Natural dye expert brings masterclass to our Textile Design studios
Our students are consistently provided with opportunities to learn from industry experts. Our purpose-built textiles studios, home to BA (Hons) Textile Design and MA Textile Design students, were recently visited by Jane Deane - an expert with a vast amount of knowledge and experience in using natural materials and natural dyes, skilled at producing the brightest of shades utilising simply natural products.
Jane gave students a colour masterclass, teaching traditional and sustainable techniques which can reduce the impact of the fabric dyeing process on the environment.
Read on to find out more about Jane's work, her stance on sustainability, and how she’s preserving age-old techniques to produce rainbows of coloured fabrics and fibres, as well as watching a short film of her workshop here at Plymouth College of Art.
Can you tell us how you got into using natural dyes?
I’ve been using natural dyes since the 1980s - alongside using synthetic dyes, too. I was fortunate to have a spinning and weaving tutor who was also a natural dyer and who invited me to a session that I thought would be interesting but not really my thing. She had an indigo vat! So that ignited my interest, which then spread to natural dyes in general.
A couple of years spent in the Middle East in the mid 80s gave me the chance to try all sorts of different plant sources, and enabled me to develop a friendship with an Iranian carpet weaver. I was fascinated by his account of how his Bedouin relatives managed to dye in the desert - though of course much was done when they were close to water - he told me they would use a bucket of milk; camel, sheep or goat, add the wool and madder (the dye we were talking about), then leave the wool submerged from one new moon to another, then take it out and the dyeing was done. I still don't really know if this was accurate - there was a considerable language barrier - but it made me look at the process of dyeing from a different angle.
I continued to dye, using both natural and synthetic dyes, until I had a job as the dye manager at a mill going for organic status. The dyes we used were developed for organic cotton, so fibre reactives, and I was dyeing protein fibres. They worked perfectly well, but I felt we should be using the “right” dye for the proteins, and the boss said if I could find an organically certificated acid range, that was fine with her.
In my pursuit of such dyes - which don't appear to exist - I discovered many things that disturbed me. The first was that we no longer manufacture dyes, because the pollution it creates costs so much to clean up. It makes the process uneconomic; so we export the manufacture to countries in Asia where the health and safety rules are less stringent. Organic certification given to synthetic dyes refers to the end use of the dye water. If you have your waste dye water collected in a separate tank to be disposed of by the water authorities, that entitles you to organic certification.
All this convinced me that natural dyes needed a big boost and I started using them exclusively to dye yarns and fibres to sell. I also use them in my own work, and teach natural dye workshops, for which there is an increasing demand.
The environmental benefits of natural dyes are significant and I’m aware that I will never change the world but I think it's important.
Jane's wall of naturally dyed fibres at the Colour, Naturally exhibition at Devon Guild of Craftsmen. Image credit: Louis Victory.
We couldn’t agree more - sustainability is very high on the agenda at Plymouth College of Art. In most cases, I’m sure people would expect natural dyes to give relatively muted results, but we saw your Colour, Naturally show at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen where you showcased a riotous display of naturally dyed fibres. How did you achieve such bold colours?
Colour, Naturally was intended to refute the popular conception that natural dyes are always beige, brown or yellow; are pale and not light fast; require highly poisonous ingredients and are generally a bad thing. I used comparatively few dyes for the colours achieved but dyed on different fibres, so I had skeins of wool, mohair, silk, alpaca and some cotton. I used indigo and a red to get most of the purples, and indigo and yellows to get the greens. Ironically, green is the one colour that is really hard to achieve in one natural dye.
I used cochineal with alum for some of the reds but used a tiny amount of tin mordant to get the pillar box red of guardsmen's jackets. The range of yellows came from the dyers' standbys - weld, pomegranate and dyers' chamomile. The oranges were madder, the browns walnut. Once you understand your dyes and mordants you can produce a wide range from one dyestuff. It is said to be possible to get 22 different blues from indigo, though I've yet to attempt this!
The dyeing was quite intensive - my bathroom looked quite naked without rows of skeins drying over the bath but I don't like to leave a pot with colour in it. I keep shoving stuff in till the colour exhausts, and if I have a couple of pale baths I'll often mix them to get something that is usually absolutely gorgeous and totally unrepeatable! A large pot would take three skeins of different fibres, the first lot would come out and another three would go in. It was a fair amount of work and I think there were 83 100g skeins on the wall. There was also a solar dye display on show - that was very quick to set up - basically you put your dyestuffs (often two or even three), fibres and dissolved mordant in a glass jar, seal the lid, leave in a sunny window and wait for at least eight weeks, preferably longer. Then empty the contents, rinse the yarn and voila! But they make a lovely display in a window.
I also showed examples of shibori from China, ikat weaving from Thailand and a sample of mine for people to play with, and my colleague, Isabella Whitworth, with whom I have worked on mordant printing - that's a whole new rabbit hole to disappear into - showed her printed silk scarves.
Such a beautiful showcase. What do you think is the most surprising colour that you can get out of something natural?
I think the most surprising colour, for those not familiar with it, is indigo. The specific conditions that indigo requires mean that the dyebath itself is a green or sometimes brown colour and the fibres in the vat appear to stay the colour they were when introduced to the vat. As they are pulled out of the green, oxygen free, alkaline solution and the oxygen returns to the fibres, the blue gradually appears - magic! It is always a surprise for new dyers to discover that a pink flower is very unlikely to give a pink dye, or a purple one a purple dye. Most flowers give a yellow! Red onion skin will produce a green/grey but brown onions will produce browns, oranges and finally yellows.
What’s your favourite part of the process of using natural dyes?
I think lifting the lid of a dye pot and removing a gloriously coloured skein or piece of fabric. I love removing the contents of solar dye jars because you never know quite what you are going to get, but it's always worth the wait of 8-10 weeks or longer.
What would you say is the most important thing for people to do to make small changes in their approach to the textiles in their lives?
I am very concerned about the environmental aspects of textile production. The pollution created is a significant problem for those involved in it in India, China, Thailand and other areas of the far east. Pollution run-off goes into the rivers and seas, not to mention the effects on the health of the populations who do this work. The world is never going to be able to support the return of unmechanised production, nor would I want it to. I dye commercially spun yarn as spinning it myself would be a massive task. I do think it's important not to lose traditional skills, though, and to be able to create unique items that depend on the hand of the maker.
The natural dye industry, I'm told, is sometimes taught as the craft that disappeared most quickly when synthetics were developed. Not only was production replaced but the knowledge we lost is incalculable. Many of us have worked hard to explore the potential of particular dyes that our pre industrial ancestors would have had at their fingertips.
I am a great devotee of Michel Garcia who has travelled the world looking at traditional dye practises, at the chemical reactions that are needed, and has replaced anything dangerous or environmentally unsustainable with a harmless ingredient that produces the same chemical effect.
For instance, many craft dyers use a synthetic chemical, Spectralite, Hydros or thiox, to reduce the indigo in a vat. If you have time, madder root previously used for dyeing and bran from the health food shop will do it for you over a few days. There is a bacteria in the madder root that will remove the oxygen, just more slowly than the chemical does but with less risk to the dyer and environment. I use domestic washing soda, as found in any supermarket near you, and white vinegar to alter pH and change those dyes that are sensitive to it. You can create natural colours with highly poisonous ingredients, but you don't have to.
I think there are several things that can help individuals make an impact on increasing sustainability. Recycling must be up there at the top. If something has had its day then perhaps the fabric/yarn can be turned into something else. I think asking where new items come from is really important, and what they are made from. The person at the till won't be able to tell you, but if enough of us ask, eventually it will come to the ears of the manufacturers. If it becomes sufficiently important for them to justify what they do in financial terms we might begin to see some welcome changes. Buy less, learn how to mend your clothes, learn to love natural fibres! Tall order, I know. But all we can do is try.
Find out more about Jane's work on her website: www.janedeane.co.uk, and watch a video of Jane's visit below.
After Jane’s workshop in our Textiles studio, we caught up with BA (Hons) Textile Design student Ruthie Holmes to get the lowdown on how she will use the expertise Jane passed on.
How would you describe your own art practice?
I have previous experience of working with both glass and ceramics, but am a relative newbie to the practice of textiles. I’m eager to soak up all textile methods and techniques, whilst staying true to my craft roots and enjoying natural handmade practices. I am conscious of incorporating sustainability into my work, and where possible I recycle and re-use.
A magpie at heart, I love collecting interesting items and loathe to throw anything away. I have been cutting up used coloured plastic bottles to make embellishments in my embroidery projects and currently have my eye on turning a collection of plastic packaging for contact lenses into something creative and usable, such as a bag or belt.
Natural light floods into our Textiles studios, which have views out to the sea and over 32 metres of print tables, a dye lab, and state-of-the-art digital printers and scanners.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from Jane’s workshop?
It was such a privilege to have Jane share her passion, tips and techniques on the subject of natural dyeing with us. I love the pure alchemy of natural dyeing and all its possibilities, from using natural materials such as wool, silk, cotton or linen and being able to add them to natural ingredients like pomegranate seeds or persian berries to obtain different colours. It was great learning about the importance and types of mordants which help the colours from the natural dyes to bond into the fibres of the materials.
We learned about the amazing history of dyeing, and the fact that old tapestries - such as those hanging in National Trust properties - suffer from ‘blue disease’, which is where the yellows used to make green colours in the tapestry have faded in the natural light, leaving only the blue indigo remaining. If you were to look at the reverse of the tapestry where the sun has not been able to affect it, you will still see the green dye intact.
Was there anything that Jane showed you that surprised you?
Being a person who loves bright colours, I was pleasantly surprised that by using natural dyes I could still get those bold bright pops of colour as well as the softer hues. This means that the art of natural dyeing can give me the colours I’m looking for, as well as the added bonus of being good for the environment compared to other textile dyeing techniques. My favourite natural dye colours from the workshop included a brilliant yellow on some silk, created using Persian Berries and then dipping it in Soda Ash, and then a glorious emerald green, which was created using Persian Berries again but this time dipping it into Indigo; producing colours that I would not have thought possible from using natural dyeing techniques.
How do you think you will use the things you learned in Jane’s workshop?
This was my first introduction to using natural dyes and I feel that the experience has set me up to become a lifetime natural dyer. It was fun experimenting with dyes that you could grow yourself, such as madder or weld, giving you a window into allowing this way of working to become your way of life, and an opportunity to cut down your carbon footprint and find a way of working that is sustainable and good for the environment, whilst maintaining traditional methods which have been used for years. Thanks to Jane’s workshop, I have built up a collection of natural colour swatches, which will be a valuable resource that I can develop and add to, continuing my journey and growing my knowledge and experimenting with natural dyeing.