Yvonne Dalton wraps trees with cloth. It's a deliciously simple means of dyeing that relies on seasonal rainfall, the exudations of treebark, and the workings of time.
Working in the scrub near Keyneton in rural South Australia, Dalton makes good use of the natural tannins from indigenous local tree species of Acacia and Eucalyptus. She ties her cloth around the trees, not too tightly, but closely enough for contact with the bark. The twists and crumples in the cloth contribute to the patterns, creating resists where folds keep the cloth from touching the plant. Mother Nature does the rest as colour is slowly sucked into the fabric every time it rains, mists, or drizzles.
Australia's eucalypts and acacias have long been known as abundant sources of tannin; species of both genera were actively harvested and used to tan leather in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The process takes months, yielding slow dyed cloth with a minimal environmental footprint. It works best on cottons and linens; protein fibres such as silk and wool are far too susceptible to insect attack and the degenerative effect of solar radiation to be allowed exposure to the elements for the time required.
The way Dalton tells the story she stumbled on this method of dyeing quite serendipitously. In the (southern) fall of 2001 she had been asked to mark two trails--one long and one shorter--through local scrub country in preparation for a ‘walk against want’ fundraiser. She duly marked the trails by tying strips of cloth on to low hanging branches in order to clearly indicate the path. The shorter walk was marked with white fabric and the longer one with coloured strips. The task was completed on the Friday before the event was to be staged. Twenty-four hours later a torrential downpour accompanied by howling winds ripped through the district. Perhaps the gentle reader can see where this is heading . . .
Due to other commitments on the Sunday of the walk, Dalton did not take part in the actual event so she was rather surprised when the organiser berated her some days later for not having made the time to mark the trails, especially after assurances that the task could be managed easily. Curious to find out what happened to the markers as well as to collect them so that they wouldn’t pollute the environment, Dalton walked the scrub a couple of weeks later and discovered to her surprise that many had become wrapped tightly around the branches due to the high winds, were no longer dangling cheerily in the breeze, and were quite difficult to discern.
Not wishing to waste the retrieved cloth, she washed the fabric with the intent of repurposing it and noticed the cloth had taken up colour, assisted by moisture from the rain, this leached into the washing water colouring the solution. Excited by the possibilities Dalton returned to the scrub, deliberately wrapping cloth around those trees that had made the strongest colours on the original markers. Since those early explorations her wrappings have increased in number and distribution. Local landholders as well as those further afield now happily give permission for their trees to be wrapped (it doesn’t hurt the trees). Dalton uses the resulting slow cloth, coloured by the gentle processes of nature, in her textile work sometimes making pieced quilt-like objects and at others simply hanging long strips of cloth as forest-like installations.