Katherine May is an artist for whom the aesthetic qualities of textiles are just a thread in the fabric of their life cycle. Through research, design and navigation Katherine unspools the stories behind and ahead of textiles, revealing the links between raw materials, objects and their producers. Here, Katherine gives us an insight into her work and one of the raw materials with which she works intimately: real indigo.
Textiles are our everyday and yet they are much overlooked. They are our clothing, our interiors and our building structures. They wrap our wounds. They are part of our identity.
My studio is a small attic room where I do weaving, sampling and designing and where I collect and store. Nooks and crannies are stuffed with thread, piles of fabric, sewing tools and bits of pencil. The room has lots of natural light and access to a roof garden where I grow my dye plants.
My interest in plant-based dyes deepened when I spent some time with the biodynamic grower, Jane Scotter. Working with Jane on her market stall, Fern Verrow, in Spa Terminus I got close to the plant cycles of the produce she grew and sold. I wanted to make links between plants and colouring textiles.
Indigo, often described as the ‘true blue‘ of natural textiles dyes, is associated in many cultures with magical and spiritual rituals – probably because of the processes of change it goes through. The leaves of the Indigofera plant are harvested and, after a series of steps, the compound indica is extracted. Even the dye vat goes through a process of fermentation, with the green water producing blue bubbles on its surface. Fabric dipped into the water turns blue as it passes through the bubbles and oxidises with the air. The process has spellbound people the world over. There is something beautiful about that.
Indigo connects me to the environment. If I am dyeing I go on the roof or into the garden. And because it’s a plant it connects me to a different element in the eco system.
For the London Design Festival I designed an installation called Water – Colour, with the aim of tackling water wastage in the textile industry. In the atrium of Hackney’s Arthaus Building, a former laundry, I dyed around 100metres of cloth over 12 days, recycling vat and rinse water as I went and hanging the cloth on washing lines through the five-storey building. The colour of the cloth went from dark indigo at the bottom of the building to almost white at the top. When the dyeing was done, the dye baths were replaced with sewing machines and I quilted the cloth. The project had a life cycle.
I went to a friend’s wedding with blue hands. After Water – Colour they were blue for a long time. But I wore a blue dress and painted my nails red. I’ve since invested in much thicker gloves.
Today real indigo is used only on a small, craft based level – by people like me. I grow some of the plants myself to help understand the process, but I produce only tiny amounts of indica from them. So, for projects like Water – Colour, I source the powder from an organic farm in South America. Synthetic indigo is widely used as it produces much quicker results than real indigo. But the chemicals used in processing it can be harmful to humans and the environments into which waste water runs.
I’m currently reading Indigo: The Colour that Changed the World, by Catherine Legrand, which is teaching me a lot about China’s indigo culture. Some 2000 years BC, there was a Chinese emperor who thought everyone should dress the colour of the sky. Indigo dye plants grew among vegetable plots, and dyeing occurred in the everyday – a family’s entire wardrobe ended up in the dye vat! The idea was that this connection with the sky would lead them to live peacefully.
There is something peaceful about dyeing cloth in the garden and hanging it on the line. I do it a lot and find it a particularly pleasing experience. It’s having that connectivity with the plant. The ground beneath your feet. The sky above.
Katherine May wearing the Fine Stripe Apron.