Longer days, spring temperatures, and the flower catalogs that fill up the mailbox mean one thing: it’s time to plan the summer garden. Because of Selinde Lanier, I am ordering new varieties to add to my carefully planned perennial beds – not because of how they will look, but rather because of the natural dyes they will create.
Selinde worked as a textile designer in the home furnishings industry for many years in central North Carolina. She recently re-focused her life away from “corporate mode” and toward the arts of the handloom. “I decided to be true to my self, and pay more attention to the intellectual side of textile making, where “saying something” is integral to work. What I make now on my loom is a story about what I’m drawn to, what my hands can do, and what I see.”
Natural colors are an important part of what she is drawn to. “I was initially attracted to natural dyes out of fear. I’d heard of textile artists who died of cancer after a lifetime of handling chemicals that turned out to be carcinogens. For a long time I worked with pre-dyed yarns, or I used the untreated colors of the fibers I worked with.”
But that wasn’t satisfying. Selinde wanted more control and more depth in her color choices. “A famous musician once said that music is rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm, and then everything else. That’s how it is with color and textiles.” She stumbled across a book by Rita Buchanan called A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot (Interweave Press, 1995, ISBN 978-1-883010-07-2) and her search for more meaningful color took a new turn.
Last year at the Lanier house, the garden stretched well into the yard, with neat rows of tansy, yellow bedstraw, golden marguerite, dyer’s coreopsis, marigolds, and woad. From wilder places near her home, she gathered goldenrod and black walnuts to add to her palette.
The results are subtle and interesting. What she calls Baby Duck Yellow comes from the goldenrod – and it’s interesting that the most delicate color comes from the sturdiest weed on her list. Various tones of blue come from woad, which was Europe’s primary source of blue in the Middle Ages – until indigo was imported from the warmer climates it craves. Yellow bedstraw (confusingly enough) creates a reddish coral tone. Dyer’s coreopsis makes a salmon-orange color, and golden marguerite is lemony. Black walnut makes a rich, lightfast chocolate. And marigold varies from bright yellow to orange.
Because I have several healthy patches of it already, I was most interested in the color range produced by her tansy plants. One year’s crop produced a bright greenish-yellow, and the next year’s batch a more buttery tone. “The first year I used early spring shoots to make the dye bath. And the next year I waited until the foliage was more mature. I like that there is some variation – as there is in wines made in different years.”
What will this year bring? “Well, I have a freezer full of frozen dye baths that I can use when I am ready, so I won’t be too aggressive as I lay out the garden this time. But I may try ordering some indigo from Maiwa (www.maiwa.com), or some madder from Earthues (www.earthues.com), just to see what these more intense blues and reds do with my garden colors.”
All of her naturally dyed yarns go into Selinde’s hand loomed double-weave coverlets – a textile which, like natural dyeing, harkens back to a time in the United States when hand weaving for the home was much more prevalent than it is now. She’s not sure whether she chose the coverlet as the focus for her textile work, or whether this very traditional form chose her. But she is trying to figure that out in her Marshall, North Carolina studio – when she is not in her garden tending to the dyestuffs.
In the yarn photo featured in the slideshow, colors are derived from the following plants, left to right: goldenrod, tansy on silk, tansy pushed green with ammonia, spent marigold on silk, golden marguerite stems and leaves only, goldenrod, purple basil, black-eyed susan, woad, golden marguerite flower heads overdyed with dyer's coreopsis, golden marguerite heads, dyer's coreopsis pushed orange wwth baking soda, dyer's coreopsis, dyer's coreopsis exhaust, yellow bedstraw, black walnut.
For more about Selinde’s work, see her blog at selindelanier.blogspot.com. And take a look at a video where she describes some of her natural colors:
Weaver Selinde Lanier grows natural dyestuffs in her garden