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.
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/
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.
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.
On Sunday, 1st of March The Lindley Hall at the Royal Horticultural Society was buzzing with creativity. Cordwainers Grow was one of the busiest stalls of the day as numerous adults and children came by to dye a silk pocket square using dried flowers and onion skins! Each flower created a different colour, which led to a lot of experimentation around the table. Hollyhock tinted a purplish blue, coreopsis tinted an orange, madder created red while onion skins created a yellow. Whilst people would wait for the dye to submerge in the cloth, they had the chance to see the impressive garment created by the technicians at London College of Fashion using linen grown from the flax plant. The garment was a part of Cordwainers Grow’s growing project last year where flax was grown in plots around the city of London. This year the project is to produce flax string. Thus a pack of seeds for a metre square plot was available to buy for £5 as well. The anticipation while waiting for the dyed silk pocket square was well worth it as everyone was continually delighted by the results. Everyone’s silk pocket square was incredibly unique. It was definitely a merry day at the RHS for everyone!
We’re getting ready for the RHS’s Secret Sunday on 1st March. They’ve asked us to display our London-grown garment. It will be its first public appearance since it was made. It’s actually being reknitted at the moment so we hope it will have sleeves! We’ll be giving a talk about the project at 10.45 so come and see (and even touch) it and ask us how we did it.
Throughout the day we’ll be running a drop-in dye workshop and we’ll be talking about our new project – to grow community string.