Volume 21 Issue 1 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Fall 2016


Cover of A Book on Vegetable Dyes
Cover of A Book on Vegetable Dyes
by Ethel Mairet (1916)


A Felted Journey with Botanical Colours
By Helen Melvin

When I was a child of four or so, I sat on the porch of my parents' house feeling intensely excited as I squeezed raffia paper and watched colour running out, but it took until I was in my forties to discover that producing colour, and natural colours at that, was my spiritual home. Once I had been to my first workshop on natural dyeing, I was consumed with passion for it in a way that dyeing with synthetic dyes never generated, and I came home, grabbed some privet leaves from the bush my husband was trimming, and I started dyeing.

When first I started some twenty-five years ago, the natural dyeing world was quite simple and straightforward. It was pretty much the sort of dyeing I taught at my first workshops and is in my first book: I soaked and heated up plant material, steeped and simmered my fibres, and played around with colour modification, which I started when I read Fred Gerber's article in, I think, a magazine called The Dye Pot.

I had a friend who used synthetic dyes and I was always envious of her ability to create multicoloured fabrics and yarns, but I wanted to do it with natural dyes. By this time, sometime in the late 1990s, I was Nuno felting (felting wool fibres into silk fabrics) and I wanted multicoloured silks. Then into a friend's postbox from a lady named Shirley Simpson popped some vibrant exciting samples of silk coloured with concentrated extracts of natural dyes. We shared our first order but neither of us thought of immersion dyeing with the extracts. We made up little pots and dipped paint brushes into them and painted colour onto the fibres and steamed them to set the dyes, and it was a few years before we realised no one else we knew was doing that.

In 2002, my lovely husband inherited some money and promptly offered me some. I astonished him by saying that I wanted to go to Colour Congress in Iowa, and, in due course, I flew to the States for the first time in my life. Amongst other events at the conference, I took a three-day workshop with Michelle Wipplinger of Earthues on using extracts. I still have the superb notes that were handed out and I still use them. The last day I had at that wonderful conference was the first of a two-day workshop on using natural dyes as paints.

I came back to the UK and started playing around with the dyes as paints, and my studio filled with little pots of intense colour, often slowly going mouldy as I experimented with different dyes and painted pictures which were transformed into felted landscapes. There it might have stayed if I had not said to a fellow artist who told me he painted in acrylic inks that I painted with natural dyes. He wanted a set of colours and I set about working out how to make them. It took a lot of thought, reading and experimenting, but, after giving my fellow artist a set, I was able to première the first eight colours of my inks at Wonderwool Wales in 2009. (Wonderwool Wales, another of the great British wool festivals, had started a few years earlier.) I now make sixteen colours, all, even the black, my own recipes, and sell to many local artists, and I have seen them go to Switzerland and Australia amongst other destinations. Many of my inks are complex, containing three or four pigments. The colours are Red, Blue, Yellow, Bronze, Old Bronze, Royal Purple, Purple Grey, Olive Green, Black, Ochre, Terracotta, Dark Terracotta, Orange, Old Gold, and Turquoise. A lime green is a new ink but has limited availability. Most, but not all, are available on my website and I can always be contacted to discuss my inks.

Figure 1. Artisan Inks: Hand made by Helen Melvin using natural dye pigments
Artisan Inks: Hand made by Helen Melvin using natural dye pigments
Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin

People kept asking me if they could paint fabrics with them and after a few years I got round to experimenting and found they worked superbly well on hand spun cellulose yarns and on cottons and on silk fabrics, although care has to be taken with the blue and turquoise, which are a bit acidic, and recently I started to paint fat quarters for the patchwork and quilting communities.

I had a wonderful time in 2007 reading up and experimenting with every type of indigo vat I could find. Jenny Dean's book Wild Colour1 (a great favourite) had started me off on a one-step indigo bath I used happily for years, but I wanted to try all types of vats. I had little fermenting vats in pots in warm and sunny places around the house, my husband assisted me in experimenting with the stale urine vat, I struggled with the zinc lime vat but got there with the help of JN Liles2 , and I read Fred Gerber3. I have both his little books, one on Indigo dyeing and one on cochineal dyeing, each of which I still read. In Gosta Sandberg's book4 I found the recipes for the madder bran fermented indigo vat, which I now use all the time, particularly for dyeing wools. I discovered other treasure on the way, such as Dorothy Miller's delightful book on growing and using Japanese indigo5. When I previously read JN Liles book and discovered the importance of scouring, my dyeing, particularly of cotton fibres, improved by leaps and bounds, but his chapter on indigo dyeing is the one most used and is so blotched with blue dye that the print in one or two places is almost obscured. Thus, my second book The Colour of the Sea and Sky, The Art of Indigo Dyeing was printed in 2007, ready to be at my first-time teaching at the week-long Biennial Summer Schools run by the National Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, in this case on using extract dyes and making felt with the painted fibres.

I should explain that all my books are self-published, and this means that, as I progress and as the natural dyeing world throws up new exciting ways of dyeing, I can update my books, and over the last two year they have all (there are four) been extensively rewritten. Each book has a unique style of cover, hand painted in natural dye inks too.

Figure 2. Dye Books: Helen Melvin Dye Books covering natural dyeing from plants to extracts to eco dyeing and indigo. Covers hand painted in natural dye pigments inks
Helen Melvin Dye Books
Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin

My third book, The Colours of the Rainbow came two years later. This is about using extract dyes to paint fibres and fabrics in the multicoloured way that I love. Sometimes it's a chance remark or two that sets us on different paths. I remember an elderly dyer just saying to me that she often put herbs and a few pre-mordanted fibres in an old coffee jar in her greenhouse and got some lovely subtle colours. The idea stuck and a few years later I tried putting a few Kilner jars filled with dyes and fibres in sunny places around the garden. Gradually, as time went on, I found the dyes and fibres that worked well in solar pots, while I also discovered that in very cold winters they freeze and crack. I lost five pots in our cold winter of 2010. As I like multicoloured fibres, particularly where the colours bleed into it each other, my pots have become more complex and colourful over time. Some dyes don't work too well, some are superb. This is partly because my pots are outside in the North Wales climate and never get warmer than 48°C (118°F). Some dyes just don't work well at low temperature dyeing. On the other hand, madder seems to love it. My favourite dyes in pots are logwood, madder, cochineal, and my own Saxon blue, which I make (and sell). The yellows, such as those from Dyer's Chamomile turn a very luscious dark green with time and a few rusty nails.

  Figure 3. Solar Pots: Solar pots containing dyes, mordant and fibres warming in the sun, which sets the dyes over time  
  Solar pots containing dyes, mordant and fibres warming in the sun
  Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin

In 2011, I demonstrated solar dyeing at the Woolfest, the very first of our wonderful wool festivals, which is set in the Lake District, and was quite stunned to find people standing on chairs to look over the stall side to watch and at the end to receive a round of applause from my audience. Every year as we get a sunny spell in March, I wash out the pots and, full of excitement, set new ones. Every year I think I won't find different combinations, but every year I do. I sell Solar Dyeing Kits with these unique recipes and very often the samples too.

Another bit of information that stuck in my mind was from Colour Congress where Karen Cassleman ran a workshop I heard about that involved wrapping up fabric in food waste, and leaving it in a sunny spot to impart colour. I wasn't that sure about using food waste, but I came home and sprinkled fabrics with dye plants and leaves, folded these into flat parcels, wrapped them in cling film, and put them in the sun to set. Every so often I came out and trampled the well wrapped parcels with my feet. The parcels lay in sunny spots for several months before being opened up. All these techniques got into my most recent book, Colours of the World Eco Dyeing (2011), along with patterning with rust, something I spent one happy September perfecting while my studio was open. Colours of the World also included Michel Garcia's sugar lime vat, which I had seen at ISEND 2011, another great natural dye conference in La Rochelle, France.

All the while I was quietly dyeing merino and variety of fabrics and silks to use in felt landscapes, and for all my many and varied felt making workshops. My ability to dye without felting gradually improved as I experimented and tried things out. I was once told with great authority that it was not possible to dye merino with natural dyes because the fibres felted, but, fortunately, by the time I was told this, I had been doing it for four or five years, so was able to walk away feeling smug after saying just that. The trick is to leave off the final washing of the fibres with soapy water( the first stage of felt making replaces this stage), and not to handle fibres while hot. Now I can dye merino as fine as 14 microns.

One of the reasons for loving natural dyes is that there is always more to learn. Much as I thought I knew indigo, this was challenged by Michel Garcia's sugar lime vat, which has changed indigo dyeing. Other dyers are constantly coming up with new practices and ways of working. It's almost too much for one dyer to take on board but it's exciting and stimulating too.

It takes me a long time to produce my felt landscapes partly because I am, as I was once described, like a medieval painter, making my own paints. The fibres I use are dyed by me with natural dyes, which in many cases means using the dye plants growing in my dye garden. The dye garden has been going for fifteen years or so and came into being when Enys Davies blew into my life and we found she loved growing dye plants almost as much as I love dyeing with them.

  Figure 4. Dye Garden: View of dye garden to Summer House Gallery  
  View of dye garden to Summer House Gallery
  Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin

My landscapes mostly represent not only the beauty of the Welsh Countryside but also the way I feel about the environment. For example, Stone Wall, which sold four years ago in the North Wales Open Studio event, Helfa Gelf, and is on my business card, is not just a picture of a stone wall, but is also about the barriers placed in the way of us accessing countryside and, at the same time, about how barriers are broken down and destroyed by nature. This is the same reason I love dilapidated fence posts, water thundering down rock faces, and seashores.

Figure 5. Stone Wall: Naturally dyed fibres and machine stitch
Stone Wall: Naturally dyed fibres and machine stitch
Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin

  Figure 6. Waterfall: Naturally dyed fibres and machine stitch  
  Waterfall: Naturally dyed fibres and machine stitch
  Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin
  Figure 7. Stole: Felt stole made with naturally dyed fine and ultrafine merino yarns and silk fabrics with stickpin made exclusively for Fiery Felts by It's Alchemy  
  Felt stole
  Photograph Copyright by Helen Melvin

The first time my garden was opened under the National Garden Open Scheme, which opens gardens to the public for charity, the regional organiser walking around my garden remarked that she had no idea that plants could be used to produce colour. Having a dye garden educates people in possibilities. Natural dyes are sustainable resources, the colours are superb, vibrant but subtle, and exciting. It may not be possible to return the world to using only natural dyes, but it satisfies me to know that my pictures and my wearable-art stoles are truly eco products that have not harmed the earth.

Article and Photographs © Copyright 2017 Helen Melvin

1 Jenny Dean, 2010. Wild Colour: How to Grow Prepare and Use Natural Plant Dyes, Mitchell Beazley.

2 J.N. Liles, 1990. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use, University of Tennessee Press.

3 Frederick H. Gerber, 1977. The Antiquity of Indigo Dyeing, published by the Author.

4 Gosta Sandberg, 1989. Indigo Textiles: Technique and History, Sterling.

5 Dorothy Miller, 1982. Indigo from Seed to Dye, The Indigo Press.

Helen Melvin is a textile artist who paints with naturally dyed fibres and machine stitch to create richly coloured and textured felt landscapes of the North Wales countryside where she lives. She has been both a felt maker and natural dyer for about twenty-five years with a working natural dye garden for fifteen. Her particular interests are light fastness, indigo dyeing and minimising the use of chemicals and heat to make her dyeing as eco-friendly as possible, using, amongst other techniques, solar dyeing and fermentation.

She makes and sells sixteen natural dye pigment inks to her own unique recipes, whose rich and vibrant colours are designed to be used like liquid watercolours and which are used by many North Wales artists, as well as many farther afield