New Process- Exploring Natural Dyeing with Tree Bark

Artist Blog Celtic heritage Exhibition Ireland Irish Folklore Irish History Irish Linen Art Nature Art Northern Ireland art Textile Art ireland Woodlands

For my third blog focusing on the Land and Lore exhibition I am sharing a little more about some of the new processes I explored as part of creating artwork for the exhibition and that helped  with expanding my own practice.

New Processes

I was lucky to secure a Grant as part of the Arts Council NI's Creative Individuals Recovery Fund, which I was able to use to explore new processes and expand my knowledge and skill set. In particular I focused on natural dyeing and Eco-printing. These are two processes I had an existing interest in and some limited understanding of but that I also felt were well aligned with my current work and creative practice. Certainly they fitted well with the theme of Land and Lore, which was to explore both visual and symbolic interpretations of Irish woodlands and folklore.

Below I will tell you a little more about using Natural Dyes and how this formed a part of creating work for Land and Lore.

Natural Dyeing

The process of dyeing fabrics with plant based dyes has always seemed like a mix of magic and science to me. The preparing of mordants and dyes requires exact measurements, weights and timings. It is scientific in its exactness. Yet the process of extracting colour is one that involves chance, unpredictability, and can offer unexpected results. There are known variables- we know we can alter colour with minerals such as Copper and Iron. But there are are unknowns in how the dye will take to certain fibres. Having seen my mother use natural dyes to colour yarns I was familiar with some of the plants that can be used to extract colour- onion skins, whin or gorse flowers, beetroot, and madder root, amongst others. I had seen the varied results and also the skill and time it took to build knowledge and perfect the process. 

For Land and Lore I wanted to create and explore a connection with and to Irish Woodlands. Having begun researching the Old Irish Tree List and the associated folklore and uses linked to these trees, I became aware that tree bark had often been used for the dyeing of cloth and for the tanning of leather. Trees, in the Old Irish tree List, were categorised in a hierarchy of the wood. Those that had a range of uses and economic value ranked the highest (it is thought the folklore associated with a tree may also have played a part in its ranking). A tree's value in terms of its use could relate to the wood being used for furniture or weapons, its fruit or nuts providing food, and, in some cases, its bark providing dye. For example, Oak could be used to produce a dark dye (close to black when iron was added), Apple would be used to produce a soft yellow, while Alder would produce a vivid red colour, which often meant it had associations of war and injury.

And so the experimenting began!

Image: Rowan bark chips in the dye pot

Focusing on using windfallen branches and bark or garden prunings I set about dyeing strips of Irish Linen that had first been treated with a mordant. I focused primarily on trees that were included in the Old Irish Tree List such as Oak, Birch, Willow and Hazel. I found the whole process incredibly ritualistic.

First the windfallen branches would be prepared by cutting them into small wood chips (the science of the process dictating that the weight of the bark should equal the weight of the fabric, although I often used a larger quantity of bark). The wood chips would then be brought to the boil and left to simmer. I found the different smells created by the various barks as they bubbled in the water fascinating. Each had a unique and sometimes distinctive smell. It was evocative and added to the sense of ritual in the process. It felt as though the scents of the woodland were emanating from each dye pot. It was one of my favourite parts of the process.After cooling the bark chips would then be left to steep in the same water overnight. 

The next step was to remove the bark chips from the now coloured water. The strips of Linen would then be added (I worked with three strips for each dye pot). The liquid would be brought to the boil and then left to simmer. After cooling, more steeping overnight was involved. Finally, each strip would be lifted from the dye pot. It was fascinating to see the colours that emerged depending on the bark used! Pinks, peach, ochres, soft yellows, grey- such variety and, at times, intensity of colour.

The remaining liquid was then separated equally into three saucepans. To one pot I would add a pinch of iron and then add a linen strip. A pinch of copper would be added to another pot and a strip of linen added. Then more simmering as I watched the fabric, which had been delicately dyed with the original colour extracted from the bark, change in each solution. More science and magic!

Image: Linen strips dyed with Willow. Left- treated with iron and middle treated with copper

I worked my way through 9 trees on the Old Irish Tree List: Ash, Willow, Hazel, Rowan, Birch, Oak, Apple, Holly, and Scots Pine.

But what to do with these beautifully coloured strips of Linen?

A Crown of Birch/Bark Study

In my research into the folklore of trees I had been interested to read of the many associations linked to Birch trees. Birch is one of my favourite trees for both its beautiful bark, delicate leaves and fine branches. But the myriad of uses Birch historically offered (from providing an excellent material for cradles and brooms) and its symbolism (representing love, purity, rebirth, and protection- reasons why it was often used for cradles) made it all the more fascinating. In my reading I came across a snippet of information telling how the creation of birch hats had been at one time a tradition in some locations across Ireland and other Celtic nations. Indeed, a Celtic Chieftan had been found buried with what was described as a crown of birch upon his head. 

I had many questions from this little historical detail. How decorative were the crowns? How were they woven? Who wore them, when and how? And from this grew the idea of creating an installation that was crown-like in form.

I decided to create a sculptural installation inspired by the idea of a birch crown. It would also showcase, in a sculptural way, the decorative and colourful beauty of the fabric I had dyed with the bark of native trees.

Using three birch wood roundels arranged in a circle, the dyed linen strips were rolled and set in three groups of three on each roundel. Three is of course a number that in many cultures is linked with much symbolism (but that's another topic for another day!!) From each roll I took a length of fabric and monoprinted leaves onto the ends. The leaves corresponded to the tree bark that had been used. The hand-printed ends were then left to hang free over the edges of the roundels. The overall effect was intended to echo that of a crown, although impractical to wear!

A crown in its essence elevates, showcases, celebrates and denotes power and importance. I felt it was a fitting symbolic link that would highlight the importance and value historically placed on trees. It would be a celebration of their use and the beauty they could yield. It would elevate the lore of the woodland, as well as the magic and ritual of the dye process. 

The Crown of Birch was definitely one of my favourite pieces to make. For me it is tied to the symbolism and lore of Irish woodlands, the ritual of the dye process and is a celebration of value and beauty that trees can offer. I'm looking exploring more of this process and bringing it further into my creative practice.

I must extend a huge thanks to my Mum in helping me with my forays into the world of natural dyeing, for her advice, guidance and wealth of knowledge on all things mordant related!!

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