Upcoming Workshop – Natural Dye Printing: a Q&A with Thea Haines

roadside scrub (multi) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

roadside scrub (multi)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Spring has definitely sprung and everything needed to dye and print cloth naturally is sprouting up in gardens all over our city.  Natural dying and natural dye printing offers artists, craftspeople and designers the ability to use colour and pattern on cloth in natural and sustainable ways.

Thea Haines is one of Canada’s leading experts in natural dyeing and printing.  Her recent exhibition at Harbourfront Centre made waves in the textile community for her laborious use of traditional hand sewing, embroidery, natural dye, and finishing techniques.

The contemporary textile studio had a chance to chat with Thea about her art practice, and learn more about what to expect in her upcoming workshop at our studio!

Field Dress, c.1812. (installation View) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Field Dress, c.1812. (installation View)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Contemporary Textile Studio (CTS):  The work you exhibited at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto last year, (Field Dress, c. 1812.) was stunning.  Everything was done by hand; eyelets, scalloped edges, seams, tucks, embroidery…  everything!   In fact much of your work involves time and slow handwork.  Why do you choose to work in this way?

Thea Haines (TH):  Since the piece was meant to be an article of field dress, what is essentially a soldier’s uniform, for Laura Secord, I looked at both soldier’s uniforms from that era, and women’s clothing from the Regency/Empire period.  Even though the piece is a bit fanciful – a woman of Secord’s station never would have worn such an elaborate jacket, for example, I wanted to work as authentically as possible, so I chose to sew the entire ensemble by hand – all seams were either french or flat-felled, and hems were all blindstitched, and of course all embroidery eyelets and embellishments were also hand stitched.  In doing so, I wanted to draw attention to the laborious task of making such as simple garment as a lady’s slip.  The work alone made such a piece of clothing so valuable.  That is something we very much disregard today.  While the process is labour intensive, it is also incredibly meditative and pleasurable to do.

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines


Field Dress, c.1812. (detail) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

CTS:  You’ve been teaching textiles for many years now.  What do you love about teaching?  What do you love about textiles?

TH:  I love teaching because I get a thrill out of watching students discover their own voices through hands-on processes.  I think enthusiasm is infectious, and I hope that comes across in the classes and workshops I teach. One of the most interesting things about teaching is taking a skill I know, and breaking it down into learnable components so that someone else can take on that skill themselves.  With textiles in particular, the teaching is aural, oral, visual, tactile and experiential, so it’s very much a holistic experience.

Textiles are very relatable because they are part of our everyday lives from the moment we are born.  Almost everyone in the world has some kind of intimate relationship with a textile object, even if it is just their favourite piece of clothing or something more profound, like an heirloom object or ancient talisman.  I love textiles because through this vehicle I can both express and experience so many of my personal interests.  For me, textiles fit all my artistic interests – design, pattern, drawing, printing, colour, texture, tactle surfaces, sculptural forms and structure.  Through textiles I can also investigate all my conceptual interests – sustainability, domesticity and domestic space, horticulture, clothing and the human body. Textiles are closely connected to so many of my other interests, history, commerce, botany, world cultures, literature and food.

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Field Dress, c.1812. (detail)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

CTS:  Who are two people in history that have influenced or inspired you?

TH: I’ve been incredibly influenced by all my grandmothers going back generations, but particularly my maternal grandmother and her mother, whose sewing notions and tools I’ve inherited.  I’m also inspired by many independent or unconventional women, such as the poet Emily Dickinson, and botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, women who conducted their lives differently from the expectation set out for them by society.

Green Roof (madder) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Green Roof (madder)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

CTS:  What is your favorite colour?

 TH:  Very difficult question, but probably red, or any of its incarnations – crimson, scarlet, vermilion, coral, all shades from darkest blood red to the palest shell pink. I may be overstating it but red probably has the most interesting history of all the colours, and has so many interesting cultural, scientific and artistic stories in its background.

CTS:  Favorite fabric to dye on?

TH:  Wool, or linen.  I love them both equally. Wool is a breeze to dye, and accepts colour so beautifully.  Wool is also a very diverse fabric and can vary so much in texture and finish, depending on the knit or weave. Linen is a greater challenge to dye, especially for the natural dyer, but I love the drape and softness of linen, which gets better and better with age. Linen is also available in a range of weights and weaves – from very structured and heavy to very open and sheer.

colour swatches Photo Credit: Thea Haines

colour swatches
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

colour tests (washed) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

colour tests (washed)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

CTS:  What does your dream studio look like?

TH: Pretty close to the studio I have now, only much larger, and with a sofa.  Our studio has great light – large west and east facing windows, old wooden floors, high ceilings, and an outdoor roof garden… and lovely studio mates.

wild asters (blue) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

wild asters (blue)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

CTS:  What is in your dream garden? Favorite Plant (why?!)

TH:  My garden would be a potager – a kitchen garden with ornamentally arranged useful plants – herbs, vegetables, flowers, and of course dye plants.  There is a lot of dye stuff to be found in a vegetable garden – discarded tops of carrots and beets, rhubarb leaves, sorrel, nettles and cuttings from raspberry canes.  I don’t have a favourite plant, but I can’t live without the tomato.

roadside scrub (wool multi) Photo Credit: Thea Haines

roadside scrub (wool multi)
Photo Credit: Thea Haines

CTS:  Its very exciting to have you teaching a Natural Dye Printing Workshop at CTS.  I’ve read the class description and it sounds like a fun and informative workshop. Do you think you could give a sneak peak into what kind of natural dyes participants can expect to print with?  And will participants be designing their own blocks to print with or using traditional hand printing blocks?

TH: We will be working with a range of different dyes and colours – some very neutral tones, such as sumac and pomegranate, and some very bright hues, such as madder and osage orange.  All these colours can be intermixed and used with mordants, such as iron, or chemical assistants, such as soda ash, to create a very comprehensive range of colours. We will be both using traditional wooden blocks for printing, as well designing our own blocks from simple, readily available materials.

Colour mixing tests (wool, Linen)  Photo Credit: Thea Haines

Colour mixing tests (wool, Linen) Photo Credit: Thea Haines


Sustainable Design Series: Natural Dye Printing with Thea Haines

Sundays, June 9, 16, 23,  11am-4pm

$300.00 + $50.00 materials fee

For more information and to register for this workshop visit: http://www.textilestudio.ca/programming/thea.html

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Bio Dye

Over the last two years, studio member Rachel MacHenry has been working with the BioDye research project in southwestern India.

Situated in a richly bio-diverse region of Maharashtra, the BioDye project brings together contemporary ideas about ecology, current scientific research and age-old natural dye practices. The two people behind this initiative, scientist Dr. Bosco Henriques and textile researcher Ann Shankar, have devoted ten years to research, investigating both India’s rich historical record related to textile coloration, and applying modern scientific methods and concepts to the natural dye process.  The result is a sophisticated but low-tech, closed-loop dye process producing clear, fast colours on cotton and other fibres.



The project is located outside of a small village in the beautiful Western Ghats, in hills thick with vegetation.  Cows graze on the site and are part of the ecology of the project.



Much of the water used in the dye process is collected during the monsoon and stored in these black tanks. The water gravity feeds down to the workshops.  Dye processes are carried out using highly efficient wood burning stoves, powered by wood gathered by local women in the surrounding forests.



Workers record the raw materials as they arrive, such as this order of organic cotton thread.

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In the mordant shed, the workers take the fibre through a series of alum and tannin mordant baths. This step allows the natural dye materials to bond with the fibres. These ecologically safe mordants are not harmful to the local water supply, the land or to human health.

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Indigo dyeing is carried out in a separate shed where the indigo vats are sunk into the earth to maintain a constant temperature. An experienced indigo dyer is highly skilled and valued.  Much of the indigo used at BioDye is grown in the region and in fact the project has encouraged local farmers to re-introduce the crop, providing an additional stream of income to farm families.


The dyers are careful to monitor temperature and timing during the dye process.  Many of the plants are gathered locally through women’s collectives, then dried, ground and stored.


Wastewater from the mordant, dye and rinsing process is filtered through a series of holding tanks.  The organic waste left from dyeing is composted and used to enrich the fields.  Dried mordant residue is applied to the crops as a safe insect repellent while the wastewater, purified but still nitrogen-rich, irrigates the crops. This is a closed loop system where all waste is used as nutrients for further growth.


In the nursery, dye plants and other useful medicinal and food plants are grown for project use.


Beautiful, clear, natural colour on cotton fabrics woven with the local power-loom industry.  BioDye also works with hand weavers through Women Weave, a charitable trust that supports rural handloom weavers and assists them in maintaining their skills and selling their work.

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Botanica Tinctoria collaboration – Rachel has been working with BioDye to develop a range of naturally dyed trimmings, ribbon, lace and embroidery threads which will be available in the fall of 2013 on-line and through retailers.





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