Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


Natural dyes are currently undergoing a revival in craft and academic circles. The resurgence of attention is due to several factors. One is the popularity of natural dyes among European textile historians, dye chemists, and archaeologists, all of whom rely on natural dyes as an academic and educational tool. Scholars worldwide have developed a rigorous cultural context for natural dyes that embraces disparate fields such as clothing and textiles, religion and philosophy, nineteenth-century medicine, and as curious as it may seem, eighth-century Irish law. Other prominent themes in natural dyeing today are contemporary aspects of gender, ecology, and ethics. Art history and aesthetics are also timely issues in academic circles; it is not uncommon for masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations to feature natural dyes as the central theme. Moreover, natural dyes appear to have surmounted (and survived) the art/craft debate as the creation of colour from plants, animals, and other organisms is more widely referenced now in general history, material culture, fashion and clothing, consumerism, cultural tourism, and also in women’s studies. The four women whose work is presented as part of this organized session reflect, both individually and collectively, many of these aspects of natural dyeing. They are also visual artists, farmers, professors, writers, marketers, entrepreneurs, designers, and business managers. Yet it is colour that unites them: all practise natural dyeing and all share a passion for making colour with their own two hands. It has also been my privilege to have ‘taught’ each of them; I use the emphasis because this process has been a two-way exchange where I learned as much as I gave. Moreover, their work has reached an international audience which speaks to the validity of natural dyes as a career choice for women in art, craft, cultural history, gender studies, and education.

Aside from a one-day workshop in the 1970s, I had no one to teach me how to make natural dyes. As an autodidactic student, I took another path; one by one, I located the leading practitioners of natural dyeing in Canada, the USA, Britain, Scandinavia, and Australia. I wrote letters. Some wanted to meet, so I applied for grants in Canada and I also received funding from my home province of Nova Scotia. Then, after the publication of Craft of the Dyer in 1980 (the so-called second revival of craft dyeing), it was my time to pursue professional natural dyeing as a life choice. My first task was to learn from the ‘masters’ whatever they were prepared to share, and then, to make certain their assistance was acknowledged and their contribution celebrated. A case in point was Eileen Bolton who died three weeks before I reached north-central Wales.5 Yet I have fond memories of all that I learned from Rita Adrosko, Fred Gerber, Jim Liles, Winifred Shand, and Gösta Sandberg. There was also a memorable visit with Mary Frances Davidson, and closer to home, frequent long visits with Dorothy Burnham. I also corresponded with two illustrious British dyers, Viloletta Thurston, and Elsie Davenport. There was one visit with Seonaid Robertson, and I was invited later to consult on a book by Jenny Dean.