Wednesday 5 June 2013

A Dinner to Dye For

or - why just eat your local veg when you can dye with it too!

on Saturday 01 June I was lucky enough to get myself a ticket for ‘Dinner to Dye For’ – a natural dyeing workshop and dinner in Bethnal Green, London– (which I’d heard about after meeting a lady in Frome earlier this year).

The event was held in Oxford House, a real gem of a building, we were right at the top – in the old chapel, which made for a magical location. 

Oxford House - up in the chapel. The location for the event...
The event, which was part of The Chelsea Fringe, is the brain child of Katelyn Toth-Fejel, co-founder of The Permacouture InstituteKatelyn is on a mission to show the world just what can be achieved by using natural dyes. 

Its something that everyone can have a go at, as you can create colour by using items in your kitchen. Onion skins being a prime example. These papery sleeves can create the most amazing yellow. Not what I expected at all! Just seeing the variety of colours all laid out for us like jewels was exciting – and we’d not even started the workshop yet!

Katelyn, originally from Portland, Oregon, founded the institute with a friend in San Francisco after studying textiles and happening upon the magical effects of natural dyes during one of her projects.
Katelyn (right) and Anna (who was assisting her) -
explaining how natural dyes work
Katelyn had been questioning the sustainability and environmental impact of synthetic dyes and was surprised that even though the question of where the fabric was coming from, not many people on her course were actually looking at how the fabrics were being dyed and the impact of dyes. So after discovering what could be achieved using plants alone, she decided to learn everything she could about using natural dyes and that’s how it began.

To start we were given an introduction to the history of dying and how up until 1856 only natural plant dyes were used. A chance discovery by William Henry Perkin, while searching for a cure for malaria, actually discovered the first synthetic dye stuff "Mauve" (aniline, a basic dye) and a new industry was begun and everything changed.

A table of exciting and colourful samples!
As many of the original dying recipes were closely guarded secrets, a lot of our history and knowledge of recipes for natural dyes has been lost as they weren't passed down, or even written down – so a lot of what is know today has been as a result of re-learning and experimentation.  

We learnt that you can achieve many more colours that you would expect (the preconception that they will all be 50 shades of brown – was quickly dispelled – as Kathryn showed us a colour chart of natural dyes, and just looking around at the samples on display it was clear to see that there was actually a huge scope for experiment! *hurrah*

Then came a demonstration of how to dye our fabric. We were all given some ‘wild’ silk as apparently natural plant dyes work better and give a stronger colour on natural animal fibers – so silk and wool. You can dye cotton and linen but that requires a slightly different process which we didn't really cover on this course.

A number of large pots were brought in, each with a different dye bath – Yellow Onion skins, Elder leaves, Dock Root and Marigold flowers. Then it was time to have a go!

Getting stuck in!
We used Allum as a mordant – this ‘fixes’ the dye to the fabric, although some plants are natural mordants so the addition isn't always required. Rhubarb and Oak are just two examples.  Also learnt that oak used to be used to make black ink!

My silk piece dyed with yellow onion skins. I was impressed with the colour
An example of marigold flower dye on silk
Examples of what was created!
After having made some testers, we went out on a walk around the local park to see how many things are available to dye with. And there is a surprising amount. Here’s just a short list of what can be used. Of course don’t go pulling up wild plants without permission if not in your garden, and also if using bark – look for bark that’s on the ground – and don’t peel it off a tree as that will actually kill them eventually. ..;-( and we love trees!
  • ·   Onion skins – bright yellow
  • ·   red onion skins – olive colour
  •     apple bark & leaves –  various greens
  • ·    lichens – various yellows and greens
  • ·    elder leaves – bright greeny yellow
  •      dock root – pink colour and is photosensitive so the colour can be changed with the addition of either an acid e.g vinegar or alkali  e.g soda crystals (very cool!)
  • ·   Hawthorn leaves - green
  • ·   Silver birch - pinky

The list is actually pretty long and it is also possible to dye in different ways . Either creating a dye ‘bath’ where you heat up the roots/bark/leaves in water as we did on the workshop or by using whole leaves and actually getting a ‘print’ from the leave itself, a technique used by artist India Flint. I’m looking forward to trying that!

On our return we were greeted with a delicious elderflower cocktail (the elderflowers having been picked only the day before) and the workspace had been transformed into a beautiful dining room. We sat down and were then served the most delicious dinner created by Johanna and Bogna of Soppka. It was a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth! Delicious...

Dinner time!
The menu...
So beautifully presented.. and my so tasty!

I met so many great people during this workshop and dinner and learnt so many things to try out for myself. As a result I’m now looking at my garden and the landscape around me in a completely new light and asking each plant or tree I see – What COLOUR are YOU!?

Watch this space for my own experiments! I'd love to hear about any of your natural dying experiences? What's worked - what hasn't? and any books that you'd recommend? 

I have found these interesting links:
Natural Dye artist – India Flint


  1. Fantastic! Thanks Morwhenna for sharing : )

    1. Thank you Karen! I learnt sooo much and it was so interesting. As a result I have been asked to run a natural dye workshop at my local community farm in September! So best get experimenting!


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