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Of purity & printing

Subtle, beautifully complimentary, alive and never dull, nature’s colours continue to intrigue me and last week I set a bit of time aside to carry on learning about the process of plant dyeing.

Over the years I have experimented with dyeing with kitchen scraps (think onion skins and carrot tops) and with dye plants grown specifically for this purpose (woad), as well as a delightful, inspirational and ongoing foray into eco-printing with leaves and rust.

This slow building up of experience and understanding has led to the formation of an idea for a body of work which incorporates all of the above (and more). But as always, I tend to think big and am then faced with a gap in my knowledge which has to be filled.

So when I found out about a 2-day course in natural dying and printing at the Old Kennels in Devon, I jumped at the chance. The Old Kennels is run by Tracey, a warm and energetic host who puts on a year-long programme of excellent art, artisan and food related courses (I know this because I teach here myself!).

Tracey's curious alpacas and the beautiful surroundings of The Old Kennels, Devon

Tracey’s curious alpacas and the beautiful surroundings of The Old Kennels, Devon

A very gentle introduction by workshop leaders Flora Arbuthnott and Babs Behan was followed by a short stroll around the kitchen garden, fields and lane armed with secateurs and baskets. Together we made up three dye baths from our harvested bounty: bracken, rosemary + sage, and lavender, to be used the next day. The afternoon was spent dyeing some pieces of peace silk in pre-prepared dyebaths and experimenting with some shibori techniques.

Bracken returning to workshop

Bracken returning to workshop

Gathering around to make our dyes

Gathering around to make our dyes (apple tree bark in foreground)

First batch of silks about to go into the dye pot

First batch of silks about to go into the dye pot

The most interesting part of this first day for me was the contrast in approach between the workshop leaders and me. Though precise when it comes to feltmaking, I am distinctly unscientific in my approach to dyes and tend to be fairly haphazard with my experiments. Perhaps this is a remnant of a deep seated rebellious teenage attitude to science class (not my favourite subject!), but I am quite happy to accept an inability to replicate an exact effect and I have no problems with using metal dye pots that influence the final colour of the dye; I just love the spontaneity of throwing some plants in a pot to see what happens and to celebrate the impurities and little accidents that take on a life of their own.

Flora and Babs, by contrast, work precisely and with very pure intentions. They aim to extract a clean, unadulterated colour from the plant and to dye the fabric as evenly as possible. This was an unexpected eye opener for me. Although I know I will continue to dye patterned and imperfect cloth to incorporate with my felt work, it struck me that I have never actually seen the pure, unadulterated colour of some of the plants I have worked with, as I have always been so impatient to combine it with other plants or techniques. I suppose some of this impatience is due to time restraints and the rest of it due to just wanting to carry out my big idea, but it’s good to be challenged and see things from another perspective.

Dye samples brought along by the teachers

Dye samples brought along by the teachers

Student samples day 1

Student samples day 1

The technique I most wanted to learn about (how to prepare a printing ink from a concentrated plant dye) was shown to us on the second day. Printing ink made, I spent some very happy moments carving patterns into a potato and experimenting printing onto scraps of dyed silk I had brought along with me.

Sample of walnut dye potato print on previously dyed silk

Sample of walnut dye potato print on previously dyed silk

The screen printing needed a little bit more thought and preparation, and I finally settled on a simple seed head pattern which I printed on some silk that I had eco-printed with leaves last year. I was pretty surprised at the accuracy and fine detail of the screen print, for some reason I had expected it to ‘bleed’ more than it did.

Walnut dye ink screenrinted over eco-dyed silk

Walnut dye ink screenrinted over eco-dyed silk

I like the contrast of sharp, defined outline against organic, spontaneous pattern, and it is something I am going to continue experimenting with. As I write this, two big pots of onion skin dye are quietly stewing away in the kitchen, exactly for this purpose…

Sample strips of dyes made on day 1

Sample strips of dyes made on day 1

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