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.

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.

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.

The studio in Brixton

Ceres studio 1 is a contemporary natural dye print studio in London. It was established by Lara Mantell and Florence Hawkins as a collaborative venture to share knowledge and experimental work with natural dyes. The duo have individual yet complementary areas of expertise; Lara’s in textile design and natural dye printing onto fabrics, and Flo’s in printing with natural dyes on fabric and paper. This expertise and enthusiasm has led to their Brixton studio becoming a hub of colourful natural dye research and design projects.