, which are less well known and harder to control than other types of block printing, may not survive much longer because of cheaper substitutes with a similar look. Authentic natural dye block prints take days to make, but you can feel the time and expertise. Here, each product is a unique, handmade, heritage craft object embedded with living history.
We work with a third-generation family of natural dye block printing masters on the outskirts of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India. The term “natural dye”, in this case, mean exactly that. Specifically, color, craft, pattern and texture come from simple nature. (We’ll set aside design and block carving to focus on the fascinating color techniques.)
- Iron Black and the gray tones come from raw iron, a mineral.
- Red Madder comes from the roots of Rubia Tinctoria, which produces the red Alizarin dye compound.
- The beautiful blues come from the leaves of Indigofera Tinctoria, which are soaked in water until there is enough raw dye to scrape into transportable dried indigo. The blue dye develops when the dried Indigo ferments with a type of cane sugar and ash. The pigment takes many days to ferment and stays viable for only a few days. Cotton dipped into fermented indigo appears gray. The distinctive Indigo blue color development is triggered by oxidation (exposure to air). Deep color comes from repeating the dyeing and drying steps.
- The yellowish color on some of our natural dye prints comes from myrabalan, also called harad, which is a fruit. Adding harad changes kashish gray into yellow tones via oxidation.
- The colors are rendered colorfast by other natural materials like lime and ash-plus experience, time, and skill.