“The market is booming. And we are just at the beginning.” That's how 28-year old manager Ruby sums up the prospects of The Colours of Nature, Auroville's natural dyeing unit. Started in 1992, the unit has seen more downs than ups, but, says Ruby, “we are now confidently looking forward to a very bright future.”
The reason? “We've found out how to dye in any colour and guarantee similar quality and colour fastness as synthetic dyes,” says Jesus, the unit's founder. “It has been a long process, but in December last year we completed the research. We are now able to produce all colours using 100% eco-friendly natural dyes. And the colours are as lustrous and fast as those obtained with chemical dyeing.”
Naturally-dyed silk yarn from The Colours of Nature
It's a bold statement. But Jesus is well-known for his tenaciousness and perseverance, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he finally managed to learn how to fix and enhance the colour of natural dyes.
“I have a deep connection to nature. I love the colours of the earth. I love to roam outdoors looking at plants, learning about nature,” says Jesus. “Many years ago I went to Kashmir to learn how to make to make silk carpets in the traditional way, using naturally-dyed silk yarn. Then I discovered that naturally-dyed silk didn't exist anymore. It has been replaced by cheaper synthetic dyes that are polluting the environment. It was a great disappointment. The harmonizing, gentle, soft and subtle colours of natural dyes had disappeared.”
A few months later he joined Auroville, and brought the idea of dyeing with natural dyes with him. “It had become a passion. I travelled all over India to collect information on traditional dyeing techniques. But it was not easy. Hardly anybody practises this technique any more. The knowledge of natural dyeing, which has been used in India for thousands of years, is in danger of being lost. Recipes are rarely available and there is a long-standing tradition of keeping recipes for dyeing secret. Friends sent me whatever information they could. Then I found some masters with knowledge about traditional dyeing who were willing to train me for a few months. After that I was on my own. I learned by trial and error from books and by experimenting.”
Another startling discovery was that those who were still practicing natural dyeing techniques were using shortcuts to remain competitive. “Most of the so-called natural dyers and printers are using synthetic indigo for blue and synthetic alizarin for red colour, instead of natural dyes made from Indigofera tinctoria and Rubia cardifolia plants. They also often use heavy metals and toxic chemicals to facilitate the dyeing process,” explains Ruby. “These processes are cheaper, but also heavily polluting. We decided that Auroville's natural dyeing should only involve environment-friendly materials, and that our effluents should be properly treated in our own wastewater recycling plant.”
This high-spirited and ambitious decision led to a slow start. “We began as an R&D unit. It took many loss-making years to discover and develop natural dyeing processes where all aspects of the cycle, from plant growing to the treatment of our wastewater and solid waste are environment-friendly,” says Jesus.
The art of indigo dyeing
He began dyeing natural cotton with indigo. “Looking back, I realize I started with the most difficult colour and material,” says Jesus. “We ran into problems from day one. Cotton is the most difficult fibre to colour, and natural cotton – cotton grown without pesticides or fertilizers – was scarcely available. Then there was the problem of how to get the dye. Since the discovery of synthetic indigo in 1880, nearly all natural indigo plantations in India have disappeared. It was by accident that we discovered that around Gingee, near Auroville, a few plantations survived, where the techniques for extracting indigo from the leaves of Indigofera tinctoria have been handed down through generations.”
Preparing natural indigo in Gingee
Then followed years of experimentation. “We had more or less to re-discover the process of indigo fermentation, which had been used in India for thousands of years. In the beginning we sent our samples to a laboratory to be checked for colour fastness and to determine to what extent our processes were polluting. It took years to perfect, but today indigo dyeing has become our main activity.”
“While we mastered the process for cotton indigo dyeing some years ago, it wasn't until December last year that we clinched the technique for dyeing cotton in other colours,” says Ruby. “Earlier, our colours were not lustrous and not colour-fast. We wondered what we were doing wrong. According to reference books, a few hundred years ago many beautiful colours were made in many places in India . Why were we not able to reproduce them?”
The solution, it appeared, was in the application of the “mordant”. Although some fabrics such as silk and wool can be coloured simply by being dipped in the dye, others such as cotton require a mordant, an element which aids the chemical reaction so that the fibre absorbs the dye. “The mordant prevents the colour from either fading with exposure to light or washing out,” says Ruby. “We finally discovered how to use alum, a non-polluting mordant, to fix the colours and make the fabric colour fast. Now can we produce yarn with comparable colour quality as when using synthetic dyes.”
The market in India responds. “Through word of mouth, through our films on YouTube and through our website, people come to know about our work. Now we not only sell organic-dyed cotton yarn in any desired colour, but also ready-made jeans under the brand name GoIndiGo Jeans. They can be ordered through the internet and bought in selected shops in Bangalore ,” says Ruby.
But sales are not restricted to India alone. All over the world, interest in ‘natural' products is on the increase. “Take Korea ,” says Jesus. “I'm scheduled to give a lecture at the International Symposium and Exhibition on Natural dyes in Daegu in September this year.”
“‘Organic' is ‘in'. ‘Natural' is ‘in'. ‘Environ-ment-friendly' is a must.'” That's how former Aurovilian Loes Overbeek describes the emerging trends in the European fashion market. Loes worked for many years with The Colours of Nature to develop the organic textile market. Now she is the organic textiles advisor and production coach to a European clothing brand.
“Increasingly, European brands ask for organically-grown products, manufactured by companies that are doing ethical business. The Colours of Nature qualify; they are even ahead of the times. We develop with The Colours of Nature organic fabrics, naturally-dyed for a range of children clothing (0-4 years). In harmony with the company's holistic approach to business, the fabrics produced by The Colours of Nature are being tailored by a company in north India to get the best possible finish. The fashion line is very successful, particularly as mothers want to care for their babies' sensitive skins and the fabric contains no contaminating pigments.”
The manjistha colour bath from Rubia cardifolia results in a rich red-coloured natural-dyed yarn
Loes predicts that in another ten to twelve years much of the market will have turned organic. For organic has a special quality. “Whenever we show the garments to people, there is always the same response. They become silent,” she says. “The cloth communicates.”
Jesus explains the concept of doing ethical or socially-responsible business. “That our products are organic – grown without the use of pesticides of fertilizers – is the first step. That our production methods are environment-friendly, that we do not pollute the environment and practice water conservation, is the second. The third is that we are a socially-responsible business; we do not employ child labour, we offer good working conditions and decent salaries.”
Loes adds. “In Europe and the USA , in Korea and Japan , people are becoming aware of the conditions in which a product is manufactured. Big firms such as Nike were even boycotted when it was discovered that their products were manufactured in so-called ‘sweatshops' where people were working in inhuman conditions. These companies now have setup a special department that tries to ensure that there is a holistic business approach – looking into all aspects that go with the making of a product. Also the European Community has recently asked companies to look into the ethics of their business – the awareness is growing. In India it means that grants for product development are utilized without corruption; that the labourers are well-paid and work in good environments; and that the perks are not only going to the bosses of the industry.”
An Auroville approach to clothing?
One might think that selling organically-dyed material in Auroville is like preaching to the converted. “Sadly not true,” says Ruby wryly. “Auroville units still have little understanding of the concept of organics. In autumn this year we plan a presentation to all the Auroville fashion units showing how far we have got with colour fastness. We will present our colour range and explain that we can naturally dye any material, be it cotton, linen or silk. For we believe they have to change attitude. They are still mostly using chemically-dyed cloth, not organically-grown cotton or linen, and silk that has been cleaned by using chemicals. But if Auroville has to give a message to the world, this should extend to its clothing industry.”
An Aurovilian youth modelling the ‘GoIndiGo' brand of jeans from The Colours of Nature
Baby clothing in Europe from naturally-dyed organic cotton from The Colours of Nature
Loes goes a step further. “The Auroville fashion industry must start dedicating itself to innovation, for the market is more and more ready. Working together, they should present ‘The Auroville approach to Clothing' in international fashion shows, uniting behind the banner of organically-grown , naturally-dyed and ethically-produced products. It's time to move ahead. In clothing as in everything else, Auroville has to set an example.”
Photo credit: All photos courtesy Colours of Nature