Tuesday, February 7, 2012

New Experiments

My life has undergone quite a sea change since I last wrote.  First, I left reasonably stable employment as a studio technician and teacher to go back to school.  Second, and slightly more dramatically, after a mad summer of dyeing, knitting, canning, pickling, gardening, farming and craft-fairing, I left my friends, family and ninety-nine percent of my possessions behind and moved to London, England, to begin a master's degree in textiles at Chelsea College of Art and Design.  This venture had been contemplated for some long time, and pondered with my typical amount of vacillation, hesitation and constant what-ifs. Now here, I sometimes question how this could be my life - living in London - but I consider myself very fortunate to be given the opportunity to devote this kind of focused time to my studio practice. 

I have always been seduced and bewitched by colour, how it is made and its significance to human culture and history. The origin of colour and how it is used is endlessly fascinating to me.  So while the focus of my MA project is actualy natural dye printing and unlocking the secrets to its processes, at the heart of my research is colour. After many years of experimenting with using natural dyes for immersion dyeing, I had only been trying to find the time to try printing with them.  As a printer I love working with dyes because of their luminosity and transparency - they work on the cloth like watercolour - but recently I have become increasingly concerned about the adverse health and environmental effects of working with synthetic chemical dyes over many years.  Further, the more I work with natural dyes, the more I find myself favouring their colour palette. 

Over the next six months I will be sharing my MA research here and I hope this documentation of my process will serve to show that natural dyes can be used in ways very similar to those used with fibre-reactive or acid dyes for textile printing.  One of the lofty aims of my project is to foster the use of natural dyes as an alternative to conventional dyes in craft production.

I shall explore varied ways of applying the colour to the cloth, via different print pastes, pre-treatments, mordants and assistants, as well as attempting to discover all the possible permutations of colour by adding colour-shifting acids, alkalis and mordants to the dyes.  In the meantime, I am doing lots of reading into the rich history of our relationship with plants, particularly those used for dye, and sharing some of the cultural history of those dyestuffs here.  I am also researching how natural dyes were used in industrial production prior to the discovery of synthetic colour in the mid 19th century, and how the move to synthetic dyes changed the world - this is not a melodramatic statement - this shift was at the very crux of the Industrial Revolution. 

colour swatches in progress

To begin, I am testing the variety of colours that can be obtained from the various commercial extracts easily available from several suppliers.  I have begun by working with those from Pure Tinctoria and the partnership between Maiwa & Couleurs des Plantes.  Extracts are powdered dyestuffs that are soluble in water - the colour has already been extracted from the plant source.  To make a print paste, I add thickener to my solution of water and extract.  I will discuss the exact process in future dispatches.  I intend to use my print pastes for screen printing, but at the moment, I am only sampling small swatches of colour, so I am applying the colour by stencil instead.  I have chosen to work on linen, hemp and wool fabrics, as these are the historical fibres of Europe, and the dyes should react differently to cellulose and protein fibres.

applying the extracts to both mordanted and unmordanted wool

Above are some colour samples before steaming - these colours will be very much brighter and lighter once steamed and washed.  Shown below are the very beginnings of my colour tests, recently steam-set and washed, to see if the colour would hold, and it did.  In a momentary lapse of planning, I did not photograph these samples before steaming, only after steaming, before and after washing.  Before steaming, the colours are more subdued and less vibrant than you see them here.  The chemical reaction that releases the colourants and bonds them to the fibre does not occur until steaming, as heat is required for the reaction to happen.  Happily upon washing, while the print paste, which has a slightly yellowish cast, washes away, leaving behind beautiful, brilliant colour.

after steaming, prior to washing

Now that I am deep into my research, I see everything through a the lens of colour, plants and history - I am truly a nerd about it!  I promise to also share selected adventures of lovely things in London, like my frequent pilgrimages to the V&A, weekly walks along the Regent's Canal and other discoveries while I'm abroad.   I hope to hear from kindred spirits as I go along, so please do comment and/or contact me.

 after steaming and washing: vibrant hues from annatto, madder and coreopsis


  1. Beautiful work Thea! You're in the perfect city for this kind of research. I'm looking forward to more posts about your life in London.

  2. those colors are pretty fantastic thea!
    a fair number of us in the studio (3rd and 2nd years) are really getting into natural dyes for some of our projects this year. there is talk of picking a day over break to come in and try our hand at this natural dye print paste recipe we got our hands on.
    can't wait to see more of your samples and work, hope you've been goodness!

  3. Oh how exciting! The samples are works of art in themselves. I look forward to reading about your progress. I've been thinking about your show at You Me and wished I had photographed it. Your stitched fonts have wormed themselves into my brain.

    P.S. the silk industry has a history in Europe as well-- tied in with France and Hugenots and expulsions, etc.

  4. I have read about and visited the remnants of the silk plantations of France - which is where Au ver a Soie originated, I believe. By choosing linen, hemp and wool I was more purposely excluding cotton, rather than silk. I may end up doing some samples on silk as the results on silk are quite different than those on wool.

  5. Amazing post! I love it! Just one quick question, how to you steam your printed fabrics?

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