When I wrote the post “What do I actually do?”, I was thinking about my own lack of creative, artistic output when compared with the work of creative artists who use natural dyes in their work. One who comes immediately to mind is Helen Melvin of Fiery Felts (www.fieryfelts.co.uk) , who uses natural dyes to such wonderful effect in her felted landscapes, as shown below. (Photos courtesy of Helen)
In addition to her pioneering work in the creation of inks from natural dyes, Helen has also produced three booklets about natural dyeing, which give an insight into her approach and also offer useful hints for those of us who are interested in learning about how other dyers work. Each of these booklets has a delightful and unique cover handpainted in natural dyes and contains about 20 pages of useful information. The first, “Colours of the Earth”, deals with Helen’s favourite dyes. The second booklet, “The Colour of Sea and Sky”, is devoted to indigo and the third, “Colours of the Rainbow”, covers the use of natural dye extracts in fibre and fabric painting. All of these booklets reflect Helen’s passion for natural dyeing and joy in colour.
In “Colours of the Earth” Helen describes the methods she uses for dyeing with her favourite dyes, including madder, saffron, dyer’s broom, rhubarb and weld. She also has some useful hints for using cochineal and logwood and I’m pleased she includes dyer’s alkanet, as I love the subtle variations of tone from this dye, which is too often overlooked.
In “The Colour of Sea and Sky” Helen explains the technical aspects of indigo dyeing and analyses various methods for making and using indigo and woad vats, including her preferred methods. Her recipes also cover fermentation vats and I was pleased to find instructions for a vat using yeast and molasses, from which I got reasonable results with powdered woad. (Fermentation vats often require more patience and tender care than I’m able to muster, I’m afraid!) Like many dyers, Helen usually makes her vat using an indigo stock solution, which was my own method in the past. Nowadays I tend to make vats without first making a stock solution, because it is simpler to add all the ingredients directly to the vat. However, simpler is not necessarily better and Helen is quite correct when she points out that one possible disadvantage of my “Quick and Easy Vat” is that some indigo may remain undissolved because indigo dissolves and reduces better in a more concentrated solution. This means that the vats I make are often better on the second day, once all the indigo has reduced. This situation can be easily avoided, however. I now make the vat in my usual way, but initially on a small scale in a large lidded jar, using only about 500mls – 1 litre water. I leave this solution to stand overnight, which gives the indigo time to dissolve and reduce, and then add it carefully to the water in the vat when I am ready to dye. The only disadvantage of this is that I need to add a reducing agent, such as sodium hydrosulphite, to the water in the vat before I add the indigo solution.
In “Colours of the Rainbow” Helen gives an overview of the various natural dye extracts available from different suppliers and gives detailed and comprehensive instructions for mixing the extracts to make solutions suitable for painting fibres and fabrics and also for stamping and stencilling designs. She also explains how to apply and fix the dyes to make them permanent. Natural dye extracts open up many possibilities for using natural dyes creatively and this booklet should prove invaluable for dyers who wish to use natural dyes to create their own individual patterned fabrics or who wish to produce multi-coloured fleece or rovings for feltmaking or spinning into variegated yarns.
Thes booklets are lovely to look at from the outside and full of useful information inside. I’m looking forward to the next one!