Dyeing with home-grown indigo

indigo seeds 11

Back in April I planted some seeds of Japanese indigo, or Persicaria tinctoria.

indigo seeds 1

They germinated pretty quickly – within a few days.

indigo seeds 2

In mid-May we had a warm spell, so I planted them out. They like to be kept well watered, but as we had such a wet spring, luckily I didn’t need to do much watering!

indigo seeds 3

I will leave a couple of plants to flower so that I can gather seeds for next year, but apparently once they start to flower the leaves won’t give any colour. So I’ve been torn between picking them and wondering whether I have enough to dye with!🙂

This week I couldn’t take the suspense any more and decided to cut back some of the larger plants (apparently they will form new shoots, so this won’t harm them). This gave me around 100g of leaves.

indigo seeds 4

Following the instructions by Isabella Whitworth and Christina Chisholm in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, I tried two methods of dyeing with them.

First I used half the leaves to produce aqualeaf blue, a method which they credit to Jenny Balfour-Paul and Lucy Goffin. This involves soaking the leaves in iced water before blending them and straining out the vegetable matter. Then you add  your silk or wool for 3-5 minutes. No alkali, no reducing agent – just neat indigo!

indigo seeds 5

This method gave a beautiful delicate shade of turquoise on silk. If I’d had more leaves I could have blitzed some more and done another dip, but I rather like this colour.

indigo seeds 6

On wool it was less successful, giving only a faint tinge of blueish green.

indigo seeds 7

I then added the leftover liquid and the blitzed leaves to a pot containing the rest of the whole leaves and cold water. In hindsight, adding the blitzed leaves was a mistake, because all the little bits of leaves got caught up in the wool later (as you will see!). Live and learn.🙂

indigo seeds 8

After heating it slowly for a couple of hours to 60°C I strained out the leaves, added some washing soda and whisked it. When the froth was all green, I reheated it and added some reducing agent. Once the dye was reduced I added some silk and wool.

The silk was very pale again, more blue than turquoise, despite four dips. Obviously I need to pick more indigo leaves next time!

indigo seeds 9

But the wool turned a strange shade of green. This is the shade I often see when I first remove items from an indigo vat, but it turns blue on exposure to the air. In this case the colour didn’t change – it just stayed green. The spots are the bits of ground up leaf from the aqualeaf indigo which have got caught up in it.🙂

indigo seeds 10

Hopefully there is enough growing season left for me to get another, bigger harvest to try again before the end of the year!


Foiling workshop

On Saturday I spent an enjoyable morning doing a foiling workshop with Anna Jackson of Black Cactus London. Anna is a screen printer and fellow Makerhood member, and she uses lots of leaves and textures in her work – so you can see why I’m a fan!

foil anna work

I bought one of her lovely foiled keypots (above) at Christmas, and I couldn’t turn down the chance to have a go at foiling myself.

We started by making a quick paper stencil to get familiar with the technique. Although we used a screen to push the glue through the stencil, Anna emphasised that this wasn’t essential – you can brush the glue on instead.

foil first stencil

Then we moved on to experimenting ourselves. Of course I spent most of the time using leaves and seeds!

Maple leaves
Maple leaves
Sycamore seeds
Sycamore seeds
Fig leaf
Fig leaf

I finished off with another more elaborate snail shell stencil.

foil last stencil

And here’s the happy group (including Kes of Heart in Art Workshops) showing off our work at the end.

foil workshop crop

Anna’s next foiling workshops are on 14 August and 3 September – a great way in to the metallic trend this summer!

Sneak preview of ecoprinting project

I’m currently working on a very special ecoprinting project, the details of which I can’t reveal yet.

But it’s meant I’ve been spending time experimenting and sampling, and I can’t resist showing you some of the results. I’m particularly pleased with some of the prints given by garden weeds, most of which I never knew the name of. I now have to stop ESP from weeding the garden!😉

The photos below include rose and cotinus leaves as unifying elements, each combined with a different plant.

rose cotinus and rosebay willow
Rose and cotinus leaves with garden weed
Dock flowers
Rose and cotinus leaves with dock flowers
Sycamore seeds
Sycamore seeds
Cranesbill leaves
Cranesbill leaves

The sampling has led to some other new discoveries, like this vibrant green print from Robinia pseudoacacia.

robinia pseudoacacia

The colour didn’t really fit in with the project, but I’ve used the leaves with sycamore seeds and dock flowers on a scarf now in my Etsy shop.

ecoprint-robbinia-sycamore-2 ecoprint-robbinia-sycamore-3

And here are some other samples that I won’t be using in this project but may use in future.

Pelargonium flowers
Pelargonium flowers
Fig leaf
Fig leaf
ecoprint heuchera
Heuchera leaf

Textile Society visit to Kew

Last week I joined the Textile Society visit to Kew Gardens to see the Economic Botany Collection and also some of Jenny Balfour-Paul’s collection of indigo textiles housed at Kew. The group was an interesting mix of historians, conservators, practitioners and enthusiasts.

Dr Mark Nesbitt, Curator and Research Leader of the Economic Botany Collection, explained that when the collection was set up in 1847, “economic” meant “useful”. As well as encouraging people to engage with plants and their purposes, the collection acted as a hub between countries of the empire and consumers in Britain, able to advise on which plants grew best under different conditions. It collected not only raw materials (plants) but also the end products – baskets, clothing and the like.

In the 1980s the collection was moved to a new purpose-built building and became a research collection no longer open to the public. It lends over 100 items a year to museums around the world, and museum conservation students work on important pieces as part of their studies.

The collection is organised by plant type – for example, monocotyledons like grasses and palms are stored together. This is because plants in the same families tend to produce similar types of fibre, allowing comparisons to be made.

kew nesbitt

We started by looking at a few examples of plants and fibres produced from them, including New Zealand flax, ramie, stinging nettles and mulberry. The fashion in Victorian times was to show the “illustrative process”, with examples of the plant at every stage, from the original plant stems to the extracted fibres and final fabric, and Kew has a good collection of these.

Mark explained that historical attempts at commercialisation had affected the range of plants used. Processing plants by hand to extract fibre is very labour intensive, but expensive machines imported from London to New Zealand or the Caribbean, where the plants prospered, often broke down. Where industrialisation of the process succeeded, that plant was favoured at the expense of others. Maori weavers originally used around 20 plants, but New Zealand flax is the only one that survived. However, today there is renewed interest in historic materials and methods, so a collection like this at Kew can help in the repatriation of that knowledge.

Closer to home, there have been several attempts to commercially produce  nettle fibre, especially during the two world wars. Recently De Montfort University in Leicester has had another go at industrialising the process and produced some furnishing fabrics. We were all very impressed with these – until Mark told us that they were actually 75% wool!

We then moved on to some of the finished products. A stunning Maori cloak dating from 1856 is the only such garment in any museum collection worldwide. It is made from mountain daisy, also known as the “leather plant” because of the suede-like texture of its leaves. The main cloak was woven from rolled up leaves (a tricky operation), and then the surface was covered with long strips of leaves, which helped the rain to run off.

kew maori cloak

From around the same period (1853) a loin cloth, or tanga, from the north-west Amazon was made from mulberry bark cloth. The inner bark, or phloem, is separated out and pounded to make cloth (paper makers also use it to make pulp). The cloth was made by Uaupe Indians, who crimped it between their teeth and decorated with red dye.

Also made from bark cloth but in a very different fashion was a jacket from the Nicobar Islands. Made from the inner bark of a wild fig tree, this double breasted reefer jacket edged with Manchester cotton is a prime example of a fusion garment – Victorian fashion made from local materials. It was donated to Kew in 1858 by anthropologist Edward Man, and inkstains and traces of wear suggest that it was his personal garment.

kew bark jacket

Two more fascinating items rounded off the tour. A cotton Peruvian shroud, dating from around 1400, was shaped like a large bag. Apparently the body was tied into a foetal position before being wrapped in the shroud.

And finally we saw a bonnet made from Jamaican lace bark (Lagetta lagetto), which used to be widespread in the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries but is now quite rare due to overharvesting. The bark was soaked to separate the inner phloem layer, which was pulled apart into layers of white netting.

kew lace bonnet

Jenny Balfour Paul’s indigo collection

We then moved on to see a selection of indigo garments donated by Jenny Balfour-Paul to the Kew collection. Jenny herself gave an introduction to the collection, explaining how she became enraptured by indigo when she was working in Yemen in 1983. Encouraged by fabric dyer and printer Susan Bosence to apply for a grant to research indigo dyeing in the country, she was then commissioned by the British Museum to write a comparative book on indigo worldwide, and never looked back.

kew jenny bp

Her donations are eclectic, ranging from the shiny indigo embroidered Yemeni dress that started her fascination to a wooden mallet used to beat the fabric to get the shine and a collection of home-made bamboo and copper batik tools from south-west China.

kew yemeni dress
Yemeni indigo dyed dress
kew mallet
Mallet used to beat indigo fabric to make it shiny
Home-made batik tools from China
Home-made batik tools from China

Highlights of the international collection include samples of labour-intensive Indian ajrakh printing, a lovely piece of Nigerian adire painted with a chicken feather and cassava paste, and beautifully textured Mali cotton patterned with stitch resist. There was also mud cloth from Mali, where the cloth was painted with tannic acid before applying mud. The mud reacts with the tannin, leaving a pattern when it is washed off.

Indian ajrakh
Indian ajrakh
Nigerian adire
Nigerian adire
Mali mud cloth
Mali mud cloth

Moving east, Jenny showed us a piece of batik that she rescued from use as a duster(!) as well as Indonesian ikat. China was represented by a jacket from Guizhou that combined indigo batik with weaving, as well as a, extraordinary lustrous jacket that was dyed with indigo and then coated with persimmon juice, egg white and ox blood to make it waterproof.

Indonesian batik
Indonesian batik
Guizhou jacket
Guizhou jacket
Indigo jacket coated with ox blood, persimmon juice and egg white
Indigo jacket coated with ox blood, persimmon juice and egg white

To round off, there were a couple of contemporary pieces – a gorgeous piece of ombre dyed hemp by Japanese master Hiroyuki Shindo and a more exuberant piece from Bhutan that was produced with all natural dyes (except for the pink), including turmeric, symplocos, indigo and two types of madder.

Bhutan piece dyed with natural dyes
Bhutan piece dyed with natural dyes
Hemp dyed by Hiroyuki Shindo
Hemp dyed by Hiroyuki Shindo

All in all, a fascinating visit, after which we were free to visit the main gardens, including the Hive.

kew hive kids kew hive kew palm house kew water lilies

Starting with Photoshop

A few months ago I mused about whether I should learn how to use Photoshop so that I could get some of my designs digitally printed rather than making everything by hand. This would enable me to make larger pieces at more acceptable prices.

This week I finally got round to doing a two-day class on Photoshop for beginners at Morley College. It was a very popular class, with most of the participants wanting to learn Photoshop to improve their photos or restore old prints. And it turned out that I already knew the tutor, Estelle Vincent, as we had been located next to each other at Lambeth Open at the Portico Gallery a few years ago. Small world!🙂

We covered a lot in two days, but what was most useful for me was learning about layers, filters and flipping/rotating to produce repeat patterns. Here are some of the patterns I created.

The first was a section of an ecoprint of eucalyptus on silk.

Original ecoprint of eucalyptus on silk

After changing the colour with a filter and flipping and rotating:

Repeat pattern created with filter

A similar process starting with a section of sycamore ecoprint:

photoshop-sycamore-before photoshop-sycamore-blue-repeat

Then I experimented with some indigo shibori. I didn’t bother changing the colours with filters this time.


photoshop-kuno-before photoshop-new-kuno

It’s fascinating to see how different the patterns look when repeated on a larger scale, which is something I could never achieve by hand. And using different filters to create different colourways adds even more potential.

Lots for me to think about here!