February 2022 Studio Hours: Caitlin ffrench on Planning a Natural Dye Garden

2 March 2022

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In this month’s Studio Hours, we started thinking about Spring! Our guest presenter was Caitlin ffrench who spoke on the topic of planting a dye garden, supplementing and expanding on her recent D&T article. What a treat to have her present to us!

Related: Caitlin ffrench’s article on Planning Your Dye Garden.

Caitlin shared the story of how she ended up in textiles for her art practice. Hearing about her journey through university and art college, we got a peek into her history and grounding in art. She changed her original plan to study jewelry after seeing how much fire was involved, ending up in a textiles program that captured her imagination. She fell in love with natural dyes, weaving, spinning and surface design, and completed a fine arts degree in sculpture with a minor in art history. Her later work in a yarn store prompted her to add yarn to her dye pots. While not her original intention, her education in textiles came full circle, back to her childhood experiences with her mother who taught her to sew clothes and encouraged a connection to nature and plants. Caitlin’s awareness of land and environment comes through in all her work. I loved her expression “build a story of place through colour.”

Caitlin spoke about her boulevard dye garden project and the joy she gets from sharing a tangible connection to the land with her neighbours. This summer, she will add interpretive signs and dyed textile samples showing colours that can be obtained from the growing plants. She touched on the challenges of developing a dye garden with perennial plants while being a renter. For example, with madder, which gives beautiful reds, the pigment is held in the roots, and the plant needs to be established for three to five years before you can harvest them. Caitlin has managed a successful madder harvest from plants grown in large pots in her front yard.

Another current project is a new sculptural piece. She shared a painting depicting a colour-wheel of pigments that were all obtained from the earth. She is now working on a large-format wall hanging in the same vein, although this time the colours come from both cultivated and wild dye plants. She is dyeing natural grey wool yarn and will use a rug-tufting tool to build the colour-wheel, thus incorporating her experiences in the natural dye garden into her fine art practice.

After a riveting presentation, we had time for questions and discussion.

Caitlin’s favourite plants include madder, weld, dyer’s coreopsis, Japanese indigo, tango cosmos, and black knight scabiosa. She uses the colours both straight and shifted using different modifiers. She recommends Grand Prismatic Seed as a source for natural dye plant seeds.  

Kim brought up her neighbourhood dye garden plans organized through her local Buy Nothing Group. We discussed what to do with the flowers when they are ready. Flowers can be used fresh, or they can be frozen or dried for later use. Caitlin suggested a hanging herb-drying rack with multiple compartments (and here’s another option) to keep the different blossoms separate until you’re ready to use them.

We received an amazing four-minute tutorial on how to extract pigment from Japanese Indigo—a plant that grows well in Canada here and is not invasive, unlike the similarly-pigmented woad, which is very invasive! I can’t do the tutorial justice in this short summary—Studio Members, do watch the recorded video when it is available!

Caitlin also shared many other resources, including Maiwa’s Natural Dyes website, a natural indigo pigment extraction group on Facebook, and the great stories shared by Nicola Hodges @tinyislandtextiles on Instagram.

One member asked about beginner dye plants and Caitlin quickly recommended marigolds (golden yellows/oranges) and Japanese indigo (blues) as annual plants. For eco-printing (contact dyeing), she suggested using the leaves from red maple (Acer rubrum).

Marigolds will produce flower heads all summer and early fall. Pick the heads as they mature, and the plant will just keep giving you more flowers. Mordant your wool yarns with alum at 15% WOF to get a beautiful warm yellow/orange, and with the addition of 2-3% ferrous sulfate, you can sadden the colour to an awesome khaki green.

We chatted briefly about hollyhocks. In general, the ‘flirty’ colours are fugitive and don’t last as dyes, but the very dark purple ‘black’ hollyhocks do work. One member shared her experience getting a good lavender colour on silk that faded to a silver-grey after a few years.

While Caitlin is west-coast based, she reassured us that most of the plants she mentions are hardy and grow well all across the country, even in locations with shorter growing seasons.

Caitlin has provided her Rosaceae (R) shawl pattern free to readers of D&T using the coupon code ECOPRINT on Ravelry. The pattern contains both the knitting instructions and the instructions to naturally dye your completed shawl in the ecoprint method. She will soon have her patterns available on other platforms as well—contact her if Ravelry is not an option for you.

Show and Tell

Note: where possible, links are to original pattern sources. Ravelry links are indicated with (R) after the link.

I always love this sharing part of our hour together.

First, we saw a fabulous hooded Roundstone Coat in a bulky green yarn (KnitPicks Wool of the Andes Bulky) demonstrating tailoring skills learned in a recent Fearless Finishing class.

Then, a member presented a Royal Icing Shawl (designed by West-coast designer Caroline Dick), knit in cream and spring-green wools. She modified the pattern to use worsted weight yarns from her stash and finished the shawl with a lace edging. Interestingly, another member was working on the same pattern during the Studio Hours!

We briefly talked about spinning and growing hemp. After an inspiring presentation at the Victoria Handweavers and Spinners Guild by Joan Ruane, a member was inspired to try spinning hemp and showed us her initial efforts. She has been in touch with TapRoot Fibre, a Canadian flax processor located in Nova Scotia, and they say they can handle hemp as well.

A member shared her excitement at learning a new knitting skill—two-coloured brioche in the round—and encouraged us all to remember that we are never too old to learn something new. (See Michelle Boyd’s beginner’s mindset article from last year.) She dyed some of her yarn a few years ago at the Stained Fingers Dye Camp sponsored by Indigodragonfly.

Our presenter, Caitlin, showed us a sweet child-sized hat patterned with moon phases.

We then admired an inspirational sweater restoration project. The member is reworking the ribbed cuffs and hem of a much-loved black cashmere sweater. Chat suggestions led her to the tubular or sewn bind off method.

A member who says she’s been a “top difficult student” in every sock class she’s taken has finally broken through and is working on her second pair of Feisty (R) socks.

We saw some beautiful singles being spun for a weaving project. The fibre was from a multi-fibre batt from Blue Moon Studio of Creston, BC. The member lifted her whole wheel up to the camera to show the bobbin so we could see the range of blues and greens and the textures imparted from the blend of merino, camel, silk, silk noil, and sparkly bits.

While everything we saw up to this point was inspiring, the piece-de-resistance this month was shared by a member who, in the space of a week, charted and knit an amazingly detailed stranded colourwork shawl featuring dragons and castles, possibly inspired by the charts in Here be Wyverns. We’ve all decided that next month, she wears a wizard’s hat—which we’re sure she’ll be able to whip off in a week!

While on the subject of books, and bringing us full circle to the topic of our presentation this month, Kim shared her enthusiastic recommendation for Rita Buchanan’s A Weaver’s Garden, written in a conversational style, without lots of photos but with lots of information.

Featured image courtesy Caitlin ffrench.

Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
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About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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