Driven by a focus on sustainability, artist, dyer and printmaker Catherine Lewis works with natural dyes that she creates using mostly ingredients from her native Wales. With a background in printed textiles and twenty years of teaching behind her she’s spent a long time experimenting and perfecting her art and under her company ColourField, runs workshops to pass on her skills, as well as selling an Artisan ink collection and her own handmade paper and textile products. Here she tells us how she has evolved as a multi-media practice, how Wales plays its role in her work and what her dream project is.
When and why did you start using natural dyes?
“I have, for as long as I can remember, been inspired and delighted by the natural environment – its ever changing colours, the amazing textures and how things alter, decay and develop over time. While studying for my Masters degree in Fine Art I became aware that almost all the inks and dyes that we use today are made out of oil. I was trying to make my practice entirely sustainable so that meant investigating how I could make natural inks for my own printmaking practice. This lead to me using natural dyes when I returned to my textile making and to developing the inks and dyes for others to use.”
Where do you tend to draw your natural colours from?
“Walnut is an important one for me as I collect the material locally. I adore Indigo and have used it for over twenty years now, but it does mean importing it from India and China. However, I’m now growing my own woad plants so that I will have local source material to use in the next couple of years. I have permission to use the waste material from my local city parks, so the daffodil colour has become a feature within my collection – properly Welsh! I want to keep my resources as close to home grown as possible or to use food and garden waste. I also try to use plant materials that need little or no mordanting (additional chemicals that help the dye to stick to the cloth) – these include onion, pomegranate, avocado, dandelion, weld and carrots.”
How does the process work and how long does it take to create the colours?
“The process varies depending on the material, but generally it involves collecting the fresh plant material, soaking it overnight and then immersing the cloth for a few hours.”
How about controlling depth of colour?
“Depth of colour depends on the amount of plant material, additional chemicals such as iron, copper, alum and soda, the water temperature, and then the length of time the cloth is in the dye for.”
Do you keep a library of natural colours and recipes?
“Yes! That is vital. I make swatches and notes as I develop the colours and these are an essential reference for me.”
How much does your locale in Wales play a role in your work?
“It is obviously important as my resources come mostly from my surroundings. But also the amazing industrial heritage and how it affected the people is very important to me. I’m an avid cyclist and this has played a huge part in my discovery of the remnants of Wales’ industrial past. Cycling has a big role in the revitalisation of the areas that have been so deprived of development and investment since the breakdown of the mining industry. Our South Wales valleys are steeped in the most incredible history – they were a major part of the development of our industrialised world, which has been almost forgotten. As well as gathering plants, the iron that I use in my work is collected whilst I am out on my rides… the rivers and streams around the old mines literally run orange. The images of buildings, graffiti, signs, stone and ironwork, all come into play as I design colours and patterns. As well as the rural and deserted mountain tops, I also love the people, the Italian cafes, the old chapels, and the pubs.”
What are some of your favourite colours and products resulting from your dye work?
“I love the combination of walnut brown and indigo – a classic combination of brown and blue – like the sky and the earth, denim and leather, wood and bluebells.”
With materials that you work with, do some work better – has there been a lot of trial and error over the years?
“There is a lot of trial and development – I don’t say error! Even a colour that is not so pleasing can be over dyed or over printed until I am happy with the result. The best new and exciting results come out of the unexpected and the experimental. There are so many variables in textile colouring – such as plant origin and amount, type of cloth, water hardness, chemical additions – it is possible to make literally hundreds of colours from one plant! Also, there are always new interesting textiles being developed that will react differently. Each new journey reveals new vistas and textures that I can use. Each new location has different colour combinations and graphic patterns that I see and want to turn into prints.”
How did your product collection of fashion and homewares evolve?
“The dye experiments came first and then I realised that there was a market for recycled/upcycled, naturally dyed, beautiful luxury products that have full provenance in their making and materials. Rather like the slow food movement, I think the time is now for a real upturn in the ethical, local fashion and textiles market.”
Tell us more about working with other artists – what do you enjoy about it and which projects or individuals have inspired you?
“The Swansea based artist Owen Griffiths and I have recently worked on a valleys’ community project. Starting with a studio and residency Owen began working with the local people of Swansea. His studio developed into a base for a group of ten artists sharing and working together on different projects. Their first event involved a mass baking event bringing together people in the community, their favourite music and a raffle. This became ‘Framework’ an arts collective with key aspects of the practice involving performance and social engagement. The project ‘Vetch Veg’ involved reactivating a derelict sports stadium space into an allotment run by local community. I love the work of Eva Hess and Louise Bourgeois, who combine materials and concept so beautifully, and more recently the work of Sophie Calle and Cornelia Parker, which I find amusing, beautiful and poignant.”
Are there any explorations you haven’t done yet that you’re interested in doing?
“My dream and my research (when I have time and money!) is to make a sustainable solar or wind powered ink jet printer that works with my own made plant based inks, so I can work in rural isolation but still be able to use technology to make new print work. The recipes and refill methods would be available to all so that we are no longer dependent on commercial mineral oil and plug-in energy.”