Image courtesy of Trail Of Pigment
What fascinates me about natural, plant-based dyes is not only their importance for the well-being of the planet, including the potential to eliminate the effects of chemical dyes in our water supply, but also their more subtle healing aspects for the wearer. So I’m excited that contemporary designers are starting to incorporate plant dyes into their designs, drawing on the revival of an ancient practice that fabric producers in India are calling Ayurvastra.
Based on Ayurvedic medicine, the 5,000-year-old philosophy of health and healing found in ancient Hindu texts, Ayurvastra clothing is made from organic cotton fabric treated with precise combinations of herbs and oils thought to promote health and help cure diseases. Loosely translated, “ayur” is Sanskrit for health, “veda” means wisdom, and “vastra” is cloth or clothing. Based on the principles of restoring balance within the body and strengthening the immune system, the clothing is worn to treat a broad range of diseases, including diabetes, skin infections, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, arthritis, rheumatism, hypertension, high blood pressure, and even some forms of cancer. Whether or not one is a believer, Ayurvastra cloth is attractive simply for its zero impact: it is completely free of synthetic chemicals and toxic irritants, organic, sustainable, and biodegradable.
Ayurvastra cloth is a tradition in India, but the fabric is relatively new to the world market. In the 1990s hand weavers in India concerned about the loss of their livelihoods as imports flooded into their country banded together to preserve the knowledge of healing fabrics. Reflecting their commitment to tradition, every step of Ayurvastra is tightly controlled, starting the 100% organic cotton that must be hand loomed – no machine processing, no chemical additives to prepare the cotton fibers for spinning and weaving, and no chemical finishes. The cotton yarn or fabric is then colored with mixtures of herbal dyes chosen to treat specific conditions. For diabetes, cloth dyers combine touch-me-not, or sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), cumin (Cuminum cyminum), flowers from the sacred champa tree (Michelia champaka)and shoe flower (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis). For skin diseases, the herbs include several that may sound more familiar to Western ears: turmeric, neem, and sandalwood. Colors range from subdued to bright and rich, like the arthritis-fighting garments dyed with curry. The colors are attractive but the herbs come first and creating. Ayurvastra fabric is far from simple: dyes can contain as many as 60 medicinal herbs, plants, flowers, roots, and barks. Knowledgeable makers carefully monitor dye temperatures, the duration and number of the dye soaks, the blend of herbs, and even the equipment.
Westerners are likely to find Ayurvastra cloth when searching for sleepwear, bed sheets, towels, meditation clothes and mats. Chaitanya Arora of Penchant Traders, an Indian company that exports Ayurvastra explained that the most effective time to wear the herbal-infused clothing is while resting, sleeping or meditating, when the body is naturally healing and re-establishing balance, so many of the products are created with those effects in mind. “Usage of the cloth is based on the principle of touch,” Arora said. “By coming in contact with Ayurvastra, the body loses toxins and its metabolism is enhanced.”
While Ayurvastra may be attractive simply because of its history and purity, it would be nice to think the health benefits are genuine. So, if it works, how does it work? As Arora suggests, the essence of the cloth is its proximity to skin. Western medicine and traditional Eastern medicine recognize the skin as the body’s largest organ. The skin can act as a barrier, but it can also be a conduit for outside substances to enter the body. Proponents of natural clothing assert that environmental toxins and chemicals in conventional fabrics are assimilated into the body through the skin.
Images courtesy of Trail Of Pigment.
Ayurvastra clothing turns that liability into a benefit. In Ayurvedic medicine the skin is believed to have seven layers, e ach with a distinct function and each related to the surrounding layers. Starting at the outermost, the layers defined by Ayurveda are: Avabhasini, Lohita, Shweta, Tamra, Vedini, Rohini, and Mamsadhara. The fourth, Tamra, both supports the immune system and acts as a barrier. According to Maharishi Ayurveda, “Skin infections reflect an imbalance in this layer.” To correct any potential imbalance, the herbs that permeate Ayurvasta clothing can improve the skin’s ability to block external and environmental toxins.
It's always exciting to see designers updating tradition in unexpected ways. One Western fashion designer is using distinctly modern technology to deliver the healing properties of traditional herbs. London-based Diana Irani, 25, has created a line called 'Clothes that Cure,’ garments impregnated with herbal medicine. Her first designs were slips with embedded microcapsules that are triggered into releasing medicine by the skin’s heat and acidity. These lightweight garments can be worn under clothing or as nightwear.
Irani’s clothing works on the same principle as nicotine or HRT patches, the designer told London’s Daily Mail newspaper. conveying herbs directly into the bloodstream through the skin, which many natural medicine practitioners believe is more effective than oral medication. Because they do not release their herbal remedy when wet, the clothes can be washed and the herbal benefits will last for months.
Irani is part of a larger movement. Recently AGB and the Brookyn-based fashion incubator Manufacture NY partnered to produce an event on sustainable style in New York City, where a panel on natural dyes drew a full house of engaged fashionistas and designers, indicating a growing market for fabrics that both look and feel natural.
From the heyday of Vogue magazine as a showcase for Surrealist art to the street fashion of Jean-Paul Gaultier, the fashion industry has led the culture in creative ideas. Now, in a revolutionary era of innovative textile making and biotechnology, fashion is showing us that techniques that worked in the past play an essential role in a future that's both gorgeous and sustainable.
Up coming Ayurvastra workshops: Keuka Peaceful Roots.