This is something I’ve been fascinated by for a very long time and over the years pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have gradually fallen into place. Finally after much trial and error I have developed a simple process of block printing with natural dyes that I’m reasonably confident in and am able to reproduce and share with others, though I still feel I’m very much a beginner. I owe alot to many people who have shared and taught me along the way – most especially Shirley at Handprinted
My process in no way compares with the wonders of Indian block printing. The intricacies of block printing with natural dyes were so very complex that English traders from the East Indian Company were dazzled when they first set eyes on Indian fabrics: layers of colour were laid one upon the other using a complex system of mordants, dyes and resists. It took the Europeans centuries to understand how the Indian craftsmen made their beautiful chinzes and many decades before they were able to replicate pieces that looked a little like them.
I first fell in love with the colour palette of cutch browns, madder reds and indigo blues when I saw the textiles of Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher in the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester many years ago. I started trying to print with onion skins and did get some marks but it was only when I was researching my book into Barron & Larcher 20 years later that I got a few more clues.
Barron and Larcher didn’t leave any technical notes but in her wonderful speech ‘My Life as a Block printer’, Barron describes how after making her first patterns using indigo and nitric acid (not something I am keen to try) she made up a paste of cutch using gum traganth (she compared the gum in it’s raw state to toe nails). I spent a whole winter transcribing Barron’s talk and in the process got to feel quite close to her and the way she worked.
I don’t have a steamer large enough to steam lengths of fabric so I decided to try and work with mordants instead; different mordants fix different kinds of natural dyes allowing you to print with a range of natural print pastes.
When I visited Bagru, the village of printers outside Jaipur in Rajhastan, I discovered how the cloth is first dyed with a tannin so that it can fix the iron dye and how alum is used to fix madder. My process is hardly comparable to the the beautiful and intricate patterns produced in India but I still enjoy the process – preparing the mordants, fabrics, dye stuffs and pastes. It’s very sensual process that is sensitive to the slightest change and one that always entrances me everytime.
Most importantly for me is the fact that my workshop is becoming less toxic, involving more natural vegetable and plant based dyes and pastes. Not only do I feel safer working around my family and students, gardens, insects and animals, I also feel like I am making things in a kinder way.
So many things in the textile industry look quite beautiful but when you scatch the surface you discover a toxic and environmentally damaging process that destroys any superficial beauty: I want the things I make to have a positive impact on my environment – supporting organic farmers and growers and becoming truly beautiful in the process.
I hope this blog inspires you to think about printing with natural dyes – do get in touch if you would like to have a go at making things in a different way.
All the images here are taken from my book ‘Barron & Larcher – Textile Designers’ and from the Block printing with Natural Dyes workshop that I have run with Alice Garner at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft and as part of their wonderful Women’s Work show (it’s on until October 2019 so do go if you get the chance) plus from workshops in my own studio – thanks to all the students for their wonderful experimental work.