Home PageDyeingNatural Dyes: Lac

Jul 09

Natural Dyes: Lac

Our summer of naturally-dyed reds continues with an investigation of another scale insect. Let’s follow the trail of natural dyes to lac in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Thailand and Laos.

Science in the Dyepot
More than 160 tree varieties play host to kerria lacca, which is found both wild and cultivated in Southeast Asia. The female insects invade the host tree, protecting themselves and their young by secreting a resin that contains the red dye, quite different than the white webbing cochineal insects produce for protection. This resin cocoon is called stick lac and the dye must be extracted before it can be used to color cloth.

The Kerria Lacca (lac) insect. Drawing by Harold Maxwell-Lefroy.

The Kerria Lacca (lac) insect. Drawing by Harold Maxwell-Lefroy.

Explore History
Lac made red dyes from India, famous around the world, have been celebrated throughout Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand since ancient times. In India lac was ground into powder and used to stain leather, wool and silk, and sometimes as a substitute for henna. In Tibet, Persia and parts of western Asia it was popular for carpet production. It was also used in textile production in Japan and China. Throughout history, lac has been used in combination with indigo to make purple and with weld for orange.

Cultural Meaning
Lac insects in India have been called indragopa, meaning “those protected by Indra, the god of rain. The richly colored, velvety bugs appear in large numbers during the start of the monsoon season. Colors often have traditional or cultural significance in many societies and color and pattern in textiles can describe locations, ethnicity, purpose or status. In parts of Laos, one local custom is to tie red, black and white threads around the neck or wrist, then have a shaman empower the threads to keep away bad spirits. Lac red (krang in Thai) has been applied on hands and feet for religious occasions and is also believed to prevent insect attack when applied on feet.

Contemporary Textile Artisans
Ock Pop Tok (East Meets West) is a Laos social enterprise which highlights traditional and modern Lao handcrafts and encourages visitors to learn about textiles, crafts, and culture. Silk has been cultivated and woven in Laos for over a 1000 years and Ock Pop Tok is part of the revival of natural dyeing on silk.  In a neighboring village is Lao Textiles and Natural Dyes Gallery. They specialize in traditional Tai Lue weaving of supplementary weft.  Look at these beautiful examples of work from Ock Pop Tok and Lao Textile and Natural Dye Gallery which use the lac dye.

Dye Technique
Let’s go to the dyepot. A variety of extracts and ground raw materials are available for dyeing. Simply dissolve the lac extract in water, simmer for 45 minutes, and leave in the dye bath overnight for the richest colors. Use an alum mordant on silk and wool protein fibers for excellent light and washfastness. Be aware that lac is not as lightfast on cellulose. Lac is a water sensitive dye like cochineal, so take care to test your water and decide if you need distilled water. Colors are similar to cochineal, sometimes softer and more muted, although I have dyed with cochineal and lac with similar results.

If you happen to have some stick lac, pound it into a powder and soak for three days, then strain and boil, adding mordants. In Thailand, mead and tamarind leaves (high in aluminum) are used for mordanting fibers.

Fun Facts
The ancient Greeks used lac to color pottery and the use of lac resin (shellac) to color and protect furniture dates back to the 1500s.

Until next month – Get your dye on and share this on.

This is the second post from our guest blogger, Judy Newland. Culture and the environment are the two main topics she addresses in her textile art. She’s been working in textiles for more than thirty years as a maker and later as a textile historian. With a background in textile history and museum anthropology, she brings a deep cultural engagement to everything she produces. She doesn’t just dye fabric in a dyepot, she looks in the dyepot and sees world history, science, fashion, medicine, and ritual! It’s an entire world to explore and share and we’re pleased she’s sharing it with us on the cloth road. See more about Judy at clothconspiracy.com.

Padilla, C. and Anderson, B., eds., September 1, 2015, A Red Like No Other, Skira Rizzoli, New York.
Moeyes, Marjo, 1993, Natural Dyeing in Thailand, White Lotus Co, Bangkok.

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