For natural dyer Christine Lewis, 59 from Welford in Northamptonshire, the beauty of flowers and foliage is seen long after they have flourished and reached full bloom. While most people might resign their wilting arrangements to the compost heap, Christine creates lasting memories of nature’s bounty by preserving its wondrous colours in textiles and wall art.
You may have noticed our fascination with florals and colour at Joules, so we joined Christine in her inspiring, field-side studio to learn more about the time-honoured techniques she cherishes.
Botanical dyeing is a slow, patient process with unpredictable results. Though the steps to extract the dyes from flowers, roots, berries, bark, leaves, wood, vegetables and spices remain the same, the season and locality of ingredients can cause subtle alterations of resulting colour, which proves part of the appeal for Christine.
“You never know what you are going to get”, she explains. “I might put a red flower into the dye pot and it will come out a totally different colour depending on the time of year or where it is sourced from. That’s what keeps me intrigued.”
“You can shift a shade just by adding something simple from the kitchen cupboard. An ingredient like cider vinegar could totally alter the pH, so you get a whole new range of colours. It’s alchemy really and it means everything you create is a one-off.
Then there’s the choice of processing, mordent and fabric options. You use a mordant in natural dyeing to grab the dye and make it stick to the fabric. Whether you opt for a natural mordant, like soy milk or sumac leaves, or a metallic salt like alum, it will produce slightly different shades.”
“Different textiles soak up colour differently too, which keeps things exciting.” All of Christine’s fabric is sourced as ethically as possible. She loves to use silk, as it infuses with colour so beautifully and makes a tactile scarf, ribbon or pillow she also uses cotton, velvet, or even hemp for making napkins. She explains: “A cellulose textile like cotton will grab the colour from the dye pot but the tones will be more subdued than on silk or wool. There are just endless combinations and possibilities for colour.”
It was a serendipitous moment that hooked Christine into the hobby that would become her career: “I began to natural dyeing eight years ago by pure accident”, she explains. “My daughter gave me a copy of Selvedge magazine for Christmas, which featured an article highlighting the dyes that are locked into food being thrown away.
As a former chef, that really resonated with me. How could something so beautiful be made with kitchen waste and garden plants? I just couldn’t get over the fact that such amazing colours could come from avocado stones or even the humble onion and were being wasted. Armed with some old pots and pans, a camping stove and a bunch of carrot tops, I created my first dye pot.
The early days of dyeing were about trial and error. I just tested things in my garden. First of all, I checked they weren’t poisonous, then they just went in the dye pot. I made so many mistakes! I quickly learned that you don’t boil the dyestuff as if you were making jam, you just let it steep very slowly. Then you unlock richer colours.
It’s taken hours of testing different ingredients at different times of the year taken from different regions and meticulously logging the colours they produce to learn my craft. It’s a slow experience, but the results are magic.
It’s still a slow process, as I do all the dyeing, drying and making of my products by hand, which takes a minimum of 21 days from plant to product. I like the unhurried experience though; in today’s manic world, it feels like a much-needed change of pace.”
“Now I see the world in potential bursts of colour and ponder how I can best preserve nature’s beauty.”
Christine Lewis, Natural Dyer
The roots of natural dyeing can be traced back centuries. Christine explains: “Up until about the mid 1800s all fabric was naturally dyed. That’s where Coventry City FC earned the name the ‘Sky Blues’, as the area was known for producing a brilliant natural blue dye. Once we started importing from the Americas and Asia, it opened up a whole new world of colour potential, using cochineal, logwood, indigo and rich reds from Brazilwood.
It was Sir William Henry Perkin, who discovered of the first synthetic dye in 1856, mauveine, made from aniline. He revolutionised the clothing industry and chemical dyes became the go-to as the dyes could be reproduced economically.
You’ll never get the same color perfectly like you can with synthetic dyes and the shade can continue to alter even a week later. It’s an imperfect process with surprising results, but for me that’s the joy of it. It’s perfectly imperfect.”
“Natural dyeing has changed the way I look at life”, admits Christine. “Now I see the world in potential bursts of colour and ponder how I can best preserve nature’s beauty.
The natural dyer is led by the seasons and weather, which bring subtle and surprising colour changes to the dye pot. I’m always aware of availability of ingredients and spend a lot of time foraging locally. We’ve got a couple of walnut trees in the village that are great sources, but I always leave some for the wildlife.
Summer is a riot of colour and is peak season for a natural dyer. Fresh leaf Japanese indigo gives a brilliantly bright sky blue if we’ve had a hot and sunny season. My favourite shade is Madder pink, created using the eponymous common herbaceous perennial plant, but the result can range from pink to red to brown. “I just love the fact that you have to wait at least 3 years before you can use the roots to colour your textiles; growing and using your own madder really is a labour of love”.
“Becoming a natural dyer has renewed my love of gardening and botanicals,” says Christine. “I’ve always kept a cuttings patch for the house, but now I grow most of my dyes from seed, so I get to see them from garden to vase to cloth. It’s an incredibly rewarding.”
For Christine, the thrill of natural dyeing is seeing the surprising and subtle shades that appear in the dye pot. Dyestuff surrounds us. Here are some of her ‘go-to’ favourites:
Madder – The roots give a beautiful range of pinks to reds once they reach around three
Woad – The first years’ leaves are used for dyeing and leave lovely purple blue marks in a
Golden Rod – Often found in the wild, makes a fabulous yellow dye.
Marigolds – Can give yellows and olive greens.
Black Scabious – For beautiful blue greys on silk.
Avocado stones and skins – Peach tones from the skins and pink tones from the stones.
Red Leaf Sorrel
Cherry, Plum or Apple Bark
We are surrounded by natural dyes; even eating breakfast inspires; there’s a natural tannin in your tea or coffee and your evening meal ingredients; onion skins, avocado stones, black beans and everyday kitchen spices, like turmeric all make fabulous dyes.
It is the benefit of preserving memories and extending the beauty of nature from plant to product that drives Christine’s business. Any flower, tree or plant with sentimental value can be transformed into a naturally dyed textile and made into a silk scarf, cushion, napkin or pressed botanical.
The colour or print is always unique and you have a beautifully tactile keepsake to be instantly transported back to a poignant moment in time.
“I get a lot of commissions from brides, either to make scarves or ribbons for their big day, preserve their bouquet in a lavender pillow or eye mask. I’m actually working on something special for my mum at the moment. My grandma, who died quite some years ago now, planted a beautiful apple tree that sadly has to come down. So I said, “Oh, I know. I’ll just use the bark and we can we make something with the color from it.” It’s just a lovely way to hang onto those memories.
If you fancy giving natural dyeing a go, here are a couple of crafts you could try at home:
Note: Do not use the same pans and equipment for food preparation – once used for natural dyeing all equipment and utensils should never be used for food preparation again. Work outside if possible – or work in a well ventilated space to avoid inhaling any fumes, keep the lid on the dye pot reduce inhalation. Label and store all mordants and dyes out of reach of children pets and away from food storage/preparation areas. And make yourself aware of the safety of the plants that you choose to use. Take particular care with fine mordant powders, wear a mask and rubber gloves when using them. Do not eat food when natural dyeing.
A silk scarf
Your choice of mordant (soy milk as binder/mordant) is easy to use just buy 1 litre unsweetened from the supermarket and dilute it with 5 litres of water – soak the fabric for about 8 hours, spin or gently wring out, allow to dry, then dip briefly, dry again and repeat a 3rd time. Allow to dry and store for a week before using.
String White or cider vinegar
1. Wash silk in hand hot water or soak overnight in pH neutral washing liquid. Rinse well until the water is clear of any residue.
2. Mordant the silk to allow the dye to absorb into the fibres.
3. Once mordanted, if your silk has been stored dry, it needs to be pre-wetted in water to allow the threads to expand to absorb the dye.
4. Once ready, lay out your silk and spray with vinegar.
5. Sprinkle your ingredients and spray again to seal.
6. Roll tightly and bind with string.
7. Steam for one hour, turning every 20 minutes. Allow to cool and dry before unbundling.
8. Shake off your ingredients, iron to set in the colours, then rinse in cool water with a drop of a pH neutral soap.
Cloth prepared for dyeing washed, scoured and mordanted.
Pots pans, wooden spoons
A camping stove
A pair of cooking tongs
Bucket for rinsing
Old Sieve and a piece of muslin for straining out the dyestuff.
Dye ingredients – Red onion skins make a good first dye – and don’t always need a mordant.
Generally speaking use equal weight of dyestuff to fabric.
1. Pop your dye ingredients in the pot, cover with cold water and soak overnight and /or simmer slowly until the colour leaches out into the water.
2. Strain out the dyestuff and return the dye liquid to the dye pot.
3. Use your tongs to add the pre wetted fabric to the dye pot for anywhere between 30 minutes to overnight or, until your desired colour is achieved.
4. Dry in the shade, the longer you leave the dyed cloth before washing it the stronger the colour will be.
5. Rinse away the excess dye in luke warm water then wash with pH neutral soap: Ecover using hand hot water. Rinse until the water is clear. Leave to dry in the shade.
Please be aware that many plants and flowers are poisonous. Do your research before foraging or using in a dye pot.
Christine sells a beautiful selection of cushions, napkins, pressed botanicals, scarves, bandanas and hair accessories via her online shop, all naturally dyed, dried and made by hand, in her stunning studio in Welford, Northamptonshire. She also takes private commissions and offers Natural Dye Workshops, which can be tailored to your choice, even down the colour of the dye palettes. Click here for future dates.