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Pre-contact Dyes

Very little research has been done on prehistoric dyestuffs. Bast, or plant fibers, naturally appear in a range of brown to tan tones, and sometimes show a yellowish or greenish tint. Cotton also shows some variety in color, mostly in the white to tan range.

    Pre-contact Sewing
    Brocade or Embroidery?
    Other Pre-contact Evidence
        -Wall Paintings
        -Weaving Techniques

  Various plants produce colors that will dye cotton and bast fibers, most notably indigo, which produces a strong and lasting blue color. We do not know when Southwestern people first began using indigo. It may have been available in the southern areas as early as 1100 A.D. Certainly by the time the Spanish invaded in the sixteenth century, the Pueblos were using indigo to decorate their textiles. They also seem to have used some mineral ores, such as iron.  

Painted yucca fiber carrying band, notheastern Arizona
Evidence exists of a variety of dyeing processes. In some cases, Southwestern people seem to have dyed the yarns by soaking them with some plant or mineral. In other instances, they instead coated the yarns with pulverized minerals in a process referred to as “dry dyeing.” Yet other textiles were painted; that is, the maker suspended pulverized minerals in some sort of medium--water, animal fat, or plant sap--and applied the mixture to the fabric.

     Some textiles also show signs of having been “tie-dyed,” a technique in which design areas were bound, or tied, in order to prevent the dye from penetrating the bound area while the textile soaked in the dye bath. This technique produces a pattern by contrasting the dyed areas with the original, undyed cloth.

  Representations of tie-dye from
the kiva at Awatovi
  Unfortunately, analyzing ancient textiles to determine the process and materials used to color a fiber often destroy the fiber. Since we have so few scraps of ancient textiles, such destructive but informative analyses are rare. The removal of preservatives such as paraffin can also damage or destroy a textile fragment. Further study awaits the invention of less destructive techniques.  

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