‘The joy of alchemy’: how a natural dye garden brought magic to Cardiff Met

Student's sketchbook is help open showing natural dye samples.

"Imagine opening your closet and finding your entire wardrobe devoid of any colour. No more vibrant socks or bright, white shirts. We often take for granted the pigments that allow us to have that lucky red sweater or go-to jacket." thebeakerlife.com

Although most people don’t often think about how clothes and textiles are coloured, students at Cardiff Metropolitan University have been putting the magic back into fabric dyeing with their amazing, technologically-minded natural dye garden. Their hard work was part of one of our amazing Youth Projects in 2018, and natural dyeing is now fully integrated into studying at the university - which we think is amazing!

We spoke to Dr Keireine Canavan, chief organiser of the project and Head of Textiles at the university, to find out the motivations behind the project and the impact it has had on the students who took part.

Samples of patterned fabric coloured with plant-based dye.

Q: Who are you and what do you do?

A: I’m Dr Keireine Canavan, Principal Lecturer and Head of Textiles at the School of Art and Design at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Q: What change did you want to see in the world as a result of your project?

A: The central focus of the project was to create a natural plant dye garden at our Llandaff Campus that was available to all Cardiff Met students and staff, as well as schools and the general public. We also wanted to incorporate augmented reality technology! Another strand of the project dealt with teaching students about eco-friendly dyeing techniques.

As we look to the future of textiles, it's increasingly important that we focus on sustainability, and the dye plant garden was planned to go some way towards developing the educational delivery of natural dye practices, colour theory and further research.

Natural Dye Garden at Cardiff Met

Q: How did you come up with the idea?

A: We wanted to create a discussion about how native plants and fungi can provide natural dyes to produce beautiful colour, without harming our environment.

At the university – and in the wider community – there is a growing interest in natural, plant-based dyeing, as well as towards sustainability in the textile and fashion industries. We wanted to develop a project that incorporated waste dyeing (using materials like onion skins and avocado pits) with the result of a permanent campus dye garden. We’re lucky enough to have two members of staff on board that are highly qualified and skilled in natural plant dyeing.

Q: What did you want to get out of it?

A: A really important part of the project was the idea of sharing plant information and dye recipes, both with the rest of the student body and with interested people outside of Cardiff Met. To achieve this goal, we decided to gather facts and insight through augmented reality software, to allow people to have an interactive experience with a real-world dye garden without having to be physically on site.

We also thought it was vital to have a public campus exhibition in order to share the enthusiasm and energy that has been put into the project, and to educate people not involved with the project, or with the Textiles Department at Cardiff Met, about the importance of sustainable fabric dyes.

A project workbook, naturally coloured to look old and weathered.

Q: How have people benefitted from all your hard work? Have attitudes towards nature changed at all? 

A: Throughout the project, the central focus was on giving students education about the ancient craft technique of natural plant dyeing. To achieve this, they prepared and collated data for dye garden preparations, fusing ancient skills with modern technology and supporting the augmented reality side of our dye garden. I really feel that students that were involved benefitted from gaining new knowledge and skills – especially as they were being led by real experts  – and being able to celebrate this through organising a public exhibition of their work.

The students who were involved now consider themselves more aware of the power of nature and the potential of using natural dye sources to achieve a beautiful result. It’s also become apparent that by taking part in the project, our students have gained respect for the natural world and were impressed by nature’s relevance to colour in the textiles and fashion industries.

Q: What were your favourite aspects of the project and why?

A: I loved seeing students’ delight in learning about natural dyes and the fascinating plants and fungi that they are derived from, as well as high levels of enthusiasm about the project across the university. Seeing the quality of the fabric and fibres produced, as well as the amazing work across students’ sample books, was real proof of the success of the process. Everyone involved loved stirring large cauldrons of steaming plant ‘soup’ – and the joy of alchemy!

Other project highlights included bringing in an ink dye expert as a visiting lecturer and visiting the National Wool Museum to get expert advice on setting up a dye garden. Everyone enjoyed that the project was reliant on a mix of traditional and contemporary technology, bringing together mobile phone apps and almost-forgotten ancient dye skills.

Coloured fabric, some of it patterned, hanging from a rail.

Q: Do you plan to continue the project in any way?

A: The natural plant dye garden, as well as its augmented reality elements, is here to stay as a valuable resource. I’m also delighted to confirm that natural dyeing is now embedded into the degree curriculum here at Cardiff Met.

If you've been inspired to see wildflowers and fungi in a new light by Dr Canavan's experience, why not check out the Grow Wild map and see what's going on in your area?

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