INDIGO … the true blue

Our June meeting this year fell on the weekend of  the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, so we decided to do something different and  some of us gathered to experiment with  an indigo dye vat and share a picnic.

In these days where everybody (except me!) has a pair of blue jeans the colour is very familiar but indigo dyeing has been around for thousands of years. Before the invention of synthetic dyes, if you wanted your toga or whatever to be a different colour, you’d have to go find something in nature to dye it with, maybe mud, a mineral, an insect or the seed, flower, root or leaves of a plant.

Applying wax before dyeing

Lynne and Joan G prepare their wrapped pieces

Indigo is said to be one of  the oldest dyes, with cloth found in Egyptian pyramids and Ancient Peru. Ancient civilizations used indigo as more than a fabric dye. They used it in cosmetics, paint, crayons, and more. The blue dye is extracted from the ‘indigo fera’ plant- a family of roughly 750 shrub species found in tropical and sub- tropical regions of the world. The word indigo traces its origins from the Greek word ‘indikon’ which translates to ‘Indian’, indicating India to be a prominent source of indigo for the Greeks. However, it was also naturally cultivated in diverse areas like China, Japan and Egypt. In Europe the ‘Isatis Tinctoria’ plant was used to produce the blue colour known as ‘woad’ or ‘false indigo’.

Bundled pieces on the line awaiting dipping

Chatting and dipping

Now ubiquitous, indigo was once a highly prized pigment available only to the rich and powerful. Aptly referred to as ‘the blue gold’ the demand for this vegetable dye fuelled several trade wars. It also enriched many empires and left an indelible mark on the histories of many colonies where it was cultivated.

Italian merchants first encountered indigo during the Crusades in the flourishing markets of the Middle East, who in turn obtained the dye from East Asia. The Italians started importing large  quantities of indigo to Northern Europe. The Indian indigo was found to be of a far superior quality than the local woad. Needless to say, local woad producers felt quite threatened by this hugely popular import and labelled it as ‘the devil’s dye’.  Over time Genoa became popular for its tough, rich blue fabric that was found to be an ideal workwear for miners, fishermen etc. French being a commonly spoken language in Europe during that time, this sturdy cloth came to be called Bleu de Gênes or the Blue of Genoa. This term would later turn into the word jeans in English.

Jo and Joan B at the vat

Joan G and Kate at the vat

The Blue of Genoa also reached the French city Nîmes known for its exceptionally talented weaver community. These weavers sought to create their own version of the indigo dyed cloth. Several experiments later they were able to create a similarly strong blue fabric. The warp yarn was treated with the indigo dye while the weft yarn stayed white. The result was a fabric that had two strikingly distinct surfaces. The deep blue surface of the cloth was kept facing the outside with the white/faint blue surface on the inside. It became roaringly famous due to its exceptional durability and was named de Nîmes or denim in English. Indigo dyeing had truly come full circle from producing fabrics that only the affluent elite could afford to robust workwear for the masses.

It takes at least 100 pounds (45 kg) of plant to make 4 ounces (113 g) of dye. This made it a very valuable commodity. Indigo plants consist of a solitary stem which supports oval, deep green leaves and clutches of red flowers. The dye is obtained from the leaves through the arduous and smelly process of fermentation. This is  quite a delicate process and there is a lot of scope for things to go wrong. This led the natural dyeing process to become surrounded with many superstitions, for example, in some places like Eastern Indonesia it began to be seen as a sacred activity that only women were permitted to carry out –  men were prohibited from even looking at the indigo vats.

Joan B waiting for the green to oxidise to blue

Adding to the vat

The harvested indigo crop would be submerged in huge containers filled with water. Wooden logs would then be put on top of these containers to thoroughly press the crop inside. This would initiate the process of fermentation- the water would begin bubbling and turning blue. This blue liquid was then drained into another container to separate out dirt and other debris that might have got into the mixture.

This repulsive smelling blue water was then mixed around with specially constructed paddles to further separate the plant from the pigment. Now a third container was employed to store this clear blue liquid. It was allowed to sit in here till the indigo contained in it settled down. Then the water was drained out and the indigo set aside to dry. The final products were small blue objects which could be grated to get the wonderfully blue dye.

Sitting on the step to undo stitching

Needless to say, our day did NOT begin with collecting leaves from indigo plants!!

Phoenix member Rosaline Darby generously organised the buying of indigo and a large vat and setting it up for us to dye our pieces. We donned our old clothes, aprons and rubber gloves to see how the magic worked! Damp fabrics needed to be carefully lowered into the vat to avoid excess oxygen mixing with the liquid. It is oxidisation that makes the ‘magic’ as items soak up the green liquid but quickly turn blue when they are removed and come into contact with the air. The fabric needs to stay in the dye for 5-10 minutes and we tied string around the pieces so that we could suspend them over the vat. Using carefully gloved hands the fabric is squeezed gently under the surface to encourage the dye to penetrate. Care is also needed to extract the pieces without too much disturbance.

The length of time in the dye determines the depth of the blue shade and pieces can be re-dyed if you want to make the colour deeper. Most of us made patterns by adding resist in some way. Wrapping with string produces a ‘tie-dye’ effect, folding the fabric with clips to keep the folds in place produces lines of colour. The fabric can be stitched in various ways with a strong thread so that the dye penetrates unevenly. Anyone familiar with Japanese shibori techniques will know that amazing patterns can be produced. Wax can also be used to resist the dye and then removed later by ironing. After dyeing the pieces are then rinsed in water with added vinegar to  neutralise the alkaline soda ash that is in the dye bath. After another good rinse in clear water they can be hung out to dry!

Our finished washing line

Nowadays of course indigo is mostly manufactured synthetically. It wasn’t until
1856 when a teenage British chemist named William Perkins accidentally formulated the first synthetic dye. A breakthrough came in 1870  when German chemist Adolf von Bayer managed to produce artificial indigo. He perfected his technique and in 1897 sold the formula to the German chemical company BASF. The natural indigo dyeing process is becoming rarer and rarer now. There are now only a handful of producers who provide natural indigo dyed fabrics, with most of them found in Brazil, Indonesia and El Salvador. Almost all our denim clothes are dyed using synthetic indigo which gives it a darker blue shade. Compared to natural indigo, synthetic indigo is purer, cheaper and gentler on the environment. During an excavation in Thebes, Greece, an indigo cloth was discovered. It is thought to date back to 2500 BCE. It seems like our current love for indigo has very deep roots!

Jo’s finished pieces

Maria’s finished pieces

Kate’s finished pieces

Joan G’s finished pieces

Although, given that it takes approximately 1,800 gallons of water to grow the cotton for a pair of blue jeans, perhaps we need to keep thinking carefully about the environmental damage to the planet of everybody’s favourite garment!

End of an enjoyable day

Thanks to Joan Bingley for the use of her garden and barn, to Rosaline Darby for the dye preparation and to Linda Walsh for the research and compilation of this article.


Jo Coombes gives below an exceptional synopsis of the Festival of Quilts exhibition, held earlier this year.

The Festival of Quilts, launched 19 years ago in partnership with the Quilters’ Guild, recently had its four-day annual show, attracting both national and international visitors. Quilts in a variety of categories from traditional to ‘art’, pictorial, miniature, contemporary and modern are exhibited in both juried and non-juried categories. Over 800 professional, amateur and young quilters enter work. Workshops, talks, demonstrations and retail therapy, as well as galleries featuring special exhibitions by notable artists, make it one of the premier European quilting shows.

Jo takes a very personal look at her favourite galleries, picking out quilts of interest to an art textile enthusiast. The wonderful award winning quilts for each category can be found on the Festival social media platforms, so this is just the tiniest sample of the treasures on offer. Unfortunately, many very deserving pieces will be left out of this account, as will many of the professional artist’s galleries!

Fourteen works were shortlisted for the Fine Art Textile Awards which recognise a broad range of skills to create visual art.

The winner this year was Jess Blaustein with ‘Table Settings’.

But Jo was impressed with Marian Jazmik’s innovative use of machine embroidery on heat treated and distorted synthetic fabrics to create ‘Stems and Stalks’. Marian has written a book on her wonderful and imaginative techniques.

Jane Walkley’s ‘Rhythm of the Weave 111 is a clever sculptural tapestry which captures the memory and repetitive life of mill workers by casting artefacts and debris in Jesmonite. Jane’s conceptual work on Yorkshire’s industrial heritage is so impressive.

Clearly, the most moving and exceptional piece was Caren Garfen’s Jewish tallis (prayer shawl) ‘The Weight of the World’, meticulously stitched over 2 years.

Jane Sanders’ ‘Self Portrait’ creates a clever eye-catching and contemporary modern picture with her vintage sewing machine.

The SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Association, Inc) gallery focused on migration and the refugee crisis in an exhibition of members’ work, called ‘Forced to Flee’. Eunhee Lee, from South Korea, creates a powerful image of this.

Jo’s favourite piece was this small intimate group of desperate people, rendered in vintage fabrics by Kathleen Loomis, Kentucky, U.S.A. It is poignant and effective, urging us all to see refugees as people seeking sanctuary, not as parasites and threats.

A stand out gallery was that of the irrepressible and lovely Sarah Hibbert who has developed a signature style of combining hand stitching on linen to create quilts with a modern design twist. Recently, she has explored paper collage and how that can be translated into her textile work. Her recent book details her creative journey and textile passion.

The Art Quilt category was very varied this year. A standout piece for Jo was Janice Gunner’s ‘Ruptured – Grief’ – a very personal piece on the loss of her husband after a long illness. It is never easy to portray such a personal story but this was done sensitively and courageously.

Niki Chandler’s ‘Tipping into the Shadows at the End of the World’ was a masterclass in precision piecing.

Whilst Liz Heywood’s ‘Rockfall’ perfectly evokes the vulnerability of the cliffs along the North Norfolk coast.

The Creative Textiles Studio, with its live demonstrations of dyeing and printing techniques is now evolving under the new leadership of Christine Chester, Terry Donaldson and Hazel Ryder (In Stitches) and Leah Higgins. The large number of visitors popping in to watch, suggests it has a bright future.

The Committed to Cloth community, nurtured by Leslie Morgan for many years, was a celebration of work created at her studios during courses and monthly sessions and then demonstrated at the Festival.

Among the many wonderful contributions to the Gallery, were those of Alison Garrett and Amanda Duke, who did a great job curating and hanging.

Lesley Morgan’s beautiful quilts

Anna Woodhead, Maggie Barber and Jo Coombes

To end, Rathangan Co Kildare, Ireland school’s delightful ‘Winners Cup’


Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature

Victoria and Albert Museum London until 8 January 2023

This fascinating exhibition documents the life of the artist, author, natural historian, farmer and environmentalist who was Beatrix Potter. Most of us will have grown up with and loved the characters in her books and it is a privilege to learn more about the person behind them.

Beatrix, aged 15, with her beloved spaniel, Spot

The Original, Real Peter Rabbit

That Beatrix Potter had superb drawing skills, honed through much practise from an early age with the help of great teachers, goes without saying but it is her observational skills and meticulous attention to accurate detail that stop her stories, whilst anthropomorphic, being twee. The actions and reactions of her characters are based firmly in accurate depictions of the types of behaviour that the animals represented would exhibit, and they inhabit a believable and recognisable world.

Sketchbook aged nine

Of particular interest to embroiderers is “The Tailor of Gloucester”. When working on this book, Potter visited the Victoria and Albert Museum to study a fine example of an 18th Century embroidered waistcoat, which is still in the museum’s collection today.

18th Century Waistcoat

She was very particular in asking to see it laid flat on a table, having already a clear idea of how she wanted her illustration to look, and made detailed drawings of the garment and notes about the embroidered decoration.

Beatrix Potter’s Study Drawings and Notes

Her final book illustration clearly shows this detailed study of the waistcoat’s embroidered design.

Tailor of Gloucester Book Illustration

Compiled by Rosaline Darby



Tetrapak Drypoint Printing

Here at Phoenix, our members are always looking to expand their knowledge of techniques and methods.  The potential of a new technique often gives freshness to our work, and the variety of skills and expertise within the group provides for a range of enjoyable in-house workshops.  When Rosaline Darby showed us her experiments in drypoint printmaking using otherwise waste Tetrapak cartons and a portable etching press generously lent to her by fellow Phoenix member Maria Walker, we jumped at the chance to have a go ourselves. Here, Robertta McPherson describes her experience of the workshop.

Some examples of Rosaline’s prints:

It was a revelation to discover that we could reuse a ‘throw-away’ carton as an environmentally friendly printing block.   We used a sharp pointed implement such as a tapestry needle inserted in a cork to make an improvised drypoint needle to etch a design onto the shiny side of the Tetrapak, remembering that the final print would be in reverse.

Concentrating on etching their designs:

At this stage, part of the surface could be textured using a small pad of wire wool or a small wire brush, or small areas of the surface could be cut out to create darker areas in the resulting print.

Next, we carefully applied the ink, rubbing it into the design with a wodge of tarlatan scrim.   Then any excess ink was lifted off with acid free tissue paper.   This was all achieved with varying degrees of mess.   However careful we were, the ink found a way to the inside of our rubber gloves!

Applying the ink and rubbing into the designs:

Then came the exciting part when, with the use of the etching press, we discovered whether our designs produced a reasonable print.

Here is a selection of our results from the day:

Once the prints are properly dry, colour can be added using watercolour paints.  Here are some that Robertta embellished with colour later at home:

It was a really enjoyable, fun workshop.   According to Robertta, this method of printing will certainly find a place in some future work.


Text to Textiles by Maria Walker

The sharing of skills is an important part of the Phoenix ethos, so our members often give demonstrations or workshops at our monthly meetings.

Phoenix member Maria Walker uses stitched text on fabric in her narrative based work, so she offered to demonstrate some of the techniques she uses and brought along some examples of her previous work.

Maria owns an old Pfaff sewing machine which can be programmed to create text. She very occasionally uses it to create text but generally finds the process of programming the text  is quite time-consuming and the choice of fonts is limited.

Free machine embroidery is Maria’s preferred method for creating text onto fabric as the style of text reflects her own handwriting and the technique is fairly quick to achieve once the vagaries of free machine embroidery have been mastered.

Maria prefers not to use a hoop as she finds the lack of manouevrability restricts her writing style. To overcome the problem of the fabric puckering she either uses a thick fabric such as boiled wool or uses a stabilizer such as “Stitch and Tear” or a dissolvable fabric as a backing.

She usually stitches directly onto the fabric but if a more accurate placement of the text is required she writes the words onto the fabric first with a vanishing pen.

Other effects can be achieved by layering a few fabrics together before stitching and then carefully cutting away the top layer or even burning away with a heat gun if a fine synthetic chiffon is used.

Creating text using a sewing machine does not necessarily mean that only fine threads can be used. Text-effects can be created using a thicker thread wound by hand onto the bobbin. This method involves stitching the text on the reverse of the fabric so when it is turned over the text created using the thicker bobbin thread will be on the right side of the fabric.  A modicum of skill is required when attempting this technique as it is important to stitch the words backwards onto the fabric so the text is legible when the fabric has been turned over. It is best to first write out the words in reverse first on a piece of paper and check for accuracy using a mirror. The effect is worth the effort as text created this way can often look as if it had been stitched by hand.

If you want something bolder then cutwork text is the technique for you. To create this you stitch the outlines of your letters onto a single layer of a non-fraying fabric such as woollen felt and then cut away the background fabric leaving the letters in tact.

You need to plan this very carefully because, as with stencilling, if you cut away too much background you will just be left with a big hole. It is a good idea to stitch horizontal lines of running stitch across the fabric first , thus creating a line paper effect. The letters can then be stitched within the lines making sure the top and bottom of the letters are attached to the line to hold it in place once the background is cut away. Maria found that looking at the cut paper work of artist Rob Ryan proved to be very useful to her when she embarked on this way of working.

Maria runs in person one-day workshops for embroidery groups in which attendees are shown how to do all these techniques. You can find more details on her website



William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow 2 April – 11 September 2022

Phoenix member Rosaline Darby recently visited this exhibition, and this is what she says about it:

The William Morris Gallery is always a rewarding place to visit, with its permanent displays about the company Morris & Co and the life and philosophy of William Morris himself, and the temporary exhibitions are often of great interest. The current one, featuring a retrospective of the career of revolutionary Trinidadian designer Althea McNish (1924 – 2020) is truly inspirational.

McNish’s impactful and visually stunning works burst onto the post-war British design scene with an explosion of Caribbean colour, combined with imagery drawn from the British countryside. It is no surprise that they were snapped up by the likes of Liberty and Hull Traders. Exciting then, they still feel relevant today, and indeed Liberty have re-issued a limited range of fabrics to tie in with the exhibition.

Golden Harvest was one of McNish’s most popular and enduring designs.

Her designs were used in fashion as well as soft furnishings.

As well as commercial fabric lengths, some of McNish’s original paintings, drawings and acetate sheets are displayed, offering an insight into the process that she used to produce her multi-layered, complex designs. Experimenting with different techniques, she often used monoprinting and lightboxes to replicate her drawings, overlaying them with paint, crayon and acetate to achieve a variety of textures and colour combinations.

I highly recommend a visit to this exhibition. The café is pretty good too!



Sketchbooks by Joan Bingley, Lynne Butt, Jo Coombes and Linda Walsh

For many textile artists, sketchbooks are an integral part of their creative practice.  For others, it is an unrewarding and difficult challenge.

Concertina sketchbooks, however, are a fantastic way to explore themes by extending the ideas and images in a variety of art techniques and mediums, without the pressure of creating the perfect picture on the page.

Working without a clear end goal can be unnerving, but also liberating; it can throw up unexpected results and new perspectives.

Lynne, Linda and Jo found the guidance of talented artist Karen Stamper in her online workshop “Free Up Your Sketchbook and Grow” both fun and addictive.  They explored the potential of mark making, compositional stye, collage techniques and colour.

A variety of drawing and writing implements:  charcoal, pens, crayons and sticks were used along with gesso, ink, masking tape, tissue and collage paper in structured exercises designed to free up the process, resulting in interesting backgrounds to work back into with more collage, acrylic paint and mediums, also adding extra colour and marks with  stubby crayons and Posca pens.

Joan Bingley started her own book to experiment with adding colour to her theme of endangered birds.

Above Joan Glasgow offers a peak at her tentative beginning at Karen Stamper’s workshop in crayons and ink over gesso and masking tape.

Collaged brown paper, tissue and magazine papers.

Coloured wash with paint and collaged papers

Added layers of fabricant and crayon

Below are details from sketchbooks by Jo Coombes, Joan Bingley, Lynne Butt, Linda Walsh and Joan Glasgow



Have you ever struggled to get your creativity going again after Christmas? Do you suffer from post-exhibition malaise?

In January our members were feeling a bit lacking in inspiration. As a group we had been extremely busy in October and November staging two exhibitions in quick succession and were now feeling listless after Christmas.

Luckily for us our social media guru, Rosaline Darby, came up with a great solution to kickstart our new year creativity and create content for our social media posts at the same time.

Her idea of setting a seven-week challenge during January and February certainly did the job for us. Each week a new ‘Prompt’ was posted on the Phoenix Instagram account, and we had a week to share our creative responses to it using the hashtag “sketchuary”.

The idea was to produce intuitive, spontaneous responses to the prompts without over-thinking them. Although it was called #sketchuary, these did not have to be conventional drawings and could be in any medium, or even an existing piece of work that suited the week’s theme if we didn’t have time to create something new.  We could stitch, print, create mixed media art, or share a photograph of something we felt fitted the title.

We also invited other people to join in with us on Instagram and this was well-received, prompting several interesting and stimulating conversations.

Here are some images of our responses to the weekly prompts.


Kate Davis

Rosaline Darby

Joan Glasgow


Kate Davis

Rosaline Darby

Joan Glasgow


Maria Walker

Robertta McPherson


Linda Walsh

Maria Walker


Kate Davis

Rosaline Darby


Jo Coombes


Robertta McPherson

Jo Coombes

We all found the challenge was a great way to kickstart our creativity as well as a good device to explore a theme as a group; it is something we will certainly do again.


The Broderers Exhibition: The Art of Embroidery
Bankside Gallery, 22 -27 February 2022

The Worshipful Company of Broderers is one of the City of London livery companies. It is over 450 years old and historically was responsible for maintaining the standard of embroidery in London.

Although none of us in Phoenix submitted work for this open call exhibition, we were nevertheless excited at the prospect of a celebration of stitched art in all its forms, from the traditional to the most contemporary, at a prestigious central London venue.

The exhibition was free to visit, and it was wonderful to see such very large audiences studying and appreciating the work.

Phoenix members Jo Coombes, Lynne Butt and Rosaline Darby visited together. Reflections on glass and difficult lighting made photography a bit tricky but here are some of the pieces that caught their eye:

Alison Aye – Mam’s Christmas Tablecloth

Anja von Kalinowski – The Unseen II

Anna Black – Movement

Carol Naylor – All That Glitters

Ellie Hipkin – Calm Chill 1 and 2

Emily Tull – The Beard Crawls Around on Your Face

Helen Banshaf – A Construction of Old Friends II

Jan Beaney – Leftkada Wetlands 1 and 2

Kate Barlow – Love

Liz Ashurst – Lockdown

Maria Wigley – Somewhere Else

Masako Newton – Social Distancing

Rachel Doyle – the Diver

Sara Rickards – The Awakening

Sarah de Rousset-Hall – Hive Mind

Susannah Weiland – Greenwich Rabbit and Mouse

Tanya Betham/Opusanglicanum – The Three Living and the Three Dead

Vicky O’Leary – Creating Calm

The full online catalogue is available here:

Further information about the Broderers, including membership, can be found here:


Here at Phoenix, we know Debbie Lyddon well because she used to be a member of our group, and so it was a delight to welcome her back as a tutor for this fun, stimulating and intellectually challenging workshop using collage to focus on design and composition.

Debbie’s engaging personality, well-planned structure for the day and encouragement of lots of group interaction made for an extremely enjoyable day.

Debbie Lyddon

Examples of Debbie’s own collage work

Debbie maintains that collage is perfect for exploring the principles of design because the paper or fabric pieces can be repositioned easily until, to quote artist Sandra Blow, a “startling rightness” is achieved, partly by intuition and partly by following the sound design principles of Space (balance), Shape, Texture, Edge, and Layering.

We began by working in pairs, taking it in turns to add drawn shapes in different sizes and weights to achieve a balanced composition, looking at space, shape and pattern or texture, which affects the weight of any given shape.

Compositions focussing on balance

We had each been asked to bring a selection of five objects, varying in size and form, for inspiration. Our next task was to choose one of these objects and first look at it closely, feeling its texture and describing it in words before drawing it from different angles, finding as many interesting shapes as possible.

Rosaline Darby’s fossil sea urchin

Lynne Butt’s vinegar bottle

Jo Combes’s salad server

Linda Walsh’s rice carrier

Next, we explored texture through the use of pre-painted papers, and the effects of different edges. We chose one of our shapes, cut it out from painted paper, and made a composition using both positive and negative shapes, still of course thinking about balance. Then we repeated this but with torn shapes, and then cut or tore out our shapes creating edges in response to the concepts feathered, scalloped, and jagged.

Positive and negative shapes and the nature of edges

After lunch, Debbie demonstrated her collage-making technique and sent us off to make our own, still using the shapes from our chosen objects, but using layering to create depth, and adding accents with stitch, as well as keeping in mind the principles of balance, shape, texture, and edge. The importance of stepping back and taking time to look and evaluate became increasingly clear.

Debbie also gave us a useful tip: photographing various arrangements before committing to glueing them down, and flipping between them, is an excellent way to judge which works best as the photograph flattens everything out, as well as letting you see several options side by side.

Debbie demonstrating

Our collages pinned up for a critique

Lynne Butt

Kate Davis

Marie-Ghislaine Beaucé

Jo Coombes

Rosaline Darby

Joan Bingley

Finally, we explored the way that these same principles of design can be applied to a 3D arrangement.

Collaborative group effort

Below are some examples of individual efforts, each using three randomly chosen objects, not necessarily those that we had brought ourselves.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and we have gained tools and insights that will give us more confidence in assessing and planning both our individual work and our group exhibitions – very worthwhile indeed!

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