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TIE-DYE THROUGH THE AGES                           
--a history of tie-dye

By Julie A. Jennings

Tie-dye as we know it became popular in the United States in the mid-1950's. People used direct dying methods with either "natural" or grocery-store type dyes-- randomly folding, twisting, and tying fabric or clothing . The items were then either dipped or put into a dye bath. The results were simple and varied designs; but they were not vibrant and tended to fade quickly.   Still, everybody loved them!    

Tie-dye is considered to be a product of pre-history. Even though fabric was perishable and long ago disintegrated, archeologists still established that a variety of stamps could have been used for printing fabric five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and India. In one thousand B.C.,  cloths such as those used to wrap mummies were found in dyed form in Egypt. It's possible that the dying techniques trekked through various trade routes from India to Egypt.

Bright colors have delighted mankind from prehistoric times until today.  Dyes were discovered by primitive man  through the use of various  plants' juices, flowers, bark, leaves, etc.,  and applying the substances to basic cloth. The problem with the early dyes is that they could be easily brushed off, or did not last through washing.  Even though color was applied they didn't consider this dying. It was simply a form of embellishment.

What was considered dying was the art of color forming a permanent bond with fiber, in a prepared dye bath. In Egypt, China, Mexico, Peru, Greece, and Rome, dying became a specialized way of earning a living. These ancient artists found out that some dyes dissolved and gave their color readily to water. Another way was for the fabric to absorb the color. The problem with the latter was that the fabric wasn't colorfast. Through time the dyes in the material would fade. If the fabric was faded by the time an important ceremony happened, the garment would be re-dipped  for a new and bright look.

Centuries before Christ's birth, Safflower was used as a dye in Persia and the Far East. The "threads" of the Safflower  (which are also used as a very expensive seasoning) dissolved easily, turning water into a soluble yellow. The red insoluble matter was extracted by working an alkaline bath, neutralized with acid afterwards.

The herb turmeric was crushed to a fine powder and dissolved in water so that cotton material would be dyed deep yellows. This color has been used in India since ancient times and was the beginning of the art of dying from East to West.

China has been creating a form of  tie-dying since the sixth century. They knew how to turn, fold, and tie silk or cotton so when the fabric was dipped, different parts of the fabric would absorb the dye. This caused the designs on different parts of the material to show color more intensely than other areas. The only people that were allowed to wear the "tie-dyed" garments were Priests and the wealthy. You could tell by the colors used what rank or social standing someone was in the Chinese culture.   During the T'ang Dynasty (618-906AD), tie-dyed silks were found in the burial grounds at Astana and at Khotan on the Old Silk Road in Sin kiang, East Turkistan.

Another term for Chinese tie-dye is "zha ran". This is an ancient traditional dying method. The ancients called it "jiao xie" dying.  It appeared  during the Han Dynasty and later it became popular during the Nan Bei Chao Dynasty. People liked it for it's simple and ancient taste along with the variation of colors used.

Through Asia, India and the Far East, traders packed tie-dye cloths as part of their merchandise. "Bandhana" is another word for tie-dye work in India. The girls who worked with this art were known as 'bandhanii. The girls grew the nails of their thumbs and forefingers very long so they were able to pick up small points of material to bind with cotton, producing little dots on the fabric.

In Japanese Society, tie-dying was practiced with kimonos by using colored thread to restrict certain areas  of the cloth. These items, known as  "resists",   consisted of knots, thread, rocks, sticks, wax, and rubber bands. This way the parts that the dye was able to reach would be changed, but the restricted area  stayed the same.  This Japanese tie-dye became known as Shibori, and encases a wide variety of dying techniques. The resists used (wax, string, and synthetic resists) give the artist the ability to create very intricate and detailed designs on the fabric. This art form began  the change from random designs that are geometric or loose and free flowing to varied combinations of both. Shibori is widely practiced in Asian culture, as well as some artists in the United States and other countries.

Pre-Columbian Peru, Nigeria, and other countries, especially on the west coast of Africa have enjoyed the art of tie-dye. North African tribes made dot patterns on woolen cloths. The Yoruba women of West Nigeria produce splendid indigo-dyed cloths which are designed elaborately with the folding and tritik (stitching methods.)  There is an artist in South Carolina whose studio is dedicated to  this ancient indigo dying technique .

 Tie-dye became all the rage during the Vietnam War period when people craved peace and freedom from the starched idea of parents and authority. It was a form of artistic expression (as well as protest) for the hippie, psychedelic generation who were free spirited and uninhibited during this difficult time in American history. These artistic peace-lovers embellished t-shirts, curtains, tapestries, pants, and anything else that would proclaim their individuality ! Tie-dye made people happy then, as it does today! It has remained the utmost symbol of the  sixties! And, in all it's forms, tie-dye is not only an art of fabric, but a piece of our world history.

Copyright April 20, 2004
All Rights Reserved.

by Julie A. Jennings, Westwind Company, tie-dye.us & westwindcompany.net.

The Inside Scoop
-about color and the origins of tie-dye

Varying forms of tie-dye have been in use since the time before time when the Mesopotamians inhabited the verdant crescent many millennia ago. The art of dying is, in layman's terms, the application and bonding process of bright colors to to fabric. The ability to create aesthetically appealing works of art has, for eons, been a fascination for human kind. Colors people wear have been considered an expression of their own souls for the longest time.  If you feel black, you wear black.  The clothes we wear are in no means a colorless endeavor.

The dying of fabric has been used in several well known ritualistic aspects of ancient history. In ancient Egypt several different archeological digs have discovered that the bandages wrapped around various specimens of mummies were dyed in intricate color combinations, the purpose of this is not conclusive, but it is apparent that the ancient Egyptians considered colors to be an important aspect in the representation of deceased Pharaohs and other important members of their society.

Evidence of the use of dyes has also been discovered far down the Silk Road in places as far off as India and even as far off as China. The Indian culture has been long considered, by people who've traveled there and by historians who've studied it extensively, a colorful culture. Brightly colored dresses and the native 'Sarong', have all been known to boast bright colors and even vague traces of what we consider to be the art of modern tie-dye; complete with brave color mixtures and picturesque blends of color. Even people of the lower castes wore colorful clothes; which helped attribute them as one of the most colorful civilizations in history.

Although black sometimes symbolizes death, evil, and darkness, it isn't always an ominous color. Black also represents the night and the unknown, which is portrayed quite nicely in our Moons of Jupiter and Stained Glass designs.

In Medieval times, Lords often designed crests to represent themselves on important occasions. Heraldry has also been considered a way to represent one's self through color. Colors also had their own significances in the middle ages.

When looking at art, or any aspect of life involving color, it is always fun to project different aspects of yourself into everything you do, artistically and personally, or into what you wear. When taking that into consideration, it is fun, and often educational to imagine the colors that represent you fold out in front of you on your favorite designs and use the vibrant colors the same way ancient people of the earth have done; as an expression of yourself.


Copyright June 10th, 2007
All Rights Reserved.

Westwind Tie-dye Company, Tie-dye.us & Westwindcompany.net