Kathryn Davey is a natural dyer based in Dublin, Ireland. She works with pure fibres and natural plant dyes to create colour that is soothing to our senses and gentle on our earth's valuable resources. We’re thrilled that Kathryn will be running an online workshop all about natural dyeing, on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 September. Participants will be guided through the process of natural dyeing, from undyed fibre to beautifully finished naturally dyed textiles.
Read on for our article about Kathryn’s natural dyeing practice that was featured in Issue 100 Anniversary, or read the full article here: Mother Earth, Kathryn Davey goes back to her roots.
‘Long ago the people used to dye the wool that they used for making their clothes with moss. The moss that is used for dyeing grows on rocks and has to be scraped off with a knife. It is then put into a pot of hot water and given a very long boil. Then it is taken up and strained and the wool is put into it and boiled again, for about an hour. Then the wool is taken up and put out to dry. If the wool be dyed well it becomes a nice saffron colour. This method of dyeing wool and (moss) cloth was used very much by our fore-mothers. And some people use it yet for dyeing wool for socks.’
This is the testimony of Kitty MacHale of Caffoley, County Mayo. It was recorded as part of a collection of folklore compiled by schoolchildren in Ireland in the 1930s. Note the phrase ‘fore-mothers’. In Ireland, as in many other parts of the world, dyeing was women’s work. Dyeing is close to magic. It involves cauldrons, wisdom, and the gathering of plants. It results in the transformation of plain fabric into colours that often bear no visible relation to the sources from whence they came. Dyeing is ancient and indigenously specific. It is also a contemporary craft. Kathryn Davey is an Irish dyer. She works with natural fibres – wool and Irish-woven linen – and creates her dyes from plants. Her colours have a character and subtlety that draws people to them, and to the process of creating them. ‘I try to keep sustainability to the forefront of everything that I do,’ she says. ‘It’s a gentle process. Everything goes back into the earth.’
Davey’s story begins with indigo: the colour of the night sky; the colour of denim jeans. Indigo is naturally colourfast and ages beautifully, but it is not a beginner’s dye. ‘Dyeing with indigo requires repeated dipping,’ she explains. ‘It’s not a straightforward process. But it was my first love.’ She was living in California, amid one of the world’s most vibrant handcraft communities. ‘I’ve always been drawn to natural fibres and the Dharma Trading Company was down the road. I used to go in there and have a look around.’ She saw indigo, a plant-based dye available in powder form, tried it and failed to achieve the deep dark blue. Then she tried again, moving from a light to a medium to a dark blue, with subtle variations. ‘Basically, I dyed everything we had. It was like a tide of blue had swept through the house.’
Eventually, she succumbed to the lure of creating her own natural dyes. ‘I started experimenting with food waste. Carrot tops will give you a range of yellows.’ Then came the warm yellow of onion skins; the soft pinks of avocado stones. Hibiscus. Dandelion leaves. And tea. ‘It’s an undervalued dye,’ she says. ‘It gives depth to other dyes.’ When Davey moved back to her native Dublin, she decided to make dyeing her livelihood. Nowadays she works with both linen and wool and sources from a variety of mills in Ireland, including Wemblem Weavers in Wexford. And she runs workshops where people come to learn the basics of natural dyeing. ‘It is such a beautiful process,’ she says. ‘Working with colour in this way connects me with nature in a way that soothes and calms me.’
The current enthusiasm for learning about natural dye is, she feels, a pushback against fast fashion and commercial production on a large scale. ‘We are being drawn back to older ways,’ she says. ‘I want to learn as much as I can about the history of this in Ireland.’ In Ireland, craft revival comes in cycles. Dyeing, with its reliance on natural materials, is a good fit with the current zeitgeist but this is by no means the first surge of interest in the process. Lillias Mitchell, then Head of the Weaving Department of the National College of Art in Dublin, founded the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers in 1975 and established the Mitchell Prize for Research into Natural Dyes, awarded as part of the Royal Dublin Society’s Crafts Competition. In 1985, this prize was won by Evelyn Lyndsay, a weaver of international reputation whose research project is now in the National Folklore collection. The project includes 164 samples of colours achieved from sources including lichens, plants, flowers, leaves, berries, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and roots. ‘ If you live in the city and do not even have a window box, some very good dyes may be got from vegetables and kitchen cupboard produce,’ Lyndsay writes. ‘As a general rule roots, bark and lichens give the fastest dyes. No colour will completely fade away, but will last longer i f kept away from sunlight.’
With the capriciousness of the dyeing process in mind, I ask Davey about her most memorable failure. She laughs. ‘Let me think about it for a moment. I’ve had so many of them … At the beginning I was trying to create grey, so I dyed some samples. The colour was perfect, so I left them out to dry. Then it rained and the pH of the rain changed the colour from grey to brown.’ That accidental brown was so successful that Davey tried to replicate it for a client. ‘I couldn’t. You’re always at the whim of the process: the colour of the time of year, or the pH of the rain. The chances of things going wrong are really quite high.’ This, apparently, is nothing new. A medieval Irish legend about the sixth century Saint Ciarán tells how, one day, his mother was making blue dye. Before she put the cloth in it, she asked him to leave: ‘Out with you, Ciarán. It is not considered auspicious to have men present for the process of dyeing cloth.’ ‘May there be a grey stripe in it so,’ said Ciarán, who sounds like an awful brat.
His curse was effective. The mother remade the dye and tried, once again, to get her son to leave. Ciarán put another curse on the dye. This time it was white. ‘Ciarán,’ said his (incredibly patient) mother, ‘do not ruin the dye for me this time, but rather let it be blessed by you.’ Ciarán blessed the dye: ‘there was no dye made previously or subsequently which was as good as it, for even if all the cloth of Cenél Fiachach were put into its residue, it would be made blue, and so also, finally, would the dogs and cats and trees with which it came in contact.’ In his introduction to Eugene O’Curry’s On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873), WK Sullivan comments that the failures attributed to the curse of the saint are: ‘simply the failures which result from imperfect fermentation and over-fermentation of the woad-vat, accidents to which it was always liable.’
Written by Eleanor Flegg
Find out more about our natural dyeing workshop here: Natural dyeing, online workshop with Kathryn Davey