Until the mid-19th century, creating dyes for clothing required the creative use of plants and vegetables. Now we are bringing back that largely forgotten skill thanks to a collaboration between our apprentice Lisa Gaunt and costume dyer Helen Hughes.

Like all good endeavours, it started with a small seed of an idea. Our operations apprentice Lisa Gaunt's daily routine saw her wander regularly past a small garden in the RSC's Stratford campus, but she noticed it was rarely used either as a space for people to relax in or for growing. A keen home gardener herself, Lisa thought the garden could be used for more.

"Because we only have the one groundsman here there was just an awful lot of maintenance spraying going on which was stopping weeds and other plants growing. It seemed like a wasted opportunity. Everybody needs a garden to come out into where something interesting is happening. So I asked around and straight away, someone said: 'Oh, Helen was looking into that.'"

Helen Hughes, our Head of Costume Painting and Dyeing, had also noticed the same section of garden. And after three decades of working with dyes for costumes, she realised the space might be the perfect place to experiment with growing the plants needed for natural dyes.

So earlier this year, the two women decided to join forces to plan a test garden. Calling upon colleagues to act as volunteers, they dug out and plotted their growing section and planted more than a dozen varieties of dye plants, the seeds of which came from Helen's personal greenhouse, and decorative plants from Lisa's own garden.

Lisa (l) and Helen (r) tend to their dye garden
Helen Hughes, Head of Costume Painting and Dyeing

'I've been a dyer for 30 years, and I've dabbled with bits of natural dyeing just out of curiosity. But the Theatre Green Book is what sparked creating the dye garden. At the moment it's an experiment, but we're seeing how much we could use and how practical it would be to one day start switching gradually into introducing all natural dyes.'

Plains coreopsis, or golden tickseed, growing in the RSC dye garden
Dyer's marigold growing in the dye garden

Before the invention of synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century, the colour from plants was the main way to change fabric, often by employing natural dyes in the three primary colours of red, yellow and blue and combining them to great effect. Plants such as indigo and woad (for blues), red-veined sorrel and madder (for reds) and coreopsis, cota tinctoria, greenweed, yarrow, weld and feverfew (for yellows and oranges) could all dye fabric to different intensities depending on solution strength and dyeing time. All of those plants are now in the RSC test dye garden.

The colour comes from different parts of the plants, often the flower petals but also the roots and leaves, and are classified as either Grand Teint or Petit Teint depending on colour intensity and resistance to running.

The dye garden in August

Throughout the 2023 growing season Lisa, Helen and a team of volunteers have been weeding and keeping the garden tidy and promoting natural pollinators into the space. A twice-weekly harvesting schedule has given Helen the plants she needed to create test dye conditions and record how different fabrics react to individual solutions. The dyeing process varies for each plant species.

"Some of them you have to harvest the whole plant straight away. And things like the indigo, you have to process it immediately. You can freeze it, but we haven't currently got facilities for that," says Helen. "Other plants like the coreopsis, it's basically like deadheading the flowers. And then we store those in vegetable bags, and dry them out in our hot box. Then those are stored in an airtight container so that we've eventually got enough to dye some items of costume. Then you soak them, put them in water, it's a bit like making tea."

Helen also explains the more complicated process around indigo and woad, which use oxidation and fermentation to create their rich blue colours. Although indigo powder is blue, it won't dye fabric without other scientific processes. First, the indigo needs a reducing agent such as fructose, henna powder or madder root to ensure it properly dissolves in an alkaline base, which is created using calcium hydroxide. The combination of the indigo into the alkaline turns the dye bath a yellow-green colour ready for dyeing. Finally, it's the introduction of oxygen, either when the fabric is removed from the dyeing vat or placed in a water bath, which then turns the fabric blue, as if by magic.

Blue dyes
Helen's experiment book keeps a log of plant usage, solution strength, materials test-dyed and dyeing time to achieve different results

The project is inspired by the RSC's commitment to the Theatre Green Book, a working document used across the theatre sector to set standards for making productions, theatre buildings and front of house and catering operations more sustainable.

"We're so grateful to our colleagues for all of their support with this project," says Lisa. "Our Environmental Manager Liz really encouraged us to go for it, and our gardener Rob has been so patient, working and mowing around our beds and wildflower meadow experiments. Not only that, but they dug into their budget for some tools and a small shed for us. Without them, we couldn't have done this!"

Although a small trial garden now, Lisa and Helen are dreaming bigger, with plans to extend the dye beds next year and plant a riot of colourful plants across the garden designed to promote mental well-being and encourage bees and hoverflies.

"We've been merrily collecting seeds from everything so that we've got seeds for next year and hopefully grow double the amount of plants next year. We've got other areas of the garden where people can sit and look at the colour, a bug hotel built using materials that we found on site and our water harvesting as well."

For now, the project is an exploration of how different fabrics react to the homegrown dyes and how feasible dyeing at scale could be in the future. But perhaps one day the fruits of this garden could go from seed to stage.

Lisa, RSC Operations Apprentice

'It's been a source of great joy for me. I had no idea how Helen was going to use everything, and she's an inspiration because she's coming up with so many different ways of using the plants. So that's all really exciting for the future. We've got new companies coming to the RSC all the time. Now, in that first week when they arrive we can say to their designers, come and have a look at the garden and see what could be possible one day.'

Japanese indigo, also known as dyer’s knotweed, is related to rhubarb and dock and produces a vibrant blue colour for dyeing