I've written out this introduction at least ten times because I'm not sure how to start. Sometimes Katy and I get ourselves to wrapped up in the minute details that we forget to spell out the big picture.
So here's the big picture: we spent some time in a forest with a group of people who practice an ancient tradition of medicinal dyeing. We came back with new fabrics which are very very slow made, naturally dyed, hand loomed, and make up our Honour Scarves and new Shore Shirts.
I'll preface this with a statement about our own opinion on 'medicinal' fabric. While we both think there is a lot to be said for the chemical properties imparted by plants, we don't believe they should be used in place of scientifically proven medicines. That said, when we heard about a group of people practicing a 5000 year old tradition of medicinal dyeing in the forests of India, we were hooked.
These men and women dye yarns and cloth with mixtures of plants for their health giving qualities - not the way they look or the colour they give. Uneven colour on a yarn would be a failure anywhere else - but here, in the forest, every yarn is important, and potent.
I say forest, but it's more than that. This forest is cultivated; it's a nursery spilling over with hundreds of medicinal plants, all growing in symbiosis on the fertile land. It seems completely wild, save for a few brick walls, but every plant is expertly placed. Jutting trees reach for the sun while shade dwelling bushes hide below, presenting berries for the dye pot. The land is so fertile not just because of the weather, but because the waste from the dye pots is sprinkled back over the land - providing a perfect food source and a closed loop of sustainable living.
Our contact, Kay, eagerly takes us through winding pathways, stopping off every couple of metres to excitedly talk us through a plants native name, scientific name, and its medicinal use. We examine Indigo, wild basil, turmeric, goosberries, black pepper, and a giant list of plants we'd never even heard of. Some look the same - like generic plants - but every so often Kay would rekindle our attention by rubbing a bristle that would fill the air with perfume , or pinch a leaf that would explode deep, rich colour.
India has long celebrated the natural medicinal properties of plants, pioneering medicinal extracts for thousands of years that continue to surprise modern chemists. This method of dyeing cloth, now over 5000 years old, takes those principles and applies them to the clothes we wear. Our man explains to us that there are many concoctions, and most are tailor made, but there are a few hundred we can choose that promote general 'wellness' and 'good feeling'. The two we chose for our Shore Shirts do just that, and those found in the Honour Scarves are designed to assist healthy breathing.
Every fabric has a formula. The head dyer mixes up a relatively small amount of medicine in a pot until it's right. Most mixtures combine 20-30 different ingredients, in different quantities, but some can contain over 50. It's then cooked, cooled, dissolved or ground depending on the recipe. All water used here is rain water, collected on the rooftoops and filtered through rocks. They refuse to take any chances with water supplies when they've been so careful with their ingredients, and we cant blame them.
Next the brew is put into a larger pot, and again either cooked or left at ambient temperature. We were present for some of ourindigo dyeing which was done over a boiling pot - something we had never seen before. Indigo is a wily dye, and requires some precise and exacting moves to get it to transfer onto yarns - but a long rolling boil is not one of of them.
We asked about this, and we were treated to a broad smile and a reminder that this is the ancient way it was always done. We tried to dig deeper to work out how it worked but the only explanations these guys could give were based on medicine - a reminder that dyeing is a byproduct to them, not a principle concern. We were also asked to be mindful that although the colour we are seeing is indigo, the mixture actually contains 26 other ingredients - all of which work in unison for the final result.
That isn't to say they are completely detached from science. While talking us through the properties of indigo, they explained that it was traditionally an ingredient used when anti bacterial and temperature regulating fabric treatments were needed. They explain how it was used five centuries ago, and then school us on what science says today. Hint: science seems to agree, and this is isn't the first time we've been told how special natural indigo is.
The yarns are then hung up indoors, away from the harsh sun, and we are taken inside to see the other half of their stock cupboard. Pots of wood and dried ingredients overflow in rooms dusty with the smell of perfume. We comment on how great everything smells and they nod and smile. They know, and they even seem a little smug. That's something we really feel here - no one here is jealous of the way we live in London. This way is the right way for them, and they want to make our way of living better, by inviting more nature in.
We went back to these dry store cupboards several times during the course of our stay because someone would say something like 'It's dyed with five types of turmeric!', prompting Katy and I to exchange confused glances, before being marched in to examine all five. We might even see a sixth, seventh or eighth type too - which would prompt a completely new discovery for us that dissolved our scepticism. We have to be skeptic with STORY, because we hear so many grand claims on a daily basis that turn out to be total lies. We have to be sure, because brands should be the gatekeepers for honesty and truth.
Even after leaving we thought deeply about the dyeing. We saw it from start to finish - from picking fresh leaves and roots, to mixing them up with dried bark and minerals, grinding, slicing, boiling and drying. Yet we still felt uneasy because of that boiling pot of indigo. It was weird. We hadn't seen anything like it and it seemed altogether too violent for a natural dye.
We got a message to them before we set off for our next stop, asking for some kind of ingredients list so we could try and work out what was happening. We aren't experts, but we know some, and they kindly let us have a list of what goes into the fabrics we selected -- although they asked us not to share it for fear a big player could come along and steal it.
A few days later we caught up with Jesus, our indigo dyeing expert, and told him about the boiling pot. At first his face curled and creased, but he asked a few pointed questions - initially about chemicals. He sees a lot of snake oil charlatans in his line, so he's naturally cautious. However, he's also naturally curious, and when we explained what we saw go in, and what we saw come out he did a little mental maths and told us 'it works, but it's very labour intensive, and the colour would be very uneven - no good for commercial brands!'.
Katy and I exchanged one last stare on the matter. "Good".