We speak to natural dyer Jacqui Symons

Hi Jacqui! Thanks so much for having a chat with us. When we launched the Ditchling Natural Dye Calendar last month we were overwhelmed by the response, so we thought we’d have a chat with one of the brains behind the project to find out more.

Tell us about the Natural Dye Calendar and your role in the project.

The Natural Dye Calendar showcases the wonderful and vast range of colours you can get from using natural dyes. The images have largely come from work produced by students during the one-year natural dyeing course led by Jenny Dean at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. As one of the students and an ex-graphic designer, I offered to design the calendar but in many ways it was a joint effort. As it was designed during the first lockdown, we had lots of discussions over Zoom about the look of the calendar and everyone contributed photos of their wonderful work and dyeing adventures, with Jenny casting her expert eye over the results!

Jacqui in her studio. Image by Jeff Lively.

How long have you been working with natural dyes?

Not long! During an artist residency in 2018 at Kingsbrae Botanical Gardens in Canada, a visitor asked whether the inks I use in my printmaking practice were environmentally-friendly. I was shocked to realise I didn’t actually know and it set me on a course to research and develop a more sustainable and less-damaging alternative. So, for the last two years, I have been researching and creating oil-based printmaking inks made from local, plant-based sources.

Four months into the project and after a lot of reading and research into plants and natural pigments, I have discovered there isn’t much written on using plants to create oil-based inks, though some information does exist that looks at plant-based pigments for oil paints.

Consequently, a lot of the reading I have done has been around the use of plants as natural dyes – the symbiosis and direct relationship between using natural colour as a dye and as a pigment now seems obvious and has led to a fascination and desire to learn more about natural dyeing alongside my printmaking practice. The aim is to eliminate synthetic colour and materials from my work, with a long-term view of being able to produce what I need in a dye (and pigment!) garden.

Some of Jacqui’s skeins

What’s your favourite natural dye to produce? 

It’s got to be madder (Rubia tinctorum)!  Red is my favourite colour and you can get such a wonderful range of tones from madder root. It also makes a lovely pigment  to use in inks, pastels and watercolours. However, I have yet to produce my own as madder needs to grow for at least three years before the roots can be harvested. A close second would have to be Coreopsis flowers – easy to grow and they make a lovely orange dye.

Plant based pigments

What’s your top tip for those starting out in natural dyeing?

Just have a go! Experiment a bit, don’t worry too much if it doesn’t work the first time and maybe think about attending a short course in natural dyeing. Don’t
get too caught up in the rules and proper processes to start with – whilst they are important, I learnt the most by making mistakes. The correct methods and techniques came later once I’d done some experimentation and wanted to ensure strong even colours and good lightfastness. Oh, and don’t try to dye metres of fabric the first time you experiment – start small, with short lengths of yarn and off-cuts of fabric.

You can find out more about Jacqui’s work on her website and Instagram. You can find out more about course leader Jenny Dean here.

Browse our range of natural dyeing products here.

Buy The Calendar