Hackney Colour Wheel

Hackney Colour Wheel

After years of dabbling in natural dyeing, we’ve finally got round to running a comprehensive series of colour workshops using plants from the garden and everyday waste : blue, red, yellow and our black hollyhocks. What spurred us was the closure of the garden. We got notice to leave in April but rather than sob into our sleeves we decided to celebrate what we’ve done over the years and provide a legacy of colour, which we are calling The Hackney Colour Wheel. The plan is to get a spectrum of colour dyed on silk. We haven’t decided how to present it so all suggestions welcome. The workshops are supported by The Royal Society of Chemistry and we hope to show how science and craft can easily connect. Here is some of the dyeing we’ve done so far.

Colours from our woad and indigo workshop
Yellows from weld, dahlia, zinnia and marigolds modified with iron, rhubarb, vinegar and washing soda.

Reds and pinks from madder grown in the garden.

Madder modified with soda turns it into a water melon red.

Alum-mordanted silk dyed with tea/rust, carrot tops, onion skins, avocado pips, coffee grounds.
We’ve used a mixture of home-made and corner shop modifiers such as iron from rust, rhubarb leaves, aluminium (from tin foil), distilled vinegar, washing soda.  

The Blues

The Blues

Our annual woad and indigo harvest and dye workshop was an evening of gentle delight.  It involved curiosity, experiment and awe at that magical transformation of plant into colour.  We also harvested our flax and ate amazing scones with home-made jams.  Sometimes you can imagine that all is right with the world.

We did two pots – one of woad and one of Japanese indigo, which usually gives a stronger colour but we found the woad was just as potent this year.  Thanks to Steve for taking the photos.

Woad seeds.
Woad leaves steeped in hot water for about 40 minutes.
Japanese indigo steeping.
The liquid should be sherry-coloured (ph9). Then get oxygen into it until the bubbles turn blue.


Add Spectralite and leave till the liquid turns yellowy-green.
Get the temperature up to 50 degrees C.
Wait, talk, eat scones.
Fold, twist and block the fabric.


Fold, clip, twist or block the fabric.
Gently put the fabric in the vat, avoiding getting air into the liquid.
Leave the fabric for about 10 minutes. It should be fully submerged to avoid oxidisation. Easier said than done.


Carefully remove the fabric, avoiding drips. As it hits the air it will turn blue.


Dyeing To Order Never Seems to Work… Unless You Read the Recipe.

Dyeing To Order Never Seems to Work… Unless You Read the Recipe.

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)

Cordwainers-grown madder and linen thread

or to use plants that she writes about (I chose oak galls and used Jenny Dean’s recipe)

Oak galls part-crushed.

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.

Oak gall/wool, Oak gall/linen, Madder/silk, Madder/tangled linen.  The silk and linen were in the same bath. One ended up orange, the other pink.

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.

Oak gall modified with iron on linen and wool

So not so bad after all.

Worth just reading the recipe properly…



Inky Evening

Inky Evening

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.

Tester papers for our colours
Sophora Japonica flowers, a Chinese and Japanese yellow.
Oak galls
Oak galls with iron sulphate make grey or black depending on the dilution.
Our crushing and grinding group.
ink bottles
We decanted our colours into old ink bottles.

Ink tests

Lister Community School

Lister Community School


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/

Woad at the STEAM Club

Woad at the STEAM Club

I was invited to a wonderful event at Gillespie School.  They put on a Science Spectacular to show what they’d been learning in their Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths  (STEAM) club.  They showed us robots they’d made and talked about the dye garden they have started (this is where I came in – to show the magic, or rather, science of woad dyeing). Some eminent grown-up scientists were on hand, too.  Mark Miodownik, who is a materials scientist from the Institute of Making, talked about what materials are likely to be used in fashion and medicine in the near future – like making our own 3D printed compostable clothes. Andrea Sella, a chemist, talked about the science behind the magic of woad. (I still think it’s plain magic) The grand finale was a hover board designed by the kids.  Amazing!  Well done to Carole Kenrick, their creative and inspiring scientist in residence.


The Woad Factor

The Woad Factor

If you’ve never witnessed the magic of a woad (or indigo) vat, seen the alchemy of one thing turning into another, book yourself a place on a workshop now.  Forget the wow factor, the woad factor will bowl you over. The nearest thing I could think of in twenty-first century terms is the awe we felt the first time you see an iphone swipe. That wonder soon wears off. Never with woad.

We set up an informal workshop at Cordwainers Garden to experiment with our woad harvest and went through the exacting (but not difficult) process of turning a handful of leaves into a permanent dye. It took about three hours in all. We had a great turnout of people from all corners of the world.  People from Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, Leicester, and Wembley came to have a go and help us with the magic.

Woad leaves collected then torn up.
We collected and weighed our woad leaves then tore them up. 
The process we followed.
The process we followed.
Boiling water poured over the leaves.
We poured boiling water from our storm kettle (no electricity) over the leaves.
The leaves steep for about an hour.
The leaves steep for about an hour.
We squeezed (and kept) the leaves to use again.
We squeezed (and kept) the leaves to use again.
We then aerated the water until the bubbles turned blue.
We then added soda ash and aerated the water until the bubbles turned blue.
We then heated it to 50 degrees and left for about 20 minutes.
We then heated it to 50 degrees and left for about 20 minutes.
Folding and twisting our material.
Preparing the material to be dyed.
After adding spectralite to remove the oxygen we carefully added our dyestuff.
After adding spectralite to remove the oxygen we carefully added our dyestuff.  The liquid is greeny yellow and the material doesn’t seem to have taken on any colour when you look at it in the water.
The magic happens as the material hits the air.
The magic happens as the material hits the air.
It takes on more colour.
It takes on more colour.


It zings
It zings