teaching and learning

My teaching debut last week at the Thomas Jefferson Demonstration Garden went off without a hitch. We boiled up two dye pots, chatted about natural dyes, colors, mordants, local dye sources, and textile history, all in a brief two hours. Despite my nervousness and doubt I enjoyed myself and I am grateful for the students willingness to partake in something new. Most of the undergraduates taking the workshop had no experience with dyeing or plant colors, and their perspective and questions were both insightful and refreshing. I think all of us had fun.

Time was short, but we managed to harvest tansy buds and sumac leaves, brew them up, add linen samplers and silk thread to the extraction, one dip in the alum mordant, and then back into the dye pot for a final soak... The colors turned out beautiful, a sunny yellow from the tansy and a rusty brown from the sumac.

Prior to the class I made a small sampler quilt, with fabric pieces dyed with plants growing in our region. Just to show how diverse the colors can be, even if none of them appears to be bright and flashy on its own. This lead to new conversations about synthetic dyes, and the difficulty of mass producing natural dyes, which in turn lead to a discussion about something else. So for me this teaching experience was just as much about learning. Thank you Lily and Rachael for the invitation, and for the beautiful photos documenting the event.

Photos courtesy of Rachael Dealy Salisbury, Thomas Jefferson Demonstration Garden. All rights reserved.


Next month I will teach my first workshop, which leaves me feeling both rattled and excited. I was asked to do a two hour class on natural dyes as part of a short course called Gardening with Mr. Jefferson: Sustaining an independent nation with useful plantsoffered to University of Virginia students. The course will take place at Thomas Jefferson Demonstration Garden and will cover a range of topics such as plant-based textiles and dyes, year around gardening, and sustainable growing and living.

We will create a few small dyed samples in the workshop (two hours is not a long time in the natural dye world) and the colors will be extracted from plants growing in the demonstration garden. I have experimented with tansy, hops, sumac, and artemisia, so far. All with beautiful results in their own right. It will be hard to choose which ones to finally include in the class.

This will be my first teaching experience, if you don't count assisting in my son's third grade art class. I have some basic knowledge about dyeing with plants by now, but I am no expert by any means. For me natural dyeing is about achieving something beautiful by using natural resources at hand, and to appreciate the loveliness in subtleties and imperfections. These are values I learned from my teachers, India Flint, and Rowland Ricketts, and I hope I can pass some of the same ideas along to my students.