Dulwich Picture Gallery

Inspired and enthralled by the sophisticated colours of Lithuanian painter Čiurlionis, at Between Worlds, Dulwich Picture Gallery. The ethereal beauty of his work, prolifically fore-fronted modern art, before a ridiculously premature death. A metaphorical bridge, crossing art boundaries, crossing between spiritual territories.
Flo and I were asked to interpret the exhibition for a weekend of natural dye printing at the gallery. Čiurlionis sea curves, mystical symbols, soft smudged forms, and lilac-gold spiritual underworlds provided abstracted inspiration. There was a serenity to compositions, reflections, that I visualised as playful negative-positive overlapping shapes. Rose gold, textured and heavily patterned. I was impatient to see how our participants used natural dyes to translate the paintings.

Enchanted garden

Patterns of orchestrated planting, fruiting trees aglow, petal-loads of ornate flower dye. London’s fathomless black-grey mourn of the century, displaced by colour-flood of Spilsbury garden’s. Echoing nature, sage dungaree’s and mint cardigan, Tania gave the tour. Brushing humungous rosehips tresses, squidging damp grass, we gathered dye-plants, pausing to rehouse jazzy yellow backed spiders. Flo and I were phonetically introduced to botanical names of the familiar, pink meadowsweet as Philip-under-hula-rubra-maximus. And we invented, with Flo’s cherished Madder-baby.

Outdoor pigmentation brought inside, silk-linen curtains exploring deep yellow weld. We were introduced to Kaori, maker of intricate ceramic plants, and the photographer Ngoc. Serendipitously, the dress made with the Ceres Collaboration day fabric was with me. A pair of chilly flip-flops later, and Ngoc shot divine pictures of it wafting amongst ethereal avenues of trees, and stretching in the  apple-glade. 

Collaborative dress. Image: Ngoc Minh Ngo

Slow preparation. Daisy, housed under a huge metallic structure with an arc open to the sun, was our dye-paste making companion. We cooked nineteen colours, from Poly-tunnel dahlia dead-heads to Stink-soaked prairie sunset dahlia. Ngoc and Kaori gathered rose-hips, meticulously deseeding, to transform into flame sweet jam. 

Brim-full vistas; lime Spanish pestle crushing home grown woad, wicker barrow packed with equipment, blue wire chair, sunset fields on Cranborne Chase. Sublime to print in the garden, overlapping shapes onto silk-satin, washing screens in a wheel-barrow, tantalised by new dye-pastes. Designs finished in gloam light, autumn cool slinks over tables, ready for steam fixing, we wait for the colour metamorphosis.

Becoming an ecology

An extravaganza of sustainable colour. 

We invited Ceres alumni to become part of an Ecology of natural dye print. To contribute to a day of sharing ideas, co-designing and playfully exploring print techniques. Organised by Lara, as a component of her MA in Academic Practice, and co-hosted by Flo. Lara was researching how practitioners navigate this emergent natural dye-print movement. How a process may influence designing and making, and how a commons approach could encourage experiments, learning, and adoption of ideas. 

Inspired by a youth spent at dance festivals, trading steps of pattern and rhythm on the dance floor. Swing camps, dancing all night, where invention happened at 3.00 am in the subliminal spaces between sleep-haze and dawn-light. A desire to create a similar sensitivity of community in natural dye printing; with an ethos of playfully sharing to develop a design. Perception flourishing amongst the collective making… chat, cut stencils, arrange, print, this is our liminal-light learning.

Silk-hemp, a luxurious, cost effective fibre-mix that reflects Ceres interest in sustainability was chosen for the printed studio length. Linen, for the participants take-home prints. Lara made a smorgasbord of dye colours, predominantly bio-waste for the linen, and colourfast heritage plants for the silk-hemp. She printed two sample sets of the key colours on both fabrics, enabling participants to reference both washed (colours can change dramatically) and unwashed.

To-ing-fro-ing. Dance manoeuvre of collaboration. 

Flo arrived in the morning with a linen epiphany. She described a “quilt” of squares, a sampler, where participants could work into each other’s designs. They would print two pieces of linen, one for Ceres and one for a take-away. Perfect idea! Except, participants in awe of others designs, were loath to over-print and change their squares. 

Serendipity of printing. 

The design theme, Place and Provenance was taken literally; Googled and mulled, then whoosh, and they were gone. Chatting, trading, manoeuvring screens. Stop-motion recording a choreograph of steps around the print table.

Morning; transformations as the groups responded to each other’s prints on silk-hemp. 

Lunch; steaming dahlia prints, journeying from Somerset to Greece, a suitcase of flower rich scarves. Making dye-paste from Meadowsweet from the Isle of Skye, perfume of marshmallows and a gleam of yellow.

Afternoon; a thrill of mystery, modifiers printed onto the silk-hemp, participants quizzing how beige dye may metamorphose into intense new colour. A flurry of shapes blossoming across the fabric, a burst of paparazzi, and a tight roll into the steamer for fixing.

A parade of linen and silk-hemp sashayed into the room, unfurling for display and contemplation. Silk-hemp fixed but not yet washed, the linen fixed and washed. 

The Preview, to share participants personal work and the prints created during the day. Unique screen printed fabric garlanded table tops and scarves lounged over the display table. The silk-hemp was taped to the wall, and toasted with prosecco.

Provenance, Brixton. Flaunting the newest sibling in the Ecology of Natural Dye Printing.

Song of dyeing

Colour of music, folksongs, and lyrics. Tales of lands discovered, and wars fought, colonialism, slavery, and high sea shenigans. There are dastardly ruffians, and disguised princes, ladies dressed as cabin boys, and a flock of fairy story charactors. The heritage of natural dyes, and the betrayal of the earth.

The chemical workers song, Demon Barbers.

Not about colour, but a lesson in avoidance of polluting substrates.

Mississippi Summer, June Tabor.

Dustbowl starvation in mid-west America of the 1930’s. The land leached of top-soil, billowing black clouds obliterating farmsteads, the ravages of misguided farming practices and severe drought.

Mood Indigo. Nina Simone

Duke Ellington’s jazz standard, “Mood Indigo,” states; “You ain’t never been blue, till you’ve had that mood Indigo.” The metaphorical equivalent of the deep, complex, intensity of indigo-blue dye.

Wade in the Water, Eva Cassidy

Colours and anthropological interpretations; a coded route for the enslaved to escape oppression, or a retelling of biblical stories.

A giggle of pattern makers

Salty-chalky Steyning mud from the banks of the tidal river Adur, an incongruous contender for voguish sludge; slither away Glasto-cool-ooziness and clay face-packs. Sarah Burns showed us beautiful designs created with mud resist and indigo dye, syncopations of blue and off-white, like diving into an Aegean sea. A natural rhythm to the process; cut stencils, paint mud-resist, air dry, and then dip-dye with several immersions because it’s indigo.

Flo and I, day-trippers from London, played with plant colours and new ways of working. Block-printing, with Sarah’s lino-cuts to make swathes of movement with jazzy edges, and geometric designs using Flo’s modern laser wood-cuts. Admiring huge outside vats of Golden rod and St John’s wort, so organic that little creatures were happily swimming in it. Our Brixton studio has big windows, letting in the light and long views across London, but no large garden to slip-slop with dyes.

We chatted, obsessed with processes, and about how ingenuity and frugality are part of the slow pattern of this craft. There is similarity in our ways of working; revisiting, and being re-inspired by ideas generated years earlier. A deliberate measured pace of design, looping the learning from our techniques back into our making. We discussed our motivations for this way of producing in harmony with seasons and land, and how these qualities are a part of the emergent blossoming of the circular design industry. Talking about creating and marketing natural dye products for the modern textile industry, where colour is dictated by pantone reference, rather than plant, time, and place. Sarah is an avid supporter of small heritage companies, tiny and vital in the supply chain, a cog in a connection of ancient endangered crafts.

A foragers delight of a track leads from Sarah’s house, edging past ghost-quarry reminders of Steyning’s industrial legacy, and up to the South downs. Steeply. We saw walnut trees (black), and elderflower (dark blue), goose grass (pale pink), sloe bushes (nicest of silver grey), and so many potential yellows. Half-way to the top we looked back and downwards, to an Eric Ravillious assemblage of hills, villages, and fields. 

We returned to London with a strong sense of Sarah’s vision of colour, pattern and location, and a clutch of fabrics. Air curing burnt-orange cutch block prints on soda-ash mordanted fabric, acorn-black, and blue-grey iron prints on an alder dipped base. Adur mud, clinging onto calico, ready to immerse in our indigo bath. Imprints of Sussex traditions and craftspeople, passing knowledge, collaborating, and learning. 

Symplocos sunbathing

At Ceres we often use Potassium Aluminium Sulphate (alum), as the mordant to increase colourfastness and lightfastness of natural dyes. A synthesised version of crystal chemically prised from rock and shale and prized by emperors, kings and popes. Ancient trades of empires long fallen, and secrets stolen in tall-ship heists. Pollution and corruption in the textiles industry already apparent a Millenia ago.

The Symplocos cochinchinensis tree accumulates aluminium from the soil, and fallen leaves become a rich source of alum. Use of this plant derived mordant helps protect the endangered forests of Indonesia and offers an alternative to chemical mordants. 

We did some tests to understand how well the symplocos alum performed alongside synthetic alum.

Printed pastes from top to bottom:


Madder and symplocos

Madder and alum and calcium carbonate

Madder and alum

Modifier stripes from left to right on each sample are citric acid, sodium carbonate, ferrous sulphate.

Symplocos is as wash-fast as alum, but it’s yellower base colour makes it better with the warmer colours.

A playground of colours

Colourfast or precarious-colour, the collecting and printing of local natural dyes as a contemplative study of beauty and change.

Organic calico

Pomegranate from Brixton market (Peru)

Iron-water from the garden

Printed using recycled cut-paper stencils

Buddleia and blackberries; flotsam of inner-city scrubland.

Damson and blackcurrants; sweet glut of friends allotment. 

Mulberries; abundantly sticky-dropping off festooned trees. 

Avocado, cabbage, pomegranate; the closing excess of market stalls.

Heritage of weld and madder; knowledge passed through centuries.

Experimental plants; harvests by myriad of artisan gardeners. 

Steamed to fix the dye.

Gently hand-washed, colour-transpose revealed.

Weld, buckthorn, madder, pomegranate, iron, avocado, soda-ash, and citric, silk-screen printed on calico.

Buckthorn and cochineal; complementary and judicious use of imported dye. Rousingly singing accompaniment to the (gentler) locals.

Some colours gracefully slide from vivid to mute, others stay bold-vibrant. Design for change.

Local-global: blueprint for green print

Designing a Learning for sustainability workshop for Ceres and UAL students (module for MA in Academic Practice)

Strolling edge-boundaries of research into printed textiles sustainability. Discovering and acknowledging existing paths that intersect between problem and process.

Investigation of cultural identity, miles travelled by colour, appropriation of heritage patterns, or preservation of the craft. The field narrows, earth-horizon reached, honing to natural dye-print colours. A workshop that uses dyes as a vehicle to explore, discuss, and confront the complexity of sustainability in education. A workshop that assumes natural dyes are chosen over synthetic dyes because of design potential, availability, aesthetic beauty, or historical accuracy. The dichotomy of synthetic versus natural dye, a choice referenced but not focused on.

Observant of place-learning, the workshop invites students to explore their location; to forage, investigate dye gardens, or gather bio-waste To bring dye-plants to the workshop, and link learning to habitats. Colour palettes balanced by the suggestion of imported dyes alongside the indigenous and home produced. Personal concepts and perceptions of sustainability discussed and recorded onto hand-printed maps and digitally shared on Padlet.

Using the provenance of dye-plants to research colours within the context of sustainability. Knowledge of the origins of the dye enables students to study specific economic, social and environmental concerns. The collaborative making of colour-pastes in the workshop, printing of designs, visual documentation onto maps, and ensuing discussion embeds sustainability into practice.

A plethora of dye-stuffs were introduced during the workshops:

Madder from Nature’s rainbow in Hertfordshire.

Red onion skins from the Cambridgeshire, via the Twickenham farmers market.

Saffron from Spain. 

Bio-waste colours; cleverly feeding the population, then releasing colour before composing.

Imported dyes; some companies were transparent about their origins, some less knowledgeable. I had hoped for a country, a region, a farm, or a single field. Instead I’m told Europe. Insufficient information to allow accurate judgement of human rights, water management, or land husbandry.

Ancient colonial colours; exploited skeletons of trafficked slaves.

A workshop of collecting, fabricating, discussing, and reflection. Making informed influential  sustainable textile decisions. Printed maps, fabric samples, and digital interpretations are process snapshots, not scientific rationale. Work in flux. Setting sustainability horizons, but not boundaries. Participatory sharing of knowledge, creating a symbolic collaborative-cooperative-Commons product, that maps student’s sustainability thinking. Reach expanding.

Books and articles that particularly influenced this workshop were:

4 Plants of Bondage, Limbo Plants, and Liberation Flora: Diasporic Reflections for STS in Africa and Africa in STS by Geri Augusto.

Fibershed by Rebecca Burgess.

Wild Dress by Kate Fletcher.

Doughnut Economies by Kate Raworth.

Seeing with fresh eyes by Edward Tufte.

Madder mining

Mining madder

Colour-detectorists; searching for local dye plants.

Half an hour from Kings Cross, deep-rural edging the Chilterns, we mined fire-red madder from the chalk rich earth. Legends of cow’s bones transformed crimson when fed on madder tops. We only want the roots; three years old and twisted repugnant realisations of Brothers Grimm tales.

grand teint, madder is omnipotent in natural-dye hierarchies; its colourfast properties validated and enshrined by 17th century French laws. Dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum) and Indian Madder (Rubia cordifolia) dominate this turkey-red, terracotta, scarlet and purple smorgasbord.

The red-rooted madder clan are illustrious and ingenious; some indigenous to the Uk and some shiveringly light-famished in the northern hemisphere. 

Dyers woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) lacy under the surface, yields a sharp clear red.

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina) coloniser of clifftops and rural West Country idylls.

Ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) roots a network of daintiness. Alleged saviour of the 17th and 18th century Hebridean machair, slowing coastal erosion and binding clifftops with its wiry root system. In a tempestuous climate emergency, we need local heroes.

Susan Dye (a name to die for) of Natures Rainbow, and her husband Ashley, are troves of information. Flo and Lara, in awe of the detailed plant knowledge and intrigued by a rare sighting of the sun, listened to their tales. Rare experimental colours:

Devils-bit-scabious – promises indigo, but renegades on delivery.

Elecampane  – Scottish myths of vivid blue, tantalising but realised only in a useful grey.

Dyers sawort – purple flowers and yellow dye.

And, another grand teint, Weld its tiny seeds waiting meekly, then sneaky germinating in disturbed soil.

Mining of natural dyes, cracking open the earth by spade on an allotment devoted to dye plants. Bird-song, the smell of blossom and neighbourly lunch. Antithesis of coal mining and cracking crude oil used for synthetic dye production.

Colour squabble

Natural dyes  have unique personalities; quarrelsome, needy, mellow, extrovert. Screen-printing with them is to party with a diverse crowd of friends, clamouring for a change in the tempo of the dance music. 


Machiavellian identity changer; rocks up in a leather jacket as mean-man, full of importance. Hangs out with Ferrous Sulphate, and trades his soul for longevity, spending hours on dark mischief making. Without Ferrous, he winds up snoring and grey in the corner as the sun rises (yep, he’s one of those dyes that fade)


Festival aroma of crushed evening grass, wending a way back to the tent. Slinks around with Soda Ash, for heightened perception.


Complicated. Prevaricates about timing, years pass as the slow waltz is perfected in underground clubs. Dominating until the finale; wearing ugly brown cardigan, covering up the palest pink and fiery orange.  


Jets in from Brazil’s coastal Atlantic Forest; rarefied, exotic, whiff of danger. An extrovert, lindy-hops to the wee-small hours in strappy slinky fuchsia dress. Partners Fustic for an orange delight twirl around the dancefloor.

Sappenwood impersonates and replicates, and is so much more available.


Timid until teamed up with an alkaline partner, and then WOW it’s an all night party. 

And then there’s the colour modifiers…