Oregon Grape, a traditional Sinixt dye.
In 2017 I received a grant from the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance to research the traditional dye and textile plants used by the First Nations (Indigenous Peoples) of the Columbia Basin area. The Columbia Basin is located in the South Eastern corner of British Columbia and lies within the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Ktunaxa, Shuswap, and Okanagan Nations. My methods of research will include interviews, book research, and as much hands-on harvesting and experimenting as possible. This blog will serve as a field journal of sorts to share my research into the traditional dyes, techniques, and textile plants utilized by the Indigenous Peoples of this area.
For information on the Sinixt People’s history, territory, and their ongoing fight with the Canadian government for existence, please check out these links.
My first meeting with Sinixt elder Marilyn James and her daughter Taress Alexis took place at the Sinixt Community Pit House in Sept 2017. It was a breezy fall day and we sat outside to talk traditional dyes and textiles of the Sinixt People.
Neither Marilyn nor Taress are dye or textile practitioners, but they have the knowledge, passed down from their ancestors through generations of their people, and they were happy to share their knowledge with me.
I asked a few questions to get started and the interview quickly took on an organic storytelling exchange rather than a formulaic question and answer format. The technical information was scattered amongst tales of Sinixt legends and memories of grandmothers’ stories and techniques.
I am so grateful for the open sharing of traditional knowledge Marilyn and Taress have granted me. I took so many notes that day and since then have been experimenting with some of the techniques and plants they told me about. Though spring is generally the best time to dig Oregon Grape roots, I couldn’t wait to start experimenting so I commenced digging and dyeing right away.
After digging up the Oregon Grape roots I washed them and began peeling back the roots’ bark to find the bright yellow Marilyn had described to me.
A brilliant yellow was revealed!!! Marilyn said that the roots could be used with or without the bark to achieve different shades of yellow, so I tried it both ways to see what different yellows I would get.
When I inquired about the use of mordants in traditional practice, neither Marilyn nor Taress were aware of any, so I simply began cooking the roots up in a pot of water. Often natural dyes derived from wood, barks, and some roots are high in tannic acid which acts as a natural, built-in mordant. I suspect that is the case with this dye as the colour took quickly and has remained fast to date.
Without bark the yellow was light and lemony…it almost looked like there was no colour in the dye water it was so pale, but the colour took very quickly when I added the fabric. I used a low and slow heating to extract the dye since Marilyn had described a method of slow heating with rocks from the fire being added to the pot rather than a hard boil over the fire. After gently heating the fabric in the dye solution, I covered the pot and let it cool overnight. There is a very subtle chartreuse/green undertone to this dye that the camera cant quite register, but the human eye can delight in…you’ll have to use your imagination a wee bit….
With the bark left on the yellow was darker and had a warmer tone. I used the same low and slow heat method to extract the dye and color the fabric. The results were beautiful! As always trying to get pictures that are color accurate is so difficult with natural dyes since they are subtle and nuanced - the camera always “corrects” the color!
Colors achieved from dye made with Oregon Grape roots - no bark. You can see that subtle underlying green/chartreuse in the dyed fabric samples.
Colors achieved from dye made with Oregon grape roots - bark on. A warmer, buttery yellow compared to the bark off dye color.
This dye was beautiful and rather unexpected from the root of the Oregon Grape! The Sinixt also used the berries for dye and I have experimented with them as well. We discussed how harvesting dye material at different times of year can produce different colour outcomes. Taress noted that berries were harvested in summer when they are ripe and roots were harvested in the spring/summer when the plants’ root energy was strongest. This yellow is one of the brightest colours in the traditional Sinixt colour palette and was used in the making of baskets. The general colour palette was muted and simple…except when it came to the baskets which, according to Marilyn, were their ‘Bling” and utilized the brightest of dyes.
The Oregon Grape berries produced a lovely, subtle color. I cooked the berries at a very low temperature to prevent muddying the tone by overheating. I harvested the berries in September, right after my interview with Marilyn and Taress, which is past their ‘prime’. I will try again this summer to see if I get a different shade from fresher berries. Marilyn told me that sometimes color was extracted from berries using a slow solar dyeing method to preserve their palette better. It is a very delicate dye and too much heat can cause it to turn toward brown. Time rather than heat seems to be the preferred method for extraction. I can't wait for berry picking season this year!
*Special thanks to storytellers and knowledge keepers Marilyn James and Taress Alexis for their generous sharing of traditional Sinixt knowledge.
*As always when wild harvesting plant dyes only take 10% of plants/berries/lichen/barks from one area. This allows what is left to multiply and generate more healthy plants for future collecting and continued biodiversity. It also leaves our woodland creatures adequate access to food and shelter sources.