Interview with Jenny Dean
Jenny Dean is one of the country’s foremost natural dyers and has been researching and using natural dyes for about forty years.
She has written widely on the subject and her books include “The Craft of Natural Dyeing”, “Wild Colour”, “Colours from Nature” & “A Heritage of Colour”.
She was featured in a Radio 4 programme with Kaffe Fasset and her work has been the focus of many magazine articles.
Jenny has been involved in natural dyeing projects in Zambia and Uganda and has led workshops in Spain as well as at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Fishbourne Roman Palace and for the Royal Horticultural Society.
She has also tutored residential courses for the Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers and for the Embroiderers’ Guild. Her dyed yarns are in collections at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and at the Royal Centre for Cultural Heritage in Brussels.
Further information on natural dyes and dyeing can be found on Jenny’s website/blog www.jennydean.co.uk
What inspired you to start using natural dyes and how long ago was that?
It was probably about 40 years ago and I have to make it quite clear that I am entirely self-taught. I haven’t been on any courses or studied crafts or textiles at college. In fact my BA degree, from University College London, is in German Language and Literature and for about 35 years I earned my living teaching German and I pursued my interest in natural dyeing in my spare time.
In the late 1960s I particularly wanted to learn to weave. I think weaving probably appealed to me at that time because it seemed to have a romantic, bohemian aspect to it and I rather fancied myself in the role of bohemian weaver. We lived in St. Albans at the time and every now and then weaving classes would be offered at Kingsbury Watermill but there never seemed to be enough interest for the classes to run.
Then, a few years later, by lucky chance the person organising the evening classes at the centre where my husband taught was about to set up the Bedfordshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and she invited me to go along to the inaugural meeting.
I joined the guild and someone showed me how to set up a loom. However, as I’m a rather impatient person, I decided that perhaps weaving was not for me after all. Instead I learned to spin, which I loved, and gradually produced more and more white hand-spun yarn, which I decided I’d like to dye. However, if one has produced yarn the traditional, old-fashioned way on a spinning wheel, it didn’t seem to me logical to use chemical dyes, so that was where the interest in natural dyes began.
I had found, or been given, a little booklet - I think it was called something like ‘The Booklet of Country Crafts’ - and in it there were two or three pages about using plants for dyeing and I thought, “I’m going to have a go at this!”
And what were they recommending at that point?
Oh, I think it was onion skins and things like elderberries, which I wouldn’t really recommend, except for initial experiments, because of their poor fastness. But like most novices I started by using anything that was easy to find and gradually learned which plants give pleasing colours with acceptable degrees of fastness and which ones don’t.
As far as fastness is concerned, I think I learned a useful lesson when I made a shawl from hand-spun wool which I had dyed with elderberries and which was a lovely bright purple colour. That year we drove up to Scotland on holiday and I put the shawl on the back window ledge of the car; when we got to Scotland about 17 hours later the shawl had become a sludgy brown, having been exposed to the sun during the journey. That certainly taught me the importance of making sure one always tests everything for light fastness.
Sometimes people tell me that they don’t use natural dyes because they fade or because they don’t give bright colours. This saddens me because it suggests to me that these people don’t have experience of the beautiful bright and reliable colours from the tried and tested ancient classic dyes, such as madder, weld and indigo. Instead they have probably based their judgement on colours achieved from plants collected randomly without considering whether they are truly dye plants. Most plants will give some colour on textile fibres but unless the plants are useful dye plants this colour may be dull and only fugitively stain the fibres in question.
It is also important to remember that until the 1850s, when synthetic dyes began to be discovered, all textiles were coloured with natural dyes, which can give reliable bright vivid colours in all shades and hues. Indeed, there are very few colours that cannot be achieved from natural dyes. So the natural dyeing tradition is an ancient one, which has stood the test of time.
This is what I find so interesting; it’s a relatively short period of time since synthetic colours were introduced when for thousands of years before people were using natural dyes.
If people use the traditional tried-and-tested dyes and apply them properly, the colours achieved should be at least as permanent as those from chemical dyes and although some may mellow with the passage of the years, the harmony between the different colours remains pleasing.
In fact, some chemical dyes have poor fastness. I don’t know whether you’ve ever bought a chemically dyed navy T-shirt but they are often the worst things for fading and can become grey or brown and even a sort of reddish colour when exposed to the sun.
That wouldn’t happen if the T-shirt had been naturally dyed in indigo for example.
So you mentioned you were self-taught but have you had any influential teachers along the way that you’ve picked up tips from.
The first book I studied was the late Jill Goodwin’s ‘A Dyer’s Manual’. That’s what really filled me with a passion for experimentation and I owe Jill a great debt of gratitude for her inspiration. After that, I read every dye book I could find and indeed I still do.
You’ve obviously done a massive amount of research because there’s such a lot on information in your books. They must have taken years to write.
Yes, that’s certainly true. I’m coming up to 70, so I’ve been experimenting with natural dyes and recording the results for a long time. As I have gathered experience and knowledge I have always wanted to share my experiences with others, otherwise there would seem little point in all my experiments. And that brings me to another thing: I think it’s very important to do your own experiments and not take anything on trust. I found in several of the books that I read in the early days that there were certain myths that would be perpetuated. One would read book after book which gave the same information and I think there must have been one source book which most authors used and they didn’t necessarily conduct their own experiments. They just took it on trust when told things such as the myth that dandelion roots give purple. Well, I have never managed to get purple from dandelion roots nor have I ever met anybody who has and I’ve never seen a photograph or illustration of purple from dandelion roots.
I have this perhaps naïve idea that there could be a renaissance of heritage dyeing and that the British textile industry might be revived in an ecologically sound way. Issues like light and wash fastness would be important in this instance. Do you think that’s ever a possibility?
Well, we’d probably have to change attitudes in the fashion industry first because the fashion industry tends to approach things from what seems to me to be the wrong angle when considering the use of natural dyes. For example, there will be a statement that the ‘in’ colours are turquoise and taupe and if there aren’t any natural dyes that give reliable shades of turquoise and taupe, the use of natural dyes would be excluded. It might be more helpful if the fashion industry leaders said instead: “I think we’re going to focus more on natural dyes, so let’s see which natural dyes give reliable, fast colours that can be repeated relatively easily and won’t fade. Then we’ll build this year’s colour palette around some of these dyes and the colours they give.”
A dye like madder, for example, is tremendously versatile and can give shades of coral, orange, red, brown, yellow, and even purple.
It’s interesting because I follow fashion and textile trends and this years Pantone colour of the year is ‘Marsala’ – a dark madder red. Some designers I know were surprised by the choice but I think it indicates the increasing popularity of natural colour palettes and sustainable/ethical production methods. I noticed that Vivienne Westwood recently used indigo in her collections.
Yes, I think that’s true to some extent and there is certainly more interest in the use of natural dyes on a small commercial scale than was the case in the past. However, I also think that people want to be able to replicate natural dye colours because they give the impression of being “natural” but they don’t necessarily want to use natural dyes to produce the colours. I was contacted a couple of weeks ago by someone from a company that wanted to produce paper dyed to the colour of Lincoln Green or Kendal Green. They wanted me to send them some naturally-dyed samples of wool that I’d naturally dyed in these green colours, so that they could produce paper that replicated these colours - but not by using natural dyes.
Yes, I get a bit irritated by digitally created indigo Shibori effect prints because I think the process is such a massive part of the charm. I wrote my dissertation for my MA about prioritising the creative process over the end product.
I think the process is sometimes even more fascinating than the end result. There are some processes that are just totally and utterly magic and almost unbelievable.
And the process or story behind a product gives it a special provenance. There’s a sense that the effort, spirit and enjoyment the person has put into that process transfers to the viewer or wearer as opposed to the guilt that can be felt when purchasing something cheaply which you realise must have been made by someone in a sweatshop on a low wage.
You mentioned that some of the processes are quite magical. What’s the most magical process and colour for you?
Well, I get a great deal of satisfaction from going into the garden where I grow woad plants, which look like spinach or cabbage or a weed and yet I know how to get not only blues from those leaves but also pinks and tans and sometimes at the end of a woad dye bath one even gets soft greens and lavenders. Also, woad flowers give yellow so, if one over-dyes the yellow from the flowers with blue from a woad vat, one can also get grass green from woad without using any other dye. It seems magical to me that, by varying the processes used, I can get all these colours from a plant that looks just like a common weed.
Madder is another marvellous dye plant. It is in the same family as goose grass or cleavers and what we used to call ‘Sticky Willy’ as children. You wouldn’t necessarily want to have madder in your garden but the roots give truly wonderful colours.
So can you dye with Sticky Weed as well?
You can but you have to dig very deep down to get to the thicker roots at the bottom and I’ve only ever managed to get to the upper sections of the roots so I’ve only ever achieved a rather dull beige colour. However, the red colour should be there if you can dig deep enough down to get out those very deep roots.
I grow a variety of madder-red producing plants. I grow the native form of madder, which is Rubia peregrina or wild madder, and then I grow Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) and a couple of other bedstraws, Galium mollugo and Galium boreale. But if I’m going to dye seriously I’ll always use my dyer’s madder because you get a lot more colour out of the thicker madder roots than you can out of the bedstraws.
I’ll tell you something else that will give you very nice corals and reds and that’s Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum). It’s got little starry white flowers and it flowers in May and is also in the madder family. Indeed, plants in the madder family grow in most parts of the world and are used world-wide for dyeing.
Is madder native to this country as well?
I think the Romans probably brought dyer’s madder (Rubia tinctorum) to this country for their own use but it wasn’t really cultivated here until the Middle Ages. Before that, dyers used our native form of madder which is Rubia peregrina, the wild madder, so yes we do have sources of madder red that are native to this country. When I say native I think the definition of a native plant is one that was here before the formation of the English Channel. So, it’s a long time ago.
I've just bought your book “A Heritage of Colour” yesterday and hopefully it’ll arrive tomorrow.
It’s different from my other books because it springs from my fascination with the history of plant dyeing and the techniques used in the past, so it has a slightly different starting point and focus.
Well, I’m really interested in that especially the history of woad, the Iceni tribe and Boadicea…
Woad isn’t technically a native plant. It probably came here from the Middle East at some point in the Neolithic period and it’s been here so long that it’s often described as the native form of indigo blue. The distinction made between woad and indigo is really a false one, as they all bear the same blue-producing dye matter. I suppose we ought really to say indigo from woad and indigo from indigoferous species.
I started growing woad, weld and madder last year but decided to keep them in pots after noticing how they spread.
I don’t always grow weld because I’ve got a fairly small garden now since we’ve moved to West Sussex. Instead I grow dyer’s broom because that’s a perennial shrub and it’s very attractive. When you prune it, you get your dyestuff from the prunings and it will re-grow. If you grow weld or dyer’s broom, madder and woad, you don’t really need anything else because with over-dyeing and using various methods of dyeing with these plants, you can get such a wide range of colours. But beware of madder because if it likes the soil it’s in, it will spread everywhere. When we had a large garden the madder never stayed in its own bed but would spread and come up in all the raised beds. I never regarded it as a nuisance; I saw it as a bonus and a blessing but people who don’t want madder all over their garden would probably curse it.
It doesn’t look that attractive from what I saw but I’m quite new to growing it! You did mention that with all this great knowledge you’ve got there’s no point unless you pass it on, so have you got children or grandchildren and do you do any dyeing with them?
My daughter doesn’t share my passion for natural dyes but my six year old granddaughter loves dyeing and often asks, “When are we going to make colour again?” So we’ve done some natural dyeing and she’s also enthusiastic about weaving. I haven’t introduced her to spinning yet so that’s next on the list. But she loves crafts and making things in general.
What sort of simple things do you do with her and what tips would you give to someone just wanting to do something quite easy in the beginning?
When she was three, we did simple solar-type dyeing. We put a dyestuff such as onion skins and a skein of wool in a strong glass jar and filled it up with hot water, then put the lid on and left the jar outside during the summer months. Every time Milly came she would look to see how the colour was developing and when she decided that it was dark enough she would take the wool out.
Now she’s six, Milly selects from the garden the plants she wants to try and we set the dye pans up on the heater or cooker in the usual way. She’s also keeping a record book with all her dyed samples in. When introducing children to plant dyes, I think it’s a good idea to start with something like onion skins, which are familiar and give bright colours even without a mordant.
What do you hope your legacy will be and what do you hope for the future of textiles?
I would hope that I’ve passed on to people the joy and excitement of discovering the magic of natural dyes. I hope people will take on board the importance of personal experience and experimentation and also the importance of light and wash fastness testing. Otherwise natural dyes may come into disrepute if people buy things that have been naturally dyed and then find when they wash them that the colour comes out or that they fade when they’re in the light.
I hope I have encouraged dyers to trust the ancient traditional dyes and not waste too much time on things like beetroot and blackberries, which ultimately are really stains and not dyes. It would be wonderful if natural dyes became more widely used on a small commercial scale and I believe this is possible, especially if the dyes were used in extract form, which makes the processes simpler.
Well, one last question. What’s your favourite colour and your favourite dye? Do you have a favourite?
I think my favourite dye plant has to be madder because with madder you can get a wonderful range of colours by using different processes and I do love reds, corals and purples.
What I really enjoy at the moment is the work I am doing with Louise Spong who has started a company called Southdowns Yarn, using the wool from the local Southdown sheep, which is the traditional breed found here on the Sussex downs. Louise buys fleeces directly from local farmers and has it processed into yarn; I’m working with her creating a range of naturally dyed yarns and we are also working on producing some knitting kits. I think it’s very important nowadays to use local materials wherever possible and the dyes we use are also those that can be grown or gathered locally. So that’s my latest project.
Yes, I think I saw something on your Facebook page about the sheep.
Yes, and there’s a post about it on my blog www.jennydean.co.uk In a way, I am going back to where I started with the spinning and the sheep’s wool. I also handspin Southdown fleece and fleece from other sheep breeds and weave or knit items, some naturally dyed, which I sell on my website www.jennydeandesigns.co.uk.
Well, it’s been brilliant! Great talking to you Jenny, thanks so much. Do you have any events coming up? Are you still teaching?
To be honest, I don’t teach any more. I have very bad arthritis so I can’t physically cope with workshops now, so if anybody wants to learn, they come to me on a one-to-one basis. I also do some consulting work, often to give advice and information to people working in countries such as Afghanistan and Uganda who want to explore the possibility of using natural dyes in textile projects.
What I find so exciting is that so many more people are actually using natural dyes and I get an enormous amount of pleasure when people email me and say, ‘your book inspired me.’ I never mind replying to emails and mostly people ask questions that are really interesting.
I found your book fantastic and I had a few but just kept going back to yours because it’s laid out so attractively. It’s so succinct and gave all the information that I needed so, brilliant. I’m looking forward to the next one!
Well, that’s really lovely to hear and I thank you for that because it does make a big difference to know that people find my books useful.
That’s brilliant, thanks so much for talking to me.
You’re welcome and I wish you all the best with The Wild Dyery and your other projects because I believe that the links that can be forged between dyers all over the world can lead to truly rewarding exchanges of information and experience.