Tag Archives: natural dyeing

Alice Fox workshop day 4

How fast the end of the week has arrived! Last day in the sunny Surrey studio, and our attention turned to bringing together the prints and drawings we had made over the last few weeks into some sort of order. Before we started however, our daily walk! I was trying to focus on different things today – looking at the human edges of the place we had been in. A couple of my best photos of the week:

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After the walk, Alice showed us a few simple book-binding methods that she uses for us to try out on our samples. I pulled out all of the bit which I thought had actually worked ok – about half I would say, which isn’t bad for experimenting. I themed them into books based on the different ‘places’ which we had visited over the week: the buttercup meadow, the railway, the village, the hedgerows.

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Overall it has been a really marvellous week, and I am really glad I got the chance to meet Alice and see her methodology first hand. Courses like this are also made by the people you are with – we had a lovely bunch of ladies working away, and our studio chief Jude looked after us so well (very good food and cake everyday!).

I will take a few days to reflect on what we have done and what learning I can take back into my MA project. I would like to understand how such direct responsiveness to a specific place can become something more than just a record of personal experience. Later though, for now I am thinking about nothing other than the sofa!

Alice Fox workshop day 3

A great day today – under the heading of MANIPULATE. We used a range of different making techniques to play with our found materials including thread making, leaf stitching, plaiting and weaving. We spent all morning in the sunshine sat in the buttercup meadow. I really enjoyed making string out of grass and was abnormally pleased with the little string ball I made!

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We carried on with a thread theme in the afternoon to do some weaving, so I finally got a chance to use my old tapestry frame I normally use for silk painting. I really enjoyed this too and could really see myself making more weavings. We captured a response to our day out in the fields in the weaving we were doing – this was my final sample:


Finally the heat of this week finally dried out our Eco printing bundles, so we got to unwrap those. The fabric bundles didn’t really work and I have had much better results with my own Eco dye experiments. The paper printing came out much more successfully though, with more of the details coming through.


Alice Fox workshop day 2

The excitement continued today with experiments using printing techniques as the backbone. We started the day with another walk where a few of us ventured out into a beautiful meadow edged with thick woodlands, spending an hour or so watching, listening and drawing. Not doing so well on the collecting, but part of me feels bad for picking things up moving them out of context into the shiny whiteness of the studio.

This was the photo of the day – a Richard Long tribute walk through buttercup meadow

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We played with two printing techniques once back in the studio – direct transfer printing from the botanicals and using a pasta machine as a miniature printing press. We also used some of the rust dyed strips from yesterday to overprint onto – giving some lovely results. My absolute standout favourite was using the pasta machine for embossing – I’ve never done this and the clean crisp lines of white on white (no ink whatsoever) really appeals.

Alice also gave us some little ideas which we could use as starting points – today I focussed on trying to translate sounds into imagery. I did end up back into drawing with words again (both Anita and Maiko would laugh at my predictability here) but I can’t seem to help myself. I need to try to exploit this I think rather than endlessly fight it.

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Overall thoughts – it was a great sunny summer’s day, and very useful to learn the techniques. I think it’s getting clear in my mind that I don’t really get on with directly using the nature forms (leaves etc) in my work as I keep trying to go more abstract. I really liked the translation of movement (a journey) into line, and my attempt at capturing the genius loci of a meadow (bottom three strips in the image above).

More new things tomorrow!

Alice Fox workshop day 1

Walking, collecting, making

Sometimes serendipity smiles on you, and three weeks ago I was offered a last-minute spot on a full-a-year-in-advance course being led by one of my project’s main reference artists: Alice Fox. The activities began today!

I wanted to go on this primarily to experience first hand the methodology of someone who can so successfully capture the essence of a place into her work, using walking as a key part of her practice. She also is a big user of natural mark-making and dyeing processes so should be able to teach me a few new tricks to add to the box.

As an aside….I am aware my MA proposal is still in flux between three different angles on our sense of place: (1) psychogegraphy / making through walking, (2) culture v nature / wildness and (3) potentially bringing in elements of humanity’s cosmological sense of place. This week’s course is playing into the hands of the first two – but I’m not going to worry about aligning anything for now – I’m just learning and enjoying the process, and intend to make what feels right for the materials we use this week….

So! Today we started with an overview of Alice’s methodology and the principles behind the course. She talked though some of the context around walking and collecting – as a method for recording experience of place / landscape. This record can be through objects, images, words and thoughts which captures a snapshot of a particular place and time. Alice also had some very interesting thoughts on using found objects (directly or for mark-making), in that she seeks to explore the potential of materials have been found, to see how far they can be pushed. This is one of the things I’ve not succeeded fully with yet on my project….

First up today we went on our first short walk around the studio, recording in whatever way we were inspired to. This was the most curious photo of my journey:
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and a shot of all of the sketches, words and objects I brought back:

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We spent the rest of the day experimenting with two different processes. First up was rust printing on  paper and fabric strips. Having done a lot of rust dyeing recently looking at texture, I thought I would do something different by focussing on the quality and pattern of the marks – hoping for some clear distinct lines. We just used tea as an activator and will need to wait a day or so to see how they turn out.

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Second up was eco-printing using a process of India Flint (I have her book!), which I haven’t tried before. This involved gathering a whole host of different leaves and botanical oddities, wrapping and steaming in order to transfer the whole mark onto the substrate. Again an opportunity for clarity of mark as well as just transfer of colour. These also have to dry out fully before we can look at them – maybe tomorrow or the next day!

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So far, very enjoyable and Alice is a great teacher (plus we had cake). Getting some interesting whirring in my brain about my project – letting them swirl by themselves for now.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

Redefining my references

While developing my new series of work, I have realised that my MA proposal references are a little out of date and could do with being refreshed to reflect where I am currently.

Alice Fox, my current main reference artist is at the top of the list (and will remain so). Her work both in terms of process, narrative and philosophy is very much aligned to my own. The rest of my references however are well out of date. I am still looking back at the work of Raquel Rabonovich, but as of yet I am not sure what direction my paper making will evolve into – more work needed there. Otherwise, I have two more key contenders to think about:

Sam Gilliam, is loosely badged as a third-generation “Colour Field” artist, after the trend which accompanied the abstract expressionists back in the 1950s. His process involves pouring layers of acrylic paint onto unprimed canvases and letting it soak in. The result is an unruffled surface that conveys a striking combination of flatness and depth. Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler (who I had both actually heard of before) were others who were famous for pouring paint rather then applying it. In time (1969 in fact) he began “deliberately draping the canvases, creating fluid, semi-sculptural objects out of two-dimensional paintings. It was the first time anyone had taken a painting off the wall and transformed the cloth into folds and swaths and wraps, and they circumvented a whole series of formal painterly concerns: the frame, the shape, the wall.” [1]

What I like about this type of process is that the paint becomes part of the fabric, not just sitting on top pretty as a picture, so the very structure of the canvas itself is part of the work. I find his work infinitely more expressive that that of Richard Tuttle for example, who also works with draped, painted canvases. Gilliam’s sculptural approach which is almost contemporary, was said to be revolutionary at the time, “in that it repositioned the viewer’s relationship with the painting to include the object as well as the space around it, blurring the boundary between painting, sculpture, and architecture for the first time. Hanging from ceilings and walls but also from freestanding objects like sawhorses, Gilliam’s “drapes” left the wall behind to create physical environments that redefined the conceptual and aesthetic boundaries of abstract painting.” [2]

Gilliam’s Crystal, 1973


SWING, 1969

Second contender into the ring is Fukumoto Shihoko, one of Japan’s leading artists using shibori and indigo dyeing. Indigo is probably the most famous natural dye in the world, with a complex and lengthy dyeing process and uncounted layers of historical and spiritual associations with its use in Japan, dating back as far as the Heian period (764 – 1192).

Shihoko uses subtle shades of blue and natural materials to create luminous wall hangings and installations that covey the sensation of deep and fragile space. She describes her work as “I have always felt that the colour of the natural indigo dye of Japan has about it a spirituality; a special purity and beauty. I feel strongly that indigo dyeing embodies in my work a certain consciousness of space that I contain within myself.” Her imagery often incorporates the moon and water to draw in the viewer to the universal dimension in her work. Her major concerns are “with space, and for her, ‘ai’, the natural Japanese indigo dye, is more than merely a shade of blue – it is the colour of space.” [3]

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The methods for using indigo often dye a cloth several tens of times over a period of four or five days in order to reach the required depth of colour. Incredible control is needed to avoid staining the white areas during dyeing and rinsing of the cloth – this is the power of the craft of Shibori. Indigo, as with all natural dyes, is sensitive to sunlight as well as other aspects of the weather. This ticks all of my boxes! Due to it’s such strong associations with Japan, I haven’t wanted to directly use indigo as part of my own work, as it feels like it is someone else’s craft tradition – if you know what I mean? However, I think I can still learn from some of the general techniques and shibori practices, particularly the texture you gain from the tight folding.

[1] http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/art-and-design/2014/11/sam-gilliam-artist/
[2] https://newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/well-hung-a-qa-with-sam-gilliam/
[3] http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?914

A new series of work….

…I am quite pleased with this new series, and very intrigued about where it could take me.

My research has been focussing on using natural dyeing processes as a way to explore the boundaries between material, place and time. I have been using stochasic processes – i.e. those with a random element which cannot be completely constrained, creating an interesting conversation between between the material and maker.

For these pieces (which for lack of any other description I am calling ‘fabric drawings’), I have used collected English wildflowers, plants and tree bark to create texture, using the environment itself as part of the mark-making process. These first pieces have both been rain-dyed. I am exploring a couple of different debates with this work, both centred around my ideas on ‘local knowledge’. Firstly, using handmade plant dyes and pigments, the work explores how the evolution of natural colour, rarely lightfast, allows us to question the relationship between knowledge of place and permanence. Secondly, constraining the natural sculptural movement of the textiles onto the frame, engages us in a discussion of how we balance freedom and constraint of local knowledge.

We used to know the names of all the flowers

Calico, Chamomile flowers, rain-water


Calico, dried wild flowers, oak chips, English madder, rain water


New dyeing experiments

I’m taking my natural dyeing experiments up a level with some long term projects, using more radical transformation processes. Exciting!

Today’s experiment was with using managed decay to mark and texture a sheet of fabric – still using my unbleached calico. The fabric was wrapped into a little bundle with a series of natural dyestuffs from a local herbalist, the buried into the soil for at least a month, possibly two. I think this may need a while to react to the dampness and minerals in the soil – I wonder how much patience I have to wait!

This was the digging of the hole and the little bundle being abandoned to the ravages of a Surrey summer!




Hedgerow library

I am having a lot of fun with the paper making experiments – it is such a lovely process to explore. I am continuing on with cotton as the base, and have started looking at expanding my natural dyeing techniques to the handmade paper. My intention is to create a sort of “hedgerow library” from the paper and fabric pages I am creating.

I have started with some traditional English hedgerow plans and trees, most with old local associations (hidden knowledge?), using materials gathered from a local herbalist.


2015-05-20 14.52.31Elderberry paper

  • Elder (sambucus nigra), native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia has been in continuous use since the time of the Egyptians and probably before.
  • Ever very part of the elder tree has some herbal use, and the plant has long been attributed with many magical virtues. Spirits were thought to inhabit the Elder which is why it is thought to be unlucky to burn Elder as firewood.
  • Elderberries when carried are said to protect against negativity; when placed under the pillow they are supposed to help you slumber peacefully.


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Ivy paper

  • Ivy (hedera helix), native to Europe, was one famed for its magical associations in protecting against evil spirits or negativity and in symbolising fidelity.
  • It was dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman God of agriculture and wine, as an infusion of the leaves was considered an effective treatment for drunkedness. For the same reason, an ivy bush painted above tavern doors symbolised the good quality of wine within!
  • Ivy carried by women is said to bring good luck.

The results, although pretty cool, aren’t yet capturing the vibrancy of colour from the plants that I was hoping for. These were both using cotton which had been soaked in the plant dyestuffs overnight without a mordant. I wonder if it would be better to pre-mordant the cotton in the same way you would prepare sheets of fabric for dyeing?

A combination of library books and internet have suggested a few methods for pre-mordanting cotton which have differing effects on the resulting colour of the fibres. My first set of natural dyeing experiments were just using tannin & iron mordant, which is excellent for a light-fast permanent colour, but they did have a particular way of driving the colour towards beige/grey.

This website has some useful suggestions for a mixture of tannin and alum (copied below),

Mordant for Cotton and all Cellulose Fibers:

General Recipe: for cotton, rayon (all cellulose fibers). Cellulose fibers are chemically neutral, therefore the mordant process is more difficult to achieve for effective, saturated color. The recommended approach to mordant cellulose is a 3-step process based upon the procedures developed by James Liles. It is crucial to follow the steps, in their suggested order, for best results.

Weigh your fiber to establish the dry WOG (weight of the goods) before you begin this process. Pre-treat your cellulose fibers by machine washing in hot water with a moderate amount of detergent and washing soda. You may dry your fiber after this, or proceed with mordanting. Vegetable rinses (found in grocery stores) intended to remove waxes work well to clean cellulose.

Step 1: Scour 

  1. Fill your pot with water, based on the following general guide: 2 quarts (2 liters) for every 1 ounce (28 grams) of fabric used. OR: 1 quart (liter) for every ounce (28 grams) of yarn to be mordanted.
  2. To this pot of water, add in 1 tsp. Synthropol for every gallon of water in the pot. Add in 2 teaspoons washing soda (soda ash) for every gallon of water in the pot. Dissolve the washing soda in boiling water before adding it to the pot.
  3. Wet your fiber for one hour. Add your fiber to the pot, bring to the boil and hold a simmering boil for 4 hours, covered. Stir occasionally.
  4. Rinse fiber in warm water, squeeze and set aside.

Step 2: Tannin Soak 

  1. To a fresh pot of water, adequate to cover the fiber, add in 6% tannin, on the WOG. Dissolve the tannin in boiling water and add to the pot. Bring pot temperature up to 130 F.
  2. Add scoured fiber to pot, stir well, cover and let stand to steep for 12-24 hours at room temperature. Do not add more heat.
  3. Rinse fiber in water, squeeze and set aside.

Step 3: Alum Mordant 

  1. Dissolve alum sulfate in boiling water, at 50% WOG.
  2. Dissolve washing soda in boiling water at 6% WOG.
  3. Fill fresh pot with water to cover fiber. Add alum and washing soda to this pot of water. Stir.
  4. Add scoured, tannin soaked fiber to this pot. Bring pot up to 170 F, stirring occasionally.
  5. Cover and let stand for 12-24 hours at room temperature. Do not add more heat. Stir once or twice during this time period.
  6. Remove fiber and rinse well.
  7. Let dry and air cure for 1-3 days.
  8. Wet material for one hour, and proceed with dyeing.

The other suggestion is to use an alternating mixture of alum mordant and protein soaking of the fibres – this is apparently based on a traditional Japanese mordanting technique. I quite like the idea of trying this, as it is at the other end of the pH scale from the tannin dyeing I tried before.

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The lure of the local

In the endless cycle of thinking and making, my making work continues to focus on looking at the haunted place as inspiration for a bunch of competition quilts I have on the go. I made the decision to try to make these as resolved pieces based on my MA project proposal, partly to further my research but also to try to reconnect with my practice after going down a dark rabbit hole over the last two terms.

As I alluded to a couple of times in previous posts, I have been looking at mark making with found materials from a particular place: trying to embody the genius loci within my work. So far, I have been experimenting with different processes for natural dyeing of plain unbleached calico. First was using materials found within half a mile of my front door: tree bark, dried leaves, willow ash, flower petals, steel wires. Here are a couple of examples:

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and the results of the psychogeographic ramble I had the other day:

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so! What next to do with all of these lovely bits of fabric?

Well, I have been considering what I now think of my research question – and how my interpretation of place and placelessness has changed so far. I have been taken by the idea of the local and how this relates to place. I believe that each place has multiple identities existing in the same space simultaneously, which each person (with their own multiple identities contained within their sense of self) interacts with differently based upon how they connect with the local knowledge. That local knowledge may be about memories of histories of the place itself, or it may be a completely distant narrative overlaid onto a new place, allowing you to connect your own ‘locality’ with a new alien place. This is how you can feel at home in a place you have never been. Lucy Lippard [1] offers the following:

“Inherent in the local is the concept of place – a potation of land/town/cityscape seen from the inside, the resonance of a specific location that is known and familiar…Place is the latitudinal and longitudinal within a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has a width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there and what will happen there.”

Placelessness, then could be said to an inability to feel connected. Your locality, your local knowledge as it were, so alienated from the dominant narrative that it becomes meaningless. In his introductory book on place, Tim Cresswell [2] quotes the geographer Edward Relph who uses the language of authenticity to describe this connection with place.

“..”to be inside a place is to belong to it and identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are the stronger is the identity with the place” (Relph 1976). At the opposite extreme, existential outsiderness involves the alienation from place which is the antithesis of the unreflective sense of belonging that comes from being an existential insider…..in the modern world, Relph argues that we are surrounded by a general condition of creeping placelessness marked by an inability to have authentic relationships to place, because the new placelessness does not allow people to become existential insiders….”placelessness that is a weakening of the identity of places to the point where that not only look alike and feel alike and offer the same bland possibilities for experience.”

On this subject of authenticity, Creswell goes on later in the book to quote geographer David Harvey:

“The issue of authenticity (rootedness) of the experience of place (and nature of place) is for example a difficult one. To begin with…the problem of authenticity is itself peculiarly modern. Only as modern industrialisation separates us from the press of production and we encounter the environment as a finished commodity does it emerge….The effort to evoke a sense of place and of the past is now often deliberate and conscious.”

This brought me back to question more deeply the work of Lucy Orta with the Genius Loci / spirits of place that were created to enshrine the story of a river, through sculptural form. What can be said of authenticity when deliberately enshrining the past through such an intervention? I have never really liked the direct personification of spirits (whether you think go spirits as an essence, a ghost or whatever else) as that’s not how I personally choose to interpret them. Nor do I think I want to make work specifically for a precise location. When I started this proposal I had wanted to create site-specific work and initially understood it as being quite literal – you take a place and make some work inspired by that place and for that place. I now am looking towards a more conceptual view of site-specific: work speaking of a place, using a connection from that place – but across the spectrum of spatial and temporal, literal and virtual. I will need to understand more on how this aligns with current thinking on site specific art.

Anyway, I think I digressed a little – back to what I am making. So the plan, is to work with my own understanding of the Genuis Loci and a sense of place, which I would capture as: We feel the essence of place as an echo of the earth, and we become the medium of the storytelling.

My first resolved piece is now done and waiting to be framed: Genius Loci I (Star field); here is a sneaky preview of the detail.

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[1] Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard (1997)
[2] Place, a short introduction, Tim Crewell (2004)