Monday, 17 July 2017

feeding the indigo vat

when Ma left us to go on her next big adventure, among the stuff she left behind was a modest esky (across the ditch you'd know that as a chilly bin, across the puddle it might be a cooler, and I've never encountered one in Old Blighty so I've no idea what you might call it there)

it's a well-insulated device made of plastic. Ma used hers for fish bait, possibly also for gin.

the extendable handle is a bit rusty (and cannot be removed for restoration by boiling in a eucalyptus bath) but inside it was squeaky clean. as I pondered it, I had an idea.


it's very cold here in winter. we don't get snow very often but it's pretty nippy. I decided to liberate the esky and give it new life as an indigo vat. the insulation helps keep the temperature up and it's quite easy to rewarm it when it does cool down (three days of neglect and it's down to lukewarm) by standing one or two old wines bottle full of hot water in it. (hot stones are good, too, but more difficult to handle.)

and while my favourite indigo vat is made with bananas, they're rather pricey right now (usually cheaper in school holidays, as less lunches are being packed!) and so I am nourishing the vat with other substances. I'm a bear who likes to make the most of local resources, so (thanks to a conversation I had with Charlotte Kwon a few months ago, when she said the vat would probably be just as happy eating compost) I've been experimenting by boiling up the vegetable trimmings and feeding the liquor to the vat.

the chickens are delighted because they're getting cooked scraps :: much easier to eat!

celery and sweet potato

beetroot and pineapple peels

pouring in the brew (better to hold it closer to the surface and thus introduce less air, but trickier to photograph if you happen to be doing it all yourself)

the main thing is to keep it warm, check the pH and, as Michel Garcia so charmingly says, remember to feed the donkey before you put it to bed.

what are you feeding yours? I'd be interested to know.

Friday, 30 June 2017

who knows where the time goes

it's been a while since I've published anything here , and the field of the year has been very thoroughly harrowed in the interim, beginning with the passing of my mother in February. 
not something I am ready to write about yet. so I will not.

in May I travelled to Vancouver, to give my first two-week class at the Maiwa School of Textiles

the magical view from the air as you fly into San Francisco

as Qantas only flies there direct in midwinter and midsummer, I had to travel via the United States.
in the past , my arrival at SFO has been met with a cheery "welcome to the United States".

not this time.

I was accused of lying about my tattoos. seriously??? I have a tattoo of a maple leaf on my wrist. it was drawn by one of my daughters, based on a leaf gathered from under the beautiful Acer palmatum atropurpureum that lives at the foot of the Vallejo Steps in San Francisco. the officer asked me what the tattoo was, I responded with "it's a maple leaf, sir". whereupon he informed me that he was a patriot from Ohio who had seen plenty of maples in his time and that it was his duty to keep undesirable elements out of his country. and that he did not like to be lied to.

it IS a maple leaf.
(and my hands were squeaky clean at the time)

the officer continued to insist that it was a marijuana leaf (which, even if true, should not have mattered as Cannabis sativa is legal in California). he wanted the names and addresses of my friends in the US. he demanded to know if I were an activist or an environmentalist. I responded truthfully that I was a tree planter, then he sent me for "secondary questioning".  hours later I was released into the USA. if you want to know what those hours were like, read Mem Fox's account of her experience. it's quite similar, except that in my case there was no apology (and I haven't given any books to Prince George).

curiously, everyone else in that detention room was brown, too.

I wasn't even wearing my amulets, but clearly I look like someone to be suspicious of. 

happily I had had the foresight to book my onward flight to Canada for the following day, otherwise I might well have missed my connection. but as a result of this experience, and given the current administration's attitude to aliens sharing their skills in the USA (although apparently it's ok to have your hats, handbags and suits made in China and Mexico) I shall not be teaching there again for the foreseeable future which is ironic, given the number of people who have set up small businesses churning out ecoprint textiles, teaching workshops and e-courses; none of which seemed to be around before Eco Colour was published. I like to think that I'm actually making a useful contribution and doing a bit of good around the whirled. I could just be misguided.

enough of the sad ranting. I'll miss all y'all.

now back to the story.

having two blocks of five days to work together, with a weekend off in between was just marvellous. I was there to teach feltmaking, of the kind that doesn't require truckloads of soap (but DOES need a bit of stitching and is a splendid means of using up little scraps of cloth. I call it shibusa), but there was of course lots of other dyeing on the side, including in a deliciously fragrant banana-based indigo vat. 

beautiful student work, printing on (unscoured) linen
the students worked like beavers.

on my weekend off I was spirited away to the most gorgeous island , where I slept in a dreamtent

we all found it a wrench to part company on the last day.
happily I've been invited back for next year and the class is in June, so I can fly directly to Vancouver from Sydney on my favourite airline.

after a few other adventures, early June found me in the Netherlands, where I was included in the exhibition 'Earth Matters' at the Textile Museum in Tilburg. 
at the opening I met Christina Kim (whose work appears below). I'd visited her Dosa space in Los Angeles a few years ago going to cross paths, but she'd been out of town at the time. I also met Birgitta deVos and acquired a copy of her gorgeous new book. 

I am so very grateful to Iris de Voogd for organising a workshop at such short notice, which meant that my airfare was covered and I could attend the exhibition opening. also I had a chance to catch up with lots of people I had not seen for a long time, some (Geesje and Dorie) not since 2011.  Marijke (who joined me in Newburgh a few years ago) was there as well, and her daughter Caitlin (she's the one who led the singing in the riverbed) has woven me the most glorious scarf and given me permission to dye it! do stay tuned for developments on that front, we are now treating it as a collaboration!

anyways Iris and I had been having an extended email conversation for around two years about the possibility of having a class there and May 2018 had already been inked into place...but she enthusiastically leapt into action a whole 11 months earlier. (and even let me play her saxophone).

Dorie van Dijk's enormous studio amidst the flowerhouses is a fabulous place for a class. I'm already dreaming of a return, and Marijke has been kindly murmuring about organising something in her region too. 

the seeds are planted, we'll see what blooms.

one of my lovely students, Dajana Heremic, with her delicious apron

the ridiculously bright #nofilter colour from Italian eucalyptus, a surprise delivery at Dorie's studio.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

learning life lessons

it was a splendid road trip
pootling across Australia with Kubbi the One-Eyed Wonder Dog
nine hours on the road (punctuated by frequent stops to
wander in the bush and gaze at flora)
is a lot of thinking time.

there and back again is twice that.

I always learn something new from teaching workshops
what became crystal clear to me during the three days at Beautiful Silks Botanical Studio
is that the work I do
is also my own big life lesson.

that the act of teaching is my personal journey to be the best person (in this life) that I can be.
it isn't all roses, and it's hard sometimes to resist being catty about the way that the "ecoprint", a term I optimistically coined in 1999, has been hijacked to be anything but "eco-friendly" or sustainable.
because when I hear of the mountains of plastic and the bucket-loads of adjunct mordants being used out there I do become quite despondent.

but then I read this

"Thank you, for another brilliant, creative soul feeding workshop, that brought a group of strangers together but leaving as friends"

and it warms my heart because it reminds me of what is really important.

it isn't the brightness of the colour (though we certainly had that) or the volumes of product ... it's the connections we make when we gather together around a cauldron.

in this instance, a "second skin" class, it was also about the empowerment that comes with the simple skills of making.

I'd probably have made truckloads of loot over the years if I had just kept the botanical contact print process a secret and churned out yardage or silk pyjamas and a squillion printed wool scarves, but for me the greater satisfaction comes with seeing the happy smiles that bloom when dresses grow using simple running stitch, lovely threads and beautiful cloth. (all all we need, really, is 'enough')

in "second skin" we make string, measure with it, make a few marks with graphite and then boldly cut and sew.
no clatter of machines, just the quiet ebb and flow of conversation, and sometimes simply gentle silence.

and magic happens.

in this last class people shared so many life skills beyond just sewing and dyeing.
friendships were forged, wisdoms exchanged.

and that makes my life worth living. with bells on.

and then (fresh from the cauldron)
I was given the most magnificent present hand-stitched
with so much love, and dyed in my favourite colours.
 thank you, Robyn.
it's going to wander with me.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

reira he makutu i roto i tenei wahi

I cheated.
I used google translate in the hope that it would find the correct Māori words for
"there is magic in this place"
(although I will confess that when I pasted the answer back in, and asked her to detect the language,
Granny Google came up with 🌸 Hawaiian)

forgive me. 

there IS magic in this place

...the place being the wonderful garden in the lovely Lud Valley that Judy and Michael Keylock have been opening (along with their hearts) for over seven years now, to let me play with leaves and words, paper and cloth while Chloe cooks up the most delicious food. 

we eat the food that has been grown in the garden while making colour from leaves that drift underfoot. 

there is a particularly special plant, Griselinia littoralis, that doesn't get a mention in any of the traditional New Zealand dye books...but contains a rather fabulous colour (first discovered thanks to my friend Rachelle, who bundled leaves from it during a class I taught in the Whitireia Summer School at Kapiti in 2009).  cooked in water it turns the colour of tea...but bundled it delivers the sweetest pink.

only two species occur in Aotearoa, with a further five in South America. 

sometimes they are epiphytes and live on a friend.  rumour has it they arrived with the Māori (apparently a decoction of the bark could be of use against venereal disease. hmm.)

at the end of each day I went to my favourite place (in the whirled) for a swim. there's something about diving into cold water and bursting up into air again that makes me feel like a new woman. 
and that experience is not only fabulous, but free!

wandering in the Suter Gallery on my way to the airport, I encountered a painting of Huria Matenga who looks astonishingly like my maternal grandmother

even flying in and out is a wonderful experience, as the land and the sea unfold below

though it's so very hard to leave.

which is why the four of us made sure to find a time that suited us all for a return, which looks like being in the third week of April next year (when we can once again have an open fire)

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

group theory

we are on beautiful Maui
a sacred island where time slows down and turtles wander up the beach
where the days seem to drift gently but the week
has rushed by

we have written poetry
made drawings, stitched, dyed
made things new to us that appear to have taken up some ancient island essence
gathered shells and made string

there are thirteen of us + me
which makes fourteen (+ our fearless leader, Sharon)
so fifteen in total

nine are recidivists, four are new to me
there are three sets of friends (in two of them, one of each has met me before)
and a mother and daughter (there were nearly two family groups, but my Ma didn't make it)
there are five Australians, ten Americans
two dual nationals (one American Australian, one Latvian Australian), and two Australians who emigrated to America
among the returners, three came to New Mexico , one to Whidbey Island
one to Inverness, one to Santa Barbara, one to Odessa and two to a class in Australia

my mathematical genius (and conscientious objector) grandfather would have had great joy in devising a Venn diagram.

I began to try and draw one, but it turned into a paeonie.

the marvellous thing is that this group melded remarkably quickly into sisterhood.
the talk is easy, the laughter flows close to the surface :: I feel deeply blessed that the work I do brings me together with people whom I hope I see again

I am also hoping to return to Maui, but who knows where or how the winds will blow, the way our precious whirled is going...

Tuesday, 27 December 2016


this year I was invited to participate in an exhibition being held for the Latvian Cultural Festival that has been held around Australia between Christmas and New Year since 1951 

the exhibition title "past present future" prompted me to create this autobiographical piece.

loosely based on traditional Latvian costume it includes an apron, a striped wool skirt, a wool blanket, a found antique linen blouse and rather a lot of bones. 
the stitched text translates poetically as "I'm walking and wondering why I leave no footprints"  and is borrowed from a poem by Janis Elsbergs 
(the literal translation is somewhat more specific)

dyed with eucalyptus, local colour infusing into something from elsewhere, from the ground up. 
the apron was reconstructed from a linen shirt and other items sourced during a trip to Latvia in August this year. 
thank you Lufthansa for the nice cotton napkin you left in my lap, which somehow became attached as well and which serendipitously made sense, as my background is Latvian and German.

the pockets full of whitewashed bones represent the cell memories we each carry within us and which I am convinced are handed down from one generation to the next.

I was born in the late 50s, and raised as a "European in exile", a child of two displaced persons from two different cultures.  

but the Australian landscape got under my skin.

I installed the work yesterday.

it was the last piece to go in, the rest of the exhibition had already been  hung.

frankly my work looks rather 'out of place' compared to the rest...everything else is precisely formed/woven/wrought/cut/stitched/shaped...I think it sticks out like the proverbial bull terrier's testicles.
I guess that's the truth as well.
and if it isn't true, it isn't worth doing.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016


it's nearly 9 years (next March) since Eco Colour (a book i wanted to call 'botanical alchemy' but was told the title wouldn't sell) hit the bookstores. in that time what i initially referred to as 'ecoprint' has spread far and wide. thousands of people are making a living by printing with plants.

hilariously, though i was the first to publish the technique* i usually see myself referred to as an "also ran" in various media. a recent book about natural processes in textile art listed me merely as a "practitioner" of the technique (though instructions for ecoprinting are scattered generously throughout its pages).

i've seen colleagues absorb my work into their teaching practices, and observed "fashion labels" created after people have taken classes....sometimes only a one day class.

and there are so many people out there teaching "ecoprinting" (though much of it is not ecologically sustainable at all, as toxic adjuncts are increasingly employed) that i no longer offer basic "how to" classes. it would be like having to play "twinkle, twinkle, little star" over and over again.

not much fun for me, and ergo less for my students.

which is how 'being (t)here' took root and has grown into a retreat class that embraces being fully present and at the same time exploring the poetics of place.
it gives me such joy to be able to offer something more than just a class about printing with leaves.

for me, 'being (t)here' is a way of experiencing the whirled that helps open the cracks that let the light get in (thank you Leonard, for that phrase) no matter where you are. it offers a pathway to beauty that can be rolled out whether you're in a verdant forest, a shimmering desert, an urban wasteland or your own private paradise.

we observe and see, write and draw, print and dye. we fold paper into books...  the island book fold and its bigger cousin the river book, making a journals from single sheets of paper :: without having to thread a needle.

together we make discoveries, in ourselves AND in the dyepot. the other lovely thing that's been happening is that many of the students keep in touch with each other after the workshops. sometimes they make a facebook group, sometimes a blog. others just wrestle with an email list. but they maintain the connections and forge deep bonds. it's wonderful.

i've been teaching less through institutions (though i remain loyal to a select few), and more in beautiful and sometimes unusual places. the Yellow Ferry is one of these. there is something deeply magical about being on a boat, which is why i will be back there in February 2017.
i've reduced the class numbers and though the feedback from many people is that they consider the fee too high, the investment for the class is actually the same as for the first one, it's just that i have sourced a richer collection of materials for each person to work with, with treasures such as a limited edition silkymerino dress to take home.
 as a business proposition it is laughable because the expenses won't balance against the income...but to me it is absolutely worth it for the experience we will all have.

because it is the journey that matters, in the end.

and i am loving the ride.

*you'll see references to "nature printing" that are earlier, but that is a technique where the plant is dipped in paint or dye and pressed against a substrate of some kind

Friday, 11 November 2016

look deep into the heart of a flower

photo by Christi Carter

if you bother to follow this blog then i probably don't need to spell out my thoughts on politics...suffice it to say that given my family history
and the stories i have been told by both sets of grandparents
each of whom chose exile over compromise
the results of the American election
coincidentally announced in Australia on the anniversary of Kristallnacht
fill me with foreboding.

what can i do about this? not a great deal
continue to live life to the best of my ability
continue to be care-full for my fellow humans
continue to hold true to the path that has been given me

now, i am surer than ever
that bending my work to the poetics of place
paying attention to being present, in 'being (t)here' as a way of life
rather than simply teaching "how to print leaves onto things"
is the way i must go.

yes, it means continuing to fly about in planes (windsurfing takes too long and my journals get wet) but that also means planting more trees at home to mitigate my share in the emissions
and because so many of you have kindly told me, both to my face, in emails, and increasingly in beautiful hand-written letters
that giving yourself the gift of time
(in a place that is not necessarily home)
to explore the small wonders of the whirled
through dyeing, drawing and writing
has made life better and richer for you,
i plan to continue doing this work.

because it gives me hope, too.

this past month i wandered to the remote western isles of Scotland
found deep magic there
took time to re-examine aspects of what i offer in 'being (t)here'
sat on the wild hillside and sang aloud
walked barefoot in the cold waters and refreshed my soul
brewed dye samples from gatherings around me

and thought about the return to my beloved Bay in February.
decided to make it smaller, more intimate
and to give the participants and even more beautiful collection
of things to work with, to experience and to take away with them

there will only be spaces for seven people this time
working with me, being fed by our chef (my daughter) Violette, and being guided in Yoga and breathing by my friend Shelley Boles

three places are already reserved.

please contact me here if you'd like more information

i'm also returning to New Mexico in the spring and in the fall

and now, if you've made it to the bottom of the page, give yourself a beautiful moment. take a deep breath. look deep into the heart of a flower.