Foraged Colour – Memory Textiles

When seam member Linda Row asked if I would be interested in collaborating with her and three other artists – seam member Penny Wheeler, Eve Kumari and Frances Westerduin – on her ‘Foraged Colour’ project I was delighted to accept.  I like my textile practice to be as sustainable as possible and this proposal certainly met with these objectives, using natural dyes and local materials.

Each artist is designing and making textiles using hand dyed British wool from foraged plant based material. It is then made into a collection designed by Linda. We decided on a coat being the ideal garment to collaborate on because of the thickness of my textiles.

I had never made my own dyes before, but Linda is very experienced in this and I was keen to learn the process.  There is something deeply satisfying about taking undyed British wool (I chose fleece from Blue Faced Leicester sheep) and transforming it using natural dyes made from locally foraged plants.

The unique properties of the fleece make it much harder to dye than yarn and you need a very concentrated dye to achieve a decent colour. With patience an amazing range of colour can be achieved from the most unexpected of sources – who would have thought that those annoying overhanging Eucalyptus leaves, that fill our gutters and drainpipes, would make a beautiful orange dye?  Suddenly I’m delighted to have them in my garden! 

I tried using Porphyra and kelp seaweed with disappointing results.  After a very enjoyable morning collecting seaweed, I soaked it, simmered it for an hour (by which time the whole studio and I smelt decidedly of the seaside) and rinsed only to find that it had hardly changed colour at all. More research required – I will try again! 

 I have become much more aware of the seasons and the variety of dyestuff available at different times of the year in the form of fruits, berries, leaves, flowers, stalks, roots and bark. Even in my own small garden in the middle of winter, I found dogwood, bay leaves, ivy berries and two types of Eucalyptus leaves and bark to make dye.  

Linda dyed a lot of the wool and I concentrated on some of the highlight colours.  The challenge of achieving the same shades and colours has not been easy. It becomes all consuming and I have spent many an afternoon collecting, preparing and experimenting with dyeing the wool, only to find I end up with a disappointing similar tone of yellow! It made achieving a distinctive new colour so much more exciting.

Once I had a decent stock of dyed wool I went on to make a variety of samples, testing different base fabrics. I decided to use recycled denim as a good strong base of natural cotton being careful to avoid the stretch denim which pulled out of shape easily. It took approximately 8 different garments to provide enough denim for the coat! There followed a few weeks of design development and needle punching of the pieces.

Timing was quite good as this coincided with the start of lockdown and I had plenty to keep me occupied. Lockdown has given me time to reflect more on the project.  The textiles produced using foraged, natural dyes have become much more meaningful, with the provenance of each colour used holding a memory of days out foraging.

Out foraging after a storm – windfall branches

The coat is now at the finishing stage, being sewn together by Linda. There are other beautiful garments being made by Linda and the team and these can be seen in our touring exhibition starting in September 2020. Further details and information on dates and venues can be found on the Foraged Colour website.  This project is funded by Arts Council England. 

Gill Hewitt