Naturally dyed yarns by Roy Kady are seen on display on Saturday during a presentation for the San Juan Quilters Guild at the Farmington Museum.
Naturally dyed yarns by Roy Kady are seen on display on Saturday during a presentation for the San Juan Quilters Guild at the Farmington Museum. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — While some members of the San Juan Quilters Guild use chemical dyes in their projects, many have never worked with natural dyes.

But after a presentation on Saturday, some say they might try dyeing their fabrics with natural dyes.

Navajo master weaver Roy Kady presented to the guild Saturday morning at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

Dixie Jackson, the guild's program coordinator, invited Kady to share his techniques at a guild meeting after she saw his work last year at the Totah Festival. Jackson said what impressed her about Kady then was his knowledge and willingness to share it.

"A lot of people would go up to him and ask questions," she said.

Roy Kady, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., gives a presentation on natural dyeing on Saturday during a meeting of the San Juan Quilters Guild at the Farmington
Roy Kady, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., gives a presentation on natural dyeing on Saturday during a meeting of the San Juan Quilters Guild at the Farmington Museum. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Kady, who is also a teacher at Navajo Technical University, drove about an hour from Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., to present to the guild.

Kady learned natural dyeing from his mother, grandmother and great-aunts, but he has also incorporated techniques he has learned during his travels to South America, Europe and Africa.

"Wherever I go, I'm always looking at their plants," Kady said.

Often, he squishes plants between his fingers to see if they produce dyes. Sometimes, a plant that produces a dye can be surprising. Even tumbleweeds, Kady said, produce dyes.

Saturday's presentation began with Kady showing a documentary about the Navajo-Churro sheep he raises.

Norma Yagnieh, a guild member, said that was her favorite part of the presentation because she liked seeing "how dedicated they seem to it (the sheep)."

The Navajo-Churro sheep is the oldest domesticated sheep in the United States. The documentary highlighted efforts among Navajo and Hispanic people to preserve the breed, which has twice nearly gone extinct.

Kady said the Navajo creation story mentions Churro sheep and details how someday the Navajo would receive the sheep.

Roy Kady, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., shows off an example of an eco-print on linen on Saturday during a presentation on natural-dyed wool at the Farmington
Roy Kady, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., shows off an example of an eco-print on linen on Saturday during a presentation on natural-dyed wool at the Farmington Museum. (Jon Austria /The Daily Times)

Spaniards brought the sheep to the U.S., and the Navajo got the animals from the Spanish and Pueblo people.

For many generations, Kady's family has herded Navajo-Churro sheep in Teec Nos Pos. Kady said when his mother was a child, her parents kept her out of school, hidden from the government, so she could herd the sheep, which the Navajo equate with life.

"We refer to sheep as life because it gives life, meaningful life," Kady said.

In addition to wool, the sheep provide mutton and teach their herders survival skills, Kady said.

The Navajo-Churro sheep are also ideal for wool because of their double coat. The outer coat is course wool while the inner coat is softer hair.

Kady uses this wool in his weaving and colors it with his homemade dyes.

The dyeing, Kady said, is a mixture of science and art.

He has learned to identify the plants and knows which ones create which colors. He has also learned how to add items like iron nails to the dye to change its color.

He gave a few warnings to the guild members about the process. For instance, he advised members not to use pots and pans they use for food for the dyeing process because some of the plants, such as sage, are highly toxic. Even though sage is used in small amounts in cooking or tea, if a person consumes too much sage they feel a burning in their esophagus and stomach as it corrodes and eats away the organs, Kady said.

Another part of the dyeing process is knowing the types of dyes that can come from different parts of the plants. For instance, the root bark of mountain mahogany produces an earth red tone.

But Kady doesn't always gather the plants; sometimes, he opts for a more convenient option.

"I realized, "Oh, they have them in packets now," he said.

This helps him especially with exotic plants, such as indigo. Kady has the flower in a freeze-dried package.

While Kady describes himself as a Navajo weaver, he said he has absorbed aspects of weaving from other cultures, such as Swedish and French, which he has learned from friends and during workshops. By doing that, he said, he's changing the kind of weaving often associated with Navajos.

"I'm taking it beyond what we're kind of known to do," he said.

Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.