Category Archives: Talks on dyeing

The Natures Rainbow Year – (and its only half way through!)

An article by Susan Dye and Ashley Walker
© copyright 2018

2018 is turning out to be our most successful yet.

The year began with our good friend Brian Bond joining us to deliver a two day workshop in Ipswich in late January with the International Felters Association (see above). Susan was involved in much mordanting in preparation. This was our second major plant dye workshop away from home, and dependent on friends or family to help us with transport. Hard work packing an ‘all singing all dancing’ workshop and the three of us into a single hatchback vehicle (albeit a large one, thanks Brian!). Quite stressful but very well worthwhile, as the students were terrifically motivated and created a full palette of wonderful colour on the finest merino tops.

Also in January we had confirmation that Southwark Cathedral had invited the London Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (WS&D) to demonstrate plant dyeing as part of London Craft Week in Mid-May. Susan was asked to coordinate the project, having held a successful mini natural dye demonstration there as part of the biennial London Guild exhibition last November.

Preparations for all this activity took place mostly in the winter and early spring when the weather was too cold or wet to work outside on the dye garden

In between scoping and planning the London Guild event at Southwark, Susan gave talks on plant dyeing to the Chelmsford Embroidery Guild, on the red dye from madder for the Cambridge Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and, closer to home, a talk on the horticulture of dye plants for the Wymondley Gardeners Group. Had the snow in early March not intervened there would have been another talk on the history of Norwich Dyers to region 7 of the Quilters Guild.

London Craft Week event at Southwark Cathedral with the London Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Guild

The Shard overshadows our colour splash at Southwark Cathedral

Susan spent much of April mordanting and test dyeing fabric and yarn for the London Craft Week event, which was to be held outdoors in the Churchyard in mid-May. Fortunately the weather improved and we were blessed with two sunny breezy days. With help from textiles graduate Hannah Sabberton, Susan and I carried Hitchin grown fresh woad and dry Weld, Indigo dye solution, mordanted fabric yarn and fleece, samples, display materials and goodness knows what else (kitchen sink comes to mind!) on the train and bus into Central London at rush hour. We are resourceful public transport travellers with trolleys and backpacks and all arrived safely! Mercifully all the pans and heaters had been supplied by London Guild members based not too far away (thanks to Penny and Diane). Also there were many, many lovely dyers from the Guild who shared the demonstrating. All told there were twenty two volunteers across the two days. We spoke to people from all over the world, from London and other parts of the UK. Tiring but very satisfying to see the rainbow of colours we achieved with just the three medieval ‘grant teint’ plant dyes: Madder, Weld and Woad.

Susan managed to escape a couple of times down to the British Library where she loves to do research on the history of dyeing and in particular the 19th Century “Norwich Red”. An article to be published in the Autumn issue of “The Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers” will detail her findings so far. We have also been asked to write an article on growing dye plants with a particular emphasis on small gardens and container growing. This should appear in the next issue of “British Fibre Arts” along with a profile about ourselves. The Editor Rainy Williamson made us think about what we do and why we do it. I was particularly reminded that many people do not have access to a garden or allotment and may only be able to grow dye plants in small spaces. I immediately set about making and planting up some large-ish containers with suitable dye plants to see how they responded. And then we got to thinking that apart from a couple of small demonstrations and the regular workshops for our local guild we’ve never made an effort to share our skills in plant dyeing with the local population. So Susan quickly got on the phone and asked the Hitchin Festival organisers if they still had some slots left in their programme and lo and behold, (thank you Keith)  we were found a slot in the programme.

Indigo Blue, Weld and Chamomile yellow and Greens produced by overdying yellow with blue and blue over yellow

Results from the green overdye experiment done at the Herts Guild of Spinners Weavers and Dyers Workshop

Meanwhile we had another workshop for our local Guild in North Herts to get ready for. This was based around an experiment investigating the notion that a better green is obtained if wool is dyed first with indigo and then weld (yellow) rather than the other way round as we have traditionally done it. Various accomplished plant dyers had reported this finding and we wanted to check it out. The workshop produced some fantastic greens and, somewhat to our surprise, the blue overdyed with yellow did indeed produce the best green.

While all this has been going on I’ve been working hard on the Natures Rainbow dye garden, getting it into shape to satisfy the North Herts District Council allotment inspector (Grounds Maintenance Monitoring Officer). Because we are growing a most unusual set of crops some of which look remarkably like weeds we

Rubia tinctorum

Madder is closely related to the weed Cleavers or Goosegrass. It looks and behaves much the same but is altogether larger in stalk and leaf and has berries instead of hard seeds.

Ransoms Rec Allotments, Hitchin

The Natures Rainbow allotment plot in early June.

have to make the plot look as tidy as possible. Madder for example is a close relative of the weed Cleavers and has the same sprawling habit and Weld is generally classified as a weed anyway. In addition, we leave our second year Woad plants to go to seed, so we have stock for the following year and this too raises eyebrows.

Asperula tinctoria

Dyers Woodruff in flower

We also decided early on this year that if we are going to continue giving talks and writing articles about growing dye plants then we need to expand our experience and grow some of the more unusual dye plants so we sent off for more seeds including Chinese Woad, Wild Madder, Field Madder, Ladies Bedstraw, Blood Root and where we couldn’t get seeds we ordered plants. These include Dyers Woodruff, Black Oak, and Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra).

Quercus velutina

Our new Black or Quercitron Oak Sapling. The inner bark of this North American tree produces the dye quercitrin which for a while was a major industrial source of yellow dye. Of course it will be many years before we can harvest any bark from this specimen!).

Reseda luteola

Honey bees are particularly fond of Weld

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a beekeeper I’m also very interested in growing plants that are also good for all kinds of bees so I’ve been very gratified that many of our dye plants are also fantastic bee plants too, Weld and Japanese indigo are two of the best.

Rhus Glabra

Smooth Sumac from North America, the dried leaves of which contain 25-27% by weight of tannins.

Look out for more blogs detailing some of the events mentioned here but you might have to wait until things calm down a bit before we get time to write them!

Madder of Fact – talk on horticulture and historic recipes

Madder

Madder

Follow up to Cambridgeshire Guild Talk 28 April 2018

Getting the best reds from Madder sometimes seems more of an art than a science. On a cold wet late April day, I gave a talk on the subject to the Cambridgeshire Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers. They are a very active guild and judging by how quickly the madder and madder root cuttings disappeared from the sales table afterwards, gardens and allotments across the region will be featuring more madder in the future! Thanks to Camilla for inviting me and for Sue’s lift to and from the station.  Also thanks to whoever baked the lemon cake we had with tea afterwards. It was divine.

As follow up, here are some pointers for supplies and books I promised to share online.

And finally a reminder that as part of London Craft Week I will be helping out at a London Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers plant dyeing demonstration at Southwark Cathedral on 9th and 10th May.

References

Posts on madder on this blog
Growing and harvesting madder

Robert Chenciner’s book on the history of growing madder

Dyeing silk with madder

Books and other dyer’s blogs

There are many modern books on plant dyeing which are approachable for beginners.
Although filled with inspirational images and ideas, the reliability of plant dyeing advice varies dramatically. My current favourite which is most certainly well researched and reliable is:
Kristine Vejar (2015) The Modern Natural Dyer, a comprehensive guide to dyeing silk, wool, linen and cotton at home published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
Kristine is based in California and runs a business with a blog “A Verb for Keeping Warm”

Debbie Bamford, a pre-eminent historical dyer who sells plant dyed cloth, yarn and threads at re-enactor markets and also via etsy shop. She trades as Mulberry Dyer and is active on social media.

Jenny Dean Doyenne of Natural dyeing in UK.
Her landmark book is Wild Colour (2010) but all her books are excellent.

Robert Chenciner’s book ‘Madder Red, A History of Luxury and Trade’ (2000), Curzon Press well worth getting from a library if you can’t find an affordable copy for yourself.

Jim Liles’s book ‘The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, Traditional Recipes for Modern Use’ (1990) University of Tennessee Press. Comprehensive recipes and valuable tips for improving mordanting with aluminium acetate. Contains the long method for extracting all the goodness from madder root (p106).

Ethel Mairet (1916) A Book on Vegetable Dyes
This contains the quick method for madder on wool recipe 1 on p99. But WARNING do not go anywhere near recipe 2 on p100, as this uses chrome mordant now known to be carcinogenic. Likewise tin mordant is toxic. For a very good discussion on toxicity of mordants see Carrie  Sundra’s blog https://alpenglowyarn.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/mordants-and-natural-dyeing-the-great-debate/

Edward Bancroft’s two volumes “Experimental researches concerning the philosophy of permanent colours “ Vol I  and Vols I&II

Other key references

Dominique Cardon (2007), Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science , Archetype Publications
Judith Hofenk de Graaff (2004) The Colourful Past, Origins Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuff, Archetype Press
Thomas Bechtold and Rita Mussak (Eds) (2009), Handbook of Natural Colorants, Wiley

Suppliers of Mordants and Natural Dyes

George Weil/Fibrecraft for plant dyes and mordants; especially aluminium acetate mordant for silk and vegetable fibres. Sells Iranian madder.
P&M Woolcraft  unfailingly friendly and efficient with good prices (but Pauline has very sadly just passed away, so Martin may not be able to fulfil orders with the usual turnaround).
Wild Colours sells madder and mordant and provides lots of information

Seed and Plant Suppliers for madder and other UK plants that give red

Poyntzfield Herbs – a great little company from the Black Isle in NE Scotland. Sells dyers woodruff and sweet woodruff plants. Their website is a bit low tech but they respond promptly to emails and are very helpful. Our plants arrived safe and sound when we put in an order earlier this year and are doing well.

Emorsgate – specialists in wild flower seeds – you can order in bulk for sowing whole meadows! We sourced our ladies bedstraw seed from here.

Saith Ffynnon – another good small supplier for wild flower and other useful plants. Sell seed and plants. Stock varies according to season.

Susan – April 2018