Fabric Dyeing with Plants – exploring a new skill

I love learning, and developing new practical skills give me the chance to create something concrete and tangible, which is a welcome change from the world of English teaching. The workshop was held at the Penrith Regional Gallery and facilitated by garden historian and environmentalist, Jen Quealey.

Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest is set on the western bank of the Nepean River at the foot of the Blue Mountains at Emu Plains, and was established in 1981 at the former home and property of sculptor Gerald Lewers and painter Margo Lewers.

We began by touring through the different beautiful rooms of the garden established by Gerald and Margo Lewers, Jen as guide, collecting leaves and flowers, buds and seeds. Back in the studio, we sorted our finds on the workbench into structural and colour groupings.

We chose different plants to crush and steep in water in small jars that we placed in large pots of boiling water. While we waited, we had the option to read journal articles, watch videos and inspect previously prepared bottles and jars of dyes: almost every plant can be used. Ironically, green is one of the more difficult colours to extract.

We made preparations for dyeing by placing sculptural elements – seed pods, bottle brush stems, different shaped leaves – on the fabric before tightly wrapping and binding silk scarves. Lively conversations accompanied our common learning purpose: what are you using? what happens if I use this? Ooh, that looks good! At every turn, Jen encouraged us to experiment, sometimes making suggestions, sometimes smiling enigmatically ‘Try it. Let’s see how it turns out’. And we did.

Jenny demonstrated important steps in the process such as straining a brew, and checking colour uptake in a small skein of wool – the wool was boiled in a jar with rose petals.

Natural plant dyeing is a flexible art that allows the novice to begin by using everyday utensils, and natural fibres such as silk or cotton. Old woks offer a large space and easy access to turn garments if they aren’t fully submerged in dye.

I travelled home with my wet scarf and t-shirt, still wrapped tightly and nestled with a large jar of the remaining dry bunya leaf dye. Both went into a bowl and were microwaved for 10 minutes on high. When cool and unwrapped, the t-shirt had a distinct, delightful pattern. The scarf was an unimpressive dull brown. What to do? I wandered into my garden, spotted the blue iris flowers and plucked a big handful, stuffed them into a glass jar that went into the freezer.

After work the following day, and when the scarf was dry, I placed iris petals and whole flowers along one end of the scarf, sprinkled turmeric on the fabric, then rolled and wrapped it with string. I prepared a large bath of very salty water in a bowl and plunged in the scarf. Next, into the microwave for two bursts of five minutes. Having no real clue if this would work, and not wanting to overheat the fabric, I let it sit in the bowl overnight.

Success! The unwrapped scarf has dramatic splotches of purple with a vibrant yellow glow. Inspired, I have since collected the remaining iris flowers and several jars of rose petals that are safely stored in the freezer, awaiting the January holidays when I will have time to experiment again.

So, what does this have to do with English teaching? How can I apply what I have learned in my classroom? It’s all about taking risks, trying different things and applying knowledge from a workshop within my own context. I see my garden with different eyes, and have an appreciation for the people before me who used the materials at hand to create. Students can be encouraged to have fun when learning, to make mistakes, to apply their learning and knowledge in different ways and to support each other by sharing failures and successes.

We Are All Learners  is the focus of Moss Vale High’s How2Learn program for 2019 with plans to address growth mindset, one of several focus points, by inviting teachers to learn a new skill. We are encouraged to ‘jump into the learning pit’ and experience how our students might feel when faced with a challenging learning opportunity. This follows on from out consideration of the Habits of Mind – similar to Learning Habits within How2Learn.

Read the article ‘Eight things great teachers do differently

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