“Mixing colours to make dye is like cooking a dish in the kitchen,” said Bhanu. Her intriguing words made me listen more attentively to what she had to say about the craft of making natural dyes. Bhanu works for a block printing studio in Bengaluru, where her duties involve extracting rich colours and preparing dyes from natural herbs, fruits and vegetable peels—a process that can take up to three days at times. She has been working in this profession for 35 years, and is a “well-qualified PhD holder, if there is a degree like this for natural dyeing,” said her manager.
During the conversation, Bhanu highlighted various benefits of natural dyes, including their non-toxic and anti-microbial properties. Synthetic dyes, on the other hand, can be harmful to the skin but are still regularly used in the textile industry. Once studios and manufacturing units began slowly inching back to normalcy post the COVID-19 lockdown, Bhanu and her team collaborated with a nearby Ayurvedic hospital, working with a medicinal plant expert to make masks using natural dyes.
“I still wear the masks I made with the medical expert,” she said. “In ancient times, dyes were not only judged by the colour but also for their medicinal and healing properties.”
Each time Bhanu mixes natural dyes, she has to check the colour by dipping in a piece of fabric and testing it with the block to be used for final printing. The only other tool she uses is a D65 light box which is utilised as a daylight source to help match colours, paints and inks. “When you put both the samples (old and new) in the lightbox, and if it matches, then your job is a success. This lightbox is the global standard for colour matching in block printing works,” Bhanu explained.
The employees’ work at the studio is segmented—each being responsible for a specific part of the process and for ensuring the overall quality meets set standards. Customers usually do not pay much heed to the entire procedure but are only invested in the final product. With the lack of automation in the process, Bhanu’s goal has been to standardise the result to the maximum extent possible, by streamlining the methods and through regular quality checks. “Most people come for quality,” she said. “Not only the quality of blocks and prints are important, but the quality of the colour we use is equally important.”