How to hand dye using forsythia with textile designer Charlotte Lawson Johnston

Images above by Katrina Lawson Johnston

The colour and variety of tones that can be achieved by the natural hand dying process are nothing short of wonderful. This and the sustainable nature of the process are what has caused textile designer Charlotte Lawson Johnston to move her practice from chemical laden factories, to her home in the countryside. Longing for a technique that didn’t have a negative impact on the environment she began experimenting with natural dyes and has become hooked. With the dyes coming from botanical and bio waste (essentially avocado and onion skins etc) and cloth that is fully compostable her business is now completely soil to soil!

She has kindly agreed to be part of the #ExcitedforEaster campaign by sharing a recipe for hand dying napkins with Forsythia. Be sure to check out her beautiful (and very Minford!) instagram for more inspiration and idea.

“Forsythia is a perfect choice for natural dyeing at Easter time as it gives us a beautiful yellow. I love to dye white eggs with it to decorate our Easter table or even table linen. This year my girls and I dyed some old boring white cotton napkins which we felt needed a new lease of life! So I’m excited to share this very easy 4-step dyeing recipe with you so that you can have a go yourself. Have fun!

(Nb. before you begin dyeing your cloth, you need to treat your fabric first, this is so that the dye particles cling to your choice of cloth AND so that the colour doesn’t disappear when you wash it. It’s very easy to do and is simply a matter of soaking your fabric for a couple of hours before you begin dyeing it. Unless you dye a protein fabric such as wool or silk in which case you can dye straight away! To treat cotton or linen, I use Alum and this can be purchased from George Weil). If you go down this route, please be very careful using Alum around children. I always treat my fabric overnight when the children are in bed and I make sure it’s well out of their reach too”.

STEP 1: Prune approx 6 stems of Forsythia which should give you around 150g of dye matter to play with. The more the better but don’t worry about the weight too much, even 100g would do! Cut up the sticks and yellow flowers into small pieces as shown so that these can be easily fit inside your dye bundle.

STEP 2: Next you need to make a dye bundle. My children love this bit! Find an old piece of cloth (even a baby muslin would do). Lay it onto a flat surface and put all of your foraged Forsythia into a pile in the middle). Then gather up each of the four corners plus the sections that then droop (you will see what I mean!) and tie a piece of old string or white ribbon around the cloth to tie it up securely – this is important as you don’t want any petals to leak into the dye solution.

STEP3: Next pop your dye bundle into a large saucepan and place it onto your hob. Boil your kettle (being very mindful of the children close by) and then pour the boiled water on to your dye bundle. This shocks the Forsythia and gets the dye extraction going quickly (a better method for those of us who are impatient!). Turn your hob on and get the water boiling….then you just need to top of the saucepan with approximately 2 litres of hot tap water.

STEP 4: Leave your Forsythia bundle to work it’s magic for an hour and then just reduce the temperature to keep the water on a low simmer. Carefully remove the bundle from the saucepan and discard it in the bin.

STEP 5: Now for the fun part! Take your pre-treated cloth (or non treated wool or silk!) and wet it out under a cold tap, squeeze out the excess water and pop it into the dye bath. Give the solution and your cloth a good stir and I recommend stirring it again every 15minutes or so. This is to stop any unwelcome concentrated dye patches forming on your fabric. The cloth will begin to take the dye after about 15 minutes and after an hour or so you will have a beautiful yellow dyed creation! Of course the longer you leave it, the stronger the yellow becomes. For an Easter-y pale yellow 30minutes in the dye bath should be sufficient…..for a stronger mustard colour I would leave your cloth in the dye bath for 1.5hrs. In this second photo, you can see the first napkin starting to dye after about 15minutes and then I added a second napkin into the saucepan. Make sure you allow lots of space for your cloth to move around your dye pot.

STEP 6: Once you are happy with the colour of your cloth carefully remove it from the saucepan, gently rinse it under cold water and then dry it flat on a drying wrack. Iron and fold!

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There’s mention of pine cones for the lovely pink tablecloth. I’d love to know more about that please if possible.