LEARNING TO DYE - An Offering from the Trees
"It's the beginning of hot season. Trees here are shedding their leaves so much that sweeping the paths is a daily necessity, sometimes twice. I came to this [Nay Pyi Daw] monastery for its healthy Vinaya reputation and to hopefully learn from the monks here how to harvest natural materials for making dye. In Thailand over the new year I had learned how to hand sew and am nearly finished with my first upper and lower robes. Amongst the forest tradition there, some donors offer plain white cotton cloth from which monks sew and dye their own robes. Here in Myanmar I have yet to come across the same practice, but some meditating monks here like to darken the bright, chemically dyed robes with natural hand-made dyes.
There are many woods and barks suitable for making dye but I don't like the idea of asking someone for bark skinned from live trees if there's an alternative. It so happens that there is one tree with large fruit pods that make an excellent dye. And fortunately, my timing couldn't be better as the fruits are falling now. An offering from the trees. Harvesting is as simple as identifying the right tree, a type of Ironwood, and gathering the seedless pods that have fallen to the ground amongst the leaves. They're relatively easy to spot as many of them are bright red and stand out amongst the leaves. The pods open and discharge their seeds by turning inside out. And they seem to curl out after they have already fallen as evidenced by one pod that was wrapped tightly around an old discarded robe and by another that was completely wrapped around the base stem of a plant!
The dye making process is quite a time consuming affair, first boiling the fruits overnight to extract the color, removing the fruits, and then further boiling to reduce the dye into a stronger concentrate. Fortunately, as a monk, I have the time.
I have made a few experiments dying my under garment I wear over my upper body when not in villages or amongst devotees. The resulting color is a medium brown with a reddish hue. I am trying different ways to get the color to hold fast to the cloth. Currently when I sweat (which is a lot this time of year), the color runs. And I chuckle to think about wearing such a robe in the rainy season. Today I experimented with a tip from one of the monks to fix the color with green tea and salt. Not perfect but there was an improvement. Just the border, corners, and fasteners and the robes will be ready to dye. It's a joy to have this gift from the forests which unfortunately are disappearing fast from this world. I share my merits with the forests and all the beings who dwell there, including an occasional monk living in simplicity, following in the footsteps of the Buddha."