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To Dye For

A World Saturated in Color

  • de Young Museum
    50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Map)
    +1 415.863.3330

One of my most indelible summer camp memories is of tie-dying. At some point over the course of the summer, we would be asked to bring in old white t-shirts, then proceed to rubber-band them into tiny, twisted wads. Choosing between the vats of brightly colored dyes was the easiest part; dipping only certain parts of the fabric in each color was more of a challenge. The greatest challenge, of course, was waiting hours for the shirt to dry so you could unbind it and behold the unexpected complexity of color and shape splayed across its expanse.

This element of the unexpected, of folding and scrunching a blank palette into a tiny wad, poking it around in dyes, and then opening it up later to reveal a blossoming of pattern and spreading color, is one of my favorite things about dying fabrics. Yet, this art was not invented fifty years ago over on Telegraph Avenue; it has been around for thousands of years, and has taken numerous manifestations.

To Dye For, at the De Young Museum until January 9th, presents over 50 objects from the museum’s collections that represent six different dying techniques: mordant-resist, which uses various chemicals to set dyes; batik (wax-resist); ikat; shibori, a Japanese term referring to various resist-dye techniques; stitch-resist; and, of course, tie-dye.

Arranged by technique rather than time period or geographical location, the exhibition gives visitors insight not only into the techniques, but also into the ways in which various dyes, patterns, and techniques spanned across time and cultures.

The oldest piece in the exhibition is a Pre-Columbian man’s tunic from Peru, created somewhere between the 5th and 8th centuries. Its stepped pattern of tie-dyed rectangles climb across a dark background, creating a geometric solidity to the work that still manages to reveal a sense of the delicacy involved in creating the pattern. One of the earliest examples of the tie-dye technique, the tunic reveals itself as the distant ancestor to summer camp projects everywhere with its carefully placed contrasting ovals.

Another wonderful example of tie-dye that further shows the capabilities of the technique is a sari from the 20th century — though the technique dates back to several hundred years earlier there. The vibrant red peeks out between the outlines of an intricate pattern of white and yellow-orange leaves and flowers, figures of women, even tiny elephants. They dance across the silk fabric in a rhythmic flow, circling around a rosette of flowers and dancing women. One of the brightest pieces in the exhibition, the sari is striking in its combination of color and detail.

Ikat is perhaps the mostly widely represented technique in the exhibition, one that has a distinctly different flavor to it due to the way in which the dyes are used. With ikat, the threads are dyed in a pattern before weaving, rather than dying the entire fabric after it has been woven. Thus, the patterns tend to have slightly more definition and linearity than those formed with the other techniques.

Ikat pieces from Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Bolivia, even an Oscar de la Renta trenchcoat and a Coca-Cola kimono, adorn the walls, displaying extremely complex patterns — which must, of course, be entirely known and planned beforehand.

Particularly interesting is an early 20th century woman’s ceremonial skirt from Borneo. Primarily an orangey-red — the color of clay — the large cotton rectangle fields extremely complex geometric patterns that mirror and repeat along its entire length. In a society that prized a woman’s ability to weave increasingly difficult patterns, the woman who created this was surely of the highest rank.

With respect to detail, it seems that few techniques can achieve quite the same level and variety as batik and mordant-resist dying. These two techniques, the one using wax and the other chemicals to block out lines and fields of color, though not as well represented in the exhibition, produce stunning works. A cotton and silk festival or wedding jacket and skirt from the Guizhou Province of China provide an incredible example of a batik work, its swirling lines mixing with hard geometric shapes and a Greek key border against a midnight blue background. The delicacy of the lines, the level of detail, and the aesthetic beauty of the patterns are literally mesmerizing.

From extremely detailed lines and scenes to large splotches of color, the works in the exhibition span 1,500 years and at least five continents. Ceremonial scarves and wall hangings, rugs, shoes, even haute couture; these 50 or so pieces provide a surprisingly broad view of culture, materials, and techniques, allowing visitors a tiny glimpse into the culturally and economically significant world of dyed fabrics.

De Young Museum
July 31, 2010- January 9, 2011
Tickets: Free-$10