Paradoxes of Marketing Natural Dyes

Presentation made by Charllotte Kwon for ISEND 2011

From our work marketing natural dyes and marketing naturally dyed textiles and yarns, we know that consumers want products that are uniform and give predictable results. The buyer wants assurance that the dyestuff (be it extract or raw material) and the dyed item will behave as expected.

There is a marketing paradox with natural dyes, because we want them to behave both like natural dyes (that is, have a depth of character, reflect their origins and communicate something of the season, time and place of their growing) and we want them to behave as manufactured items (that is, be regular, uniform and exactly the same from batch to batch). From the viewpoint of those engaged in commerce in an industrial, consumer society, natural dyes require standardization, certification and regulation. These steps provide assurance that natural dyes and naturally dyed textiles have the uniformity needed for mass marketing.

There is a paradox associated with each step. Standardization may eliminate diversity, experimentation, and innovation. Certification may not be an option for traditional artisans (often the same artisans who have kept natural dye knowledge intact for hundreds of years), and regulation may significantly change the viability of working with natural dyes for many groups, shifting control from artisan to regulator.

We should consider what we mean by artisans or artisan dyers. Our understanding of these terms usually suggests a family craftsperson, who, through remote location, foresight, or tenacity has managed to avoid the influx of cheap chemical dyes which flooded the market. The deluge began probably in the mid-fifties as international trade began to gain momentum, and reached its peak with the European azo-dye bans which, as they reduced health risks in the west, had the undesirable side-effect of dumping toxic dyes on other countries at bargain prices (1).

In many cases, artisans needed to consciously fight for a return to natural dyes. Sometimes this fight was a reaction to environmental problems. Issues like the waste-water from synthetic dye use, which, in areas where water was a precious resource led some to rethink their relationship to the environment.

Although the artisan dyer may be an indigenous craftsperson, collecting dyestuff from a local area, to service a small village-based clientele; the artisans I work with today more closely resemble their European guild counterparts in three main areas. 1) Meters of fabric dyed, 2) Number of workers employed, 3) range and distance of trade relations. And I make the following claim: In many aspects, artisan dyers rival their contemporary “industrial” counterparts in terms of natural dye use.

The following are statistics for two artisan dyers whom I work with regularly: The Khatri family of Damadhka in the Kutch desert and the Dosaya family of Bagru, Rajasthan.

For the Maiwa account, the Khatri’s naturally dye and blockprint over 15,000 metres of organic cotton per year. This is for our bedding line. They employ 50 workers and trade globally.

For our clothing line, the Dosaya family naturally dye and blockprint over 30,000 meters of silk, linen and organic cotton. They employ 75 workers.

These are sizable concerns, providing inspiration to natural dyers everywhere.

We understand the advantages of certification, standardization and regulation outlined above. My reasons for suggesting that each of these steps may involve a paradox, is to open up discussions of the potentially disastrous effects on artisan dyers. I occasionally hear comments on topics like certification, which are accompanied by a shaking of the head and the thoughts that, yes unfortunately, certification may not work out well for some artisans. I’m here to tell you it HAS to work for them.

Ideally, certification should work like shared knowledge. A knowledgeable buyer could look at cloth or yarn and usually tell if it is naturally dyed. If this is not possible by examining the colored goods themselves, it is usually possible once one goes to the trouble to visit the production facility. Ideally, certification should stand in place of this first-hand knowledge. Certification is a form of knowledge transfer.

Anyone who has visited the souks of Morocco, or the kilm dealers of Turkey, in fact anyone who has purchased a textile in an open market would like to see a trusted certification system. But could any certification system work to give us what we want?

We often think of standardization in terms of an imposed top-down uniformity. A standardized natural indigo, for example, would contain a set value (or range) of indigotin. As a purchaser of hundreds of kilos of natural indigo per year, I test each and every batch that I order. I need to know the quality and potency of what I buy. The same is true of lac, cochineal, and a range of other dyestuffs. As a buyer I understand that I am buying a crop with seasonal and annual variations. Would the indigo farmer who supplies me be able to afford to send a sample of indigo from each harvest to a test facility? More importantly, would this procedure increase my trust of the indigo farmer and eliminate the need for me to test dyes myself? No.

And what about dye processes? I would like to suggest that we consider dye processes, as the end result of successful knowledge sharing. I’ll give two recent examples and we are indebted to the practical expertise of Michel Garcia for both examples.

In Peru and India, several artisan groups we work with used, until very recently, a fairly common sodium hydrosulphite indigo vat. An organic vat that uses fruit, or henna, or a ferrous mixture may replace this vat. I can say without doubt that artisan dyers embraced these alternatives with enthusiasm, optimism, and a good deal of local ingenuity.

These changes are the result of direct knowledge sharing between artisan groups. The idea is that by raising the standard of natural dye use everywhere (or to put it another way: by eliminating bad dyeing) we largely eliminate the need for standardization.

This was the goal of our 2011 Natural Dye Master class held in Bengal India, in which we brought selected artisans from throughout India together with artisans from Ethiopia. We visited the Peruvian group separately in the autumn of 2010. The groups brought specific dye problems to the weeklong workshop. As a company marketing naturally dyed textiles it is important to us that we understand the water issues of naturally dyeing, the issues of power usage, and issues of efficient use of the plant material in the communities in which we work. Our concerns are the very same concerns as the artisans with whom we trade.

As I have a captive audience of scientists, researchers and natural dye experts here, I would like to suggest, as strongly as possible, that this kind of practical applied science, that investigates and solves the problems of the production dyer, is absolutely necessary. But even beyond the research itself, the sharing of results is invaluable to the natural dye community. It is necessary for the health of the environment, for the integrity of artisan dyers and for the public profile of natural dyes.

We sponsored the artisans to attend the workshop and we paid our visiting expert – in this case Michel Garcia. The costs of the workshop were invaluable to the dyers and therefore also invaluable to our trading partnership.

By regulation, generally what we mean is some formalization of the certification and standardization process. This may or may not come with penalties and enforcement. In theory it is welcome. In practice, natural dye use clearly fits within the realm of expert knowledge; it cannot be regulated without adding an additional layer of costs (2).

I have worked in production dyeing with natural dyes for almost twenty years and I have been fortunate to keep the company of some of the most knowledgeable artisans and academics in this field. I also have previous experience production dyeing with synthetic dyes. If a swatch of cloth came across my desk I, or someone I know, could, in most cases, probably find out how truthful it’s claim to authenticity is. This would be, by no means, a trivial process. Could regulation work? To be frank, I have little faith that regulation could be beneficial at this time.

I feel the case of natural dyes is considerably more complex than that of other artisan goods. And so I am brought back to marketing. What we try to do – through our retail stores, our website, blog, symposia, workshops, lectures, documentaries, social media, YouTube, and every available means – is attempt to share as much knowledge as possible and educate the public about the qualities and behaviors of natural dyes.

Am I against certification, standardization and regulation? Not if it works for the artisan dyer.

1. The sale and use of the dyes were banned but not the manufacturing of them.

2. My point here is that for artisan dyers, certification costs may be prohibitive. At the final session of ISEND a participant asked Ms. Esther Rewitz, (who delivered a presentation on expanding the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to include the use of natural dyestuff) for an estimate of the cost of certifying an item. The answer was that the estimated cost would be in the range of 1000 to 2000 euros plus travel costs if a site inspection was necessary. Even without the site inspection this works out to $1400 - $2800 Canadian dollars or 64,000 - 128,000 Indian rupees per item. In contrast, a "good" yearly wage for unskilled labor in rural India is in the range of 26,000 rupees.

Maiwa graciously allowed HAND/EYE Magazine to reprint Charllotte Kwon’s presentation at ISEND 2011. To learn more about Maiwa, please visit



Please signup or login to comment