When India Flint’s book Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles landed on my desk, it seemed like fate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a comprehensive guide to natural dyeing that also shows such amazingly beautiful and sophisticated results.
India is a designer, artist, writer, and sheep farmer who lives in South Australia. Her work has been greatly influenced by her extensive travels–from Melbourne to rural Austria to Montreal.
She is known for developing the highly distinctive eco-print, an ecologically sustainable plant-based printing process that gives brilliant color to cloth. India has worked with plant dyes for more than 20 years, and her art resides in collections and museums in Australia, Latvia, and Germany.
I was lucky enough to catch up with her via email, and we had this enjoyable and illuminating conversation about art and the environment.
Q. How did you get interested in dyeing? What was your first exposure to it?
A. My grandmother dyed her clothes using onionskins, tea and marigolds. As a child I had the great good fortune to be in her care whilst my mother attended art school and so learned the basics quite early, as well as learning to sew, cook soup and bake bread. I began to work much more seriously with plant dyes in my late 20s, eventually rejecting the use of synthetic dyes in my textile work in 1997. I then researched eucalyptus dyes for my M.A. (2001).
Q. There seems to be a resurgence in the art of dyeing, especially with more natural methods. Do you see that and why do you think that is?
A. Absolutely. I think people are beginning to understand that synthetic dyes have toxic implications beginning with their manufacture, and of course later in the application as well. With an increase in the awareness of personal health has come the recognition that petrochemical dyes can seriously compromise personal well-being.
And then there’s the question of the environment. Sadly many people using plant dyes still insist on using the traditional mordants, many of which are incredibly toxic and ought not to be used in domestic situations or to be disposed of in the sewer system. I make mordants using found scrap metals, sea water, urine, fermented fruit rinds, and so forth.
Q. Why did you choose to go the eco-friendly route of dyeing? Was it purely for ethical or health reasons, or are there artistic advantages to natural dyeing using plants?
A. Correct on all counts. What we do to the earth eventually impacts on us as well (sometimes sooner than later). I like to be sure that if I make a blanket for a baby no poisons are going to rub off onto its skin. I also like the fact that when I process plant material, the remaining matter can be safely returned to the garden (or the forest) as relatively neutral compost which is therefore quite safe. (If anything is strongly acidic, I simply add a little ash to balance the pH.)
I find the colors from nature to be exquisite and that they “sing together” no matter what the shades. I should add here that I work exclusively with bio-regional dyes (what grows around where I happen to be working at the time) and avoid the importation of dyes unless I can be absolutely sure that their cultivation and harvest is ethical and sustainable. For example, I would not use Logwood under any circumstances as the entire tree is felled to obtain the heartwood from which the dye is made.
Q. How did you develop your sustainable coloring process?
A. By experimenting and keeping notes and reading as much as possible. Dyeing with plants is an art and a science informed by ethno-botany, medicine, history, and geography.
Q. What is your favorite plant or combination of plants to dye with, and why?
A. Essentially I like to dye with whatever is to hand, and my preference is for windfalls so that I’m not actually picking anything–unless it’s from the trees I have planted on our farm as a dye resource.
I have to say that eucalyptus is one of the most spectacular plant families to use in the dye bath and a strong favorite, but it’s a bit like having to choose a favorite child!
Q. Your process is not just about the colors, but also patterns and what you do with the resulting fabric. Please explain how you “beat” the color into the fabric to make patterns.
A. The technique I call hapa zome (essentially a “kitchen Japanese” phrase meaning “leaf dye”) was born of necessity when I was working on a theatre project in Yamaguchi, Japan. The director of the dance production requested a 6m x 6m floor cloth, three days before opening night, to resemble a mossy forest floor. I had no hope of finding a dye pot that would be large enough, nor of drying a big cloth after wet dyeing.
So I experimented with a hammer, simply beating the color from the leaf into the cloth. It worked, so I spent three long days on the floor of the theatre, coloring this cloth. I had to use both arms ambidextrously as it was jolly hard work. Every hour I would walk out into the surrounding suburbs with a bag, collecting leaves from roadside weeds and from the people gardening in parks and cemeteries.
I placed a piece of flat wood under the cloth, then the leaf on the cloth, a piece of paper over the leaf, and then beat on the paper with a hammer. The colors were set using a steam iron and are as bright today as when they were applied four years (and many performances) ago.
Q. How do water and time affect the dyeing process?
A. I keep telling my students that “time is your friend in the dye bath.” Patience and mindfulness pay off. And water is a story in itself: each reticulated supply has a different cocktail of substances dissolved in it, from fluoride and chlorine to copper, iron, and calcium to name but a few suspects. All of these will affect color outcomes, so it amazes me that most other dye books publish swatches and recipes to be emulated when chances are that the colors achieved are likely to be quite different. And it’s not just water that makes the difference, it can be the cloth as well. Silk from China has given different color from silk from Japan-using the same leaves and the same dye bath/dye pot.
Q. Are there plants or other natural sources you have in Australia that people in other parts of the world don’t have ready access to?
A. The eucalyptus seems to be available from most florists around the world and is, of course, a weed in many countries.
Q. What is the most important thing the person new to using natural dyestuffs needs to know?
A. Learn the names of plants. Many are poisonous, some are rare or protected, many have been used before for dyeing. By knowing their botanical names you’ll be able to find out a lot of information about the plants. Knowing their “common” or vernacular names can tell you curious folkloric information.
It’s also very useful to give yourself the freedom to play, take your time, and keep notes (a digital camera very useful for this) in case you want to repeat something.
I highly recommend India’s advice, and her book, for discovering natural dyeing techniques with beautiful results. I can’t wait to dive in and try her methods myself!