Tag Archives: natural dyes

Avon Meadows – the creative process begins

19 Jan

After returning with various materials gathered from Avon Meadows (see earlier post from Dec 2020), I was excited to begin the process leading to the creation of an artwork responding to the landscape on the theme of beauty and utility. It would require quite a number of stages.

With the enforcement of further Covid restrictions, Meadow Arts and I reluctantly took the decision to delay public engagement workshops until March and to deliver them online – further details to be announced shortly. We also decided to proceed with making the artwork through December/January so rather than working collaboratively with community groups to help make the paper we needed, I made all the paper myself.

Making paper with reed and scrap paper pulp

I had gathered bundles of reeds and some birch twigs and leaves for making paper in two separate batches. The reeds were already mostly brown and dry, and the pulp I could make from both these types of material would not bind well on their own, so I combined it with pulp made with scrap paper. As Winter is also one of the themes, scrap Christmas card white envelopes came in handy.

Before making the pulp, I boiled the reeds and birch twigs/leaves for a couple of hours with a small amount of soda ash which helps degrade the organic matter leaving cellulose fibre. Take care if using soda ash (washing soda) as it is highly alkaline. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is a safer, lower alkaline alternative.

This is then rinsed several times with cold water to remove the alkali, before pulverising it to break up the fibres. Finally it is blended in an old kitchen blender to a watery pulp.

I made about 20 sheets of paper in each batch using A4 size mould and deckle. Each sheet is transferred to a couching cloth, pressed in a stack to drain and then allowed to dry. Its a slow enjoyable process – but messy with water sloshing about. Normally, I’d be doing this outdoors but it was far too cold! So thankfully I have a lino floor in the studio.

Here are some close up images of the finished paper sheets:

In the meantime, I processed some of the other materials to create a series of coloured dyes. I had quite an array of berries, leaves and other materials like alder cones and birch bark.

For each item, I cleaned and then simmered them gently in a small amount of water for 15 mins to an hour to release pigment into the water. In case of using materials that could be mildly toxic, I use only old pans, stirrers and other utensils that are not used for preparing food.

You can dye fabrics in this way, but I was going to be using the dyes for staining the paper I had made. So once the liquid and mulched berries had cooled enough, I poured it out into a jar, strained through a piece of muslin cloth.

When dyeing fabrics, it is necessary to fix the colour to control fading by using a mordant. There are various types of mordant, such as alum, ferrous sulphate or salt, each of which has a different effect on the dye colour and effectiveness of colouration. For my paper, I opted to try using milk – oat milk, in this case, but other milk will work because the protein helps to bind the dye to the paper fibres.

So first of all, I brushed all of the paper with oat milk, allowed them to dry and then brushed them with the dyes. The only dye colour which did not work so well was the meadow grass. Rather than simmer the grass, I simply added some water to the grass in a blender. This came out a beautiful vivid green but the day after it faded to a brown, and mordants didn’t seem to have any effect on this. Green is never an easy colour to prepare as a natural dye, despite the abundance of green plants, and somehow it didn’t really fit with the winter theme.

There was an amazing palette of colours, which, of course, seem to find a natural harmony without me having to try. The berries produced colours similar to their visual appearance whereas materials like the birch (red brown) and alder cones (amber/gold) produced more surprising colours.

It was also interesting to see how certain dyes reacted to changes in pH – ivy berry changed from a pinky purple through to blue and blue/green as conditions went from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. Something else to play around with to widen the range of colours. Natural dyes will usually grow mould after several days, so in order to help preserve them you can use a clove, vinegar (which may change the colour) or isopropyl alcohol (“rubbing alcohol”).

A natural palette of dyed papers created from Avon Meadows materials

Now I had all the prepared materials ready to commence construction of my artwork … but more about that in the next post.

As an aside and continuing the wintry theme, we had a snow fall just after Christmas. I gathered some to experiment with melting ice dye patterns. This works best on fabric because the melt water can drain through leaving fabulous dye patterns. I used some thick water colour paper sheets and once the ice had melted, puddled and dried, I found lovely intricate marks left by the dye. Worth experimenting again…