Eucalyptus Leaf Dye Diary, 2016. Eucalyptus dyed wool, silk and linen. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.
“There was all this knowledge tucked away in drawers. I wanted to get it out.” Natural dyers are great experimenters. But there aren’t many ways for others to use their accumulated knowledge. Canberra based visual artist, Sally Blake wants to change that.
It was natural for Sally to explore natural dyes. She lives in a city full of gardens and surrounded by bushland after all. For Sally, natural dyes are the result of a lovely relationship between humans and nature. The pigments were always present, but dye colours wouldn’t exist without human intervention. Sally began experimenting with plants from her own garden, and from friends. Documenting the results in a diary encouraged more questions and bigger ideas.
Eucalyptus Leaf Drawing 4, 2016. Pressed leaves on paper. 106 x 60 cm. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.
In 2016, Sally set out to create a Eucalypt dye database. She partnered with the Australia council for the Arts. Rangers at the Australian National Botanic Garden (ANBG) provided access to the eucalypts in their collection. They helped Sally identify and responsibly harvest leaves and bark. It was important to Sally to use a method that presented meaningful comparisons. She used the same volumes and weights for all her dye experiments. She used different kinds of fabric (wool, silk and linen) and mordants (alum, iron and copper) systematically. The results are online, along with more detail on Sally’s process. The strong colours of Eucalyptus melliodora and Eucalyptus mannifera are Sally’s favourites. The Rangers at the ANBG liked seeing what colours their eucalypts produced. They look at these trees in a completely different way now.
Sally began to think of eucalypts as “holding the country together”. These trees have adapted to almost all the ecosystems in Australia. In many ways, Sally reflects, their roots hold the land together and their leaves shade us all. Mantles created with the dye database colours express this idea physically. Each mantle displays a design inspired from weaving patterns. Sally chose each design for its ability to look different from close up and far away.
Eucalyptus Mantle 3, 2017. Eucalyptus leaves and eucalyptus dyed wool, silk and linen on paper. 56 x 76 cm. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.
Many people approach natural dyeing by looking to create a particular colour. Sally recommends a different tact. Start in your own garden with the colours that are there and then work out. This way you’ll get the palette of your, local area. Most of all, have a go. Sally teaches natural dyeing classes at the ANBG and the Canberra Environment Centre.
Sally’s next project will focus on the 46 eucalyptus varieties that are original to Canberra. The stories she gathers about these trees will highlight our relationship to them.