Out in the glorious landscape of the Dart Valley, there are organic treasures to be found, indeed. The golden hues of dock root; the black and brown colours from oak gall; the yellow of bracken and lichen, and much more besides, find their way back to Flora’s store cupboard and her vats of potion. All is underpinned by a philosophy of co-existence; one that not so much ‘encourages’ wildlife as lives alongside it and shares in the abundance of the countryside. “I harvest from the hedgerows and wild edges,” she explains. “There is a seasonal flow to it as the energy moves through the plants like a wave.” Flora, therefore, picks leaves in spring, and flowers, followed by seeds, in summer. “Nuts and fruits ripen later in the year, and the energy then sinks down into the roots, making these good to harvest in the autumn and winter, along with tree barks and galls.”
The really vibrant colours, however, come from those plants such as madder, weld, indigo and woad, which have been bred and refined over thousands of years. “Garden plants are not designed specifically for the purpose of dyeing, so, with the exception of dahlias, they are not as bright, and the colours are not usually stable,” says Flora. While dyeing with plants could not claim to be entirely chemical free, it employs domestic materials that are non-toxic in small quantities, such as lemon juice, salt, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, together with plants that, in large part, can be harvested locally, so its footprint and impact are a fraction of the synthetic alternative.
Dye baths The processes involved in making and applying natural dyes take practice, and Flora has developed her skills gradually. There are a myriad of factors to consider: some plants are richer in colour-yielding compounds than others, meaning the quantities used will vary. The fabric, too, will influence both the colour and its intensity, and, while Flora favours wool or silk, cellulose-based fabrics, such as cotton or hemp, can also be employed. Dye plants can be applied directly to cloth, but they are often steeped and heated in water to create a dye bath in which the fabric is submerged for anything from an hour to several days. Treating the fabric first, by scouring and using a mordant or fixative, such as a metal salt or tannin, can strengthen the final colour.
“I tend to use mordants, as otherwise you get very pale colours,” explains Flora. “Aluminium-based fixatives, such as aluminium sulphate or acetate, are used for bright colours, but there are plants that can be used too, such as symplocos, which is an Indonesian tree, with leaves high in aluminium.Emerging from its soaking, the fabric can then be overdyed or treated with metal modifiers, which are iron or copper salts that react with plant tannins, or pH shifters, such as vinegar, to alter the colour once more. And with the right fixative, some plant dyes, including the classics, such as madder and woad, can be very long-lasting and stable indeed. Creating patterns The dyer’s holy grail is an intense, durable colour that is stable when exposed to light, washing and sweat, and this depends on what plant, fabric and fixative are used. Yet, in the finished article, colour goes hand in hand with pattern.
“To create patterns, I often use resistance techniques, such as the Japanese method itajime, where you bind and clamp the fabric with wood blocks to stop the colour getting to certain areas,” says Flora. “Sashiko is a process where you pull stitching tight, to create a resist between the stitches, and in arashi, you wrap and scrunch the fabric around a pole.” Yet there are simpler methods, including dip-dyeing or tie-dyeing, while bundle-dyeing sees the fabric sprinkled with plant material, such as petals, and even fragments of iron or nails, before being tied into a ball and steamed. Natural shades With time, Flora’s interest in dye materials has evolved, and she now makes inks and paints from her grown and foraged supplies, too. “I love exploring the different processes, doing my own drawings and developing printing techniques,” she says. “Part of it is to demonstrate how to create vibrant colour and substitute synthetic dyes with wild ones. There is a myth that natural dyes are all pale, murky beiges, and I like showing that it is not true.” For Flora, the relationship with plants, dyes, pattern, technique and environment is a personal one. “You don’t need specialist kit, and you can make it as complicated or as simple as you like,” she says. “Each plant is unique and tactile; individual in its colour, scent and quality; so it is a very enjoyable way of connecting with the natural world.”
DYEING WITH WOAD
Woad, Isatis tinctoria, is a biennial plant in the brassica family, and the classic blue-indigo dye is made from the foliage it produces in its first year. A kilo of leaves produces 1-4g of pigment, depending on how well fed the plants were and how hot the summer was. One gram of pigment will dye approximately 20g of material. To make woad dye at home, the leaves are harvested in late summer, chopped up and steeped in hot water before being rapidly cooled. The plant material is discarded and alkali added, before aerating thoroughly. The resulting green, frothy mixture is then left to settle for several hours, before pouring away the liquid. The sludge is rinsed with water and allowed to settle; a process that is repeated several times. The dye paste is then ready to use or can be dried and stored. Woad is used to colour fabrics a beautiful blue and, historically, it was used by Ancient Britons to paint their bodies and colour their faces, particularly before battle. It has also found use in paints. Woad became an important commercial crop in the UK and Europe in medieval times, but it was gradually replaced by Asian indigo, which, in its turn, gave way to brightly coloured synthetic dyes when they were developed in the 1800s.
LONG AND COLOURFUL HISTORY
For many thousands of years, mankind has used the local flora, and sometimes fauna, to dye fabric and leather. And while most plant substances, such as barks, lichen, flowers and nuts, produce soft browns, yellows and pinks, certain species produce brilliant and highly desirable colours. Natural dyes were certainly used during the iron age, and they have been identified in textiles discovered in bog burials dating back to that period. There is written record of their use in China from 2,600BC. Textiles and pigments from Tutankhamen’s tomb were found to have been dyed using the roots of madder, Rubia tinctorum, which produce a red colour. Across the ancient world, from Asia and Africa to Europe, dye substances, such as indigo, woad, saffron, madder and weld, became highly prized trade goods, along with crimson and purple dyes that came from invertebrates. The most highly prized dye through the ages was Tyrian purple, obtained from the secretion of several species of predatory Mediterranean sea snails. It took thousands of snails to make 1g of dye, which was derived rather laboriously, either by ‘milking’ the snails or by crushing them, and, as a result, it was worth more than its weight in gold.