Navajo Wool Dying

Navajo RugsMastering wool dyeing by using native roots, berries, and bark, the Navajos are credited with creating the first native tapestries in the United States.

Various degrees of color can be achieved by the contemporary weaver. In the natural wool tones, shades of tan, beige and gray can be achieved in the carding stage, by combining desired amounts of black, brown and white wools. In other examples, vivid commercial synthetic dyes can be used, or subtle vegetal dyed wools.

If a weaver wishes to dye the yarn, it is done following the spinning and washing. Vegetal dyed techniques entail considerable more time and effort for preparation of the yarn. All dye plants may be used with or without a mordant.

Mordant comes from the latin word, mordere, meaning, to bite. Mordants are metals used to cause fibers to open up and receive coloration by absorbing the dye acids present in plants. Mordants are metallic salts which help dyes to bind to the fibers, making the color more permanent. Mordanting can give some variations in color, especially when wool is dyed. Mordants also help brighten many colors and make them more lightfast. Mordants that are commonly used by natural dyers today are metal salts, which vary from slightly to deadly poisonous. These are: Potash Alum, Iron, Tin , Copper, and Chrome. The use of a mordant is necessary for color and light fastness. Of all the mordants mentioned, alum is the most commonly used, and in the interest of sustainability, all others could be eliminated.

Indigenous Americans, such as the Navajo and Hopi, have traditionally used non-toxic mordants such as juniper ashes. Some Navajos use salt and baking powder. The Navajo also commonly use native alum or juniper ash in many dye recipes, as these can be gathered on the reservation. Today, much of what modern Southwestern weavers know about the art of natural dyeing has come from the wisdom and patience of centuries of Navajo weavers.