CHAPTER XI. Dyeing With Native and Aniline Dyes


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IN Chapter VII, dealing with the Bayeta Blanket, I deemed it advisable to introduce, ahead of this chapter, considerable information about the dyeing of bayetas and pellons. It will be well, therefore, for the reader who wishes a full grasp of this part of the subject to turn again to that chapter.

That dyeing is a primitive art the earliest books clearly reveal. In the Book of Exodus, 25:4, 5, we are told that Moses was instructed to require the children of Israel to bring certain gifts for the erection of a tabernacle, and among them are enumerated ‘‘„rams' skins dyed red,„’’ together with blue, purple, and scarlet, and fine linen. Isaiah cries out (Is. 63:1): ‘‘„Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah?„’’ and in the next verse suggests how the art of dyeing may have had its origin: ‘‘„Wherefore are thou red in thin apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?„’’ Just so soon as garments began to be worn, aye, even before then, the stain upon body and fleece, skin, hair, or texture must have suggested the idea of ability to change color by staining with fruit juices, the juices of nuts, skins, plants, leaves, etc. And the idea once in the mind of the primitive man or woman it would not require much experience to fix it permanently for the future benefit of the race.

The Tinnehs of Alaska, of which family the Navahos are a branch, have used a few dyes from time immemorial, as their colored buckskins, blankets, and baskets clearly show. Hence it may be assumed that a crude and simple knowledge of the art was possessed by the first Navahos who settled where they are now found. Then contact with the Pueblos, and, later, with the Mexicans, stimulated their knowledge, and when they once began to weave after the Pueblo fashion their improvement in the art of dyeing was assured.

There is a general cry of regret today that the art as followed by the Navahos of as late as fifty years ago, or, in a few isolated cases, even twenty years ago, has been lost, and that aniline dyes are substituted for the native ones.

But the question of native Navaho dyes versus aniline or some form


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of modern dyes is settled forever by laws over which the purchaser practically has no control. I say ‘‘„practically,„’’ for undoubtedly were the purchasers of Navaho blankets to ‘‘„arise in their might„’’ and as one man demand no other than native dyes they would get them. But it is impractical, impossible, to get them to make such a demand, and therefore by the very force of simple acquiescence in a fact that cannot be helped the native dye is disappearing—nay, has already practically disappeared.

Yet, in spite of this affirmation that, in the main, the question of native versus modern dyes is forever settled, efforts are being made by white friends of the Navaho to materially improve his present methods of dyeing. Col. J. S. Lockwood, president of the Indian Industries League, of Boston, Massachusetts, is seeking to interest the Indian Department in the putting up of modern, scientific, and well-equipped wool-scouring and dyeing plants on the Navaho reservation, where the wool of the native sheep may be thoroughly washed, cleaned, deodorized, and then dyed with superior and reliable dyes and mordants. I believe this would be a decided step in advance and of material benefit to the art and to the Navahos. There will naturally be opposition on the part of the Indians, and it will take patience and wisdom to overcome this. Navahos are conservative to a high degree, though, as I have shown in Chapter IX; they are beginning to be reasonably alert to all plans that seek their material advancement and increased prosperity.

Colonel Lockwood urges also that when blankets are woven with yarns thus properly prepared, the Indian Department should place seals upon them as guarantees both to traders and private purchasers.

In regard to the old native dyes there are, perhaps, half a dozen weavers on the whole reservation today—perhaps more, possibly less—who retain all the secrets and are willing to go to the trouble to dye the wool with them and thus produce a ‘‘„native wool, native dyed, native woven„’’ blanket.

Fortunately, however, the methods were observed by intelligent and recording white men in time to save the art from being lost, and from their writings the following account is compiled. The name of each author, unless otherwise stated, is placed in brackets at the end of each quotation:

In preparing the wool for dyeing, it is picked apart and the tangled masses are loosened, but, as a rule, there is no washing done. To most students of weaving, especially those who have become interested in the art of dyeing, it would seem that, in omitting the washing of the wool one of the essentials had been overlooked. In fact, many dyers insist that upon the quality of the water used depends the success of the work, and they, therefore, use nothing but soft water. The scarcity of water in the Navaho country is responsible for this seeming negligence on the part of the


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blanket maker. But, in judging these worthy people we must remember that the wool of the Navaho sheep is not greasy as is that of the merinos and many other sheep and therefore does not require the elaborate washing and scouring that must be undergone ere the ordinary wool is workable. The Navaho herdsmen are particularly careful about keeping their sheep from crossing with the merinos of the Mexicans, as they realize that the merino wool cannot be washed or bleached and that the use of the wool in its natural state causes unsightly streaks in their blankets. These streaks not only detract from the aesthetic appearance of their productions but cause a depreciation in value.

For making native dyes the Navaho dyer needs the vegetable and mineral ingredients required for the specific dyes; a pot in which to make the decoction of barks, flowers, twigs or roots, for which their own native pots are preferred, probably because the acid of the mordants will not act chemically upon earthen vessels as it will upon tin or iron; a skillet, or frying pan, to prepare certain of the ingredients, and a few thin, slender sticks to immerse the wool with, or take it out of the dye, and to spread it out to dry.

Each dye consists of at least two ingredients, a coloring matter and a mordant, usually some acid substance to fix the color fast.—[Berard.]

The black dye is made of the leaves and twigs of the aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica), a native yellow ochre, and the gum of the pinion (Pinus edulus). The process of preparing it is as follows: They put into a pot of water some of the leaves of the sumac and as many of the branchlets as can be crowded in without much breaking or crushing, and the water is allowed to boil for five or six hours until a strong decoction is made. While the water is boiling they attend to other parts of the process. The ochre is reduced to a fine powder between two stones, and then slowly roasted over the fire in an earthen or metal vessel until it assumes a light-brown color; it is then taken from the fire and combined with about an equal quantity in size of pinion gum; again the mixture is put on the fire and constantly stirred. At first the gum melts and the whole mass assumes a mushy consistence; but as the roasting progresses it gradually becomes drier and darker until it is at last reduced to a fine black powder. This is removed from the fire, and when it has cooled somewhat it is thrown into the decoction of sumac, with which it instantly forms a rich, blue-black fluid. This dye is essentially an ink, the tannic acid of the sumac combining with the sesquioxide of iron in the roasted ochre, the whole enriched by the carbon of the calcined gum.

There are, the Indians tell me, three different processes for dyeing yellow; two of these I have witnessed. The first process is thus conducted: The flowering tops of Bigelovia graveolens are boiled for about six hours until a decoction of deep yellow color is produced. When the dyer thinks the decoction strong enough, she heats over the fire in a pan or earthen vessel some native almogen (an impure native alum), until it is reduced to a somewhat pasty consistency; this she adds gradually to the decoction and then puts the wool in the dye to boil. From time to time a portion of the wool is taken out and inspected until (in about half an hour from the time it is first immersed) it is seen to have assumed the proper color. The work is then done. The tint produced is nearly that of lemon yellow. In the second process they use the large fleshy root of a plant which, as I have never yet seen it in fruit or flower, I am unable to determine. The fresh root is crushed to a soft paste on the metate, and, for a mordant, the almogen is added while the grinding is going on. The cold paste is then rubbed between the hands into the wool. If the wool does


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not seem to take the color readily a little water is dashed on the mixture of wool and paste, and the whole is very slightly warmed. The whole process does not occupy over an hour, and the result is a color much like that now known as ‘‘„old gold.„’’

The reddish dye is made of the bark of Alnus incana var. virescens (Watson), and the bark of the root of Cercocarpus parvifolius; the mordant being fine juniper ashes. On buckskin this makes a brilliant tan color; but applied to wool it produces a much paler tint.—[Matthews.]

Father Berard's descriptions are as follows:

Black.—To make this dye the twigs, with leaves and berries of tsilchin, or ki, are gathered and crumpled together into small bunches. A pot of water is put over the fire and as many of the bunches as possible crowded into it. This is brought to boil and allowed to continue so for from five to six, or more hours, when a strong decoction is obtained.

While the twigs, leaves and berries are boiling some pinion gum (je) is put into a skillet and allowed to melt over a slow fire. When melted it is strained to remove dirt and other impurities, replaced in the skillet, and brought to a high degree of heat. Then some native ochre (tsekho), which has been powdered between two stones, and roasted to a light brown color, is slowly added to the hot gum. The pasty mass which results from this mixture must be constantly stirred, since it will be spoiled if allowed to burn. Great care must also be taken that the mass does not catch fire, since the pinion gum or pitch is inflammable, for that would spoil the whole mass, and the work would have to be begun anew. While thus seething and being stirred over the fire the pasty mass gradually yields up its moisture, becomes dryer and dryer, until finally a fine black powder remains. This powder, after cooling off somewhat, is thrown into the decoction of sumac, with which it readily combines, and forms a rich blue-black fluid. This continues to boil for about a half-hour when the wool is immersed in it, allowed to boil a short time, and then taken out. The color produced by this dye is a jet black, and is still used for dyeing yarn, buckskin and women's dresses. It is a very fast color and never fades.

Yellow.—The flowering tops of kiltsoi, gold rod, Bigelovia, of which several species grow in the Navaho country, are boiled for about six hours, until a decoction of a deep yellow is produced. When the dyer thinks the decoction is strong enough she heats over a fire, in a pan or earthen vessel, some native almogen called tse dokozh, saline rock, a kind of native alum or salt rock, until it is reduced to a somewhat pasty consistency. This she adds from time to time to the decoction, and then puts the wool in the dye to boil. Ever and anon she inspects the wool, until in about one half hour from the time it was first immersed it is seen to have assumed the proper color. The tint produced is nearly that of lemon color.

Another process of making a yellow is a decoction of the root of a plant called chantini, or jatini, with tse dokozh, native alum or salt rock. Chatini is a plant, or rather a weed, belonging to the Pogonaceae, or buckwheat family, of the species Rumex hymenosepalum, and Dr. G. H. Pepper says it ‘‘„is commonly known as canaigre.„’’

The process is then described almost in the exact words of Dr. Matthews quoted above.

Red.—This is a purely vegetable dye, all the ingredients being plants or parts of plants. To make this dye the woman first burns some twigs of the juniper tree,


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(Juniperus occidentalis), called gad. The roots of tseesdazi, (Cercocarpus parvifolius), a kind of mountain mahogany, are crushed and boiled. To this is added the juniper ashes and the powdered bark of the black alder, (Alnus incana var. virescens) known as kish, together with a plant called nibadlad, a moss which acts as a mordant. After the mixture has boiled until it is thought to be right it is strained and the wool or yarn is soaked in it over night. The result is a fine red color.

The dull reddish dye is made of the powdered bark of kish and the root bark of tseesdazi, which makes a fine tan color on buckskin, but produces a rather pale shade on wool.

In former years the Navaho had a native blue made of adishtlish, a kind of blue clay which was pulverized and boiled with sumac (ki) leaves to obtain a mordant. Later this was entirely superseded by indigo (beediltish) obtained from Mexicans. Urine, preserved in large Zuni pots, was used as a mordant into which the indigo was poured and the wool dipped. This was then allowed to stand from five to ten days, after which it was removed from the vessel and after drying was ready for use.

Here are Dr. G. H. Pepper's descriptions:

The native yellow dye, Kay-el-soey Bay-toh, in common use when the traders entered the Navaho country, was made from the flowering tops of the Rabbit weed or bush, Kay-el-soey, (Bigelovia graveolens). This plant is a member of the aster family and grows on the open prairies. It has a slender stalk which is crowned by a mass of yellow blossoms. It grows in clumps, as a rule, and there are three or four varieties in the Southwest. The flower-clusters are gathered and placed in a large pot containing water. This is allowed to boil from four to six hours. During the boiling the squaw places native alum, Say-doh-kans, almogen, in a frying pan and heats it until it is reduced to a pasty consistency. When the boiling has extracted the juices from the weed, the alum, which is to act as a mordant, is added. The liquid is now ready for the reception of the wool.

In dyeing the wool with the yellow decoction, it is placed in the pot of boiling liquid and allowed to boil for fifteen or twenty minutes, after which it is tested every few minutes until it has assumed the color desired. The tints obtained from this dye range from a canary yellow to an old gold, and even an olive green may be produced.

The only native dyes that are used by the Navahos at the present time are the red and black. These are used for dyeing the buckskin uppers of their moccasins. Machine-made shoes of the white man are being used to such an extent, however, that a few years will suffice to stamp out the last vestiges of a once popular and worthy industry.

In preparing the red dye for moccasins or any other article of buckskin, the process is as follows:

First a large rock is dusted and on it a fire is built. The sticks used for the fire are branches of the Juniper tree (Juniperus occidentalis), called by the Navahos, Kot. Branches of this material are added from time to time until enough ashes have accumulated. The fire is then allowed to burn out. All of the ashes, Kot Deed-lit, are collected and placed in a cloth which is rolled up and put aside. The squaw now attends to the preparation of the other ingredients.

Roots of the Mountain mahogany, Say-es-tozzie Bay-heck-klohl, (Cercocarpus parvifolius), are gathered and stripped of their bark by a pounding process. For this work a flat stone and a hand hammer-stone are used. The root-bark, Say-es-tozzie


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Bay-heck-klohl Bo-coggy is loosened by continued pounding and is then rolled from the roots. The bark is the only part retained, the roots themselves being devoid of color-bearing matter. When a sufficient quantity of the root-bark has been prepared it is placed in a kettle of water and allowed to boil for several hours.

While the root-bark is boiling the squaw brings forth from her bundles of household goods a number of pieces of the Black Alder, Kish, (Alnus incana var. virescens.) In many parts of the reservation this material must be brought from a distance and, as it is one of the principal ingredients, it is carefully prepared. A large buckskin is spread upon the floor of the hogan and upon it a stone slab is placed. The squaw now assumes a kneeling posture and, with a combination hammer and grinding stone, proceeds to reduce the bark to a powder. The first step is to break the bark into small pieces. This is done by means of a gentle pounding with the hammer end of the stone. As the bark is very brittle, care must be taken, as the pieces are to be kept from flying beyond the limits of the buckskin, hence the hammer strokes are short ones and are more in the form of a crushing movement than of a blow. When the bark has been reduced to small pieces, the hammer end of the stone is again brought into play, this time as a pulverizer. The accumulated pieces of bark are made still smaller and then the hand-stone is reversed. The flat side is thus brought into use and the last process, that of grinding, is begun. The bark is reduced to a powder in the same manner as corn is made into meal, the work being done, at times, on a regular meal metate. The powdered bark is now swept into a pile and transferred from the buckskin to a piece of cloth and placed beside the juniper ashes.

When the root-bark decoction Say-es-tozzie Bay-toh is ready for use, the small ash-twigs that have retained their shape are separated from the fine ashes and placed in a can into which some of the liquid from the boiled root-bark has been poured. These are allowed to remain about ten minutes, then the pieces that have not dissolved are removed.

Everything in the way of preparation having been attended to, the work of dyeing is begun by placing the piece of buckskin that is to be treated, upon a smooth surface of the sandy floor. The juniper ashes are the first to be applied. They are sprinkled upon the surface and rubbed in with the hands. Small pinches of this material are added from time to time until the entire surface has been uniformly prepared. The mahogany-root-bark-liquid is now poured upon the skin and worked into it with the fingers. The surface of the skin is also roughened with the nails. This rubbing and scratching continues until enough liquid has been applied to almost saturate the skin. The powdered alder bark is the next to be applied. It is put on in the form of a thick layer and the skin is kneaded and patted until the bark combines with the liquid. A thin layer of bark is now sprinkled upon the skin and upon this is poured the liquid obtained by mixing the juniper ashes with the mahogany root-bark extracts. A final patting and rubbing ensues and the buckskin is then rolled up and, in an absolutely saturated condition, is put aside to dry.

The color resulting from this process is a dull red. It gives a very satisfactory color when applied to the buckskin, but it cannot be used to dye wool. It has been tried, but the resulting color is too light a red to be used for blanket work.

The black dye, Eel-gee Bay-toh, is used for both buckskin and wool. In preparing this dye a fire of greasewood branches is started and upon it a pot of water is placed. While this is heating, twigs and leaves of the Aromatic Sumac, Key (Rhus aromatica), are twisted into bunches. These bunches average about six inches in length and with them the pot is filled. They are allowed to boil from five to six hours. During


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this time a second fire is built. Yellow ochre Tset Koomph, is powdered by grinding and is then roasted in a frying pan. The roasting turns the ochre to a dull red color. A portion of pinion gum, Jay, the gum of the Pinus edulis, equal in quantity to that of the ochre, is added. The mass soon assumes a pasty form, but it is stirred constantly until the gum carbonizes and combines with the ochre, thereby forming a black powder. The bundles of twigs are taken from the pot and the contents of the frying pan are dumped into the dark colored extract of the sumac, Key Bay-toh. The pot is allowed to remain on the fire, and after the powder is added, the boiling continues for fully half an hour. The wool is then introduced, allowed to boil, and the dyeing is complete.

As the Navahos have the natural black wool it is generally used for the black designs of blankets. It is tinged with red, however, and is therefore almost always dyed before being used.

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