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Witches, Friends and Fugitives

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 18, Autumn 2016

Anna Maltz talks to legendary natural dyer Kristin Vejar

There is something wonderfully witchy about dyeing, especially natural dyeing. Turning weeds and peelings into shimmering gold is a type of alchemy. Every dyer I know keeps at least one book of spells, and consults yet more. Whether cryptically scrawled or fastidiously ordered, they contain recipes for summoning up their desired colours with precision. Bubbling pots are part of the package. Whether or not you choose to call them cauldrons, they steam and bring forth potent smells, followed by colour.

Witchery has long been derided and condemned by the straight-laced powers that be: caricatured as crones all in black with pointy hats and crooked-tailed cats, up to all sorts of nefarious activities. This can throw us off the scent from the fact that these characters of fable and history are actually wise, creative women with knowledge of the sort that comes from experience and deep understanding. They are skilled, resourceful women, in tune with their environments and able to combine elements to achieve results greater than the sum of their parts, and with lasting implications. And really, warts on noses should be welcome (while not obligatory) in any inclusive society.

With that in mind, I have to resist the temptation to proclaim them a coven (since it is preferable to let individuals and groups choose their own descriptive): Kristine Vejar and her partner Adrienne Rodriguez, together with a team of women, have created a magical space called A Verb For Keeping Warm (AVFKW or simply, Verb). Their familiars are two dachshunds, Cleo and Calliope, and Marcel, a veteran French Angora rabbit. Located on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, it’s a dye kitchen and garden, a classroom and shop, and a hub for the incredible community of conscientious makers that emanate from it. I wish it had been there when I lived in the California Bay Area for 5 years. However, I was lucky enough to give a talk there when I was last in town.

It’s hard to keep an introduction to Kristine brief; she is always up to so many things with other thoughtful, dedicated folk across a range of disciplines and cultures. Kristine’s personal adventure with natural dyeing started in the North of India and changed the course of her studies from a more academic approach (art history) to a hands-on one. Through her initially extra-curricular study of textile techniques with the Rabari tribe, she gained a deeper understanding of how colour and cloth can be embedded in a community’s traditions and identity. The creation of colours using locally collected natural dyes makes them even more rooted in a place. This experience changed Kristine’s focus.

During my visit in November 2014, Kristine let me in on a beautiful secret: I got to see a mock-up of The Modern Natural Dyer. Even in its rough state, it was clearly a craft book with a difference. More of a coffee table cookbook in appearance, it is infused with

Kristine’s generosity and belief in community. The intervening year and a bit has seen the release of the book and the rise and rise in an interest in natural dyeing, due, in no small part, to the book itself. It’s a spellbinding book: inspiring, enabling, invigorating and beautiful. It whets your appetite to make colour and to find out more about Kristine, so here are some insights from the woman herself…

AM: Why use natural dyes? Why not use Rit, Dylon or whatever brand of synthetic dye is available at your local chemist or hardware shop?
KV: There are so many reasons why I think using natural dyes is a worthwhile venture. Personally, I love to cook and enjoy all of the steps leading up to making the meal. I like to go to the farmers market, to choose my ingredients, to learn how ingredients come together to create delicious meals, and then to share these meals with friends. I find natural dyeing is very similar to cooking. I enjoy growing, shopping, and sourcing the ingredients – like onion skins, marigolds, and madder root – because I want to know what creates these colours and where they come from. I like thinking about how to create new colours through different combinations of these ingredients. I also like how each of these ingredients has its own story to share, instead of being made in a factory or a lab. I like to know the farmer who grows my dye plants. These stories are embedded into the yarn, fabric, or clothing I am dyeing. Ultimately, I think it makes the colour more interesting. Using natural dyes I’ve foraged myself gives me a greater connection to the place I inhabit. I’ve always enjoyed nature and hiking. I gain an even greater appreciation for a particular tree when I have also been able to use its leaves or bark for colour. It’s a way of carrying that tree and nature with me throughout my day.

AM: Is your favourite colour the same as the colour you most enjoy dyeing?
KV: My favourite colour tends to shift quite a bit. Currently, my favourite colours are neutrals and blues. I do enjoy dyeing these colours. I love madder – the colour, the way it smells when I am dyeing with it – yet, I don’t wear a lot of red. If I did, I would be in heaven!

AM: Is there a difference between a stain and a dye? And what is a fugitive colour?
KV: Absolutely! Not all plants are created equally when it comes to dyeing. The measurement of how long a colour lasts is referred to as colourfastness. The longer the colour lasts, the better the colourfastness. A stain is a colour which fades quickly – let’s say over the course of a few days with light exposure to the sun, or within a few washings. Often times you can see this happen with colour from blueberries or beets, where the vibrant purple colour made by these ingredients will fade to a brown or cream mark. A dye is a colour which stays on longer than that – hopefully much longer. I would describe a fugitive colour as a state in between a stain and a dye, so it stays longer than a few days or a few washes but leaves within a year or so.

AM: How do you encourage the colours to stick around?
KV: Before heading to the dyepots, there are two important steps in preparing the fabric to accept dye: scouring and mordanting. By completing both of these steps, colourfastness improves drastically for some stains and certainly for all dyes!

AM: ‘Scouring’? I think of that as a process of cleaning really dirty pots when I am doing the dishes by hand. How does it mean in the context of fabric preparations for natural dyeing?
KV: Scouring means to pre-wash.

AM: Just pre-wash? Nothing else? Just in soap and water, like normal laundry?
KV: Protein-based (wool, silk, etc) = stovetop, pot, water, liquid dishwashing detergent, heat.
Cellulose-based fibers (cotton, linen, etc) = stovetop, pot, water, soda ash preferably, heat. Or a very hot, long cycle in washing machine. All of this said, I really do believe it is best to keep curiosity alive and to create room at the table for everyone who is interested in natural dyeing. And that it really comes down to a conversation about expectations regarding colourfastness. Some people want their dyed colour to stay on for a very long time (for 50+ years), I advise them to use dyes with a long historical record, like madder and other dyes which I included in my book, The Modern Natural Dyer. Then, there are people for whom the process of natural dyeing, or that day’s dyeing anyway, is about wandering, and exploring the garden or forest. There might be some great colours out there, though they might not be very colourfast. I think as long as people know this risk, and can look at it more as an experiment then there is less disappointment when the colour fades. One important thing to note is that once the yarn, fabric, or clothing is mordanted once, it can be re-dyed over and over again. So, if the colour fades, just dye it again.

AM: Mordanting is permanent?! Does it really only need to be done once? So you can’t undo it?
KV: Yes and yes. And really, for the health of the planet and the people who are dyeing cloth around the world, colour should fade – all colour. There are some really heavy-duty chemicals and metals that go into creating dyes with the sole purpose of staying vibrant past a trillion days and washes.

AM: If you could step outside of your busy schedule of spreading the love of natural dyeing and ethical textiles, where would you go to learn from a different local dyeing community?
KV: Oh, that list is so long! One of the core reasons I find natural dyeing so fascinating is that it is alive around the world, and in each place there are similarities – just like cooking, due to kitchen chemistry – and then differences based upon what is readily available in terms of ingredients. I would love to visit Oaxaca, Japan, Southern China, and Indonesia.

AM: What has been most satisfying about the wonderful reception of your book, The Natural Dyer?
KV: Seeing people try natural dyeing! Being a natural dyer is kind of like living on a small island, which in some ways is great, because there is a tight-knit community with which to discuss natural dyeing. That said, it has been absolutely wonderful to be able to speak my language with more people and to have a new infusion of ideas and creativity into the natural dyeing process!

It sounds like an unfamiliar boat has arrived on the remote shores of Natural Dyeing and that it’s time to fire up our cauldrons, and conscientiously gather what we can from our gardens and forests, in preparation for sharing a great potluck feast of colour. Witches, friends and fugitives are welcome round the table. For some, the party will last for the night, for others, it will never end.