Contributing as a maker to the Ethel Mairet Dye project

Ethel Mairet was a weaver and a natural dyer.  In 1916 she wrote a book about natural dyeing.  In the book’s introduction,  she complained that since the advent of the coal based dyes the knowledge of natural dyes had been lost. Coal based dyes were introduced around 1850.
This was in 1916 !
She also stated that both natural and chemical dyes fade.   But when natural dyes fade they produce paler shades of the original colour.  Chemical dyes,  she claimed, fade to different colours, generally bad ones.
Her book and her work are being celebrated by an exhibition at the Ditchling museum of art and craft.  The exhibition is called ” Contemporary makers celebrate Ethel Mairet’s legacy. ”  I am one of the contemporary makers.
As a contemporary maker,  I have to dye a skein of fibre using natural dyes. I can use either a recipe of Ethel’s or my own recipe.  I chose to dye silk using a recipe of my own with alder cones.
The alder cones were first steeped for 24 hours, then heated for about 1 hour at 60 C.  This cooking was followed by another 24 hours steeping.   In parallel, I placed the silk skein and some other fibres to soak in water for 24 hours.   After waiting I strained off the alder cones and I added the wetted fabrics and fibres to the alder cones dye extraction.  The mix was now a lovely nutty brown colour.  The mixture of dye liquor and fibres was heated again for about an hour keeping the temperature around 60 C.
Then I left the whole mixture to cool and to continue dyeing for another day. Finally,  the fibres were rinsed, spun and dried.
Ethel Mairet comments that the chemical dye process was quicker than the natural dye process.  My small process has taken in total about three days of elapsed time and there are certainly a lot of steps.
Here is the alder cone dyed silk.  Now it just needs to be labelled and sent back to the Ditchling museum to be added to the exhibition.
You can see the work in progress of all the other contemporary dyers if you visit this Pinterest board.
Ditchling is a little far away for me to visit but I hope the exhibition will go on tour and I will be able to see it soon.   It is great to take part in this recreation of history and interesting to reflect that 100 years ago Ethel was stating that natural dye knowledge had been lost.

Why natural dye records are important to me 

When I first stepped into the world of natural dyes, I kept no records I just winged it. I have really learned from my mistakes. As I embark on a new batch of dyeing so thought I should go back and look at my natural dye records – good and bad – to see what they could tell me.

It was in 2013 that my youngest daughter gave me Jenny Deans book on natural dyeing. This book became slowly my bible.  In May of 2014, I was attracted by a huge mass of blooming dandelions and thought that maybe that would make some lovely dye stuff.  Let’s try it!

Armed with Jenny’s book of recipes I set off to dye some silks and cotton fabric.  I never gave a thought to keeping some natural dye records.  Not one thought.  In fact in 2015 one year later I wrote, against a small sample of this first dyeing.


  •  no mordants
  • June 2014
  • No washing
  • No records.

Which I guess is actually a natural dye record although a very poor one.

What a lot I had to learn. !

Natural dye records:  My First step

I wrote everything I could think if down on a piece of paper about the process.

A good strategy?   Well not really.

As in the heat of the moment,  I forget things.   The other problem with this technique is how to keep the samples that relate to the natural dye record.
I tried the following:

But they took a lot of time to make, and honestly, there is not much difference between the samples.

So I was wasting my time.

Natural dye records: a crib sheet

I made myself a crib sheet. This was a huge improvement.  Still hard to get myself to fill it in and actually, some of the boxes were too big and some too small.    But I kept trying.  Keeping the samples was easier as you can put the Dye record sheet in a plastic wallet with all the samples.

All in one place, not too bulky and very easy to refer back too.

Natural dye records: a proforma.

Everything can be improved and my crib sheet is no exception. So I have revised it trying to learn from my use over the last few years and turned it into A natural dye record proforma.  Easy to use and contains everything I think you need to know.


Here it is if you would like to use it.

Get your free download of my Natural Dye Record Proforma here


I am certainly looking forward to putting it to good use in the forthcoming months. I have used it this week, dyeing samples of my mordanted fabrics to check for problems before I dye larger quantities.

Beautiful orange colours and as always different colours on different silks.


Time for me to have a radical new natural dye process

When I first started using natural dye material I made all white felt pieces containing other fabrics and fibres and then I dyed the felted textile.  I have decided I need to radically change my natural dye process. 

My original all in one natural dye process


My all in one process gives a lovely range of connected shades.  Everything has been dyed with the same plant material.  Lovely but quite limited.


Sadly I have also come to the conclusion that it makes boring pieces.  There is not enough light and shade or colour variation to make the pieces exciting.  Shame.

My other reason to change


I inadvertently developed two felting methods.  One method for pieces that I planned to be naturally dyed and one for pieces made with pre-dyed materials.  The felt method I prefer to use is the one I used with the pre-dyed materials.  But I really want to make more pieces that use natural dye.

A bit of a dilemma.

My new embryonic natural dye method


I concluded the obvious.   Dye fibres, fabrics and yarns myself using natural dyes.  Then use them in my preferred felting method.  Why did I not think of this before?   I will still get all the beautiful shades as long as I continue to use a range of natural fibres.
Crazily I have committed myself to producing a series of pieces with this new natural dye process by the end of March.
Sounds easy!
It’s not difficult but it requires a lot of planning and effort before even starting to felt.
The good news is I have started.
First I sorted out my natural wool fibres and decided, for now,  I will use blue faced Leicester and Masham wool fibres.  Both locally sourced.  I carried out an inventory of my cotton, linen and silk fabrics and threads and just bought a few extra supplies.

The first big step mordanting

This week I started mordanting.     I am using Alum as it is a traditional mordant and its manufacture will be the focus of the series of pieces.   Before you mordant you need to scour any cotton fabric using washing soda.  The wool fibres and silk with Alum will be cold mordanted. The pieces of cotton fabric I am mordanting with aluminium acetate using heat.  I choose the cold method for the wool and silk as I don’t want to heat the wool fibres up before I felt them and in the case of the silk keeping it cold will help keep its lustre.  If you want to buy mordants try Wild Colours, they have a wonderfully good service
The size of my buckets and pans is my limiting factor. I am constrained to about 2-250 grams of material to be mordanted at one time.  this will be a multi-staged process as I need to dye about 1.5 kg of materials.
The mordant process is progressing silently and slowly in my studio.   Once mordantated I will dry the materails before the more exciting dyeing process.  I will need to have a short pause to let the mordant set for a week or so.  
 I am pleased to have actually started on the first steps of my plan as I have been thinking about it for a number of months .  I am excited to see how my new natural dye process will work out.