A raised eyebrow is not uncommon when one first hears the terms acid dyes or synthetic dyes. Words like acid and synthetic tend to trigger skepticism, especially when the alternative is natural. This initial response is further amplified by the recent cultural assumptions that natural is always better. However, as is life, there are pros and cons to both synthetic and natural dyes.
In the 1960’s, Rachel Brown, a New York born easterner, with an education in color and design, developed a dye method now referred to as the sequential method of acid dyeing. Rachel had moved out west, finally settling in Taos, New Mexico with her husband, Malcolm. They built their own home from handmade adobe bricks, with floors of mud and ox blood. A wood stove provided a source of heat, the ability to cook and a way to warm water hauled from the nearby stream.
Rachel fell in love with the fiber rich world of northern New Mexico, opening her first shop, the Craft House, in Arroyo Seco. Handwoven textiles were a focal point of this endeavor. Rachel found hand-dying (and even hand-spinning) her own yarn was more cost effective than buying dyed yarn. Also, the finished textile held a beauty that surpassed commercially dyed yarns. Though she played around with natural dyes, Rachel preferred the colorfastness and the vast potential of colors achievable with acid dyes.
Those early dye days at the Craft House were not much different than how Rachel dyed in her later days. Galvanized tubs were filled with water and warmed over wood burning fires. Yarn was added to the pot to soak, while dye was being mixed. The yarn was pulled from the pot and the dye added and stirred. The yarn was resubmerged and stirred. Acid was added. The stirring continued. The beauty of acid dye is, with the right amount of heat and acid, all the dye penetrates (or strikes) the wool, leaving the water almost clear.
This is where the sequential method of acid dyeing comes in. Historically, one might have emptied out the dyebath and started over again. However, Rachel found, if you dyed in a certain color sequence, you could dye color after color out of the same dyebath. So, after the first batch of yarn was removed from the pot, another batch of undyed yarn immediately replaced it. Once it soaked, it was removed, dye was added, the yarn was resubmerged and stirred. More acid was added. The color striked. The yarn was pulled. Fresh yarn added. And the process continued.
Rachel’s natural tendency towards efficiency, combined with her chosen living situation (residing in arid New Mexico), made this dye method an obvious route. Theoretically, one could dye indefinitely out of the same pot, conserving acid and heat within the dyebath and only adding water as it evaporated. This process allows for very little negative environmental impact, saving countless gallons of water, greatly reducing fuel usage and preserving acid necessary for this style of dyeing.
In The Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing Book, Rachel wrote, “I dye the same way I cook – rarely use a recipe and rarely measure.” Approaching dyeing with this mindset allowed her to break away from the traditional dyeing techniques and create a method that is environmentally friendly, while allowing for a huge variety of fast colors.
In 1985, Rachel opened Rio Grande Weavers Supply, a source for weaving yarns, equipment, looms and spinning wheels. Using her dye method, she developed a line of yarns, Rio Grande Yarns, which included wool yarns for rugs, tapestry and apparel. Within a few years, she expanded her business to include Weaving Southwest, a gallery featuring New Mexico’s premier tapestry artists. Thirty years later, Weaving Southwest continues to thrive, producing Rio Grande Yarns at Rachel’s original dye studio, using the method she developed fifty years prior.