Nature Bag Sponsors Natural Dye Workshop

The early morning Northern Laos sky was a brilliant blue as an European, an American and 10 Lao gathered on a point of land at the base of the massive Kuang Si waterfall for a workshop on using nearby forest products to add color to Earth’s Greenest Bag™.

After exchanging greetings and sharing fresh organic coffee grown 500 km south in the landlocked Southeast Asian nation, the group moved into the surrounding jungle to find the bark of a special tree that would be the source of the color for the first natural dye.  The temperature was comfortable thanks to a thunderstorm an hour earlier.  The smell was sweet from a multitude of Lao jungle flowers.

As the roar of the quickly moving water falling from the mountain looming overhead permeated the air, a fire was built, and a large kettle half-full of water propped by rocks over the flames began to steam as the water’s temperature rapidly rose.  While most of the group tended the soon boiling caldron, two Khmu Nature Bag crafters expertly extracted thin white ribbons of JungleVine® fiber from segments of stem of wild growing vine harvested an hour earlier further up the mountain.

This was the beginning of a 3 day collaboration involving people from 3 continents sharing knowledge and experiences.  The purpose was to refine methods of using natural dyes to add color to the JungleVine® cord that the Khmu would soon “spin” using the satin-like glossy thin white ribbons now drying in the air. 


Vanvisa at the Falls Lodge 

The location seemed magical.  It was at the countryside guesthouse, Vanvisa at the Falls Lodge, created and operated by Nature Bag Khmu/Laos Consultant/Volunteer Vandara and her husband.  Located about 30 km (16 miles) outside of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, it’s a great place to relax in dense jungle, to attend Lao cooking classes or to create natural dyes for decorating Earth’s Greenest Bag™. 

In addition to the sounds of local children playing in the swirling currents of water nearby and birds singing their tunes, a relaxing “white noise” from bubbling torrents blanketed the setting, soothing and relaxing all who were there. One needed to resist becoming hypnotized by the hundreds of colorful butterflies in the air assisted by the soothing sounds.

As the liquid in the large kettle boiled and transformed to darker browns, pieces of the bark that had been in the developing dye for a few minutes were scooped out and replaced with fresh thin pieces of the special but abundant bark.  Dried twigs, also gathered nearby, provided the fuel to make the raging fire and created a bed of glowing coals beneath the rock-supported kettle.

Organized and sponsored by Vandara and the Nature Bag Project’s Lao National Coordinator/Volunteer Sith, the countryside volunteers and the Khmu had traveled 14 hours on winding mountain roads the day before in Countryside Coordinator/Volunteer Ounkham’s truck to come from their villages in the more northerly Oudomxai Province. 

Ineke Poort-Van Euk from The Hague had flown 16 hours for her first stay in Laos as part of The Netherlands Senior Experts volunteer program to share European knowledge with third-world nations. 

The American, Nature Bag Sponsor/Volunteer Bill was beginning a 3 week assignment in Laos, having traveled more than 30 hours from the U.S. state of Iowa on his 5th trip to Laos in 2012.

Soon it was time for a delicious lunch at tables set only a few meters away from the turbulent water of Kuang Si.  The contents of the pot had become a dense almost black dye that would be fixed to the JungleVine® cord later in the day. 

In the following days berries, leaves and flowers from plants growing nearby would be similarly processed to make natural organic dyes of a variety of colors.

The materials used for the colors had been carefully selected by Vandara.  An expert on Lao jungle plants, she wanted to use vegetation that also would be readily available in Oudomxai where the Khmu crafters would be using them. 

Bag crafters Pa Sa and Som already had experience making dye from plants.  But most of the time when they added color to the difficult-to-stain JungleVine® fabric used in their Nature Bags, they used man-made dyes from Thailand.

The underlying objective was to enable the Khmu to craft sustainable bags with colors that would meet the stringent standards of being purely organic for Nature Bag retailers like Kanga Organics of Singapore.  Currently Kanga Organics can offer its customers only the Pahk style Nature Bag because it is impossible to assure that each home crafted bag with color contains only natural dye.  Although its rich tan/golden-brown silk-like sheer finish is inherently beautiful, sometimes one wants to make a bolder statement, and that requires color.

Ineke Poort-Van Euk would be Vandara’s guest for 2 weeks.  Her expertise includes techniques to “fix” dyes so that they are more fade-resistant and do not “bleed” into nearby a materials.  “Fixing” is especially critical when coloring a stain-resistant fabric like JungleVine®.

Our first completely organic color reusable totes will be in the Sidh or Noy styles and available early in 2013.  After the 3 days of work in the jungle, everyone who participated had learned from the others while enjoying the diversity of backgrounds of their colleagues.  Fulfillment was felt as the challenges of adding color to the stubbornly-resistant JungleVine® and fixing it to stay were met and solved by these 10 people from all over the globe.

Vivian Ramirez

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