Case Study:
Helen Lockhart: Go & See – Colour in Cloth 2017

This April, Emergents awarded Helen Lockhart Go and See funding to attend The Colour in Cloth conference in Glasgow. Helen lives and works in the North West Highlands where she runs her business Ripples Crafts .


Colour in Cloth 2017
Glasgow University and Edinburgh School of Art
10th / 11th April 2017

With the aid of a “Go and See” Grant from Emergents I was very pleased to be able to attend the above conference.

The Colour in Cloth conference was arranged through The Pasold Research Fund, a body which supports research into textile history.  The aim of the conference was to look at aspects of colour and cloth and to “explore the various and multifarious relationships between colour and textiles, from dyeing and distribution, to chromatics and conservation”.  As an independent yarn dyer the concepts and topics on the programme were of great interest to me.

The first day was held at Glasgow University, and the schedule for the day was jam packed with speakers from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines.

Topics covered during the first day ranged from the history and use of Indigo, dyeing cloth the Maori way, to coloured, checked cloth in pre-historic Europe, the significance of undyed cloth in certain societies, and a review of Marion Donaldson’s work over the period 1960’s to 1990’s.

There was so much packed into the day that it would be impossible to review it all, so instead I’ll choose just a few topics which I found most interesting in relation to the work I do, which is hand dyeing yarn.

The first speaker of the first day was Jenny Balfour-Paul, a renowned practitioner in the art of dyeing indigo.  Her talk was entitled “Indigo – Universal Dye, Colour of the Universe”, but in addition to discussing the universal shade of blue and how it is found throughout nature no matter where you live, she also gave us a fascinating, albeit brief, history in the production of indigo.  She explained the process of how you achieved a block of indigo pigment from the indigo plant.  She also discussed how there is not just one indigo plant, but a large variety, including woad which is the most common source of indigo in Europe.   Jenny explained how indigo is a pigment rather than a dye, so it sits on the surface of fibres rather than soaking through and dyeing the whole fibre.  She had some fascinating historical pictures to show us of examples of indigo used in clothing through the ages, including a painting showing what is thought to be the first pictorial representation of jeans.  If you want to know about indigo, then Jenny has a couple of books out which will soon be added to my library!

Another presentation which really grabbed my attention and appealed to my interest in cultural variations in dyeing methods was a presentation given by Patricia Wallace, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and her subject was ‘Colour on Cloth – the Maori Way’.  The Maori have traditionally used mud to colour their textiles, usually NZ flax (which, she explained, is a different flax to that used in Europe – the NZ flax is the Phorium species as opposed to the Linum usitatissimum which is European flax).  Patricia explained how the Maori don’t make fabric, but rather they make garments through a weaving process known as raranga.  Other than the natural colour of the flax, the only 3 colours you’ll find in traditional Maori weaving are black, an orangy red and yellow.  The black colour is obtained from mud and mud from different sources across New Zealand will result in different shades of black on the flax.

On day 2 of the conference we had the opportunity at trying our hand at various textile skills.  I chose to attempt silk screen dyeing, which was both fun and educational.  It gave me a completely different perspective on building up colour on a textile, and differed significantly to how I approach yarn dyeing in my everyday job.

As an extension of Patricia’s presentation the second workshop I chose to attend was by Rangituatahi Te Kanewa on the process of dyeing using mud, and she also gave us an insight into the work being done by the National Museum of New Zealand into conserving Maori textiles found over the years.  It was fascinating to watch her create fibre from flax, and she gave us an insight into her conservation work, explaining how much of her time was taken up with establishing provenance of Maori textiles, which she did through researching the mud used to dye individual textile pieces, and then tracing the mud back to a location, thus establishing the likely source of the garment concerned.  Rangi took us through the various steps used in the mud dyeing technique and showed us her attempts to achieve similar colours using Scottish mud – which, it turned out, was pretty close to the results from New Zealand mud.  This technique is used on New Zealand flax, and Rangi also talked about the different methods of treating the flax to achieve different textures and softnesses.

I was fortunate to get one of the very restricted places for a visit to the National Library of Scotland where we were shown a few of their rare historical aniline dye recipe books dating from the 1800’s.  We were given a presentation on the history of 2 synthetic dye shades – Turkey Red and Perkin’s Purple.

I could have spent significant amounts of time browsing through the delicate books, but time was limited, and all too soon it was time to wrap up the conference and go our separate ways.

I took advantage of being in Edinburgh and also visited Dovecot to view the work there, as well as visiting the Science Festival where I went to a fascinating display called “Hidden Art”, which had pieces of geometric artwork created through converting the rhythm, pitch and timbre of music into pattern, colour and texture.  I also made time to visit the National Museum to look at their new textile gallery.


I came away from the conference with a new appreciation of colour and colour combinations, as well as the various techniques used in different processes.  My grateful thanks to Emergents for their support in being able to attend both the conference and to take a day to look at textile related exhibitions in Edinburgh.

Helen Lockhart, May 2017