The phrase ‘the grass is always greener’ came to mind while flicking through a sample book of plant and mineral dyed hand woven fabrics at a workshop in Burkina Faso recently. ‘It’s for the European market’ says Mme Lankoande, ‘It’s not popular here, but it’s what people want in Italy and France’.
The irony is that while some of the African style fabrics on the market here in West Africa are printed and imported from the Netherlands and Manchester (yes, that’s Manchester in England), in Europe we want the kind of eco-friendly dyes and organic cotton that Africa has been doing for centuries.
Of course it’s the natural dyes that are greener, which is what makes them popular in the West. No chemicals, no pesticides – just pods, seeds and some natural minerals were used to make the colours in the organic cotton fabric that I ordered. Here’s how it was done.
The pods of the Acacia nilotica tree (image 1), called Gaudi (French) or Pegnenga (Mooré) are harvested and put in a pot of water with some iron scraps and brought to the boil (image 2). The iron in this case was broken off from an old cooking stove (image 3). This combination will produce a grey colour. For yellow, the leaves of the Anogeissus leiocarpus (Bouleau d’Afrique in French) tree are used (image 4). For brown shades, bark is used (image 5). The dye is strained (image 6) then the organic cotton thread is immersed in the boiling water. To prevent her hands being burned, Clara the dyer did this with rubber gloves filled with cold water (image 7). It is left for 30 minutes then dried in the sun for 15 mintues (image 8 ) before checking the colour and re-immersing as often as necessary. The shade becomes darker by adding Alum (image 9).