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Hi, I'm Tina Whiteley and Kurrara Designs Studio is where I create and teach textile art ...

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Textile Talk

Welcome to Textile Talk, where I’ll be regularly posting information related to textiles or fibre ...

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Textile Talk:

Welcome to Textile Talk, where I’ll be regularly posting information related to textiles or fibre, to introduce you to various topics and techniques in fabric surface design, machine and hand embroidery, mixed media and paper crafts.


Current Textile Talk Articles:

#1 A Brief History of Natural Dyeing
#2 History of Natural Dyeing Part 2 - The Emergence of Synthetic Dyes
#3 Natural Dyeing Demonstration RBG Cranbourne 2014
#4 History of Natural Dyeing Part 3 - The Return of Natural Dyes
#5 Experiments in Natural Dyeing
#6 For the Love of Art
#7 Using Samples to Inform Your Design
#8 Good Timing
#9 A Winter's Tale - Dyeing Fabric In Bulk


#1 A Brief History of Natural Dyeing


The subject of dyeing is so vast that it can be studied from many angles, including historical, social, archeological, environmental, geological, geographical, botanical, artistic and scientific. In researching it I’ve frequently gone off in tangents and got side-tracked for hours, as the trails are so interesting! However, I don’t want to dwell on specific areas for too long, as I would rather give you an overview of the subject and hopefully leave you free to pursue any area at length that particularly appeals to you, so I hope you enjoy the read.

What is natural dyeing ?

The act of dyeing is a method of permanently imparting colouring agents called chromophores, derived from a natural source, to a required surface, such as fabric or fibre. Natural dyeing is an ancient craft that dates back to the end of the Stone Age/beginning of the Bronze Age. Timelines vary according to different sources, but it’s probably sufficient to say around 5000 years ago, when human settlement and agriculture began to thrive. As well as for food, the farming of animals and crops gave rise to the production of wool, linen, flax, cotton and silk. The history of dyes and textiles are interrelated and from ancient times to the mid 19th Century, colouring of cloth or yarn was done using dyes derived not from a test tube, but from the natural world, namely vegetable, animal or mineral sources. Dyeing with natural dyestuffs was practised around the world, both commercially and domestically, with locally available or imported resources, giving rise to a variety of colours and techniques.

How were natural dyes extracted?

Most early dyestuffs were ground, crushed or macerated in pots, large troughs or vats filled with water and heated until they released their colour. The dyestuffs were then drained out of the coloured solution and previously scoured fabrics or fibres were placed into the dye bath, reheated and stirred until they absorbed the desired strength of colour and were then left to cure. With some dyes, mordants had to be applied to the cloth or yarn beforehand. Vat dyes, such as indigo and Tyrian Purple had to undergo a fermentation process and involved dipping and redipping, so dyeing textiles with these dyes, could take weeks or longer. The processes used then are similar to those used today.

Medieval Dyers
© The British Library Board,
Royal MS 15.E.iii, f. 269


Mordants and modifiers

Most natural dyes are adjective dyes, which means they need something added to the process to help them bond or fix to the fabric. This fixative is otherwise known as a mordant. Mordants are mostly metallic salts, applied to fabrics and fibres, before dyeing, to improve the take-up of dyes, making them more colourfast and lightfast, however, post-mordanting or dye bath mordanting are also options. Mordants used in early times include iron sulphate and copper sulphate, tin, chrome, alum and tannin. Some dyes are known as polychromic dyes, meaning that they give different colours depending on which mordant is used, such as madder and cochineal. Mordants can help to brighten, darken or completely change the final dye colour.

There are some natural dye stuffs that do not need a mordant to help fix their colour. These are known as substantive dyes and examples include pomegranate, onion and eucalyptus.

Modifiers are used to shift colours of dyes, according to their alkalinity or acidity, giving a greater range of colour options. They are sometimes referred to as mordants, but strictly speaking they are not mordants as such, however their action on the fibre does affect the overall dyeing outcome. Other dyeing fixative aids, such as salt and cream of tartar, can also be used. Some of the modifiers used in early times included vinegar, ash and urine, which was a rich source of ammonia and there are reports of medieval dyers who would repeatedly get drunk and use their alcohol-laden urine to ferment the vats of woad leaves to improve the colour and rumour has it that some of the drunken dyers even fell into the vats. Please don't try this at home!

Depending on the fabric or fibre selection and the type of mordants and dyestuffs chosen, mordanting can be either a simple or complicated process. In ancient times, the mordanting recipes and processes were just as important as the dye mixes, expanding options for colours. Some of the earliest dye and mordant processes are documented in a series of papyrus pages, known as the Stockholm Papyrus, which came to light publically in Europe in the early 19th Century. The pages contain instructions and notes written in Greek, documenting the dyeing and mordanting processes of the Ancient Egyptians. There are other similar manuscripts now available to read, such as the Leyden Papyrus, the Plictho and the Allerley Matkel, through to the more modern and practical Family Dyer and Scourer of 1831.

Examples of early natural dyes

Purple was one of the most notable dyes in the ancient world. The most expensive purple dye was Tyrian or Murex Purple, obtained collectively from several species of marine murex and purpura snails, found in large numbers along the coast of Phoenicia and produced in the city of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon. It must have been a very messy, foul-smelling, and time-consuming activity for the dyers to create their purple dyes. They had to process enormous quantities of crushed snails, using snail innards that had to be left for days out in the sun to decompose and steep in large vats, to extract a relatively small amount of dye. Depending on the skill of the dyer and the blend of the dyes from each snail species, variations of the colour purple could be achieved, from red to blue. Tyrian purple was so labour intensive to collect and produce that it was therefore an extremely expensive colour to buy and only royalty, or the very rich and powerful could afford to wear it.

So revered was the colour purple, that the Ancient Egyptians had over 70 different dye recipes for it! However, from the translations of the Stockholm Papyrus, it appeared that the Egyptians were skilled in using alternative dyestuffs to achieve similar results, such as Orchil lichens, alkanet root (Alkanna tinctoria) and madder root (Rubia tinctoria).

The earliest blue plant dye available was derived from woad (Isatis tinctoria). The more reliable substantive dye, indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), known as "Devil's Dye”, grown in India, was introduced to the western world much later. Yellow dyes were obtained from a number of plants including weld (Reseda luteola), saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) and turmeric (Curcurma longa). A range of green hues could be created from a mix of blue and yellow dyes. Scarlet and crimson colours could be obtained, to varying degrees, from the red madder plant, the kermes scale insect and the lac beetle.

Natural dyes in these bright colours were big business and over the centuries more trade routes opened up around the world to provide greater varieties of dyestuffs. During the early to mid 16th Century, after their conquests of the Americas, the Spanish introduced into European markets a new and striking red dye, which was made from ground cochineal beetles (Dactylopius coccus). Also from the New World, a range of tree dyes came into commercial use from around the 17th Century, namely logwood, brazilwood and fustic, which originated from South and Central America and gave a range of black/purples, reds and yellow/oranges respectively.

Colour has always played an important part in fashion and, through the years, different colours have fallen in and out of favour. Centuries ago there used to be laws regulating and limiting the wearing of particular colours and types of clothing. Certain colours would denote status, rank or profession, or would indicate a feudal line and family patronage. During the Renaissance, more luxurious fabrics became available, including silk brocades and velvets. Fashion styles therefore developed, along with dye quality and improvement of natural dyeing techniques. Often the dyes were more expensive than the fabrics they coloured, with merchants constantly outdoing each other to source the brightest colours and the finest quality dyes. So fierce was the competition, that Italian dyers of velvet were not allowed to leave their city, for fear they might team up with rival manufacturers.

As laws governed the wearing of certain items, so the specialist Brotherhoods or Trade Guilds governed the trades, including the textile and dyeing trades. During the Middle Ages, the highest quality dyes were reserved for the Master Dyers who guarded their colour recipes very closely, to preserve their artistic status and of course their remuneration. The lesser, or more fugitive dyes, would be used by the apprentices and journeymen who had to prove themselves for many years before reaching the Master stage and many didn’t! Apparently the apprentices weren’t even allowed to get married while indentured.

The Guilds governed the male trades from the Middle Ages through to the 18th Century, but there were also craftswomen who worked from home who are often overlooked by historians. From necessity, many women would have spun their own fibres to sell and also to use for their own families. It is also highly likely they would have grown their own plants for dyeing or used what they could find growing locally in their part of the world, including mosses, lichens, fungi, fruits, berries and vegetables from which they would have derived a range of colours from yellows, greens, greys, browns, blues and reds. These home workers were the foundation of the later factory workers for the textile mills of the industrial revolution.

Outside of the developed world at that time, other indigenous communities would have been doing the same thing, namely spinning, weaving and dyeing with their local flora and fauna. In Australia, early Aboriginal communities were well-versed in using plants for food, medicines and making everyday artefacts. They were also highly skilled in using naturally occurring pigments, such as clays, ochres and charcoal for creating rock art, staining their artefacts and body decoration during religious, ritual or ceremonial occasions. Interestingly, the art of dyeing did not develop in Australia until heat proof pots were introduced into the country by early foreign traders and settlers. Today, dyeing skills are evident in Aboriginal artefacts, particularly in their baskets and bags.

Over time, some of the dyeing skills of cultures around the world have been lost due to poor or non-existent record keeping, however there is a lot of specific first-hand information still to be found in ancient manuscripts, treatises and dyer’s manuals and notebooks. There are of course many books written on the subject from different perspectives and I’ve found it pays to think laterally, when researching, to find the most intriguing resources and the more you search the more information you’ll discover. If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of natural dyes and want to follow a trail that is fascinating and encompasses history from prehistoric times, here are a few interesting links for you:

Natural dyes a general history

Information on the earliest dyes

Plant dyes and mordants

18th Century dyes

Historical information on indigo dyeing

See Textile Talk Part 2, as the story continues . . . .


Bibliography

1. The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind – Franco Brunello 1973 (Translation by Bernard Hudson) -
Extracts Available online
2. Manual of Dyes and Fabrics – Joyce Storey - 1978 Thames and Hudson
3. World Textiles – A Concise History – Mary Schoeser - 2003 Thames and Hudson
4. Textiles for Modern Living – E.P.G. Gohl and L.D. Vilensky - 5th Edition1993 Longman

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#2 The Emergence of Synthetic Dyes


Setting the scene for change

From early ancient times, dyeing seemed more like a mystical or secretive art, owing more to alchemy than science, but that was all about to change and it started midway through the 17th Century, with the Age of Enlightenment. This was the age of science and reason in the western world, where all things were now being re-examined. People were starting to question the authority of institutions, particularly of the Church and looked outside of religion for answers.

In Europe, people were becoming more educated, more progressive and open to change. Science and technology were bringing advances in all areas of life, particularly in trade. The rise of the merchants and middle classes was creating a demand for more luxury goods. In Britain, a century later, the stage was set for the Industrial Revolution and the textile trade was in the forefront of a change that was later to impact the rest of the world. In London, in 1851, The Great Exhibition also helped textile designers and manufacturers share their ideas and develop new markets.

As well as the staples of wool and linen, and luxury silks and velvets, cotton was gaining in popularity. Cotton mills were established in Lancashire in the north of England, which was an ideal location as it already had woollen mills and the climate was conducive to spinning cotton. Advances in steam power, along with improvements in the production of iron ore and inventions, such as the Spinning Jenny and the Power Loom, meant that spinning and weaving was now carried out by machine, gradually replacing the traditional home craftsperson. Many of the home workers now took up work in these mills, as they were ideally placed to understand the processes. However, with mechanisation came less artistic licence and most craftspeople simply became machine operatives. Goods were manufactured by machines in a fraction of the time it took craftsmen and women to make them by hand and so they became cheaper to buy and therefore more in demand. Suppliers of natural dyes for these mass-produced fabrics and fibres had to try and keep up with this increased demand.

Dyeing was a very labour-intensive occupation, compared with the new way of spinning and weaving. Natural dyes were not always of the same quality or hue and varied from supplier to supplier, so there was not always a guarantee of reliable colour. Dye plant crops could fail with bad weather, causing a shortage of supply, or there could be transportation problems because of weather or wars. All of this would push up prices, so natural dyeing with its many variables did not now suit modern textile production methods. Consequently suppliers, manufacturers and consumers started looking to science to solve supply problems and the race began to find ways to synthesise dyes in order to make them more reliable, easier and cheaper to produce. Around Europe, various chemists worked on ways to extract colours from chemical compounds in order to produce new worthwhile dyes. However, most of the compounds fell short of the mark, as they were not reliable and didn’t give fast or strong colours.

The discovery of the first synthetic dye

As it happened it took many years for the first successful commercial synthesised dye to be developed. It was discovered accidently in England in 1856 by a young chemist called William Perkin who was experimenting on coal tar, an aniline substance, which was a by-product of burning coal. He was trying to synthesise quinine, a remedy for malaria, using coal tar as his base. At the end of his experiment he was left with a dark-substance, which he found went a light shade of purple, or mauve in solution. He tested it with a strip of silk which took the dye readily. Perkin applied for patents and set up his own factory to start producing this new aniline purple dye, commercially known as Mauveine.

Apparently Queen Victoria set the trend for wearing gowns in the new purple colour and, albeit a still fairly fugitive dye, it wasn’t long before it was one of the most sought after colours. Ironically, purple, a colour that had once been the stronghold of the highest ranking members of society was now also available to the masses.

Streamlining dye production and colour reliability

From Perkin’s initial discovery, the quality of the new synthesised dyes began to improve. New synthetic dyes were constantly being discovered and refined over the years, with Germany at the forefront of production. These new dyes included synthesised alizarin, discovered around 1869 and synthesised indigo around 1880.

Chemists were now using an empirical approach which meant that weights and measures were more carefully logged and controlled and dye substances could be produced to a specific formula. However, prior to the discovery of synthetic dyes, there had been attempts to introduce more methodical approaches to improve the quality and reliability of natural dyes.

A significant input was from chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who, in 1824 was appointed Director of Dyeing at the Gobelins tapestry factory in Paris. Investigating the apparent faded quality of the tapestries at the factory, he concluded it was not so much the quality of the dyeing, but rather the relationship of adjacent colours and their intensities which affected their overall appearance. His research and concepts of colour relationships and simultaneous contrast were extensive and ground-breaking. They not only helped improve the output of the dyed tapestries, but also had repercussions throughout the art world in general. His book, The Laws of Contrast of Colour, published in 1839, greatly influenced and directed the Impressionist and Post Impressionist movements.

William Morris

The new colours were becoming all the rage with the public, but not everyone was so enthusiastic about synthetic dyes. They were considered inferior by some, as their wash, colour and light fast properties were not so good in the early days. One such sceptic was
William Morris, a leading member of the Arts and Crafts Movement. A staunch opponent of what he termed the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, Morris wanted to preserve the dignity and status of the craftsperson and the quality of hand-made goods, reminiscent, in his view, of the Middle Ages. His textile company, sought to re-establish natural dyes as part of the old traditional way of working, as he maintained they were crucial to the overall quality of his fabrics, threads, tapestries, home wares, carpets and wallpapers. Still popular today, Morris’ hand-printed woodblock designs derived their inspiration from Italian, Celtic and Islamic origins and in turn influenced the later Art Nouveau movement. Despite his hankering after the "natural world", it was alleged that one of his wallpaper designs was coloured using a pigment made from a synthetic compound of arsenic and copper, known as Scheeles Green.

Despite initial resistance to synthetic dyes within the industry, they were gradually becoming more readily available and more popular. Along the way, various chemical processes were discovered to prepare fabric for dyeing, which helped the new synthetic dyes react better, giving more reliable wash, colour and light fast results. This hastened the demise of natural dyes and by the end of the 19th Century they were commercially obsolete.

Today, synthetic dyes and pigments are derived mainly from petrochemicals and you’ll find them in all sorts of industries around the world, not just in clothing and textiles, the biggest consumer of dyes, but also in pharmaceuticals, food, printing, paper and cosmetics. There are approximately 10,000 different colours of synthetic dyes available commercially and only synthetic dyes can keep up with the demand for mass produced fashion that is cheap, fast, and repeatable. The range of commercial synthetic dyes available include basic dyes for acrylic fabrics, azo dyes for furnishings and towelling fabrics, sulphur dyes for blue serge/overall-type fabrics and disperse dyes for polyester fibres. Although used commercially, a range of fibre reactive dyes such as Procion MX type dyes and acid dyes such as Lanaset are also available to home dyers for cotton, silk and wool.

The downside of synthetic dyes

The abundance of synthetic dyes has come at a cost to our health and to our environment, not just from the chemicals in the dyes and their mordants, but also from the scouring and bleaching processes carried out on the fibres and fabrics so they are ready to take the dyes. Some solutions and substances in the dyeing process can be carcinogenic, toxic or cause allergies and skin complaints.

There is also the question of how to safely treat and dispose of waste products created in the process. In some cases, excess dyes and mordants have been discharged into waterways which have, as a result, become heavily polluted. Some of the dyes are not always completely colour fast and continue to bleed in domestic washing machine cycles.

From an aesthetic point of view, it is easy to spot a synthetically dyed fabric or yarn, with bright colours often appearing garish and difficult to match, as compared to the more harmonious palette of naturally dyed fibres.

There is no doubt that industry today could not have progressed as far as it has or as quickly as it has without the introduction of synthetic dyes. However, the environmental cost has resulted in a resurgence of interest in natural dyeing methods.

Look out for the conclusion to this story in Part 3 - The Return of Natural Dyes.


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#3 Natural Dyeing Demonstration RBG Cranbourne 2014


Last year I gave a demo and talk on the process of natural or eco dyeing at Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, using a selection of their Australian native plants, including eucalypts, acacias and flowering shrubs.

In particular the eucalypts gave lovely prints on fabric and paper and were also ideal for the dye bath, as they soaked well and provided good background colour. The colours ranged from subtle to strong depending on which metal was used for the dye pot (e.g. aluminium or iron). Here’s a list of some of the eucalypt varieties that were easy to work with and gave great results. If you’re familiar with the eco dyeing process and are lucky enough to have some of these eucalypts in your garden, do experiment and see what you get.

All leaves that were gathered from Cranbourne gardens, for the purpose of the demonstration, were done so with official permission and were responsibly harvested and treated.


#4 The Return of Natural Dyes


Dyeing in today's environment

With environmental issues currently high on the political agenda, we are now looking at how we can live and consume more sustainably. There is a growing desire to source locally-produced, chemical-free products, particularly for food and clothing. There is more and more demand for ethically produced textiles, which is paving the way for more organic production of these fibres, which in turn is less exploiting and polluting of natural resources, particularly our waterways.

Ironically, the synthetic dyes that solved the industry’s economic and supply problems in the mid to late 1800s have, over the years, created more problems commercially in the areas of environmental pollution and health and safety for our modern world. In a sense, we’ve come full circle, as natural dyeing is now enjoying a global resurgence. For textile artists, artisanal groups, indigenous communities and crafting hobbyists, the idea of creating their own unique fabric from their own environment can be both personally satisfying and economically practical. Over the years, individual practitioners have developed their own successful methods of natural dyeing, with early settlers in new lands combining plants from their homelands with those found in their new countries to extend the range of source material.

Natural dyeing is a slow and considered process, ideal for home dyeing. At present, it may not lend itself again to large scale production, but it’s finding a new niche market in more exclusive boutiques throughout the world. The emphasis is now on ethical, sustainable, unique and quality hand-made, high-end fashion garments, under the genre of Slow or Eco Fashion. As well as using natural dyes, we are also looking at recycling and repurposing textiles in a more economical way.

You’ll now be able to find more companies online who provide natural dyes for home use, mainly in powdered or chip form, along with their required mordants and these are particularly suitable for dyeing yarns in small to medium quantities and, with clever mixing, will deliver most of the colours of the spectrum. Some of these companies only specialise in natural dyes and others will also be suppliers of home-use synthetic dyes, like the fibre reactive or disperse dyes, which I’ll cover in more detail a later article.

Free and local sources of natural dyes

Depending on your reasons for using natural dyes, you may be happy to order traditional natural dyestuffs, such as woad, madder or indigo from companies who source products from around the world, or you might prefer to use what is closer to hand in your own garden and neighbourhood. In Australia, we natural dyers are ideally placed, as we have a wealth of native bush plants, such as eucalypts and acacias, which can be used, not only in dye bath dyeing, but also to give surface prints or Eco prints, as pioneered by Australian Textile Artist, India Flint.

There is a whole range of dye material available in our gardens, on our doorsteps and even in our kitchens, which provides a free and ecologically sustainable way of natural dyeing. In most cases you don’t even need chemical mordants to get a pleasing range of colours. Eucalypts contain their own tannin mordants and, when spent, the eucalypt dye baths can be recycled on the compost heap or back into the ground. If a mordant is required, then using alum (the most user-friendly metallic salt mordant), or an aluminium, iron or copper pot are the safest and easiest methods of application. Using Australian native plants is a great way to dye cellulose and protein fabrics. They are easy to collect, they are renewable, non-polluting, and offer a huge variety of subtle colour and pattern possibilities. It’s probably no coincidence either to find that eucalypts, for example, also have medicinal benefits, with their antioxidant and antiseptic properties. Their antibacterial properties are particularly advantageous for helping to protect and preserve fabrics and clothing.

It can be immensely satisfying to take something you have grown or collected at the side of the road and use it to make your own natural dye. To line up your fabrics and threads and marvel at the range of subtle colours and prints that can be obtained naturally is a real thrill and it’s a process that anyone can achieve quite easily with some guidance and practice. It is a process that will give your projects, from quilting and dressmaking to knitting and crocheting a completely unique and timeless quality.

If this article has aroused your interest why not consider taking a natural dyeing workshop to see how easy and enjoyable the process can be. It’s also a great way to get up close and personal with the plants around you.

My natural dyeing workshops focus on experimenting with and recording the results of a range of local garden and sustainable Australian native plant material to obtain a wide variety of colourful backgrounds and surface prints on fabrics and fibres such as cotton, silk and wool. You’ll be amazed at what patterns you can achieve with leaves, flowers and berries and how easy it is to vary colour ways with a selection of non-harmful mordants, pre and post dyeing. With the training and notes and follow-up support you receive from my workshops, you’ll be able to confidently dye your own unique fabrics at home, for patchwork and quilting projects, dressmaking, wearable art and homewares and also create your own coloured yarns and threads for knitting, crochet and embroidery projects. Please visit the
Workshops page for dates and details of my next natural dyeing workshops.

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#5 Experiments in Natural Dyeing


I wanted to share with you some dyeing experiments I did recently. I wanted to make a cotton sampler quilt, showing some of the dyeing techniques using plants, so set about using what I had that was ready to go, as I didn't have too much time to collect new plant material.

Some of the leaves and flowers I had were quite old and from the freezer, so I didn't know how effective they would be. I had been regularly picking and freezing our deep red carnations over the Christmas holidays, as they were so good initially in giving lovely violet blue prints on cotton, earlier in the year and we used them in the November workshops last year. So I was hoping they would still be good to go. I also had a few different leaves that were left over from my experiments for Cranbourne Botanic Gardens. I did manage to prune some roses and passion vines and used some fresh rose leaves and passion fruit leaves for most of the samples.

I used some messmate gum leaves in my aluminium pot for an orange/brown, some deck sweeping leaves in the iron pot, for greys and chocolates and some grapefruit leaves in the stainless steel pot for pale lemon to greens, to give a bit of a variation in colour of the cotton pieces. Results were mixed in that some frozen plant material, such as cinerea, peppermint gum and kangaroo paw, gave good bright prints, but the more fleshy green leaves, such as paulownia, were a bit disappointing. However, all was not lost, as I did some dipping in my different pH solutions, including vinegar, ash and iron water after I'd unwrapped the damp bundles. The dipping helped to brighten up the background and I was able to extend the range of colours to give me a bit more variety for the quilt sampler. Anyway, here are some of the pieces drying and I'll show you how I am progressing on the quilt over the next few months. I am currently doing some hand and machine stitching on it and will then assemble the pieces together after that.

I also did some cram-jar dyeing (also known as solar dyeing). This is where I crammed a lot of raw plant material, in this case, some rose petals, into a glass jar, filling the jar with enough water to cover the plant material and then popping on the lid and leaving it in a warm place and let the heat do its stuff. Over time, the colour leeched out of the petals into the warm water. I put a skein of pre-mordanted silk, cotton and wool fibres into the jar and left them until they absorbed the dye. From time to time, they needed a good squeeze to make sure the colour went right through. When I took the skeins out, the initial colour was a lovely pale lavender pink. I wanted some variegation, so I used a mixture of iron water at one end and ash water at the other and left the pink in the middle. They looked great when wet, but sadly, as they dried the fugitive pink paled out to a light grey. As the weather was nice and warm at the time, it was a good way to dye small amounts of thread or fabric parcels.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the colour of the liquor will be the finished colour on your fibre, as some flower dyes are quite fugitive and may react and change when exposed to air and sunlight, so it’s a case of experiment and see what you get. The final results are shown here. Although the colours faded to a grey/green when dried off, I'm quite happy with the colour as it is an ideal colour way for embroidering rocks, lichens, mosses, native animals and trees. I will definitely be exploring more of this type of dyeing as it is so simple to do and the sun does most of the work! I'll keep you posted with more experiments. Try having a go yourself if you've got some old jars to hand and just try any flowers or leaves to see what happens. Dark rose petals are a good start and you'll have fun watching the colours change.

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#6 For the Love of Art


Recently I was lucky enough to fulfil a dream I have had since arriving in Australia of returning to Europe on an art tour with a very good friend of mine,
Cathy van Ee, an exceptional artist. Not only did I admire the artwork on display in some of Europe's finest galleries, but I was also in awe of the spectacular scenery in Monet's garden at Giverny, which has inspired me to explore new ways to combine paint, dye and stitch to depict floral scenes.

As a record of the trip, I wrote an article entitled For the Love of Art, which has just been published in the latest Vic Pastel News, which is the official newsletter of the Pastel Society of Victoria Australia

The trip was also a precursor to our joint exhibition, Insight: The Pursuit of Beauty, which was held at Kingston Art Gallery, Moorabbin in October 2015.

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#7 Using Samples to Inform Your Design


This month’s talk is about experimenting and working with samples prior to completing a finished work.

The reason it’s good to experiment and make a sample or two first is because you might end up changing an idea and if you’ve gone straight into a project then it can be difficult to alter a design in a work in progress and, if something isn’t working, you might waste a lot of fabric, time and effort in the process.

By doing a sample or two, you get to try out initial ideas and develop them and see if the idea in your head works either on paper or fabric and in the making of the sample you may have a light bulb moment and work out a better way to realise your initial idea.

For example, I’m currently working on a project, a shawl, that has been inspired by my recent visit to Monet’s Garden, in Giverny, near Paris. I wanted to base the design of the shawl on the waterlily pond and wanted to resolve how to portray the movement and ephemeral nature of water, with yarns and threads.

I took lots of photographs while in the garden and then, each afternoon, did some pen and ink watercolour sketches of the waterlily pond and its surrounds. I’ve also been studying some of Monet’s waterlily paintings for ideas on colour schemes and overall impressionist feel that I want to achieve in my shawl.

I made an initial thumbnail sketch of what I had in my head, just to get something tangible on paper and to see roughly how the design would look. From there I gathered together a selection of yarns and threads and
worked out which ones would be the best mix to represent the colours and textures of the water. This is where the sample piece came in useful, as I was able to try out a few colours together to see if they looked right for the light and dark reflections. I was originally thinking of just using blues and greens, however, in working out the sample I was able to try a few combinations of lavender yarns and finally settled on a mohair yarn with pinks, blues and lavenders, which reminded me of the water reflections in some of my photos and sketches.

By taking a few short lengths of other greener yarns, I was able to try out textures and colours to see how they would look. Originally I liked the lime green yarn on the sample and tried a few combinations of lily leaves and water ripples using this yarn. However, once the piece had been stitched that green didn’t look right and if that had been the final piece, it would have been near impossible to remove it without damaging the rest of the shawl.

Doing a small sample also gave me an opportunity to try out a number of line stitching options and
also to play with bobbin thread tensions for the edgings of the silk waterlily leaves and flowers. Having traced out a few flower and leaf templates, I stitched them out with different colours and weights of thread to see what was most effective. I found the heavier thread, although it gave a nice fluted edge, was far too weighty when it dried out after rinsing and was too rough in texture. Luckily, I had only worked on a few pieces of silk to try them out and settled for rayon rather than polyester threads to retain the softness of the silk.

As a result, I’ve now got a reference sample that has resolved most of my design issues and I can now cut all the materials I need for the final shawl, knowing how I’m going to proceed. There might still be some slight tweaking that happens when I sew the shawl, but most of the major things have been worked out, which means I can then get straight into the project and enjoy the stitching process, without having to keep stopping and reworking.

Keeping a sketch book or even a series of loose pages, as I often do,
on which you can doodle or make your design sketches, is a good way to get your ideas out of your head and turn them into a physical, visible reference and it’s often the best way to get your projects off the ground. Following up the sketches with a couple of small samples, whether it’s practising a selection of stitching styles, trying out new fabrics or techniques, or experimenting with stitch tensions, gives you an idea of what outcomes to expect and if they are to your liking you can then be confident in completing your project to your satisfaction.

Often our UFOs, or unfinished objects, are the result of not knowing how to proceed and getting disheartened if you hit a road block or two. Whereas if you’ve already resolved the problems before starting the big project, then you’re much more likely to stay inspired and on target. If you have currently got a few projects in cupboards or drawers that haven’t seen the light of day for a few months or years, why not try revisting them and dividing them up into smaller pieces and then doing some experimental work on them and see if they spark some new creative journeys for you.

Images of the final shawl are now available on the Kurrara Designs
Facebook page.

Happy stitching in the meantime.

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#8 Good Timing


I’ve been chatting to some of my textile and arty friends recently about how we’re all encountering similar problems of trying to fit more things into our ever-busy lives. Things like, trying to run businesses, keeping up with social media, juggling work, family, sport, hobbies and other commitments and importantly trying to find time to create.

I thought it would be fitting (and timely!) therefore, for this Textile Talk to be about time management and setting deadlines, in an effort to get organised and keep ourselves sane! Although it is not about a particular textile process or subject, I feel it might also be relevant for those among us who, at times, feel as though we’ve either lost our creative way and need to get back on track, or simply have trouble trying to justify making time for our creative pursuits, amidst the other demands of everyday life.

There are times when I can motor along and get heaps done in a day, such as get samples or merchandise ready for a workshop or display, or put together a presentation or an article and everything just flows. Then there are other times when I’ve got lots of things to work on, but I just can’t focus or concentrate on any one area. I get easily distracted away from what I am meant to be doing and fall prey to the 3Ps - perfection, procrastination and preparation, or rather over-preparation and I am constantly trying to navigate my way around these three roadblocks. I usually do this whenever I’ve got too much time and no defined end date. When I analyse the times I get lots of things done compared to the times when I don’t, the difference always comes down to deadlines.

When preparing for something way off in the future, I’m often thinking whatever I do has to be impeccable, or it’s not good enough. I’ll spend hours preparing or researching what I need to do in order to make it perfect and then my inner saboteur fits in all sorts of other activities which delay when I actually start the work, in case it turns out not to be as perfect as I’d hoped! You may encounter similar difficulties in your art practice from time to time and I hope that sharing my experiences and methods may be of some help to you.

Without a deadline, there is no end date for anything to be achieved and I find that my mind is subject to all sorts of outside pressures and negative influences, such as:

  • People might not think my work is any good.
  • It’s not the sort of thing that people will be interested in, so why bother to do it at all?
  • Stick to what you know, rather than try something new, as you won’t have the skills to pull it off.
  • You need to learn more, or do more research, read one more article, or make more samples before you have enough information to produce a new workshop or tutorial.
  • You shouldn’t be sitting there enjoying your sewing, as there are other more important things to do around the house!
All of this can be quite paralysing and demotivating and if I’m not working to a defined end date or timescale, I succumb to self-doubt. Does this sound familiar? This wavering between having too much time and then not enough, wastes hours flitting from one thing to another at the beginning, only to have to shift up a gear towards the end. I don’t recommend this as a regular way of working, as it can be quite stressful. It’s a bit like a roller coaster and on the down cycle, we work to full capacity, to the exclusion of everything else. Other things in our lives may then go by the wayside. Because we’re almost too focussed or pre-occupied in getting something done in a rush, we can get a bit tunnel-visioned and miss peripheral opportunities, which could prove useful to us in problem-solving. So deadlines are all very well, but they need to be managed, to give us enough time to organise ourselves to do things comfortably and not in a mad rush. The question is where do we start?

I usually start with a “To do” list. Now, lists are a great way of reminding us of all the outstanding jobs, we need to do, but some of those jobs can be more complex than others. This makes it hard to cross them off in one fell swoop. My lists sometimes end up with cryptic messages and text all over them, along with the odd procrastinating doodle, all of which just adds to the jumble in the brain! Those complex jobs really need to be broken down into individual manageable tasks which can then be more easily crossed off as completed.

For example, I’ve written in my latest list: Job no #3, which is to Eco dye fabric and thread. That’s all very well, but there are a lot of steps I need to take before I can actually dye the thread and also there are processes to follow after the fibres are dyed and I need to have everything finished and ready for sale by the first week in August. So just to write down dye fabric and thread is very abstract and doesn’t give me a plan of what to do and I know it will lead to procrastination! So time for a rethink.

What I should be writing down on the list is: # 3 Eco dye fabric and thread to have ready for sale by 1st August. From here, I need to work out that, in order to dye the fabric and have it ready in time, I need to select it, wash it, cut it, mordant it, label/record it, gather the plants, set up the pots, skein the threads and prepare the jars. The various tasks each take a set amount of time, so I need to work out exactly when I have to have the fabric dyed, so that all the other things work out accordingly, including time for fixing, laundering, and packaging for sale. I also need to work on promotional, packaging and display material in advance of the end date and then do all the retail labelling when the fabric is dyed, ready for the deadline in August. So working back from an end date is vital, to get things done in the right order. This is the other good thing about working to a deadline, as it helps to prioritise the tasks in hand. So all those related tasks need to be recorded somewhere as a road map for me to follow.

This is where I use a month-to-a-page calendar (such as the "Understated" template in MS Publisher) in which I write down all the upcoming activities or tasks to do on their respective set dates. This takes the jumbled mix of thoughts out of my head onto the written page, giving me a defined strategy to follow, into which I can also factor any other social or personal activities, as needed.

Now, hopefully, I won’t fall foul of over-preparing or over-researching, as I’ve got to fit everything into the allotted time. With everything written down in black and white, it keeps me organised. I can’t do more samples than I have time set aside for and I don’t have time to worry about the work not being perfect, as I will now focus on creating the best work I can with my current level of knowledge and resources, within the set timescale. Preparation activities have now been curtailed to help keep me on track. The goal is now the pursuit of excellence and efficiency which is much more attainable than perfection, far less stressful and more satisfying. I’ve lost my excuse to procrastinate and I am more motivated to complete the tasks in hand. In writing it out, it all sounds so obvious, but it’s amazing how often we overlook the obvious.

The basic idea of setting deadlines is to help us get more organised and manage our time better, which means we can then comfortably fit in all the things we have to do and more importantly WANT to do. I’ve outlined one method of managing time, which works for me, but you might find there are better ways for you, such as using an electronic calendar on your computer or phone, a wall chart, or even post-it notes in your studio.

Essentially, the idea is to know what you need or want to do and then set yourself a realistic deadline date to complete it. Break it down into manageable steps if it’s a complex project, which you can comfortably factor into your weekly/monthly schedules. This means you are back in the driving seat and are not spending every day either watching the clock or trying to race it. You’ve got your road map, so you can take the scenic route, have lunch, visit friends and still arrive on time! A bit of forward planning always helps us enjoy “being in the moment” and that’s when the real creativity happens.


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#9 A Winter's Tale - Dyeing Fabric In Bulk


Recently I’ve been doing lots of dyeing for the Mornington Quilt-In, which took place at the beginning of August. I dyed a range of threads, silk and cotton fabrics using fibre reactive (Procion MX) dyes and natural plant or eco dyes. It was a bit like a mini Olympic marathon, as it was the first time I’d dyed so much fabric and fibre together in one go (over fifty metres of fabric and a few thousand metres of thread and ribbons). It was a very worthwhile experience in that I learned a lot, but it was also challenging, both physically and mentally, particularly manipulating the fabric during the winter months, as the weather was very much against me! I thought this month I would share my experiences of dyeing in bulk in the winter, so that if you ever find yourself in a similar position, you’ll be prepared or better still, decide to wait till the summer!

The first thing to consider when working with bulk elements is to ensure that you have all the materials to hand, which means allowing time for delivery if you order supplies online and allowing plenty of time to prepare fabric and thread. I had to order raw materials well in advance, so that I would have plenty of time for skeining threads, washing and mordanting fabric, all of which took a period of several weeks.

With all the wet weather we’ve had over winter, trying to find space to dry lots of large pieces of fabric was my first major challenge, along with accommodating the number of buckets required to mordant everything. I had to make sure that buckets were correctly labelled, as when similar fabrics are sitting in different mordants, the clear solutions of alum and soda ash look very similar! I used different colour buckets and kept them separate, with the relevant labels slipped underneath them. Luckily we didn’t have pets or children to consider, but when using any chemicals it’s vital to make sure that they are safely confined, out of reach of inquisitive noses and hands!

For cotton, a cellulose fabric, the mordanting process for natural dyeing takes somewhat longer than that for protein fabrics, such as wool and silk. It’s a process of dip and dry and is quite repetitious and can be messy if you have to do it inside. I found it hard going to wring out all the liquid in between soy dips, putting a strain on my hands and wrists, as larger lumps of wet fabric are hard to twist as you get older but I didn’t want the soy solution to drip on the floor. This is where I could have done with an old fashioned mangle. Had this been in the summer, all the fabric could have drip dried outside on the lawn, which would have been so much quicker and strain free, but the fabric just wouldn’t dry outside, as the air was too damp, hence it had to live with us inside!

For weeks, our lounge became an extension of the laundry and my long-suffering husband had to put up with the smell of soy-mordanted cotton sheets, drying in front of the heater. While all of this was going on, we celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, but I think if I’d had to keep those soy soaked fabrics inside for much longer, the 34th was looking decidedly dodgy! Not a pleasant experience for one’s olefactory organs, but necessary for making sure that the dyes fixed properly!

Once my fabric had been prepared for dyeing, I drew up a timetable for the actual dyeing of the fabric. I chose to do the eco dyeing first, as it was better to let the eco-dyed fabric bundles sit for a while before unwrapping and washing, so they could spend time batching, while I was subsequently working on the Procion-dyed fabrics.

I have my eco dye baths on the veranda, so at least I was covered while cooking the bundles outside, but as the weather was cold, the next challenge was maintaining a constant heat level for simmering. Too high and the water boiled, too low and the heat was not enough to combat the cold air cooling everything down. I used a combination of hot plates and an old gas barbecue for my dyeing, so another factor I had to consider was the cost of using more energy (ie electricity and gas) in the winter. By doubling up on some of my dye pots, especially the steamers, I could conserve quite a bit of energy and get most things cooked at the same time. All the laying out was done in my studio, which in winter has to be heated, so there are additional energy considerations there. Even just walking in and out of the studio, to and from the garden, wasn’t ideal either, as the wet grass underfoot went everywhere, which meant constant floor and door mat cleaning – which was a bit of a waste of human energy, but necessary to avoid slippery floors!

As the weather was colder, things like ice dyeing for the Procion-dyed fabrics took longer. I had to leave trays overnight, so different results were obtained than having the ice melt more quickly, as it would in the summer months. However, mostly the patterns created were very strong and I was really pleased with them. Deep trays are good, when you have to leave them overnight, so the melted ice water doesn’t overflow – again I couldn’t risk leaving them outside, in case it rained and diluted all the dye powder.

For me, mixing dye powders in bulk is best done the day before I dye my fabrics. Mixing up the dye colour recipes and creating the dyed designs, are processes which require two different mind sets and by doing them separately, I find I can concentrate better. I can focus on measuring and mixing up the right amount of dye solutions and then take time blending my colours for my colour wheel. I then don’t have to worry about numbers or measurements when I want to concentrate on creating the designs.

The good part about having a nice warm, cosy studio meant that I was in no hurry to leave it, so I took more time experimenting with colour mixing options and had some real breakthroughs with colour combinations. Dyeing in bulk with Procion MX dyes really helped with refining my colour knowledge and it was a great way for me to try out a number of different dyeing techniques and ideas. I learned that I absolutely love dyeing multicolour threads, making monoprint fabric designs with thickened dyes and also dyeing with ice.

Working with lots of larger fabrics using the eco dyeing method was exciting too, as it opened up a range of possible uses for future projects. It’s challenging trying to tie up larger pieces of fabric and keeping that all important tension – especially when your hands are tired from all that wringing out - but it does make you more creative in the way you layout and roll up the bundles, which leads to new ways of working out pattern layouts and getting designs to repeat. Again, a great learning curve!

One of the considerations with fixing dyes in winter is that they take longer to set, or may not set properly if they are in too cold an environment – particularly with fibre reactive dyes. This means, that you
inevitably have to fix or batch them inside in a warm room. Here we go again! You need to consider space and drip trays with lots of fabrics waiting to be fixed. Outside on the grass, colour bleeding isn’t a problem, but it is on your carpet or furniture, so you’ll need ways of storing and covering up your fabrics until they are ready to be rinsed. I wrapped my eco-dyed fabrics in old towels and left them in the lounge for about 2 weeks before unbundling. The fibre reactive Procion-dyed fabrics and threads were laid out in front of the heater in trays, plastic cups and containers stacked at least 3 rows high in polystyrene boxes for easy removal in case of visitors! In the summer, they could have sat out on the deck quite happily batching for a few hours, rather than days.

Finally when all my fabrics were batched, they needed to be washed again. Whether you’re dyeing with plant dyes or fibre reactive dyes, it can take a fair bit of water for the rinsing and washing process, but I tried to minimise this by using a collection of buckets to rinse and soak fabrics to get rid of excess dyes, before the final main wash. I can successively transfer the rinsed fabrics to cleaner water, starting with the lighter colour groups first. The dyed water gets darker as more fabrics are initially rinsed in it, but it’s good to soak out a lot of the unbonded dye particles. It does take a long time letting the fabrics stand and then wringing them out ready for their next bucket, but it does save a lot of water and, as we’re on tank water, I find it’s the most economical way to work. It’s also a much surer way of getting all the excess dye out of the fabric.
Each bucket has hotter water for soaking and more dye is released. If you keep rinsing under the tap in cold water, the water eventually runs clear and you think all the dye is removed, but if you then soak that fabric or wash it in hotter water and detergent later, more dye will come out and you’re wasting lots of water down the drain. Far better to soak the fabric in buckets over a period of days or weeks, depending on the colour and depth of dye shade, until the final bucket of water is completely clear when the soaked fabrics are removed. Space here is a consideration again, as 50 or so metres of fabric require you to have a fair few buckets sitting around for several days. It’s also a good idea to check your buckets for leaks, before you walk off and leave them overnight, as I found out when one of my soy milk solutions ended up all over the laundry floor! For the threads, I followed the same process, but used lidded trays for soaking and rinsing.

After washing the fabric, there’s all the ironing and squaring up to be done, so have a few good DVDs to watch or a radio to listen to for that and don’t stand in the same place for too long or it will kill your back! To avoid too much standing, I remember making quite a few cups of tea during this process!

In amongst all the practical considerations, it’s worth taking notes or keeping records. No matter how good you think your memory is, you will never remember exactly what you did with each piece of fabric unless you write it down. With so many fabric pieces and different techniques being used, I worked with my pre-printed record sheets to save having to write out similar information over and over again. My memory is certainly not what it used to be, so I have to write things down, as I may want to revisit certain techniques or colourways or use similar plant layouts down the track. I also needed to take lots of photographs and found that was a useful way of recording layouts or set ups and saved a lot of handwriting.

Keeping a clean and tidy work environment helped me to stay organised and my evening ritual included wiping down all the benches and floors, emptying any dye water buckets on the compost heap or garden plants, clearing up any rubbish, washing mixing containers, brushes and palettes and making sure the space was ready to go for the next day. I had a few old damp cloths on hand to clean up any spills and having an evening clear-up was quite satisfying, as it marked the end of one session and mentally prepared me for the next one. There’s nothing worse than having to face a big clean up the next day before you can start work.

Would I do all that dyeing again in one go? Yes definitely, but probably not in the winter as it was much harder going than dyeing in the summer months. There is a song from the 60’s, called Turn! Turn! Turn, which includes the lyrics “For everything there is a season” and that definitely applies to dyeing! The warmer the weather, the easier it is. However, I did really enjoy it and learned a lot, but I would do some things very differently next time. Despite the labour intensity associated with dyeing fabric and thread, it is something I absolutely love and can’t imagine not being able to do it. I love that I can create any colours and designs I want and I know that each piece is totally unique and beautiful. That’s the payoff for me and it’s as good as a gold medal. When the results are so satisfying, it’s worth all the hard work and taking the time to get it right.


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