ao textiles’ natural alchemy


The ao textiles workshop at the V&A last Friday was a homegrown affair with Penny Walsh hand-dying fabrics in dyes made from plants, including woad, marigold, and indigo, as well as other natural dyestuffs.  The development of hand-dying stalled with the advent of man-made dyes around 1860, but knowledge of plant sciences is now much more advanced.  Penny’s methods are drawn from historic recipes as well as advice from chemists to adapt these recipes for contemporary requirements.   Research into plant dyes worldwide and the use of low impact mordants and assistants has enabled Penny to create a vibrant array of colours.


The sources of these colours are renewable and bio-degradeable, but they are also stable.  Penny reminded us of the rich colours in the Tudor tapestries hanging in the galleries that have held their colour for centuries.


Once dyed the fabrics are then worked into highly decorative pieces embroidered by Karen Spurgin or more elaborate dying techniques, such as marbling, by Emma d’Arcey.

Emma gave a demonstration of the traditional marbling technique.  First paint is spotted on the surface of the water and seaweed (carrageen) solution. Then it is feathered using a very fine brush pulling stripes vertically, then horizontally.



Finally a custom-made comb is pulled through to complete the pattern before the fabric is laid on top to be printed.  Once printed it is rinsed and left to dry.  As well as abstract patterns, Emma’s work includes incredibly intricate, almost photographic floral and mineral motifs.

ao textiles have collaborated with Gainsborough Silk Weavers to create luxurious jacquard fabrics for couture and high-end interiors, combining sustainability and traditional artisanal skills.  For example, ‘Mineral’ uses a recycled warp from Gainsborough’s yarn from past productions combined with a naturally dyed weft.  All ao’s naturally dyed yarn uses unbleached silk or cotton.


A highlight of the workshop was Julia Lohmann popping down from the Department of Seaweed to experiment with dying and marbling the kelp seaweed.  We await the results with interest.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s