Dyeing For My Forest by Heather Boulton-Lyons PDF  | Print |  E-mail

picking common hathorne

 Picking Common Buckthorn
photo by Heather Boulton-Lyons, 2011

Dyeing For My Forest and The Forest Friends – an OCAD University undergraduate thesis project by Heather Boulton-Lyons

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My OCAD University undergraduate thesis work represented a comprehensive research and design project that culminated in the creation of a line of sustainable crocheted toys.  It was also a seven-month-long investigation into the dyeing potential of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).  Buckthorn is a versatile dye plant; however, it is also a nasty invasive weed species that is negatively impacting the biodiversity of Southern Ontario’s forests.  Buckthorn is also particularly destructive to the forests and ESAs (environmentally significant areas) of my hometown of London, Ontario.  My work involved experimenting with buckthorn as a dye plant, while at the same time investigating alternative non-toxic dye techniques.  The result was a collection of buckthorn-dyed, sustainably sourced yarns that I crocheted into plush frog and turtle toys.  The patterns were developed over the course of the second semester of my thesis and are meant to be composite representations of the native reptiles and amphibians that call Southern Ontario home.  In the coming months after graduation, I plan to market the crocheted toys for sale with a goal to donate 25% of the proceeds from the sale of each toy to a London Ontario based conservation group.


 Dyeing With Common Buckthorn (The Rinsing Process)

The research process started months before I picked my first Rhamnus cathartica berry, and long before I decided to pursue dyeing with it for my thesis.  I was curious about this plant that grew with abundance in the parks and trails adjacent to my home.  I knew very little about it except that it was invasive and that its purple berries had the potential to be a natural dye source.  As a dyer, any plant that has colour in the fruit, leaves or bark has the potential to be a dye plant, and the dark purple fruit of the common buckthorn plant immediately attracted my attention.  I then spent time exploring the libraries of OCAD University and the Textile Museum of Canada where I found dozens of books on the subject of natural dyes.  Although my searches yielded many successful results and provided valuable information on plant dyes, my research actually left me with more questions than answers.  I discovered that when it comes to dyeing with plants, there really is no one particular way to go about the process.  The use of natural dyes is not an exact science, and each natural dyer has his or her own method when it comes to the dyeing process.  It was at this point in my research that it became quite clear that I would have to develop my own methods for dyeing with buckthorn, i.e., to write my own set of rules in order to continue into the experimentation phase. 


Hand Dyed Yarn (alum mordant, wool yarn)

photo by Heather Boulton-Lyons, 2011

Leaving the library behind for the dye kitchen offered its own new set of challenges and rewards.  It was here that the real heart of my thesis began in earnest and where I got to work with some of the best natural dyers in the country.  OCAD University’s Fibre Department is a wealth of knowledge, and I pestered and stalked every member of the faculty who possessed even the most general dye knowledge.  Using the information I gleaned from books in conjunction with faculty help, I thus began the experimental stage of my thesis.

Initially, my work developed from the material learned and skills acquired in the Fibre Department at OCAD University and the various courses offered there that deal with dyeing and colour theory.  It was from these classes that I derived a dye method for my initial tests and experiments with traditional mordants.  It was also where I first became aware of the relative toxicity of chemical mordants like tin (stannous chloride), copper (cupric sulfate) and iron (ferrous sulfate), and how detrimental repeated exposure can be, not only to the health of the dyer but also to the surrounding ecosystem.  Taking that into consideration and coupled with the emerging environmental message of my thesis, I decided that I would, from that point forward, only use mordants that were food safe or that could be found in the natural environment.  This stipulation limited my work somewhat, but also challenged me to experiment with alternatives to traditional mordants and other substances that I would never have thought to dye with.  I soon realized, however, that working on my own could only take me so far, so I enlisted the help of other OCAD University faculty members. 

forest friends

Constructing The Forest Friends

photo by Heather Boulton-Lyons, 2012

One of the best experiences during the dyeing process and experimental stage of my thesis came when I got to work one-on-one with Laurie Wassink, the Fibre Department’s Studio Technician.  She shared her vast knowledge of natural dyes with me, and even went so far as to include me in a “dye day” – a weekly fall dye workshop that she conducts with Class Assistant, Jen Kneulman.  Thanks to Laurie and Jen I now think about natural dyes in a much more scientific way, and have adapted many of their techniques into my own practice.

As I dyed, experimented and read through countless dye books in an effort to come up with my own methods, I began to realize something profound: no matter the method, the most exciting part about dyeing with natural materials is the unpredictability.  It is the excitement one feels during the dye process, the exhilaration of trying something new or the anticipation of waiting for something to emerge from the dye pot.  It is the satisfaction and artistic freedom that comes with the discovery of a new colour or shade of yarn that is beautiful, completely unexpected and unique.

Throughout the dyeing process and experimental stages of my thesis, I began to amass skeins of hand-dyed yarn.  As the year progressed and the yarn began to pile up, I started to wonder about its potential beyond sitting on a shelf and collecting dust.  I knew that I wanted to create some sort of eco-friendly crocheted product at the end of my thesis, but I was having trouble resolving what to make.  I wanted to ensure that whatever I created would fit in with the overall theme of my thesis and not be superfluous.  It was here that the idea of creating a line of eco-friendly toys and selling them to raise money for forest restoration initiatives germinated. 

The realization that I was a toy designer came in 2008 after I completed a mandatory Think Tank class at OCAD University.  For our final project, we were asked to contemplate what we would do as designers if we had unlimited funds at our disposal.  My answer was that I would make toys for the rest of my life.  From that point forward, I worked toy design into every project brief I was assigned. So, it seems in hindsight that it was only logical my thesis would evolve from a research project into an experiment in toy design.  That it would ultimately incorporate crochet is also not surprising.


wilbur the frog


 Wilbur The Frog, photo by Nicholas Kalimin -  2012

Materials: hand-dyed wool yarn, polyester fiberfill and felt (from recycled sources)

Crochet has been a part of my design work since 2006 when I was working at a craft store in London, ON.  Most of the women I worked with were knitters and would sit around the break room creating projects on their lunch hours.  I was envious and wanted to try my hand at it.  My attempts at knitting were disappointing, so I turned to crochet and was immediately drawn in by the elegant simplicity of the meeting of a single hook and a loop of yarn.

The decision to design and create the a line of reptile and amphibian toys came about not only as a result of my dye experiments and love of crochet, but also because of a close connection I have to some of our native reptiles and amphibians.  In October of 2011, I decided that I wanted to create a mascot for the forest that I was trying to protect.  I realized that if I created a toy that somebody wanted to buy I could sell it and donate the money back to a forestry restoration project that would benefit ESAs in London.  I started to think about the kinds of animals that live in the ESA near my home, and as I was accumulating a multitude of green, yellow and brown yarn, it seemed only natural that my first inclination would be to make turtles and frogs.  As a result, “Wilbur The Frog” was born.  “Terrence the Turtle” soon followed and the first toys were created from these newly-minted frog and turtle patterns.  Another factor in the decision to create crocheted frogs and turtles had to do with the coveted position these animals have in my family.  My husband is a conservation biologist and stewardship volunteer, who spends his summers rescuing turtles.  As a result of his close association with these animals, I am able to interact with them in a way that few people are able to.  I am constantly amazed by these wise and inquisitive animals, and being able to create an homage to them and their special place in our family felt like the right creative decision.

Terrence The Turtle

Terrence The Turtle (Turtle Stack), photo by Nicholas Kalimin – 2012

Materials: hand-dyed wool yarn, polyester fiberfill and felt (from recycled sources)

               The most incredible and exciting thing about the thesis process for me was the recognition that I received for my work.  Thanks to my professors, Beth Alber and Carl Hastritch, my work was vetted in a toy design competition.  I received a scholarship and accolades for my toy designs from the Women In Toys Foundation.  I was incredibly honoured to be the first Canadian recipient of the Wonder Women In Toys Foundation Scholarship for innovation, leadership and outstanding talent in toy design.  The idea that my work is now being recognized in an international arena and is being appreciated for its commitment to sustainability is at once exciting and humbling.  I am also proud that my environmental message is now being heard outside of my own community and I feel an incredible sense of completion and hope for the future.

I really feel that my thesis came full circle.  It started out as a simple dye research project, became a way to use an invasive species and morphed into a design project and a way to give back to the environment.


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