Postcard from West Dean

I travel a lot, often for work. I go out of my way to find beautiful places – historic buildings, parks, woods, gardens and meadows. I take a lot of photos. It’s time to share them more. Postcard from… is a new blog series with photos of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. Pictures are all taken on my phone with no editing.

At the end of May I was teaching for nearly a week at the glorious West Dean College. I spent pretty much every spare daylight moment outside in the gardens, on the estate and walking up the hill to the arboretum despite the grey and the drizzle. It is a truly magical place and I can’t wait to go back next year.

Natural Dye: local plant bundles

After a year or so of experimenting with natural dyes, I’ve had plenty of disappointments alongside a lot of happy accidents, although very few ‘turned out just how I planned’. I am not a precise, measuring, recording, repeating kind of dyer. I read a lot about dyes and then I experiment, break the rules, mess around…. I am the same with cooking; I love cookery books but I don’t follow recipes. In many ways I work similarly with textiles.  I don’t design on paper, I work straight into fabric, from an idea in my head, allowing things to grow, adapt and develop.

mixed dyes

Alice recently asked me what kind of dyeing I liked best; what was working for me. Without hesitation I replied that dye bundles are what I find the most exciting. Much as I love dyeing beautiful, simple colours with weld, walnut, avocado skins or tea, I have found that wrapping leaves, rusty metal, flowers or twigs up in fabric and leaving it to do magical things is by far my favourite way to colour cloth. It connects me to the plants in my garden, my local parks and the scrubby wasteland around my city-centre-edgelands home.

Weld

Fabrics dyed with locally-foraged weld

Hannah Lamb collects plants on walks to create cloth imbued with meaning and significance and I can’t think of a better way to mark the seasons and honour the land than to preserve tiny aspects of them in cloth. Hunting for dye plants has encouraged me to explore my local landscape in increasing depth. I have found weld growing in a local spot of city centre wasteland, due to be built on. I have discovered wild pear trees whilst looking for goldenrod in the park and found walnuts in a city centre church yard.  Dye foraging is a perfect partner to my established habits of fruit-foraging and tree-spotting. The wildflower identification book I’ve had since 1980 has new page markers for dye plants. Dyeing has brought me closer still to my local landscape and for that I am thankful and joyful.

Bundle

Bundle

I like abstract patterned fabric, I like mottled, discoloured and stained effects. I like actual stains too. Bundling fabric produces some – many – truly stunning watercolour-esque swirls, pools, stains, splatters and spots of colour. Often subtle, sometimes anything but. The greatest joy is the unknown. Unwrapping a bundle is a moment of delight.

A couple of weeks ago, whilst holidaying on the Kennet & Avon canal, I took a (literal) leaf out of Hannah’s book and collected leaves, petals and rusty metal along the towpath and in canal-side parks to create boat bundles which record some of places and plants of my holiday. I made simple, unscientific dye pots using walnuts, marigolds, elderberries, tea and buddleia to dye the foraged bundles and created some magical colours and patterns on scraps of silk. Bundling with stranded embroidery cotton leaves me with masses of space-dyed threads too. My next challenge is to stop being so precious and actually start using my dyed fabrics.

I recently completed a small community commission using natural bundle dyes to create a small display – more on this soon. If you want to join me in this wonderful plant dye journey I have a couple of workshops coming up:

Wild Dyes at Ruth Singer Studio, Sat 20th September. 10am-4pm. £45. Including steamed bundles and other dye techniques

Wild Dyes at Black Country Living Museum Sat 18th October