I think it is as important to know the source of a dyestuff as it is to know where food comes from. I am unable to grow much dyestuff but for several years have been producing a crop of Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) in Devon. Until the summer of 2012 this has regularly produced a good crop, and I have always prepared a batch of work to dye in the late summer. In 2012, one of the wettest summers on record, the crop seemed to develop well but the blue didn’t – I eventually lost the crop to frost without a vat being produced.
An article which I co-authored with Christina Chisholm on the growing and use of Japanese indigo can be downloaded free from the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers website here.
A simple palette of natural dyes appears in my work, obtained from traceable sources. Cochineal comes from Lanzarote; indigo from a project in Tamil Nadu; weld has been homegrown, purchased from UK growers or from Couleurs de Plantes in France, who also supply an excellent strong madder. Tannins are bought as extracts supplied by Pure Tinctoria.
Using natural dyes is entirely different from wax resist or shibori using synthetic dyes, each dyestuff requiring a separate ‘recipe’ and individual immersion in a dye vat. Each piece of work can involve several overdyes. Results are not always predictable and one stage of work can demand a change of design direction because it has failed to turn out as planned – a natural dyer soon learns to be adaptable. But natural dye colours are infinitely rewarding for their variety, their subtlety, and an element of surprise and discovery.
Because so many working processes are involved natural-dyed items inevitably end up more expensive than synthetic-dyed and this can make marketing difficult. I have separate labels for both ranges explaining dyes and techniques used, and I give a precise source of natural dyestuff if possible.
Above: New work from April 2016. Work plan in sequence: mordant pastes on silk, immersion dyeing, wax resist, indigo, wax resist, long sequence of dips to achieve the dark blue. De-wax, wash.