When Colour Lights Up Your Face

When Colour Lights Up Your Face

Words Tom Horan
Photographs Jasper Clarke

In the jar is cochineal, made from female scale insects from South America, which has been used as a textile dye since the 15th century. Flowers that are particularly good for making dyes include poppies, for blues and pinks, while eucalyptus leaves produce vivid oranges.

Armed with a conviction that making can be a force for good, textile designer and natural-dye enthusiast Katherine May isn’t afraid to make a performance out of her passion for colour…

As Katherine May leads us up the stairs of her elegant house on Chatsworth Road in east London’s Homerton, she is simultaneously offering me a cup of coffee and embarking on a detailed description of how to dye fabric blue using the leaves of the indigo plant, indigofera tinctoria. By the time we reach the first-floor kitchen and I have got my coat off , the artist, textile designer and natural-dye enthusiast is up to her elbows in two equally elaborate processes: firstly, explaining the indigo; secondly, making the coffee. She addresses both tasks with the same knitted brow.

‘… into a kind of mulch, then add water and it becomes a paste,’ she says. ‘You leave it out to dry in the sun, and then grind it into powder. So you’ve got the indigo powder, and you add soda ash, which helps it dissolve in water. Then you can either use fruit and vegetables to make it ferment, but you have to have warm weather or you put in yeast to start the fermentation. That’s what gives you the blue seal that sits on the surface of the water and keeps out as much oxygen as possible.’

A crisp, upright figure topped with an energetic scribble of hair, May is a person who works with her hands but who is able to describe what she does – and why – with lucidity and precision. She seems to be as much about thinking as making. ‘I did a masters in Anthropology and Material Culture at UCL,’ she says. ‘Because after my Textiles BA [at Chelsea Art College] I felt something was missing, and it was a connection with people. I didn’t want to go down the route of having a studio with open days where you show your work, doing the trade shows. It didn’t interest me.’



Instead May pursued her fascination with traditional techniques for extracting colour from plants, and at the same time a conviction that participation in making things could be an instrument for positive social change – and even a kind of performance art. ‘I met a woman who lives in Bradford who was growing a lot of natural-dye plants as part of a community wellbeing project,’ she says. ‘I was drawn to working with the plants because it is about feeling that sense of place and connecting to the environment –growing things, using them with your hands.’

The manufacture of a cup of coffee may have been fetishised to the point of preposterousness in the past 10 years, but as she has been telling her story May has been performing her own truly labyrinthine ritual with cups, saucers, beans, grains, hot water…. I glance optimistically in the direction of the laboratory, but so far there is little sign of anything coming my way. So I ask her about the dyeing-as-performance projects that have set her apart from your average artisan with a stall at the craft fair.

‘I was invited to do an installation a few years ago in the atrium of the Arthaus building near London Fields [in Hackney],’ she says. ‘I found out it used to be a laundry, and I decided to do something around textiles and water. So I dyed 100 metres of silk, and because it is a five-storey building, I did a performative thing where I had all the dye vats and all the plants laid out on the ground level. I was there for about two months. I would recycle the dye-vat water, and I strung the silk up the building on washing lines, so that the indigo went from blue to almost white on the fifth floor. Now I have quite a lot of silk upstairs!’

She turns towards me with what must surely be the rumoured coffee, but then examines it more closely and decides that it has failed to pass quality control and must be taken back for additional tinkering. I try not to look crestfallen. ‘That project was called Water Colour, but it was unusual because of the quantities involved,’ she says. ‘Dyeing with plants is only small-scale, it’s not a mass industrial process. Indigo used to be used from the plant, but then people wanted to achieve that very dark almost black navy blue, and to do that with a natural dye you have to dip, oxidise, dip, oxidise, 20 times or more. It’s slow.



‘So they replicated that plant compound synthetically. It looks like crystals rather than powder. You get a dark, even blue quickly, but it is a rather flat kind of colour. Whereas natural dyes have a more watercolour finish, with greater depth: some bits are darker, some lighter, tiny specks every now and then. It’s beautiful, but only manageable with little bits of yarn dyed in a bucket. [This process is stylishly captured in a film on her website.] To do the installation with 100 metres, I had to make a fish-tank dye vat, and the more fabric you dip in the harder it is to coat it evenly.’

Although the Arthaus project was large-scale, May uses locations of all sizes to put into practice her basic concept of hand-making textiles to influence the way people think. ‘Working in a more performative way,’ she says, ‘connecting with people and giving them a physical experience, allows them to interrupt their behaviour patterns for a moment. Material culture is about where textiles come from and their effect on people, socially and economically. Shopping spaces and high streets – sometimes I’ve used empty shops. Just giving them a moment, and seeing if something sinks in! We could be living in a diff erent way… ’

With a look of resignation and concern, some 20 minutes after it was first mooted, she finally places on the table the completed coffee. It tastes delicious and is a spellbinding colour. ‘I do these things on a project basis,’ she says ‘I move around, and respond to places, or people’s activities. I’m working next on something for the perfumery Floris, on Jermyn Street [in London’s West End], which has been going for 300 years and is still in the same family. I’ve been delving into their archives for The New Craftsmen festival Made of Mayfair, which is in early May.’

Billed as ‘a unique textile & fragrance installation inspired by the archive books of Floris’, the event will be taking place in what the perfumers call The Mine, part of a mysterious underground space beneath London’s St James’s. ‘It’s about revealing the narrative that they have packed away in boxes,’ says May. ‘Chemical recipes for making perfume, dyes, stain-removers, soap, laundry powders. Techniques like extraction, distilling, maceration.

‘The Mine is an underground passage that’s blocked off at the ends, but is thought to run the length of Jermyn Street and perhaps connects to St James’s Palace. It’s about reactivating Floris’s old laboratory and creating quite a sensory environment – there will be perfumes you can smell, and then the correlation into colour. It’s going to be yellow, orangey, red – quite warm hues. In effect I’m doing the colours of the smells. Some of the ingredients are pretty extraordinary: civet, which is basically cat spray. And ambergris, which is whale sick, which they don’t use any more. Floris has a royal warrant, so they have quite strict regulations from Prince Charles on sustainability and the ethics of where materials come from.’


‘Natural dyes have a more watercolour finish. Some bits are darker, some lighter’


At the same time as she prepares to descend into The Mine, May is working on another commission. Perhaps inspired by her triumphant 100 metres at the Arthaus building, the Olympic Park at nearby Stratford has asked her to design and make a 2m x 3m rug as part of a project to bring the work of local artists into the former athletes’ village. ‘I can dye it using plants you fi nd near there – along the Lea valley, and the canal. I make samples using a tufting gun. You have an upright frame where you stretch your canvas, and the gun fires through several strands or knots of yarn and then you cut them. I dye some of the woollen yarns and design the patterns and colour wave, and then I work with a woman in Halifax who makes the rugs.’

A tufting gun? Is that the rug-designer’s weapon of choice? Disappointingly May informs me that the shooter in question is at Goldsmiths College, where she also teaches a new Fashion MA course. But she does have yarn samples from it and some of the indigo silk upstairs in her studio. ‘It’s a wee space,’ she says. ‘But I like being at the top.’ And so we climb up through the house, past a bathroom, past rooms with bikes in, past a table bearing The Encylopedia of Plants and Flowers, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Until at the top of a vertiginous final flight of stairs we reach a tiny eyrie with a small Velux window.


Katherine May sorting flowers for dyes, above. Rose geranium is used for shades of pink.


‘I am especially inspired by African textiles,’ she says as we squeeze in. ‘They often have particular meanings and are used for communication.’ There are immaculate piles of folded cloth, and a single work surface the size of an ironing board. On it are laid out two jam jars, a singlering Belling stove, two wooden spoons, a pair of Marigolds and a plastic measuring jug. One of the spoons is a shade of indigo that is so rich and profound that it is almost mesmerising – what Curtis Mayfield described in his famous song as ‘darker than blue’. ‘That one has travelled round for two years of different dyeing projects,’ she says.


‘It’s quite common with textiles
to collect and hoard’


I remark on the tidiness. ‘It’s a cycle,’ she says. ‘I go through stages when I’m up here loads, and everything gets everywhere. Then I go “Aaah! I can’t handle it.” And so I just leave it and refuse to come back up. But it’s part of how I think and work. Then I go, OK – chuck everything out, re-fold, re-organise, re-arrange materials and think about what I’m doing again. ’ She reaches for a storage box. ‘These are some of the rug yarns…’

From my spot in the doorway, I take a step back to allow her to reach the box, but it is a step out into nothingness. For a split second I am falling head-first backwards down the stairs, hands flailing out for something to stop me. In that instant, I really believe I am going to die. Not just that, but it will be one of those deaths recounted in pubs for humorous effect. Like Otl Aicher, who did the branding for the 1972 Munich Olympics, was called the greatest graphic designer of all time by Norman Foster, and then died in a lawn mowing accident. Or Rod Hull, the ventriloquist, who fell off his roof trying to adjust his TV aerial so he could watch the Manchester United game . I am going to break my neck in a loft conversion in E5, taking notes on a tufting gun.

I seize the door frame and we return to the safety of the fabric world. ‘It’s quite common with textiles to collect and hoard,’ says May. ‘And then at some point they manifest into something. But stashing them, displaying them, folding them, moving them – it’s really part of how you think, with textiles. It’a weird combination: half what you live with, half your work. There’s a lot of merging. I wouldn’t like to industrialise, but I would like a larger space.’

I agree this would be a good idea. ‘I would love a high-street space that is half laboratory growing dye plants, and half museum and shop. That would be my dream.’



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