Saturday 30 April 2011

ISEND 2011 - the Wrap

It’s been a big week at La Rochelle
Here’s what I feel like at the end of it

In summary for those who weren’t able to attend
Here’s a quick wrap of the ISEND 2011 Natural Dye Symposium
The pre-dominant preoccupation was with indigo and with shellfish purple. Even though assured that the local species were a predator of the oyster farms and therefore fair game
I still have my reservations

On the last day there was much talk of the need for regulation
For labelling and authentication and for a whirled data bank of plants together with recipes and details of books where the information has been published
[although somebody voiced concerns about books being copied and what author's rights might be infringed]

There was talk about industrial scale production
All very well
But what about the plants themselves?
It seemed to me that still, after many international meetings
There’s still little public acknowledgement about the need for plant protection

There are laudable efforts to cultivate dyes as crops [especially here in Europe] but in economically challenged countries I suspect food production may be more important
New sources of dye are being discovered [especially in the rapidly diminishing tropical forests]
But very few are expressing concern about wild harvesting

It doesn’t matter how abundant a plant is in the wild
The dinnerparty cheese theory will get it in the end.

You haven’t heard of the dinnerparty cheese theory?
Let me explain. It goes like this. Let's say I discover an unprotected common local plant and make a dye being careful to take only 10% of the population. My friend Betty-Lou loves the colour. She goes out and collects some too, but only 10% of the population. Then Ella who lives across from Betty-Lou is blown away by the amazing cloth drying on the washing line in the front yard and wants to learn about it too

You can see where this is going. The plant group gets whittled away, bit by bit. Each time each person thinks they’re being responsible by only taking 10% but, just like the last morsel of cheese at a dinnerparty, that plant is doomed to disappear.

So here’s what I think. Learn the names of your local plants. Do the research. Identify the weeds, because those you can harvest with impunity. Think very carefully about the consequences of the others. [The students at Massey University, Wellington NZ are doing great work with weeds such as Berberis darwinii and Ulex europaeus but I have reservations about their use of plants from the Chinese Medicine shop…who knows where or how the latter were harvested?]

THIS IS WHY I’M SO VERY KEEN ON WINDFALL HARVESTING. And even with windfall harvesting, if doing it out in the wild we need to consider how our removal leaf litter from the earth may affect the local ecology and proceed with care. That means taking a modest selection, not a wheelbarrow full

We had a lovely guided walk by the seaside, looking at local [wild] dyeplants [fleurs sauvages] as well as a few introduced species but I gulped when I heard the guide suggesting people should eat the flowers of Robinia pseudoacacia. The species is poisonous. We were shown Rubia peregrina [wandering madder] – but I’d hesitate to go collecting it in the quanitites needed for a dyebath as the colour [like that of the traditional madder] comes from the roots.

So DO NOT, ON ANY ACCOUNT [and sorry to shout but it’s so important] go out and gather anything you can’t identify. It might be toxic, protected or simply so slow-growing that the population won't be replaced in a human lifetime.

I’m still shuddering at the presentation of that unidentified collection of lichens and dye samples in the poster section of the symposium. Of even more concern was that it came from a group of people purporting to be professionals, one of whom was making a case for industrialisation of production methods.
One of the industrial possibilities that I can see [in addition to companies like Couleur des Plantes and large scale indigo and madder cultivations] would be the use of eucalyptus leaves that are dumped when plantation trees are felled for timber and paper production.

But because eucalyptus still isn’t really taken seriously by the academics of the northern hemisphere [it’s not one of the old-school dyes, you see], or the southern hemisphere for that matter nobody really wants to know.

Perhaps it’s the sheer simplicity of the eucalyptus dye process that throws them. leaves + water + heat = dye  
And when applied to protein fibres, no mordants are needed.

You’d think that in countries like India and South America, where eucalypts have been introduced and become a weed, using the leaves would be a doddle [rather than some of the very complex methods I’ve seen to make brown this week]

So while it’s been very, very interesting to hear the stories and see many beautiful examples of work; I think I’ll keeping exploring my bundle-dyeing using bio-regional windfalls. I’m really only dancing on the tip of the iceberg there.

The most exciting demonstration I was privileged to watch was that of Michel Garcia, reducing indigo with simple ingredients like fructose and henna. It was worth crossing the oceans just for that. Respect.

Oh and one last thing…in case anyone out there is thinking about where the next ISEND meeting should be held

I’m suggesting San Francisco, USA would be a splendid location.  They have fascinating collections at the Asian Art Museum and the de Young Museum [the latter situated conveniently in Golden Gate Park along with the Botanic Gardens and the Science Exploratorium].  Across the Bay the Permacouture Institute and several Art Colleges have already established practices in plant dyeing and there’s another splendid botanic garden in Berkeley.

If someone over there wants to begin planning and doesn’t mind having this Australia-based gypsy on the team, I’d be happy to put my hand up to help – especially if the next meeting were to take WEEDS as a focus.

There’s a list of EXOTIC PEST PLANTS OF GREATEST ECOLOGICAL CONCERN IN CALIFORNIA that is updated regularly. [They have an excellent check-list for the assessment of potentially invasive species.] So far as I’m aware, most municipal/local governments have plant lists of this kind. 

Comparing these records internationally and exploring the dye and fibre potential of the plants listed would, I think, be a really sensible research project.

Here endeth the rant for the day.

Friday 29 April 2011

the thin veneer

Within the walls of the conference hall and on the tidy plaza that surrounds it there pervades a gentle and harmonious atmosphere.
People have gathered from around the whirled to share their joy in, knowledge of and commitment to naturally derived colour.
In the quartier St Nicolas it’s a little edgier. In addition to the usual grannies taking their Totos for a gentle outing and the gilded [but slightly younger] visiting matrons carrying their canine accessories in outsize handbags [a curious way for what was once a predator to be travelling] there are also a few less savoury elements roaming the streets.
In the square outside the Monoprix [a supermarket that seems to be the only place to buy milk but which I regret to advise smells like an open drain] two tribes of seedy-looking persons engage in a loud and pugnacious confrontation. I suspect they are saying unkind things about each other’s mothers. Each side is attached by sturdy chains to a selection of muscular and vociferous mongrels whose visible masculinity is clearly intended to endorse that of their respective owners who themselves are thrusting their chests out like cockerels in the fowl yard. The obscenities and provocations are loud and continuous. Perhaps they are able to breathe through some other orifice.

There is a bitter aroma in the air composed of urine [not just canine], sweat and adrenaline. It is not a brand of aftershave I shall be seeking out anytime soon. A few of the dogs belonging to the passing throng offer an occasional polite woof to the fracas as well. People edge nervously around the situation or stand at the edge of the square awaiting developments. We move on.

In the park a group of people are cheering and applauding. Perhaps it is a performance of some kind? No. It is an ‘organised’ dogfight. Again we back away.

Dusk falls, people gather at tables. We decide to test a local restaurant, having so far prepared all of our meals from fresh market produce thus far. After duly inspecting the various offerings we settle on one we think looks promising. We order a Kir Royale each [delicious] and elect to share a plate of langoustines. La Rochelle prides itself on the local seafood so we are doubly surprised when the long-suffering crustaceans appear, clearly in the last stages of exhaustion, having been [we deduce by the flavour and texture] cooked, frozen and thawed on their drawn-out journey to our table. They certainly hadn’t been coaxed from the net that day. On the bright side, the bread was delicious.

My daughter then had the salade calamars [also ex freezer and oddly bouncy] and I had a pastry-lidded fish stew. Not bad, if a trifle overcooked and thank fully free of winkles. Back in our apartment we wash away dinner with a gin and tonic followed by copious amounts of tea. In the streets below, people eat, breaking what sounds to be rather a lot of plates and glasses in the process and also wander off to their homes and hotels. Chatter rises and falls, gradually becoming louder. We expect it will peak shortly after midnight, as it has most nights except Wednesday, when the revellers were still singing loudly and tunelessly at 5.21am. I know because I looked at my watch. Blearily.

Back to the story. We repair to our respective beds and attempt to dispose ourselves in the arms of Morpheus despite the racket in the street. I doze fitfully but am called rudely back to uncomfortable consciousness by the sound of breaking glass. Lots of it. Someone is idly but repetitively tossing bottles at a wall. As you do when you can’t sleep. Some sound empty, others full. The noise of tinkling and shattering continues awhile until eventually it attracts the attention of a passerby who erupts in howls of very French rage, sadly unintelligible on the third floor [I might have learned some new words] and chases the perpetrator down the street. For the next twenty minutes howls and thumps and pounding feet can be heard in the empty streets.

There is more breaking glass. More howling. The whole thing continues like a ghastly groundhog day until the streetcleaning robotty thing comes and attacks everyone with a watercannon. And wins. I wonder if this is what hell might be like. Maybe La Rochelle needs a visit from Buffy.

I hired the apartment thinking it would be an interesting experience of life in France. I was right.

Tuesday 26 April 2011


i am in La Rochelle, France
and have learned not just the shiny big new word above but several other new ones.
the ISEND conference is certainly living up to expectation
people and things of all colours and accents abound
as i have unexpected internet access
i'll share some of them with you

they include views from the small apartment where we have established base camp

i tell myself they look better than they taste

some familiar frocks 

work in the ISEND exhibition by Marjory Salles

exotic adornments

an exquisite darn on a brocante find...

but these last two images are of something that made my lower mandibles hit the ground with a bit of a thump

a display in the poster section of the conference showing some very beautiful
dye samples from lichens. 
 it wasn't the beauty that made the jaw drop
that someone went out and harvested all these lichens
without identifying them first!
and then
was not at all embarrassed by asking [on the poster] for anyone who could identify them
to fill in the names.

rule No:1
identify the plant.

if you know what you're looking at you will also be able to determine if it is [for example]
protected or poisonous

but to go harvesting lichens [some of which might only grow a millimetre per year]
without knowing what they are...

i would prefer to err on the side of caution.

Thursday 21 April 2011

On Provenance

i'll be pootling around the whirled a bit for a few weeks
no idea whether there'll be any dancing with the interpixies
in case there isn't
here are rather a lot of words for those who feel the 

On Provenance

an article first published in Embellish magazine [2010]

Let me introduce myself, a textile artisan working with plant dyes, stitch, cloth and hand-formed felt.  I make a living from teaching, writing, exhibiting and the occasional costume commission. Like the poultry-fanciers of the world I find it advantageous to distribute my eggs over a number of baskets. I acquired many of my skills from my mother and grandmother, others by studying architecture [a good liberal arts education], pattern cutting and dance.  I have worked at plant nurseries, in fashion stores and in the theatre, learning as I went.  I have also attended interesting workshops and am able to thank [for example] Mollie Littlejohn for introducing me to wool sliver in the early ‘90s [I had been using raw wool from my sheep], Nalda Searles for teaching me how to make string [2004] and Kedi Kyle for publishing the technique for folding her wonderful ‘blizzard book’ to which I was introduced by a New Zealand student [2008].

In 1998 and 2000 I acted as class assistant to Karen Diadick Casselman, world authority on lichen dyes, author of ‘Craft of the Dyer’ and also the person who coined the catchphrase ‘eco-dye’.  Though our dye practices share common ground in the plant world they are fundamentally different. I respect her knowledge of lichen dyes [even though I am cautious about endorsing their use] and make a point of not using the phrase eco-dye to describe what I do. Eco Colour might be a fine distinction but there is a difference nonetheless. That others sometimes describe me as an eco-dyer is a matter beyond my control [I prefer the more romantic Botanical Alchemist]. For me the term ecoprint describes the process of printing the colour contained within a plant directly onto a piece of cloth using steam as the transfer medium, but I’ve now seen that term spread virus-like around the world as a descriptor for all sorts of industrial printing techniques as well.

People often ask me why I teach and publish my dye techniques when clearly [if I had any business sense at all] I could make much more money by ecoprinting a snazzy range of silk pyjamas. The answer is that by publishing I have established the provenance of the ecoprint [discovered during the research that led to my MA] and that by teaching ecologically sustainable dye practices I’m doing what I can to make the world a better place. Lest that sound horribly prissy, let me tell you that while not affiliated with any particular religious group I very much like the Buddhist principle of doing least harm. So my philosophy is that if folks are dyeing their textiles with plants and applying those dyes without toxic adjunct mordants they are not only being kinder to the planet, they are also being kinder to their own bodies [and the other bodies that share their households]. This is a Good Thing.

I love my work. I enjoy teaching and am a passionate traveller, a textbook Sagittarius. Try to fence me in and I won’t even call you from the airport. At the same time I can think of nothing more satisfying than being at home in my cottage studio, stitching contentedly on a piece of cloth, delving in the earth of my garden, rolling a felt or making a piece of string from fabric scraps ready to tie up the next bundle for the dye pot. I take great pleasure in what is now fashionably referred to as “slowness”[i]; in the rituals of collecting windfall leaves for my dyes, in unpicking pre-loved garments and opening out seams so that the cloth can be re-used. I like quiet hours spent hand-picking fresh fleeces, pulling out the seeds so that I can use the raw wool in my felting. I am also a keen walker and enjoy the freedom of wandering the farm paddocks as much as the random traveller’s trick of hopping on whatever public transport passes by the door of the hotel, riding to the end of the line and then walking back, stopping to draw and write and take pictures, picking up leaves, the odd button and rusty metal fragments along the way. Last year I was very lucky and managed to slip a few whole days in between engagements to drift along in this way.

My favourite dye process is one that involves what I call a ‘mindful windfall walk’ and I practice it wherever I wander in the world as well as at home. My students seem to enjoy it too. Before I start walking I choose an arbitrary stopping point, so that I don’t actively search for leaves but can take an interest in my surroundings instead [useful when in unfamiliar places so that one can navigate back to one’s digs!]. This might involve reciting a poem or singing aloud and stopping at the end of each verse to bend down and pick up whatever leaf is closest to my feet, or counting in patterns or something as simple as tooting horns or barking dogs.  The singing option is my favourite as passersby simply think I’m mad and it’s quite funny to watch them cross to the other side of the street to avoid the crazy lady.  I fill my pockets with leaves and then back at the studio [or the hotel] wrap them into a bundle of silk or wool cloth, cook them a little while and then turn off the heat. The next morning I have a lovely present to open, making for a splendid beginning to the day. I’ve learned to position my little travelling dye pot near open windows or directly under bathroom fans so as not to set off fire alarms [that’s a bad look]. These windfall samples tell me so much about the flora and the water quality when I’m in a new place and are also precious mementos.

When sharing my skills I hope that my students will develop ways of using them that are expressive of their own hand rather than simply churning out carbon copies of my work. Many participants simply want to make beautiful things for themselves and that’s just lovely. The difficulties arise when students enter workshop samples in exhibitions as their own; clearly something that has been made under the direction of a tutor is not personal work. Worse still, I have seen work samples [not from my classes] entered into competitions, and this seems pretty cheeky. There are people out there who have done some extraordinary things and while I don't wish to embarrass them publicly by naming them I do think the issues are worth consideration. I withdrew from a textile group in my state after seeing a ‘drawing for the timid’ workshop that I had taught free of charge as a friendly gesture being offered under the same title by one of the participants, but this time for a fee. I haven’t been back. Sometimes friendships suffer when colleagues borrow workshop titles and whole teaching plans without asking. I remember being very startled to see someone who I had considered a friend advertise in a neighbouring state a workshop I had taught at a TAFTA Forum. She hadn’t even participated and yet borrowed each and every exercise I had devised and even the name of the workshop.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a very bitter and twisted old woman but descriptors and acknowledgments are very important. I was once surprised to find a class sample that had been made jointly with a tutor with whom I had co-taught a class being displayed in a substantial retrospective exhibition of her work, no mention at all of the person [me] who had felted and stitched and dyed part of the work during its gestation between our two studios. What irritated me most about this was that while I considered the piece adequate as a teaching sample I really didn’t feel that it stood up as an artwork when taken out of the context of the class.
On another occasion I had been invited to teach at a summer school. One of the organisers of the event had also signed up for the class but due to her commitments was not always present. She asked me to dye some quite large samples for her as a memento of the class. I didn’t expect to see those samples later exhibited internationally as her work. 

An hilarious incident occurred last year where a felt-maker who had attended one of my classes pulled what she thought was an astronomical figure out of the air to quell another attendee at the convergence who was pestering her to sell her garment [made in a ‘Landskin’ felt class]…and then had a resounding yes and was compelled to accept, selling the garment at a price far eclipsing anything I’ve earned for such a piece. But in this instance the student behaved entirely honourably, hadn’t wanted to sell the item at all and followed through very courteously by filling me in on the story.
A less entertaining incident in 2009 was that of another person who had attended a two day workshop with me in the UK and then proceeded to copy huge parts of Eco Colour and present them on the internet as her own worksheets with the footer ‘devised by X ’ as part of an artist-in-residence project. Murdoch Books wrote her a very firm letter and I believe the problem was resolved shortly thereafter.

Then there are little things like finding that someone in your workshop has been filming you while you tell your stories and suddenly there you are on You-tube with your double chin and your slumping skin looking like a complete hag. Seeing myself from that perspective it’s really little wonder I’ve been single for the past 19 years.
With the plethora of fascinating workshops available, new techniques and materials being offered on all sides, boundaries [particularly in the textile world] are becoming increasingly blurred.  As an author I am very conscious of having to be particularly careful to acknowledge my sources, the published book is such a conspicuous glasshouse in which to be flinging stones. It’s all too easy to absorb information, forget whence it came and regurgitate it happily as one’s own.  When as part of a workshop I include a technique I have picked up elsewhere, I name the source and give references to where the original material can be found. It’s simply the done thing.

Over the years I’ve observed people happily copying work, setting themselves up as masters [a title traditionally bestowed rather than assumed] or simply going out and teaching workshops with very little background in a subject. But I’m grieved most when I see friends who have worked dedicatedly for non-profit organisations over decades, being pushed aside by opportunists exploiting inside knowledge to set up private businesses.
There may well be substantial profits from trading on the goodwill that has been generated by years of service from a small group of visionaries nurturing a community through their labours. But there’s a big difference between a non-profit organisation that invests in its demographic through strong pastoral care policies and by offering scholarships to those in need and someone who’s running a business to make money. Those ‘engulf and devour’ tactics might work for a short time but the card-house will inevitably collapse as the audience wises up to the plot.

Just remember, folks, what goes around also comes around. The older I grow the more I realise just how wise my Granny was. She said that what you put into the world comes back threefold. She was right.

But despite all this doom and gloom and grumbling I’m delighted to say that Louis Armstrong was also right - it’s a wonderful world. The people I meet in my travels and the correspondence that I am privileged to receive make my life an absolute joy.  I’ve made so many friends through my work and learned along with my students. I’m thrilled to bits when people send me pictures showing how their work has developed or tell me about their success with a favourite plant and made especially happy when I hear that people are engaging in further study, taking on research projects and chasing knowledge. It makes my inner gardener well content to see so much wonder sprouting in the world. To quote Irish actor Dylan Moran… ‘I’m very glad to be’.

[i] Although I prefer to refer to it as “mindfulness”

Tuesday 19 April 2011

back to Yankalilla and the Colours of Home

it's a tight week [off to France at dawn on Thursday]
but i was keen to see the flags we dyed at Yankalilla a few weeks ago
fluttering in the wind
and the big cloth that was pieced [with lots of handstitching]
from silk dyed with bunches of greenery from people's gardens

so i pootled down to the south coast
sadly no time for puddling in waves

the two separate pieces either side were extra bits
that i made to give the patchwork some friends

i hope they find a permanent home for the big cloth...

orange at Orange

Monday 18 April 2011

2893 [or, fun with numbers]

2893 kilometres, 8 sleeps, 13 lovely women in a 5 day class, too-many-to-count participants at the Orange Textile Forum, 1 wild end-of-forum party and an exhibition opening later
i am back home
here are some [18] pictures while i gather my wits...

firstly some of the fabulous work by the wonderful people with whom i spent my week

even the walls are orange at the Orange Regional Gallery

treasure found on the way home [sadly too big for my pocket]

silo art

more treasure [also too big for pocket]
[Camaro's are quite rare in the wilds of NSW]

an early morning wandering
a late night bundling

nearly home [crossing the Murray on a ferry]

Saturday 9 April 2011

one thousand little birds

please click here to read more about this project

loose ends

wandering down Adelaide's main shopping drag
i spotted an interesting window
[at Sportsgirl]
the message surprised me

back in 1981
i worked for this company
in those days
make do and mend was never in their brief
they did have some odd practices though
every Friday, staff were made to wear clothes from the shop floor
if the manager hated you [ie me]
she would dress you in the oddest combinations
the icky bit was
at the end of the day we put all the tags and kimballs back on
and hung the clothes back on the racks
without cleaning
[i never shop at Sportsgirl for that reason - and a few others]

then a little later in the afternoon i had some stuff to give away
the Cancer Council didn't want it for wigs
even those overseas spurn it
[grey hair not required on voyage]

but lots of this felted together
perhaps with some nice strong wool such as English Leicester
would make a good mat for soaking up oil spills

Thursday 7 April 2011

humbled and honoured

Elizabeth Rimmer is [among other things] a poet, gardener and riverwatcher
her first collection of poems, Wherever We Live Now will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2011
nip across to her blog
for a glimpse between the covers

a surprise in the dyepot

one of the delightful things about getting a group of people together
is the occasional mad surprise that leaps out of the dyepot
the project at Yankalilla last week was called 'Colours of Home'
which described it perfectly

in the lead-up to the residency, volunteers had been busily hemming silk flags
during the first weekend
the flags were dyed in two one-day workshops
unusually [for me] rapid instruction in the bundling process
mostly we used eucalyptus

then during the week it was open studio
folks came back at times that suited them
bearing bunches of greenery from their own gardens
to dye more silk for the community patchwork
truly the colours of home

one adventurous participant brought fruit from her Strawberry Guava tree
which produced spectacular colours
when bundled with eucalyptus leaves

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