art, yoga, connection to life

Posts from the ‘colour’ category

It’s harvest season again!

At this time of the year I gather different plants to dry for use throughout the winter.  Sumac, both the leaves and the berries are amongst my favourite of plants for natural dyes.  Its natural abundance in southern Ontario makes sumac perfect for local foraging expeditions.  You’ll often find it in areas of disturbed land like forest clearings or along side rail tracks and as a rapid grower, sumac is key in succession growth.  Whenever foraging it’s important not to disrupt the area and over harvest.  Ample berries, leaves and flowers should remain of whatever you are harvesting to support the natural eco-system – a place for bees, birds, insects and for the plant itself to regenerate.

Sumac offers many gifts.  You can read more about its polyvalence and my recipe for preparing sumac-ade, a tangy cooling drink rich in vitamin C,  here.

Its naturally occurring tannins that bond the colour to the fibre without the need for additional steps make it a wonderful plant source of natural dyes.  The resulting colours can also be modified with benign mordants like alum and iron to draw out a range from neutral beige to neon yellow, lavender and grey from the leaves and blush to purple/grey from the berries.

In preparation for a fun family backyard project my niece joined me to gather sumac. We kept things simple and made a sumac berry dye vat and a concoction of rusty nails and vinegar as the ferrous, modifying post-mordant.

Making a dye vat is akin to making a very strong tea.  Basically we’re aiming to draw out the tannins and colourants through a long steep.  The process begins by mixing the berries (or leaves) with water in a non-reactive pot and heating to just below simmer.  They should remain for at least 45 min to extract the colour however you can also leave them much longer.  I often will let the berries sit in room temperature tap water over night, then heat the mix the next day to develop the intensity of the dye vat.

Once the colourants have been extracted from the plant, the next step is to strain the liquid from the solids.  At this point, I often do a second infusion and repeat the first step in the process to be sure I have fully extracted the remaining colourants from the plant.

To create pattern we played with some easy tie dye methods using elastic and string.  My niece wrapped elastic in single rings that created a circle shape on her t-shirt.

My nephew experimented with a spiral method.

Working with sumac berries alone gives lovely pink blush tones and with the additional step of an iron post-mordant the colour can be modified to tones of lavender/ purple/ grey depending on how much iron is used.

An iron mordant can be purchased as ferrous sulfate or you can make your own blend by combining nails and vinegar and let sit to further oxidize the metal.  The liquid will be a rusty colour.  There are different ways you can use iron to change the colour or add a design element.  In this case we had a bucket of hot water and mixed in a small portion of the rust liquid then dipped a few of the t-shirts in this post-mordant bath.  (I find that using a designated iron bucket is best. It ‘s also wise to keep your dye pots separate from your kitchen pots)



My niece and nephew had fun results and it brought back the memories of my first ventures into dyeing, tie-dye and batik at my aunt’s studio along with cousins and my sister when I was about their age.

Some experiences just stay with you and take new forms. 


Someone once told me that wearing my scarves was like getting a hug. That was meaningful to hear and especially pertinent to recall these days!  A sense of the tactile, of knowing through the hands and body is my compass and cornerstone.

My collection is made by me & my two hands from the initial stages of sketching motifs, to creating small batch inks and dyes.  Each piece is hand screen printed and hand dyed one at at time.  It started from my curiosity and my sense of interconnection with nature.

Working with natural dyes is a unique commingling of the science and energy of plant life and and culture.  

It brings us into relation with millennia of human practices that learned how to extract colourants from plants and the way that we bring nature into our lives.

*photo credit Tony Lanz Photography

One of my earliest and most popular designs is my anemone print.  It’s a special motif to me as it was inspired by the flowers cut from my parent’s garden that I left to dry in a vase.   After looking at their dried whimsical forms over the winter months I made a series of silhouetted drawings with ink on paper.

With the drawings I created a composition for a silk screen.  Silk screens are basically a frame with a fine silk mesh where areas are blocked out.  Where the mesh is left unblocked the ink can pass through to transfer the design to fibre or paper in the printing process.

My screens range from 12 x 16 – 25 x 36 IN.   Each of my scarves is hand screen printed with multiple passes, (ranging on average from 4 – 8 times) with time to dry in between in order for the design to cover the length of the scarf.

*photo credit Arounna Khounnouraj

I make all my inks and dyes in small batches largely using materials I gather locally such as black walnut, sumac along with oak gall and pomegranate from Maiwa a wonderful Canadian supplier.

After the printing and dyeing comes the washing and ironing.  And I have my mom to thank for many, many hours spent together ironing my scarves!

My solo exhibition, pathways at The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, Ontario presents a site specific installation, which includes multiple vertical panels evocative of a body of water, river patterns, mapping and topographical references.

While thinking about how to approach this space and develop a body of work, my focus centred on the museum’s setting and historical use as a textile mill along the river as well as the reshaping of the land through development.

The pathways exhibition draws attention to the precious natural resource of flowing water that was instrumental in powering industrial growth, mills and textile dyeing and opens a platform to reflect on our contemporary relationship with water.   It seems particularly on point for the spring season given the precarious rise of water levels in the Ottawa River and Mississippi Valley watershed.

Walking though the town of Almonte, one can’t help but feel the presence of water.  The Mississippi River rushes down the falls and winds its way around the town.

Immediately upon entering the gallery one is confronted with the blue saturated undulations of waves created through a cyanotype process on kozo paper.  

This piece was inspired by the mesmerizing quality of water and its power to both calm and energize one’s being.

The cyanotype process was first developed in 1842 using a combination of iron based chemistry that fixes an image when exposed to UV light.  Similar to the way the eye perceives the wave and shimmer of water, this piece was created by working with the absorption and refraction of solar rays.  Each piece emerges uniquely from the exposure to the intensity of the light and position of the sun.   

The pathways series uses the cyanotype iron based chemistry, rather as an ink where I painted the circuitous, sinewy lines and then exposed to UV light to fix the colour. The lacy gaps were hand cut.

The pieces were inspired by walks around urban neighbourhoods where my attention was drawn to the random, organic cracks, reminiscent of rivers, veins and arteries, in the pavement.  I was struck by the way the human made, very controlled structures of roadways reorganize over time and wear into natural forms.  I am always fascinated by patterns repeated in the micro and macro.  The painted forms become rivers, tributaries, topographical maps, internal muscle structures and circulatory systems.  Everything is interdependent.

The exhibition also includes quiet paintings with milk paint on mixed fibre that were inspired by walks observing reflections in the same body of water over different seasons and the ever-changing cloud formations in the sky.

Milk paint is a mixture of casein, lime and pigment.  I am partial to working with milk paint for its chalky, muted finish and because it emits no volatile air compounds.

Many of these pieces, painted with delicate flowing lines describing branches reflecting in water, echo river like and arterial forms.  The vertical format 6 to 8 FT tall has a direct relationship to the viewer’s body and the panels flutter gently with the air current from the circulation of viewers in the space.

The walls of this space hold the memory of time. MVTM formerly, The Rosamond Woollen Mill was built in 1867 was in operation until the 1980’s. The main floor was used as the storage room for the final woven products while the upper floor was used to store raw fleece before it moved to the second mill for processing.

Currently the upper floor houses a collection of industrial era looms, carting machines, examples of loomed fine tweed and paraphernalia that describe the history of the Rosamond Woolen Mill.

There is also a display of chemical dyes that would have been used to dye the fibres.  Until the 19th century, all textile dyes were natural and the shift during this era’s industrial growth is also a part of the story of colour.  MVTM curator Michael Rikley-Lancaster, describes how there were reports in the archives of the local newspaper that speak about the colour of the river changing depending on what dye was being used that day.  Most visible was the red dye which included cadmium and sadly led to unfortunate health consequences for locals who swam and bathed in the river.

A subtext to the pathways, exhibition is an exploration of colour history.  On the main floor, I used a traditional casein/lime based milk paint recipe to which pigment is added.  The pigment is sometimes natural earth oxides and sometimes a synthetic powder pigment.  The cyanotype based works, as aforementioned are an iron based chemistry developed in 1842 which signals a shift in colour composition wherein much research was dedicated towards developing synthetically manufactured colour.  On the second floor, I have included a vignette of local plant based colour.  Samplers from locally gathered raspberry leaf, pine needles and sumac leaves show a range of colour that can be achieved with alum and iron mordants.

The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum and surrounding Lanark County, Ontario is a fascinating place to visit for its history, culture and nature.

Many thanks to Ontario Arts Council for supporting the exhibition.


art documentation: Lauren Kolyn