Volume 22 Issue 2 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Spring 2018


Color extracted by Celia Wilson from gorse petals
Color extracted by Celia Wilson from gorse petals.
Photograph by Robert Feldman


Art and Dye
Wendy Ives

As a wet-felt artist, I discovered natural dyes in the course of my felting journey when synthetic dyes—or dead colors, as I refer to them privately—no longer inspired me. A large part of my felting journey has become creating my own supply of the live colors that natural dyes provide. Achieving stable natural dyes has been a path to art supplies for me.

Leaves from the Leaf Shawl (details).
Leaf from the Leaf Shawl (detail)
Leaf from the Leaf Shawl (detail)
Photograph Copyright by Wendy Ives Photograph Copyright by Wendy Ives

I grew up in a family of artists. My mother was a working painter and my life revolved around her studio. I am a lot younger than my siblings and my mother's art career was in its prime by the time I came along. Starting at the age of five, I would come home from school, sit in the viewing chair in her studio and discuss her day's work. Theory, technical skill, design, form, color, shape and line were all part of my daily life. Examples of these basic art concepts are everywhere and we were always discussing them. Fifty years later, these are still common topics in our family discussions.

I became an artist myself, working with craft materials: papier mache, clay, glass seed beads, fabric, paint, yarn, whatever material I had at hand to create what was in my mind's eye at the moment—hats, sculptures, jewelry, knitted sweaters, inventive clothing (poorly sewn) and even a quilt. Without realizing it, I was searching for my medium. An artist without a medium is lost. However, I particularly love yarn, almost as much as I love creating a sweater design while I knit it. In 2007, at The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, I was walking around aimlessly, looking for a yarn that I thought would feed my drive, when I spotted something. I had found my medium and I knew it even at a distance: wool felt! It consumed me.

When felting, colors will change. Or not. They can also blend when the fibers felt. Sometimes, excess dye bleeds, and sometimes the dyes change with the soap pH. All these lovely changes need to be considered beforehand and then worked with in the moment.

Wet felting is very hard on natural dyes. When felting large pieces, the pieces might sit filled with soap on my workbench for weeks, which can wash out the colors. I felt with Ithaca Soap's Olive Oil Shampoo, that my husband makes. It felts beautifully. Adjusting the pH during the rinse process is very important to properly felt the fibers together while not losing all of the color. My most recent experiments were a huge success, leaving the colors largely unchanged. You can see that in the Wolf Cloak (below).

It can be tricky having an unheated, partially outdoor natural-dye studio in central New York State. I bring my organic indigo 123 vat inside for the winters so it can live in my studio, which has a heated floor. There, the vat maintains a relatively constant temperature of around 70°F. I have mordanted and cooked other dye vats outside, even with temperatures below freezing, when necessary. Usually I try to have enough dyed fibers to get me through the winters with a full color palette, but 2017 was a busy year for me, and I was able to dye only just enough fiber to keep up with my drive and my opportunities. After a very successful fall season with my art and the organic body care manufacturing business my husband and I have run for the past 19 years, I left some canning jars outside with dye baths in them that I used for a second color when shibori dyeing and eco printing silk, thinking I would get back to them. There was still plenty of color left in them. The temperature dropped to 11°F one night and I awoke to the sound of some of the jars exploding. I thought someone had thrown a glass jar against the back door.

My dyes are a mixture of compost, dye plants I grow and wild harvest and responsibly sourced commercial natural dyes. My compost dyes are pomegranate rinds, onion and garlic skins, old teas, and coffee grounds. I get orange rinds from a juice vender at our market, and save apple skins for the indigo vat to supplement the fructose. I dry the compost dyes, which seems to hold the color well until I am ready for them. I collect wild Queen Anne's Lace and Goldenrod from our five-acre field, and autumn leaves for printing and lichens (which I have yet to use) from our forest and on walks. I am also the happy recipient of dye plants others grow and then don't use. I even made traditional tempera stain (eggs, onion dye, linseed oil) for my house siding with gallons of onion skins from a friend's farm.

2017 was the year of my first dye garden. It was small but very productive with Dyer s Coreopsis, Indigo, Madder, African Marigolds, Damask Rose, Bachelor Buttons, Cosmos, Burr Marigold, Hopi Sunflowers, and a lucky Hopi Amaranth that came from mislabeled saved seeds from a bouquet of flowers. I also discovered that our perfume Damask Rose bush yields pinks, yellows and greens.

Many of the dyes I grew I used fresh. A well-tended small dye garden can yield a lot of dye. I froze much of my unused harvest and dried the rest. I will be conducting experiments with those dye stuffs this spring, when I can work outside. I intend to do different mordants on wool and silk mostly, and some cotton and linen and then compare color and color depth between dried, frozen and this year's fresh harvest. Sometimes, I set up dyes in glass jars outside for solar dyeing.

One day in my Ithaca Farmers Market booth, I met a natural dyer, who looked at my art. We had a nice conversation and she left. About an hour later, she came back with a tiny packet of weld seeds she had gotten at a festival in her hometown, distributed by group of women who think the world should be covered in weld plants. Those seeds, along with all of the other dye seeds I saved from my 2017 garden, will be started in the spring for this year's dye garden.

In the fall of 2017, I was commissioned by a budding fashion designer who has skills in pattern design, pattern making, sewing, and painting. Art commissions are funny. Someone has an idea but not the technical skill to produce the vision. I make sure to use their vision as my guide, but I let my creative spirits take me where they will when I am fully immersed in a project. It is like being in a trance and the project is in control.

The designer has a good eye and designs his runway shows like art installations. The theme of his section of this fashion show was "the natural world", focusing on the forest and its inhabitants. We discussed his ideas and sketches, then picked through my color samples, selected fibers and set timelines. Many of his color choices involved indigo, which I would be dyeing in cold weather. He made two muslins for me to use as my guides. He is a sewer and his muslins were for sewers, so I gave him a brief felting education to explain why there would be no sewing necessary to get his shoulder curves and his asymmetrical garment shapes.

Two finished garments from the commission will be in the Cornell Fashion Collective Runway Show March 2018: the Leaf Shawl and the Wolf Cloak.

Leaf Shawl

The Leaf Shawl is an asymmetrical shawl 105-inches across the top edge, which hangs between 40-50" off of each side of the wearer's neck with a rounded asymmetrical bottom, 60" wide by 50" long at the off center point. There is a mix of Nuno felted wool and silk with some 100% wool felt. I used a combination of three different organic wools felted: Rambouillet, Merino D'Arle, and Turkish Merino. The felt is very thin with drape and it flutters when the wearer walks, like leaves in a light breeze.

Leaf Shawl (front). Leaf Shawl (back).
Leaf Shawl (front)
Leaf Shawl (back)
Photograph Copyright by Wendy Ives Photograph Copyright by Wendy Ives

The piece was much larger than my 4' x 8' workbench, so I constructed it in sections, folding it strategically to keep the integrity of the design while in the delicate state of prefelt. There are thirty-eight leaves, dyed with madder, onions, indigo, pomegranate, fustic, cochineal and logwood. Producing colors is something like mixing paints, even though some of it is guess work and theory until the felts are complete. The desired and ultimately successful gold is a combination of onions, pomegranate, and fustic, all separately dyed batches of different wools, then felted together to produce the gold. On the silk, it shimmers.

Wolf Cloak

The Wolf Cloak is a double breasted cloak with felt buttons at each shoulder. This is also an asymmetrical design with a rounded bottom. The longest part is off the right shoulder at 60", with the shortest section below the left shoulder, at about 35". The shoulder width is 40", a men's medium size. The construction is solid from the shoulders down to the waist, where it changes to a rugged version of my signature felted lace.

Wolf Cloak (front). Wolf Cloak (back).
Wolf Cloak (front)
Wolf Cloak (back)
Photograph Copyright by Wendy Ives Photograph Copyright by Wendy Ives

Colors include many different grays and eggshells, solar dyed in my greenhouse using dye-vat exhaust, rose petals and leaves. There are three different indigos: the amazingly deep Indian indigo, the redder Guatemalan indigo and the lovely lighter-with-a-hint-toward-green Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium), which I grew. There are also madder, onions (red and yellow), pomegranate, logwood and cochineal. This cloak shows a lot of color variation, since I like to use every last drop of color and frequently use the exhaust of one dye vat to begin a fresh vat of a different color, getting one-time shades that sometimes I wish I could replicate. I also will grab small colored bits for a last minute over-dye to use up the last ferment of indigo before the vat goes to sleep.


Wendy Ives is a wet-felt artist and producer of organic body care products who lives near Ithaca, NY. Her personal website is www.wendyfeltart.wordpress.com.