As part of the Ffern Artists series, we have worked with the natural-dye artist Daisy Gray to create a limited run of silk handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs are handwoven from ethical silk by a co-operative of artisans in West Bengal, India and hand-dyed by Daisy using walnut leaves, madder root and goldenrod. Daisy has chosen these colours as a reflection of an English greenhouse - the inspiration behind Spring 21.
My work as an artist is material and sentimental, and brings together a love for colour and texture. It has grown from a process of researching and observing, and has a quietness and simplicity to it. I like working with natural materials such as silk and paper, string and thread, giving each their own tone through natural dyes.
I studied Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts and had a short spell at a small, traditional school in the hills of Nice, called The Villa Arson. It was here where I began to make some of the tools I wanted to work with, such as hand-built stoneware vats to dye indigo in and a glass-topped vitrine to store my notes and research.
I wanted to understand more about natural dyes, in particular the process of mordanting - the part where the dye fixes itself to the cloth - so I took a trip to the mountain town of Pettinengo in the north of Italy to stay with and learn from an artist named Sissi. She’s a talented weaver and has a wealth of material knowledge, as well as a beautiful dyer's garden and a fully functioning dye-lab where she and her partner experiment with a range of dye methods that are used all over the world. We spent a month researching in her 19th century villa that she carefully restored, with its dramatic view of the Alps and weekly groceries provided by the local dairy farm. The days were spent dyeing, using both old and new dye traditions and techniques. When we were not dyeing, we were eating a very typical Piedmont lunch together under the grape vine...
Working with natural dyes is particular and magical. You have to have patience, and you have to be prepared for it to sometimes go a little wrong. You might get a colour you weren't quite expecting, and that’s the beautiful side to it. There are lots of factors that can affect your outcome with natural dyeing, from the water and mordant you use, down to the length of time you extract your dye for. As a result, each colour that is produced is entirely unique, with its varying tone, depth and saturation.
The research at the beginning of a project is always my favourite part. It grounds the work with a certain context, whether that’s a story, something I have found, or the history of a particular technique or colour. Something special for me lies in the gathering of notes, samples and photos - some old, some new.
At first, the project made me think about scent and textiles from a historical point of view, and some of the traditions belonging to fragrance which we have fallen out of over the years. I was intrigued by the thought of lovers in the 16th century carrying round a perfumed handkerchief to remind them of their partner. Tucking that memory away into their pocket, like a secret token of love.
The process of natural dyeing itself is one that is filled with scent, too. As you boil the flowers and leaves, medicinal and herbal scents fill the room. Some of them at first are a little off putting, but I’ve grown to love them.
Ffern’s scent for Spring 21 is set in an English greenhouse, with dense greenery, potted seedlings and an abundance of growth. I took notes from this to form a colour palette to dye the silk handkerchiefs with, trialing several different plant dyes and natural colour combinations. As a result, the bright brick-orange of the madder roots speaks to the stacks of terracotta pots and tiles you see piled up in greenhouses, whilst the walnut leaves reference young growth. The yellow of the goldenrod has a spring warmth to it, echoing the softness of pollen.
There are many great archives that I find inspiring. The Tokens of the Foundling Museum, handmade books in the Met Library, Karan Thakar’s extensive collection of antique textiles from Asia, Africa and beyond. There’s an account I love that shares the backs of works on paper from the V&A. Instagram is a really fantastic place to stay connected and stumble upon artists, researchers and collectors of all sorts.
The people around me however are my real source of creativity: other dyers, my friends and contemporaries. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a force of talented and inspired makers and thinkers, spanning across many mediums and industries.
Hoary stocks in late spring. Laundry that’s been hanging to dry in the sun. The musky smell of the little notes you find tucked away inside old books.
Be ambitious, ask for help, and keep the special things that you love… you can never have too many things.
Daisy is the third artist to work with us on the Ffern Artists series. You can read about the others here.