Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking an awe-inspiring natural dye workshop with Australian textile artist, India Flint who describes herself as a “maker of marks, forest wanderer & tumbleweed, stargazer & stitcher, botanical alchemist & string twiner, working traveler, dreamer, writer.” That description alone was all the encouragement I needed to sign up and keep my fingers crossed that I would make it to the top of a long waiting list.
India has combined a deep respect for the environment with her unique art form. Every step of her dye process from start to finish is ecologically sustainable. This is no easy task considering the textile dyeing industry is considered among the worst polluters and water wasters. If you’d like to know more about her work and process, I can highly recommend her book, Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles.
I’d like to tell you about the major points India made throughout the three day workshop but first I wanted to show you the perfectly gorgeous location on Lopez Island. In my mind, it’s inseparable from the whole experience. Our instruction took place in and around this lovely building referred to as “Patsy’s garden shed” but to me it immediately became “Poppy’s dream studio.” As a matter of fact, put a woodstove in and I could practically live here.
The only reason I can think of to call it a garden shed is that it’s right in the center of the most amazing garden. Here you can see the group of 12 of us happily working around several long tables surrounded by every fall blossom you can imagine right outside the door. The garden, as well as the forest surrounding, provided much of the plant material we used for dyes.
India gave us lots to ponder including her guidelines, the first of which was “know your plants.” She talked to us about the value of learning about the native plants from your area and which ones can safely be used for dyes. Windfall is far preferable to harvesting plants for many reasons. She obviously doesn’t want you out stripping leaves off plants in the arboretum. Surprisingly, plants that have turned colors (even brown!) and fallen can produce a better dye and impression than green ones can. Our native salal has such a tough umbrella-like upper surface that we had to “rough it up” with stones, sandpaper or wood to penetrate the surface and release the dye.
Every part of the Madrona tree ended up in a dye bath — leaves, fallen bark and berries. If you don’t happen to live near the forest, there are lists of noxious weeds in your county that are threatening to crowd out native plants. In the San Juan Islands, two of these — scotch broom and tansy ragwort have been used successfully as natural dyes. It’s almost your civil duty to pull out these plants wherever you see them and throw them into a dye pot.
Plant material is wrapped into natural fiber fabric and tied with string into bundles. Some are wrapped around stones, pieces of rusted metal or copper pipe. India reminded us that even though we’re not using nasty chemicals, go to the thrift store and buy some dedicated dye pots — if you’ve stopped cooking with aluminum, you may already have what you need. If the odor given off by a plant smells toxic, trust your nose and don’t use that plant.
“Time is your friend” means that the longer you let the fabric sit in the pot, the more interesting the dye and impression will be. Taking time to let the magic occur is a great lesson for all of us impatient types. The most exciting part of the workshop for me was unwrapping my bundles and hanging them on the line with all the rest, each one so unique and beautiful in it’s own way. (The string gets dyed too so be sure to save it for stitching or wrapping gifts).
Speaking of impatience, somehow I got so excited about the forest wandering, etc. that I completely read over the hand-stitching part of the course description. When I realized I was in a group of women, many of whom hand-stitch for fun, I was immediately filled with performance anxiety. Luckily India made the time go by quickly telling us her family stories and jokes while we stitched. My rustic running stitch became more natural as it fell into the rhythm of her voice and those chatting around me.