Fabric warrior (part IV): Zahdan Sterling and the finished product

Zahdan Sterling with his work in the French Market. (Photo by: Lacar Musgrove)


You can also read part I, part II, and part III of “Fabric Warrior.” 

There are now three colors in six pie-shaped sections alternating around the circle. Zahdan flips the disc over and shows me how, with the colors bleeding through just barely on the other side, the fabric is now sufficiently saturated. Then, to my surprise, he covers that whole side with a layer of dark purple and then black. When the piece is finished, dark lines separate the colors and define the contours of the pattern.

“People don’t realize,” says Greg, “there’s a lot of black in tie-dye.”

Tie-dyeing was known about and promoted by various dye companies in America long before the Diggers adopted it. When Judy Goldhaft and the Diggers started making tie-dyes at the Free Store, they were probably using vat dyes, submerging the cloth in successive colors, as recommended by an article published in Craftsman in 1909. “In case . . . the fabric is dyed a light yellow shade before it is tied in, and then dipped in some other color, as, for instance, a light blue, the result will be a yellow pattern in a green background. It is extremely easy to continue this process of tying and dyeing until the pattern is composed of not only two or two or three, but five or six colors . . . .”[7]  In a promotional pamphlet published in 1937 by Diamond Dyes of Vermont, an article describes and recommends tie-dye as an “ancient art” which will “often supply the color accent needed in home or wardrobe.”  The pamphlet gives instructions for three  tie-dying techniques—knotting, twisting, and string-tying.[8] The three illustrations of tie-dyed scarves evoke the bohemian aesthetic of the late 1960s counterculture that would emerge thirty years later. This was no accident on the part of the dye companies.

According to a 2008 article in the LA Times, Rit Dye concocted a gonzo marketing campaign in the Greenwich Village of New York in 1965. Don Price, attempting to save the failing brand, went to the neighborhood full of youths who were becoming interested in hand crafts and convinced some artists to tie-dye bolts of velvet and chiffon.[9] It seems likely that Judy Goldhaft, a dancer from New York, picked up the art in Greenwich Village and took it to Haight-Asbury.

The style, with its bright colors and cachet of homemade, unique personal expression, captured the heart and fashion sense of the Haight-Ashury crowd. Young people were pouring into the streets of San Francisco from all over the country in search of the psychedelic utopia of freedom and poverty that was being marketed to them by the mainstream media. HIP, The Haight Independent Proprietors, were a group of store owners who simultaneously battled with and made every effort to profit from the growing throng. Emmett Grogan, one of the original Diggers, writes, “Soon, their tie-dyed clothing was seen everywhere in the district, and a handful of girls who learned the basics from Judy and the others, went to work for the HIP shops, mass-producing tie-dyed items into a fashion that eventually spread throughout the country.”[10] The Diggers made tie-dye cool; the HIP merchants made tie-dye everywhere.

By 1971, commerce had saturated the counter culture movement in San Francisco. So a group of hippies set out east in a a caravan. In Tennessee, they founded a commune called The Farm. With them they brought a lot of ideas and practices, including tie-dye. According to an artist who now sells tie-dyes on the internet under the name “Dyed in Vermont,” a woman named Charlotte Gabriel  developed the technique of applying several colors simultaneously with fiber-reactive dyes, and certain basics of folding the fabric, at The Farm. He and many others learned it and added their own innovations.[11] Zahdan practices these same basic techniques, and the resulting patterns dominate contemporary tie-dye art in America.

In 1986, Greg, Tiffany and Mike had a little operation going in which they would hang their tie-dyes out on ropes at an abandoned gas station across the street from the university. They let Zahdan hang his tie-dyes with theirs. “They were very generous.” On his first day, he sold every one. Soon after that he took a batch to a small festival in New Roads, near his home town in Point Coupee, and sold them along with the elephant garlic he’d been growing at his mother’s place and some crochet work of Miranda’s. Again, he sold every one. That summer, Miranda went to Berkley, California. Zahdan kept traveling around in the motor home, weatherizing houses, now with Greg as his helper, and selling tie-dyes.

On Labor Day weekend of that year he sold tie-dyes out of his motor home on the beach in Freeport, Texas. They were so popular that he started making them right in the motor home and selling them still bound and damp. Over Halloween weekend he set up shop at the Westheimer Arts Festival in Houston and sold out.

That month, there had been a big earthquake in San Francisco, where Miranda was and, in other news, she had decided not to come back.

Zahdan was ready to get out of the weatherizing business. He says that Community Action had run its course, as bureaucracies tend to do, and besides, “I couldn’t keep doing the same thing without her.” He didn’t want to go back to Point Coupee, either. His father was gone and he’d turned the elephant garlic over to his sister, who had startled him by taking an interest in it. “Lorraine planted the elephant garlic? She’s never even walked off the concrete before.”

In February of 1990, he traveled to New Orleans during Mardi Gras to check out the French Market. He set up his tie-dye booth in half a space in the front lot for three hundred fifty dollars and parked his motor home in front of the market for ten dollars a week. “And Mardi Gras went well; I discovered I liked New Orleans.” Business was good. The tie-dyes sold almost as fast as he could make them.


After he applies the dye, Zahdan stores the pieces in a plastic crate where they cure for twenty-four to thirty-six hours, molecules of dye latching on to molecules of cellulose in a permanent bond. . . .

Zahdan decided after Mardi Gras to stay New Orleans for a little while. He sold tie-dyes at the French Market and on a hill across from Jackson Square (until he got into trouble for selling on the street without a license.) His motor home, parked in front of the French Market, became a social gathering place that, in the evenings, tended to reek of incense and other smells that the incense supposedly masked. No one seemed to mind. That spring, he took his tie-dyes to Armstrong Park where an event was being held to commemorate the release of Nelson Mandela. He had made a Submergence, the folded-in-half spiral piece that curves upwards, forming the cauldron, which he had begun to see as feminine, water, and Yin.

“And so I dyed this Submergence like three kinds of yellow and black, and it’s hanging out there. And this is important to my continuing to do what I do because this is right after coming here. The spring was still cool. And I had no intention of staying in New Orleans. I didn’t yet really particularly like it.”

That day a woman walked up to his booth and saw the black and yellow Submergence hanging there and asked him, “Why did you make that shirt?”

“So that’s a really odd question, right?”

Intricate patterning of tie-dye shirts. (Photo by: Zahdan Sterling)

He replied fliply that he just needed something neon, something bright, on his line. She left and came back twenty or thirty minutes later.

“Well, what does it mean to you?” she asked.

So Zahdan, who studied Chinese philosophy in college, replied that he was a student of the I Ching and was making a hexagram. He had begun to draw correlations between making lines on fabric and the I Ching, he told her.

“And she gives me a really, really weird look. She walks away, she comes back again.  She comes back again and she says, ‘Brother, I have no idea what you know, but in ancient Egypt, that design was called neon ting.’” She told him that, in ancient Egypt, that pattern had been made at the behest of the Pharaoh as an oracle.

“Now, I’m beginning to, like, have tingles because the first sentence I have with this woman I use the word ‘neon’ and one of the hexagrams in the I Ching is ‘ting’ and its symbol is the cauldron. And a Submergence has a resemblance [to a cauldron] because it has this horseshoe. And it’s exactly the image of a cauldron. So this is some really metaphysical shit.

“So I’m not decided to stay in New Orleans. I’m walking the streets at night, and suddenly I begin to have these fugues. Literally out of my body, I would be transported to some place that I had nothing to do with . . ..  I’m seeing myself in ancient Egypt, buried alive . . .. Gradually I begin to realize what happened is that I’m–just the pressure of everything is on me. Typically, as an analyst, I made this up, but it explains it. Because what happened was Pharaoh had me do an oracle and he didn’t like it so he had me buried alive. That’s how they did ya if they didn’t like what you said. And that explains me and fabric avoiding each other for four thousand years, because it didn’t lead to good things.

 “So now I’m tripping around New Orleans, and neon tings, and I’m a priest in ancient Egypt . . .. It gave me a sense of what it was about. And this is where New Orleans comes in because New Orleans perfectly lines up with the plane of Giza. We’re thirty degrees North Latitude. I’m standing on the same latitude as where I did this four thousand years ago.”


When the tie-dyes have finished curing, he takes them out to the shed, where he performs the “drain dance.”

The tie-dyes have to be rinsed thoroughly with cold water in order to wash away the excess dye. Zahdan accomplishes this with two washing machines. He first fills both machines with water, submerges the load of fabric in one, then agitates it for five minutes. When the machine goes to spin, he pours buckets of water into it. Then he moves the load to the second machine while the first fills up with water again and repeats the process a few times. When that’s done, in the dryer they go, then on the French Market to find their way into the world.

It’s raining out. On the television in the corner of the workshop, congressmen are debating the Stimulus Bill, orating in turn about jobs and mortgages in grave, angry tones. They’re arguing over who deserves money from the government and what money should be spent for. High-speed trains? Toxic assets? Green collar jobs? One congresswoman pleads on behalf of the automakers, speaking of an industry that is “on its knees” and the desperation of laid-off autoworkers.

Zahdan hasn’t punched a clock since 1980. He claims to be unemployable.

 “So, it’s steady at fightin’ that fabric. I win every battle, but it’s the war that I can’t win.”

The Diggers never did win the war. Zahdan, he reckons he’s been fighting for four thousand years.

Greg points out that New Orleans is on the same longitude as pyramids that were discovered in South America. I raise my eyebrows and nod, internally debating my belief in the significance. Most of us want to think that there is a reason that we are where we are doing what we are doing. Zahdan believes he is here to make stories. Each tie-dye is a story. Each has a destiny. “They have a life of their own. I joke with people at the market. It’s like, they’re all imminently adoptable. They’re my kids. They’re well behaved. Please take one home with you.

“I guess at some point you have to be a merchant, too. I remember in college lambasting the whole concept of consumer mercantilism and here I am now a fucking mercantiler. Making shit for people to sell to them that they don’t need. This is our problem in the world today. We waste all our energy on stuff that‘s just stuff. If I gotta sell something at least I make it. They’ll be here when I’m gone.”

Greg says, “People will show up at the market and say, ‘Hey. Where’s that guy who sells tie-dyes?’”

“And I can answer that question,” Zahdan says, “most days.”

“A Brief History of Tie-Dye.” Dyed in Vermont. http://www.tie-dyes.com/tdhist.html (accessed February 26, 2009).
The Digger Archives. http://www.diggers.org (accessed May 25, 2007).
Emmett, Grogan. Ringolevio. The Digger Archives, 1972. http://www.diggers.org/ring_compilation/ring_compilation_264_308.htm (accessed March 5, 2009).
Erin, Weinger. “Tie-dye’s Psychedelic History.” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2008. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/06/image/ig-lookback6 (accessed February 26, 2009).
Martin, Mae. Modern Color Magic in Dress and Home Decoration. Burlington, Vermont:
Diamond Tints & Dyes, 1937.
Pellew, Charles E. “Tied and Dyed Work: An Oriental Process With American Variations.” Craftsman, 1909, 695-701. http://www.handweaving.net (accessed February 19, 2009).
[1] “A Brief History of Tie-Dye, ” Dyed in Vermont
[2] Interview, Zahdan Sterling. February 2009.
[3] Charles E. Pellew. “Tied and Dyed Work,” Craftsman, 696-698.
[4] Emmett Grogan, Ringolevio. The Digger Archives. http://wwww.diggers.org.
[5] Chuck Gould. 1967 or 1968, The Digger Archives. http://www.diggers.org/images/photos/11a_l.jpg (accessed 5 March 2009). (information from alt text; gathered from page source).
[6] Grogan, Ringolevio
[7] Pellew, 701.
[8] Mae Martin. Modern Color Magic, 32.
[9] Erin Weinger.  “Tie-dye’s Psychedelic History.” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2008.
[10] Grogan, 297.
[11] “A Brief History of Tie-dye.”


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