Using natural dyes: a historical perspective with Isabella Whitworth

Ref: SWE31772

Location: West Dean
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About this course

Explore several historical natural dye recipes by dyeing a variety of fibres, and discuss contemporary issues, such as foraging and responsible use of natural material.

Course Description

Dye recipes from the past can reveal more than a colour on fibre or cloth. This course will use selected historical recipes to dye samples in purple, black, blue, red and green. The recipes will reveal some of the history of natural dyes and their trade, and how availability of dyestuffs was affected by politics, exploration and scientific knowledge, as well as the demands of fashion.

Historical dye-related texts will include the sparse instructions of the 6th century CE Stockholm and Leyden Papyri, the 16th century Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti and a collection of vegetable dye recipes published by Ethel Mairet in 1916. These texts provide insights into the language of historical dye recipes and the complex problems involved in translation and contemporary interpretation.

You will study various historical preparation methods (cleaning and mordanting) on a variety of fibre, yarn and fabric, which will include wool, linen, silk and cotton. Dyes will include indigo/woad, madder, cochineal, lac, weld, walnut, old fustic and logwood.

The responsible contemporary dyer will be concerned with ecological issues, such as climate change and habitat loss, as well as responsible sourcing, use and disposal of materials. Choices available to the dyer can involve knowledge of historical use, but should also be informed by contemporary science. The course will briefly examine current natural dyeing trends, some of which challenge the historical criteria for fast colour. Responsible advice on foraging will also be discussed.

The tutor will bring examples of unusual and rare dyestuffs and dyed samples from her own research work.

Please note that some of the dye materials and equipment used on this course may use, or may have come into contact with, various nuts, so may not be suitable for those with nut allergies or sensitivity to dye plants. Cochineal (an insect dye) will also feature on the course.


Arrival Day - this is the first date listed above

Courses start early evening. Residential students to arrive from 4pm, non-residential students to arrive by 6.45pm.

6.45pm: Welcome, followed by dinner (included).

8 - 9pm: First teaching session, attendance is essential.

Daily timetable

Classes 9.15 - 5pm, lunch is included.

From 6.30pm: Dinner (included for residential students).

Evening working - students may have access to workshops until 9pm, but only with their tutor's permission and provided any health and safety guidelines are observed.

Last day

Classes 9.15am - 3pm, lunch is included.

Residential students are to vacate their rooms by 10am please.

(This timetable is for courses of more than one day in length. The tutor may make slight variations)

Course Materials


  • Dyes
  • Fibre, yarns and fabrics for samples
  • Labels
  • Small box to contain samples

What students need to bring

  • An apron or cover-all shirt and covered, non-slip footwear
  • A pair of kitchen-type gloves
  • A pack of at least 50 19mm safety pins
  • A small pair of sharp scissors

Available to buy

  • Available from tutor:
  • Any additional materials you may purchase from the tutor should be paid to her before the end of the course, by cash or cheque.

Additional information

Please wear appropriate clothing/aprons for the workshop or studio, this includes stout covered footwear (no sandals or open toes). Possible equipment restrictions in tutor absence.


Isabella Whitworth

Isabella trained as a graphic designer and worked in industry before 'discovering' textiles during extended travels in Asia. She specialises in resist-dyeing, enjoying an international following as artist and tutor. Isabella is also known for historical research into natural dyes, and is a member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen.


Residential option available. Find out accommodation costs and how to book here.

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