Nature’s Rainbow workshop reviewed by Liz McElroy

Susan and Ashley from Nature’s Rainbow are passionate about dyeing using their own home grown plants. Susan has given talks and written articles for crafters over the country as well as delivering workshops. Ashley has been growing dye plants for 14 years and writes about them in the Nature’s Rainbow blog; he also keeps bees.

Now we are fortunate that Susan and Ashley have decided to offer their workshops in Hitchin and to run them from the Triangle Community Garden’s Pavilion. Susan explains “ Our dye garden is next door to a fabulous community garden project where we are hiring a well-equipped indoor space suitable for small group events, only 5 minutes’ walk from a mainline station well served by trains between London, Peterborough and Cambridge.’’

I was lucky enough to attend their second workshop which was on how to plan and plant a dye gardenThe morning started with introductions and an insight into Susan’s and Ashley’s backgrounds and how they came to the art and science of dyeing.

Ashley then took us to, as he describes, the ‘compact and well established working dye garden’ where we were asked to wander and observe the plants. There was a noticeable abundance of insects hovering from plant to plant, taking advantage of the fluorescent purple spires of Viper’s bugloss towering over the garden’s entrance, to the lower growing buttons of yellow Dyer’s Chamomile. The heat of the day produced a scent of nature’s own flower perfume which heightened our senses. We were then introduced to Madder. Its weed like appearance similar to Cleavers (Galium aparine) could easily be overlooked. And yet when the mature root was exposed one could imagine how this ancient dye plant had been used throughout history to produce the brilliant orange and red hues. 

Susan encouraged us to gather  the flower heads of Dyer’s Chamomile (Cota tinctoria) which she steeped in boiling water, simmered and strained to produce a dye bath. She added samples of fabric and wool that had been treated with a mordant (a substance that acts as a chemical bridge between the fibres of the material and the dye). The best fabrics for botanical dyes Susan explained were from natural fibres. Protein fibres (animal based) such as silk and wool  take the dyes really well and cellulose (plant) fibres such as cotton and linen take a little longer to absorb the dye. This was demonstrated by using pieces of cotton and wool.

Throughout the day we visited the dye garden, to collect Woad, Weld, Dyer’s Chamomile, Japanese indigo and Dahlia. Samples of beautiful woven squares made by Ashley were used to demonstrate the vast spectrum of colour available from the plants that have been grown on the Nature’s Rainbow Dye Garden.

Ashley delivered individual dye garden design tuition, covering the positioning and choice of dye plants most suited to each person’s own garden and aspirations. Susan spent time demonstrating the use of modifiers. By adding an acid (e.g. vinegar) or an alkali (e.g. washing soda), we were able to manipulate the colours of some dye solutions.  True alchemists!

Samples of dye plants and seeds were available to take home at the end of the workshop as well as our collection of dyed fabrics samples. Susan and Ashley’s knowledge, creativity and enthusiasm, combined with  horticulture, science, history, design and art made this day one to remember. I look forward to the next workshop. For information on Nature’s Rainbow Dye Workshops please visit