The lost art of Ancient Tie dye | Part 1

Wari Tie Dye Tunic  handmade textile ancient dye fabrics

Imagine the thrill of finding a treasure chest in an old, forgotten excavation. You open it up to reveal intricately designed fabrics made from natural and animal fibres and beautifully tie dye--what could be more precious? It's amazing to think that this ancient art form was practised all over the world, well before our time. 

Unfortunately for us, there are few examples of traditional fabric designs that have survived the test of time. Since they are an invaluable part in our world's history, we have to learn what we can with those that survive. While the use of textiles in ancient cultures was commonplace, it is interesting how they were able to convey more than just beauty with their designs. By incorporating patterns on clothes or blankets, they were able to identify status symbols for  society. Different patterns would also be used for ceremonies, traditions, occupations, for warriors and in some cultures be reserved for different sexes. 

The tie dyeing techniques of old are quite different than the modern version. In ancient times, people focused on two methods that we now know as ikat (tie and dye yarn) which was later woven and resist dyes for fabric sewn/wrapped/folded/manipulated and later vat dyed. A variety of natural vegetation was use as dye, most famously indigo. In fact, just recently the oldest indigo dyed fabric was discovered in Peru, predating indigo finds in Egypt and elsewhere by 1500 years. 

Fabric dyeing evolved across continents in early civilizations simultaneously and likely without contact. In Asia, silk was the fabric of trade, which would give rise to the famous silk route. The Silk Route is a fascinating journey that traces the trade of silk across Asia, Africa and Europe starting in the 2nd century BCE. The quest to find new sources for this extravagance material led many people to riches and beyond. Silk has been produced in what we now know as China since ancient times, and the philosopher Confucius once said that " Silk is forever". In ancient China, people were already experimenting with resist dyeing on silk, some of the earliest examples of tie dye come the from Tang Dynasty.  

The ancient Chinese name for this style of artwork was “xié,” which means to twist and tie colored fabric with threads. It later became known as xiutai (the art) or tangshan ("to make beautiful”). In the most clear example, describing tie dye in ancient times, Zizhi Tongjian (around 1084 CE - current era) elaborates: “Xie is to twist the fabric and tie it with thread, then untie after dyeing. The tied part retains its original color, while the rest is dyed colorfully.” 

Meanwhile, across the pacific ocean, new excavations are revealing a rich and early history of fabric manipulation that come as no surprise given the beautiful woven fabrics from ancient Peru. Weaving and dyeing were established in South America well before arrival of European colonizers. Their techniques were already likely more advanced during prehistoric times than elsewhere on the planet, with Inca textiles being amongst finest ever produced.

In the Inca and pre-Inca cultures such as the Wari, Sihuas and Nasca, the textiles were so brilliant that they could have been used to paint a masterpiece. The patterns on these blankets, clothes, ritual textiles originated from depictions or human and animal forms. The Wari culture is best known for its brightly-coloured tunics that featured geometric designs. The dyeing process took many hours to complete, and each garment required heavy workmanship in order obtain this design. The process of manufacturing involved tying a small bunch the textile with yarn and soaking them in dye, producing a well known circular or square repeating pattern. 

The Nasca-Hueri are thought to be the oldest people on Earth who have mastered dyeing fabrics with indigo. They created some of our most beautiful traditions, like ritual body paint for warriors or creating woven shields that protected them during battle! The first time we saw this amazing culture's artifacts were about 6200 to 6000 years old when they left behind evidence at mound - Huaca Prieta. The pattern dyed indigo fabric was torn/cute and placed into the temple steps. In an interesting turn, it is though that the ancient women of the Nasca-Hueri culture were responsible for inventing indigo dye, a difficult and complex process.

The art of tie dye is an ancient one, with a variety of techniques being used in many different parts of the world. We’ve looked at examples from China and Peru, but there are many more cultures that practised this art. Which textile tradition do you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll explore it in a future blog post.


Image of Wari Tie Dye Geometric Design.  

Further Reading and Images:

Unknown.  Uploaded 26 December 2008 to the English language Wikipedia by Tillman (log)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Just for you