The art of dyeing in Nepal has an ancient past. Historic evidence based on a study of paintings and religious and cultural records indicates that natural dye-stuffs were used not only for the colouring of textiles and yarn for clothing, but also for dyeing yarn used in making tapestries. The collections of costumes, paintings, and tapestries that have been preserved in the stores of temples and monasteries in Nepal bear evidence to this.
Dyeing with natural materials was practised by the community of ranjitkars and chippas who lived and worked in Kathmandu Valley. In fact the presence of the chippa caste of dyers has been recognised by the Newari community of the Kathmandu Valley since the early part of the fourteenth century. These traditional artisans passed on their knowledge orally from generation to generation; there are few – if any – written records of their skills and recipes. Besides the professional dyers weaving and dyeing was also practised in many a home as part of the daily routine.
As the tradition of natural dyeing was almost completely an oral one – and also jealously guarded by its practitioners – the techniques used varied not only between one region and the other but also between one chippa and another.
In the past dyers used many different fruits, herbs, barks, and leaves to prepare the various shades of colours. Some of the more commonly used fruits and herbs were: harro, barro (hala), dhamero ko phool (flower of the dhamero), bark of the kafal tree, and pomegranate rind. To fix the natural dyes to the fabric and to allow greater absorption of colour and increase its permanence a wide variety of mordant(s) were used by the dyers. Most often the mordant would be a metallic salt with an affinity with the dye colour and the material to be dyed. Some of these salts, like alum, were found in aluminous earth or rock scrapings. Mordant(s) present in fruits and plants – including lime and the Myrobalan fruit – were also popular. Other popular mordant(s) used included beer and salt.
Research by Bina Sreshtha in Dye Yielding Plants of Nepal (1994) indicates that over 170 plants possessing dye-yielding properties have been short-listed for use in Nepal. The unique topographical layout of the country and the varied vegetation in its different climatic zones (tropical, sub-tropical, temperate, sub-alpine, and alpine), determines some form of stratification for different species of dye-yielding plants, and provides opportunities for further study. With experimentation a whole new world of colours using natural dyes can be opened up.
COTTON & SILK (YARN & FABRIC)
For dyeing leather, the yellow layer of the chutro plant (Berberis asiatica) a deciduous shrub is used. The thick stem of the thorny shrub is stripped and its green chlorophyll layer is removed with a knife. The interior yellow stem is scraped off and collected. It is then rubbed vigorously in water and this yields a yellow extract that is used to dye leather hides. The chutro shrub grows from 1,900-3,000m in areas that include Chepuwa and Tinjurey in the Koshi region, and Dhartigaon, Daman, and Ranipauwa in central Nepal.
Dyeing of wool yarn with natural colours has been an age-old tradition in Nepal. With the influx of refugees from Tibet and the introduction of Tibetan carpet-weaving, natural dying of wool received an added impetus. Tibetan refugees and Nepalese citizens dwelling in the northern frontiers are considered exceptionally dextrous in preparing and using natural dyes. The natural dye is fast and durable and evidence can be seen in the carpets that are on display in museums all over the world.
SOME INTERESTING USES OF NATURAL DYES
A CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVE
Traditionally, there existed in Nepal a wealth of knowledge on the use of plant and mineral matter, not only for dyeing, but also for medicinal and other purposes. However, in the last few decades due to the increasing import of chemical dyes, the traditional art of natural dyeing was almost completely wiped out. In response to renewed interest, strenuous efforts are now being made to create a revival of this languishing art.