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Mapping Country
(bio-regional dyeing in the heart of the city)

by India Flint
Posted on September 19th 2010

You could be forgiven for thinking that wanting to work with plant dyes in the heart of a bustling metropolis could be just a tad ambitious and that material might be hard to source in the concrete canyons. The truth is though that plant dyes are remarkably easy to source; it is largely a matter of keeping your eyes open, being alert to possibility and wearing clothes with big pockets. Knowing where to begin looking helps as well. Green grocers, flower shops and community parks are high on my list. If I’m staying somewhere for a time I cultivate the acquaintance of municipal maintenance personnel as well as that of local business proprietors. The managers of food stores are usually quite pleased to have eager dyers tidy their onion bins by sorting the shells from the substance and don't mind having their green waste reduced by people relieving them of such commodities as carrot tops and beetroot leaves. Flower sellers have to pay extra to have their green waste removed and so will likely be most amenable to having the volume reduced by giving away bags of leaf material, while tree pruners and public-space gardeners often welcome assistance in disposing of trimmings. So I am as confident of finding dye resources in the centre of a city as I am of locating them in some rural idyll.

My sojourn in Toronto in the summer of 2010 began on a slightly edgy note. The border control people were a little nervous about visitors [the G20 summit was in full swing] and tersely demanded to know why I was coming to Canada, how long I planned to stay, whether I had been here before and [most importantly] when I was intending to leave. The fact that I had been invited to come and tell stories about dyeing with plants impressed them not a bit. This didn’t make me feel particularly welcome. Finding the streets lined with riot police just itching for a fight when I first wandered out to get my bearings made me feel even more nervous. Happily these feelings dissipated the moment I walked into the Contemporary Textile Studio, housed in an extraordinarily beautiful building at 401 Richmond Street.

The space is generous, well-lit and airy; thanks to big windows that open directly into a group of trees. The long print table that runs down the centre of the room makes for a wonderful communal workspace. Piled high at one end I found a delightful assortment of greenery, sourced by Rachel McHenry from a generous local florist. The offering included a sprig of Anigozanthus manglesii [a variety of ‘Kangaroo Paw’ endemic to Australia] and a deep purple cultivar of Agonis flexuosa [another friend from home] as well as Dieffenbachia leaves, assorted lily stamens [a rich source of colour but to be used with care being highly poisonous] and slightly wilted orchid flowers. The Kangaroo Paw has a romantic but rather sad story. Back in the early days of the British settlement of what we now recognise as West Australia, a woman named Georgiana Molloy was active in gathering and pressing herbarium samples of the flora. Whenever a ship called in on its way to Britain she would hand over a wooden box [the hortus siccus] containing dried plant samples accompanied by detailed notes on their habit and location, destined to be sent to a certain Captain Mangles whose pleasure it was to examine and classify them. This particular example bears his name but it wasn’t until comparatively recently that Georgiana was honoured in a similar fashion, even though it was through her endeavours that many of the plant discoveries of the region around Bunbury WA were made. Happily Boronia molloyae and Grevillea molloya now remind us of the person who first collected them.

But I digress. On the first day of the ‘mapping country’ workshop, students used plant material from the florist pile in a method I call bundle dyeing to impart colour directly from the leaves and stamens to the cloth. This results in bright, clearly coloured prints. The wrapping of cloth around the plant parts assists in excluding the liquid [usually simply water] that is being used to cook the bundles, thus preventing the dulling of colour that can so often occur when dyes are made with adulterated water. Too often the liquid supplied by municipal water utilities contains a cocktail of dissolved chemicals, some deliberately added [chlorine and fluoride] and others inadvertently present [salts, metals, alkalis or acids]. Chlorine and fluoride both act to inhibit plant dyes and have been known to remove colour rather than assisting in its fixation. Dyeing cloth in bundles using plant material to make contact prints is a splendid way of avoiding water-influenced disasters. It is important to tie the bundle quite tightly so that contact is maintained between the vegetable matter and the cloth – firm bundling will result in prints that are quite photographic in their detail, loose bundling yields less precise marks but can be equally delightful as haphazard watercolour effects come into play.

Green waste from florists is a wonderful source of plant dyes. But a simple walk down a city street can also yield useful material. Toronto’s streets are thoughtfully planted with such genera as Gleditsia, Acer [maples] and Gingko [the latter more useful for creating resist patterns than printing colour]. Cracks in the pavement are home to various weeds and grasses. The markets offer more treasure; carrot tops, beetroot leaves and onion shells to name but a few. Venturing further afield, the class visited High Park where even more variety was to be found, not only in the form of windfalls from the abundant trees but also such things as rhubarb leaves discarded by the allotment gardeners. Those rhubarb leaves make a splendid addition to a dye bath, acting as natural water softeners when introduced to the solution before the actual dye plant is processed.

The roof garden at 401 Richmond offers another valuable resource, barely touched on by the class [in this week, but it’s helpful to know that it exists!]; although we made good use of the offerings generously contributed by keen gardeners amongst the participants. We found considerable variety within a relatively small area though we were only applying ourselves to the task for a scant week. Add seasonal variations to the possibilities and you can begin to appreciate that plant dyes really can offer an almost infinite range of colours and shades. Further variation may be achieved by the judicious application of mordants. A mordant is a substance that either assists dye take up by providing a bridge or bond between the fibre and the dye molecules or is used to deliberately influence the colour outcome. Traditionally mordants have included a range of metallic salts but as humankind has been becoming more aware of the potentially deleterious effects of some of the chemicals used they have been declining in popularity. It is easier and safer by far to make up simple solutions comprising combinations of assorted household [or regionally harvested] fluids together with a range of metals sourced from around the home or gathered in the street. The solutions should be stored in glass jars, well out of reach of children and pets and allowed to brew for some weeks before being used. Although some of them may develop quite interesting colours or exhibit curious properties they will inevitably be much safe to use than powdered metallic salts sourced from a chemical warehouse. They will also be considerably more economical and can be safely disposed of in the common drain.