Growing a Dye Garden

Tucked away in the Dandenong Ranges just outside of Melbourne, Myf Walker’s garden is filled with botanical treasures that any serious natural dyer would love to get their hands on. She takes the leaves, roots and flowers of these plants and, without the use of any chemicals, turns textiles into beautiful, wearable keepsakes that will last a lifetime.

I first met Myf last year while searching for an experienced local natural dyer to teach a community workshop on the process. Her passion for this ancient practice currently experiencing a modern revival was immediately apparent, but there was something about the way she talked about and practiced it that set her apart from the other natural dyers I’d met. I found her passion for being involved in the dyeing process from start to finish and doing it in a way that was environmentally sustainable really inspiring. I knew that I had to find out more about what Myf was up to at her home in the mountains.

This spring, when her collection of colour yielding plants was really coming to life, she took me on a garden tour that was like no other I had ever experienced. We chatted about plants, creativity and connecting with the natural dyeing process.

Tell us a bit about your background. Is there anything in your childhood that attracted you to plants and natural dyeing?

I grew up on a small farm, my parents were urban kids who married and moved to the country in pursuit of a simpler life. Mud brick house, loads of animals, my brother and I had horses. My Dad kept bees, my Mum was a passionate gardener and had an extensive garden. She was also really into natural therapies and foods, I was THAT kid at school with dark rye bread alfalfa sandwiches and carob instead of chocolate. Most of this completely mortified me at the time, my folks were pretty eccentric in comparison to those of my peers. But now I appreciate just how much freedom I had to be on my own and be myself, I learnt to be very independent and resourceful. I had to make my own entertainment with what I had at hand and so I gravitated towards making things.

How long have you been dyeing with plants, and how did you get into natural dyeing?

I’ve just always done it. One of my favourite books as a child was ‘Gnomes’, I adored Rien Poortvliet’s illustrations and immersed myself in that world. There’s a section in the book outlining the gnomes dyeing their clothes with plants and I can remember raiding

Mum’s garden, grabbing a pot and having a go. I don’t think I was very successful but that was the beginning. I dyed bits and pieces over the years, rejuvenating clothes I bought from

the op shop, tie-dyed car seat covers for my first car but it didn’t really become my passion until I had my son five years ago and really needed to focus on a creative outlet apart from my work as a graphic designer.

Tell us about your natural dyeing process. What methods do you practice, what textiles do you use and what objects do you create?

I guess if I had to distil my ethic I’d say – simplicity and subtlety. Beauty and use. I use only natural fibres, my favourites are wool and silk because they accept dye readily, wear well and because they aren’t as resource intensive. I’d love to use hemp in place of linen but haven’t yet found hemp cloth quite fine enough. I have a small label called Tinker, sporadically producing clothing, textiles and accessories, I have also run natural dye workshops. I’m not really interested in having a recipe or creating deliberate patterns and colours, because that’s what I do all day on the computer. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and like exploring how the pigments in one plant might combine or react with another. I think the serendipitous results of that process are much more beautiful than anything I could ever contrive.

Native indigo (Indigofera australis) leaves and an indigo dye vat, naturally fermented with honey and lime.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and Saffron (Crocus sativus) seedlings.

What do you love about natural dyeing, and is there anything that you dislike about the natural dyeing process?

I love the anticipation of waiting to see how something is going to turn out. It’s solitary, meditative, quiet and slow. I love the fact that nothing I do is a reproduction and can’t be replicated in turn. I really appreciate how being able to use plants to colour cloth demonstrates just how valuable and amazing they are. And I love how domestic it is, that on a small scale it’s possible to be environmentally sensitive and largely self sufficient.

But it does concern me that natural dyeing as an industry can be polluting and exploitative.

The pigment used to dye something might be naturally derived but what was used to fix it to the fibre? What happens to the contents of the dye vat afterwards? Where and how was the dyestuff grown and by whom? These are all important questions to ask.

Tell us about your dye garden. How long have you had it for? What plants do you grow in there and why did you choose them? Why do you grow your own dye plants?

I’m a little bit obsessed with starting from the very beginning with everything that I do. If I had the ability to make my own cloth I would. Because I can’t do that I resolved to try and grow as many of my dyes as I can. My dedicated dye garden is a few years old now. I chose my plants primarily for their ornamental value and suitability to dyeing clothing. This means they need to be relatively light and wash fast and not an irritant or poisonous, if I don’t know what it is and why it works I don’t use it. In my garden I have Australian Indigo, Yarrow, Woad, Hollyhocks, Madder, Chamomile, Lady’s Bedstraw, Elderflower, Blackberry, Roses, Eucalyptus, Woodruff, Saffron, Turmeric, Black-eyed Susans, Coreopsis, Meadowsweet, Pomegranate, Tansy and Goldenrod. I also plant annuals like Tagetes and Zinnias.

What are you up to now in your natural dyeing journey, and where are you hoping to go next?

I had my second child seven months ago so this year has been a bit of an enforced time out for me which has actually been really nice. I’ve been spending a lot of time enjoying just pottering and doing my own thing, playing with ideas, working on designs, developing my aesthetic and working in the garden. Once I have a bit more time I might start producing a few things for my little online shop again. I’m focusing on small, one-off pieces dyed using plants from my garden. I’m expanding my plantings of Indigofera australis and Coreopsis and I’m planting out a new crop of Woad and Madder seedlings.

You can see more of Myf’s products, growing, natural dyeing and making process on her website and Instagram, and what’s inspiring her on Pinterest.

Madder (Rubia tinctorum).
Woolly Yarrow (Achillea tormentosa)
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.)
Woodruff (Asperula orientalis).
Myf protecting her precious plants from curious possums.
Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and Golden Rod (Solidago virgaurea)
A necklace that Myf dyed, spun and wove using silk and colours derived from plants in her garden.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria) seeds from Myf’s seed collection. She both collects and buys seeds to use in her garden.
Some of the results of Myf’s natural dyeing