Dyer’s Takeover: May Hands

What is your favourite dye?

The dye plants I have grown myself (most of which with seeds from Ditchling Museum’s dye garden) are my favourite dye stuff to work with. There is something so special about witnessing and being part of the whole journey from seed to dyed material. Last year I grew Coreopsis, Tagetes, Dahlia, Woad, Weld and Madder root and I am now getting ready to sow a new batch of seeds ready for this year’s dye garden which will have the same selection as last year with the addition of Indigofera tinctoria, dyers Chamomile and Cosmos sulphureus.

Can you share a method for creating your favourite dye?

Coreopsis, Dahlia and Tagetes are great for solar jar dyeing. They all produce a large volume of flowers throughout the summer into late September and I find that the more you pick the more will come. Solar dyeing uses less energy than on the hob and is a slower process. You are limited to how much material you can fit into the jar, therefore it is ideal for small batches. I recommend using a medium to large Kilner jar for this process.

First add the flower heads to your jar, when dyeing with fresh Tagetes and Dahlia fill your jar halfway and when dyeing with fresh Coreopsis fill the jar to a quarter of the way.

Soak your pre-mordanted material in cool to lukewarm water for 15 minutes. For solar jar I usually use wool or silk mordanted with alum, alum mordant is used for animal-based fibres and will mean your fibres take up the colour better and the colour fastness is extended (alum plus tannin or just alum acetate can be used for plant-based fibres). Once fully soaked through add your material into your jar on top of the flower heads.

Next, add an inch or so of cold water into the jar so as the jar won’t break when adding hot water from the kettle. Pour in the hot water a little at a time, stirring at intervals until the contents of the jar is just below the ridge of the jar. Sprinkle a few more flower heads on top and seal the jar.

Gently give the jar a shake so the material you are dyeing is well immersed in the jar. I usually leave my solar jars for 3-5 days, stirring each day and checking on the tone of colour. Please note after a certain amount of time, usually just after a week or so, the tone of colour can begin to dull, so beware of this in case it is a vibrant tone you are after!

Once the material is to the tone you desire take it out carefully and rinse through with lukewarm water and hang to dry.

How does Ethel Mairet inspire you?

What inspires me most about Ethel Mairet is her commitment and dedication to the craft of natural dyeing. She must have made experiment after experiment to find what methods and ingredients made the best results for each of her recipes that are found in her ‘Vegetable Dyes’ book.

Being taught by Jenny Dean at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft has been a huge influence for myself and my art practice. Jenny is so passionate about natural dyeing and I am grateful to her for being so generous and passing on her dye skills and expert knowledge. She has taught me about dye plants, how to grow a dye garden, foraging native dye plants, the history of dyeing and the range of methods one can use to extract and infuse colours from nature onto yarn, fabrics and paper.