Barbara Schey: UNESCO Natural Dyeing Symposium

The March guest speaker was Barbara Schey.

You would think that after all the tours that Barbara has led to south-east Asia and South America that there wouldn’t be much left for her to learn about the pitfalls. Travelling in India taught her several. And, I think, she learned something about herself and her ability to get what she had organised.


Her tour was attached to the UNESCO Natural Dyeing Symposium held in Hyderabad in early November last year. Barbara was surprised that many industrialists are adopting natural dyes as a marketing strategy to avoid the adverse image of man-made dyes. There were 860 attendees from all over the world. The attendee list read like the catalogue of authors of modern dyeing books. Their results re-inspired Barbara to try vegetable dyes. She is currently trying to find a local mud (with added ferrous sulphate) that will dye as well and as quickly as the sample she made there one afternoon.
Many of the papers were challenging for those inexperienced in chemistry despite the instantaneous translation. The list of papers may be downloaded from the UNESCO site, portal.unesco.org/culture
The tour started in the south of India in the rainy season. They had 24 inches of rain each day for three days running to demonstrate how inadequate the local drains were… but which country would be able to cope with that much water especially if they have one billion citizens? Compared to travelling in Japan, India was dirty, crowded and corrupt. Being in a group of 20 women (and one man) put them at a disadvantage when trying to negotiate even with the tour company that had made their arrangements. Barbara learned to demand an acceptable level of service. The Hotel Perfect in Delhi did not live up to its name.
Despite this there were wonderful textiles available. Barbara’s buying was limited by weight limits on internal flights but she still managed to bring a table full of cloth to share with us… partly by wearing a goodly number of them plus 15 necklaces on to the plane!
Bargains were everywhere. She bought a wonderful piece with shisha glass and gold thread for a fraction of the cost of the threads. And a fine cotton dohti for her husband, which is too transparent even for a sarong here. They visited several villages which specialized in weaving where weavers use pit looms and take 6 days to weave a sari at 60 epi with draw loom edges, 7-8m long, which is sold for $3.50.
Barbara enjoyed buying shibori cloths that are traditional in India and ludicrously cheap considering the work involved.
On long bus trips she kept her tourists busy weaving pouches on cardboard frames using cheap saris ripped into strips. After seeing a stunning exhibition of a sultan’s jewels in Hyderabad she was disappointed by the Taj Mahal which she had thought was studded with precious gems but it only has semi-precious stones inlaid in white marble. The most enjoyable museum was J Singh’s observatory in Jaipur.
Barbara was asked if she got sick while in India: she loved the food. Being a vegetarian it was a pleasure to eat in a country where restaurants were separated into vegetarian and non-vegetarian. It was only on the last day or two that she felt a little unwell.

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