Out of the Woods


A new vocabulary of color and pattern from botanical alchemist India Flint

Natural dye innovator India Flint works with the trees and plants of her Australian home to create not just near-zero impact natural dyes, but spontaneously natural prints and patterns.  The idea began with a Latvian egg-dyeing technique, and has blossomed into a new language of color and design.  After two emails from her, and a visit to her website, we were hooked.  She shares a bit of her story here with HAND/EYE.

If I mention onionskins in a dye class there are invariably a couple of people who will pipe up and tell me that they ‘did’ onionskins in the seventies and that they really weren’t all that exciting. I beg to differ. Onion skins are one of the most versatile sources of dye color yielding tones ranging through yellow, ochre, tan, burgundy, lime green, olive green and black depending on the water quality and the composition of the vessel used. Not bad for a humble papery substance casually discarded in the preparation of food. The traditional Latvian use of onion skins to color Easter eggs led me to the discovery of the ecoprint; a low impact ecologically sustainable dye method that imparts color to cloth by direct contact.
As a small girl I loved to sit on the front stoop with my grandmother, listening to her telling stories as the sun gradually set. My favourite was that of the princess who finds herself alone in the forest and must make her clothing from what she can find…leaves, grass and wisps of fur caught on the bushes. I imagined the dress of leaves pinned together with thorns, bejeweled with luminous beetles and dewdrops. This was my dream dress and featured heavily in the drawings that covered my schoolbooks.
Fetch yourself a cup of tea and a cookie, pull up a chair, plump the cushion and sit yourself down while I tell you my story. I had a most fortunate upbringing in a family where things were made by hand. Dresses, knitwear, furniture, bowls, pots and even a telescope – the latter built by my father using an old brass shell casing as the body.
We were [and are] a European-fusion family – my parents were from German and Latvian families displaced by the Second World War. This meant serious celebrating of all the traditional feasts even though my folks are not particularly religious.
I especially loved the rituals of Easter, when the family would gather around the kitchen table to enfold hen’s eggs in layers of onionskins together with leaves from the herb garden such as basil, thyme, mint, marjoram, sage and strawberry. The eggs were secured in their papery enfoldments using embroidery floss and then boiled for 10-15 minutes. When cool they would be carefully unbundled to reveal delicate leaf prints on the shell set off by the rich marbled golden brown prints from the onionskins.
When my children were babies and I was becoming increasingly disenchanted by synthetic colors and concerned about their ecological and physiological impact, I remembered how my grandmother used garden plants to overdye her clothes and began to experiment more seriously with plant dyes. I knew that Australia’s iconic eucalyptus had been the focus of a study by the late Jean Carman; but the penny really dropped for me when I collected eggs from the hidden nest of a broody hen after three days of rain and found that the eucalyptus leaves she had used to form her cozy bed had printed onto the shell of the egg using nothing more than moisture and the heat of the hen. Traditionally eucalyptus had always been used in conjunction with metallic salt mordants: clearly these weren’t actually necessary.
I began to make up bundles of silk and wool cloth together with eucalyptus leaves and discovered to my absolute delight and astonishment that the intense heat of the boiling process was a catalyst to luminous dye color completely unrelated to the colour of the leaf. [The name of the plant, derived from a Greek phrase meaning ‘well covered’ is certainly apt as it hides its secrets very well indeed.]
From leaves that in their fresh state were soft blue-greys and dull greens; brilliant reds, gold, lime green and chocolate prints emerged. Processing the leaves in vessels made from different metals such as copper, aluminum, zinc and iron produced further variations in color. Eucalyptus colors are substantive on protein fibers and have excellent wash and light-fastness.
But the ecoprint isn’t limited to eucalyptus…every plant will yield some kind of color. Some take more time than others and some are sensitive to heat. The most important thing though, in all this, is to know the name of the plant you’re working with and to take the trouble to research it before harvesting. Clearly plants that are toxic or dangerous [think poison ivy] should be avoided, as should those that are rare or protected. I’ve been playing it safe by working with windfalls of late, discovering that even such delicate leaves as maples collected from the gutters in the fall can make the most beautiful prints on cloth. Simply magic, and just like in the fairytales.
For more information about India Flint, visit her website at www.indiaflint.com, and read her blog, prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com.