Panmai, Part 2: Natural dyes -– pinks and purples

During our January visit to Panmai's shop, we also chose more than 3 dozen silk scarves, concentrating on a range of reds and purples to round out our displays in 2012. Panmai weaving co-operative is known for its luscious colours: deep golds, brilliant reds, regal purples and deep ebonies. Silk slurps up dyes better than most fibres, especially when using natural dyes, and Panmai doesn't skimp on the concentrations of their dye baths. Curious about how the variations within a hue are made, I set aside 4 scarves to ask how their colours were achieved.

Mali, the group's shop manager, knows her natural dyes well. Krang, a dye known as "lac" or "stick lac" in English, is made with the help of a small insect. The Laccifer Lacca beetle is put on a branch of the Rain Tree (Samanea Saman) where it creates a resin which can be cut from the branch after the insect develops and flies away. This wart-like growth, deep brown in colour, is the central ingredient in many of the pinks, reds and purples found in Asian textiles, especially silks. Its appearance – in its raw form – belies the beauty of the colours it will yield when master dyers apply their skills to it.

krang (stick lac), ready to be prepared for the dye pot

Some pinks and purples created by Panmai from natural dyes
  1. Violet (scarf #1 below): After immersing in a concentrated dye bath of krang, the silk yarns are  washed in water from a particular well in one village. While the salty tasting water is not good to drink, it transforms the usual magenta of krang into a clear, violet-purple.
  2. Orchid (scarf #2): Underground water from the same special well is used along with krang and wood from the Sappan tree (caesalpinia sappan) to create this orchid purple with a hint of pale brown.
  3. Heliotrope (scarf #3): Here the dye bath was super-saturated with 12 kg of krang to colour 2 kg of silk yarns.  
  4. Magenta pink (scarf #4): Only 2 kg of krang are used to dye 2 kg of silk yarn but Sappan wood was also added to the dye bath.

4 tones of purple and pink from krang and sappan wood

On this trip we have been told by more than one group that the price of krang has risen sharply this year. This is especially significant if the groups' members can not harvest enough for themselves and must buy it from others. Some groups are experimenting with using more sappan wood and other local dye stuffs to achieve pinks, reds and purples.

This is a glimpse into the complexity of making and using natural dyes. Each dyeing yields slightly different colours, depending on the time of year – even the week when dye materials are collected and processed – and depending on the artistry and skills of the dyer. The water used, the mordants used to set the dyes, water temperature and mineral content, the amount of dye materials to silk threads – all work in a seemingly magical way to bring forth colours to dye for.

We realize how fortunate we have been to receive such detailed information about many of the dyes traditionally used in Southeast Asia. In the coming year we hope to collect much of this onto one page of our website for easier reference.

In the meantime, we'll be working to get these and other fabulous new items back to Canada for you to see.