Laos Ethnic Minority Arts – Natural dyes

I had a great day learning all about natural dyes, their origins and the processes behind making them (in Laos). Its just incredible that such vibrant colours can come from a bunch of leaves… not just any leaves, but still! An eye-opening experience full of possibility and steeped in age old tradition and technique.

To begin the day I was taught about the process of making silk. I was shown the cycle, from gathering silkworm cocoons (the white and yellow varieties are placed on giant wicker holders), to boiling them/removing the worm, and finally spinning, which I had a go of later on during my weaving class!

white and yellow silk worm cocoons

After the silk process we moved onto plants and natural derivations of colour, which was fascinating. Below is a list of some of sources and the colours they produce!

  • Sappan tree – bark + rusty nails – pink
  • Indigo leaves – blue, black, mauve, green (depending on quantity and time)
  • Lemongrass leaves – alum – pale yellow
  • Teak wood leaves and bark – alum – pinkish grey
  • Turmeric root – +tamarind leaves – bright yellow

foraging, pounding and mixing/sieving the dye

In total I made 3 dyes and used them on 3 skeins of silk. I chose my colours and set out foraging for indigo leaves. This [light green] dye was the most fun to make. Using a pestle and mortar, I broke up the leaves, creating a paste. Once this was sufficiently broken down I added water to make a green foamy liquid. The solution was sieved and the skein added. The liquid was then agitated and the silk gently rubbed, to make sure the colour was dying evenly. Once happy with the colour, I rinsed them off and set them aside to dry- easy peasy!

splitting the wood, boiling it and finally, rinsing the skein through, removing any stray pieces of bark!

For the lovely rich pink coloured skein, I began chopping up pieces of sappan tree, splitting the bark to reveal beautiful rich orange and red tones. The pieces were added to boiling water, containing rusty nails, which released the colour. I dipped the second skein into the colourful liquid (after removing the pieces of wood!) and when satisfied with the colour, I again rinsed it off and set it aside to dry. The lighter pink was made from the same process but with the addition of an alum stone to the mix to lighten it through chemical reaction… pretty cool!


the cooled and sieved sappan wood dye

The whole day was great fun and it was really great to get back to the nature of dye making and natural processes.

*The class was held at Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang

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  • Reply
    October 14, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Your photos are stunning 🙂 x

  • Reply
    October 14, 2017 at 11:30 am

    I was there as well but just to look around, didn’t get to try my hand at dyeing but I agree it’s pretty fascinating what types of colours you can derive from nature!

  • Reply
    October 15, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    This sounds like such a great experience. I took a cooking class in Luang Prabang. I didn’t know you could do something like this. I’m not very artistic but this looks like a lot of fun and it’s always so great to learn about a local custom.

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