The thing about natural dyeing is that it is unpredictable; you are using unstable materials. Plants yield colour according to many variables – light, water, soil, how you sow or harvest, whether it is fresh or dry, what the moon’s up to… The dyer herself might be unstable, too. Sometimes she’s careful to note weights and timings, sometimes she isn’t. Sometimes she improvises. Sometimes she’s patient and sometimes she just can’t bear to wait any longer. Anyway, I suppose I’m just saying that I’m not a very good dyer – but also that that unpredictability can produce good and interesting results as well as disappointing ones and that the dyer, too, has to yield to the variable and unpredictable outcome.
The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft has a great project, Dyeing Now, which is encouraging dyers (good and bad) to recreate some of Ethel Mairet’s recipes from her 1916 book of Vegetable Dyes. You sign up to follow her original recipes (I chose two madder ones, using roots from the garden)
or to use plants that she writes about (I chose oak galls and used Jenny Dean’s recipe)
and which yarn you want to try – linen, silk or wool.
I assiduously followed the recipes and assiduously got rather weak colours, especially with the oak galls.
If I hadn’t been doing the recipes to order, I think I would have been quite happy with the results (it’s not as if natural dyes ever produce an ugly colour; it’s not possible) but it’s more to do with expectation – in my head I expected reds that zinged and profound browny-grey-blacks that you could melt in. What I got were gentle, subtle hues.
When I went to pack the skeins up to send to the museum I had the tedious task of finding the page and recipe number in the online book . Well, not really that difficult actually. Useful in fact because I re-read Jenny Dean’s oak gall recipe which mentioned modifying oak galls with iron. So I did and got a rich dark black that I’m excited about on the linen and a soft grey on the wool.
Since we started the garden, we’ve been trying to find ways to connect with the London College of Fashion – as we are on their land, after all. We began with the dye beds then we made thread from flax and our latest venture is to collaborate with the college on several workshops introducing the garden activities to staff and students. Our first session was last night when we did a swift tour of the garden in the gathering gloom and collected plants and seeds to draw in the warmth of a beautiful studio overlooking Mare St. Neela gave us some ideas to free up our drawing – using sticks, crocosmia stalks and ink – as well as different ways of interpreting and investigating objects, like imagining we were ants crawling over the plants. An hour’s drawing was nowhere near enough. It was so absorbing. We got some fabulous inspiring drawings so we’re planning on running a regular drop-in session for botanical drawing using seasonal plants from the garden and using a variety of techniques to explore and ‘see’. Let me know if you’d like to come.
We like to try things out in the garden. We’ve had a go at crops for fibre and grain: flax and wheat grew well and an ancient type of barley, bere, was successful – though was then eaten by mice. We’ve also sown nuts and legumes from the grocer; the walnut and pistachio trees are doing well and we got a tiny handful of chick peas this year originally from a pack of dried ones. They shrink to nothing – and are too precious to eat anyway. We grow Asian herbs and leaves such as shiso, pineapple sage and tree spinach – and coriander, of course. We’ve also had some success with sweet potato.
We’ve had failures. I’ve never managed to get saffron crocuses going and the ginger I tried rotted, the tea seed never germinated and every year I failed to grow melons. I’d sow them in the richest soil in the most sheltered spot and they always defy me.
This spring I found an old packet of water melon seeds from Lidl. There were 2 left in the packet so like Jack (of the beanstalk)’s mother, I just chucked them onto some soil without much hope of riches. This is how it went.
After my visit to Michel Garcia’s dye garden in Provence I was inspired to make inks so we ran a small workshop in our office/studio on Well St using ingredients I bought there. We used cochineal beetles, insects that live on the nopal cactus. Cochineal beetles have been used across Europe to colour textiles and to make pigment for paints and inks. Today in Mexico and Peru they cultivate the cactus to harvest cochineals to make the colour additive E120. We also ground up oak galls (for brown and added iron for black), buckthorn + alum for green), sophora flowers from China for yellow and logwood for violet.
I went bleary-eyed to Lister Community School in Newham the other day – not used to an early start these days. The class had been looking at sustainability so I made a pincer approach of natural dyeing and flax. This is the work they produced in class. I was so impressed that they were actually listening!
One of the girls also wrote a piece for the school blog. http://www.lister.newham.sch.uk/specialist-curriculum-textiles-may/
This is the key to a technique for flax spinning we learnt last night: dampen your knee. What’s great about our flax to thread sessions is that the people who come are so skilled and cover such a wide range of interests from sowing to… er… sewing. Last Thursday at the London College of Fashion we had growers from community gardens and allotments, spinners and knitters, technical innovators and fashion designers. We honed two methods of spinning; one using the drill method. I now know you must wet the fibre to help it bond to itself and that you must turn the drill anti-clockwise to make the magic really work. The other technique, which gardener, designer and teacher Dina demonstrated, used no equipment apart from the above-mentioned damp knee, and involved rolling the heckled fibre on a leg see our Knee-Spinning video. We also got an excellent new model for our garment – Benjamin. He wears it very well. Kellie also models the string she made – as a stylish belt.
It’s long been my ambition to make a record of all the ‘weeds’ growing along Mare St. I say ‘weeds’ but really I want to rehabilitate them and rename them as wild plants. Finally we got round to it. We roped Annie Chipchase, a local urban ecologist, in to lead a group of us to look at, identify and draw what we found. We started at a short stretch of unprepossessing road round the corner from the garden: Weston Walk. It’s more of an alley — often strewn with hair from the salon that backs onto it, as well as chicken bones from the chicken shop, dumped rubbish bags and occasionally furniture. I’d noticed, though, that a leaking pipe had provided an environment for moss to grow so I thought it would be a good place to begin our hunt. In this short road we found 23 varieties of plants growing in the cracks and up the walls. We were so absorbed, we hardly had time to explore or record what was growing on Mare St. We wondered at the resilience of these plants growing in the most hostile environment – and will never look at the cracks in the pavement in the same way again.