An interview with Sarah Burnettt
Sarah Burnett is a big thing in the world of arts and crafts and specifically natural dyeing and we are thrilled to learn from her wisdom and knowledge as our expert dyer at Bedstraw and Madder.
She started a business called The Natural Dye Company 45 years ago, knitting gorgeous colourful cardigans that were loved and coveted by well known faces such as Judi Dench, The Queen and John Cleese.
I wanted to learn a bit more about how she got into natural dyeing so I could share it with you as part of our celebration of women for International Women's Day.
How did you end up in fashion?
As a child I was very into clothes and then I went onto work in the fashion industry in 60s with designers like Ozzie Clark. I was doing beautiful hand block printing on chiffon, it was great.
What inspired you to start your business?
When I moved to Dorset and had children I wanted beautiful warm woolly jerseys to keep them warm but I couldn’t find any so I learnt to dye and the first two I made were knitted by my daily. I was 30 when I started.
The children's jumpers developed more specifically into cardigans. Why cardigans?
The trouble with most fashion is it needed lots of fitting and to be size specific. Knitwear is practical, doesn’t need fitting like other clothing.
I felt so lucky to find my passion.
What materials did you use for your cardigans?
I used British Cheviot and later Blue Faced Leicester as its softer. Blue faced Leicester is the best yarn for dyeing with as its soft and its indigenous which is important.
I would combine wool, silk and cashmere depending on the client’s requests.
Dyeing was your passion so you outsourced the knitting part?
Yes I loved the process and the end outcome, I wasn’t a knitter. I had 100 knitters working for me eventually that I recruited by word of mouth.
The knitters were supplied with the wool and a pattern but because it was all handwork this allowed them some artistry, which was important.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
I’m a textile designer really. I’m very left handed and dyslexic. My background is as a potter and a dyer.
Did you ever sell to shops?
I never sold to shops and instead would exhibit at Madison Avenue, San Francisco and more recently a retrospective at The Craft Council fair.
You had a plant dye garden, how wonderful, which is your favourite plant to dye with?
Yes I did , I was growing woad, weld, ragwort. Woad was grown a lot in Britain for blue but in order to get a deep blue you need real heat. Woad was replaced with indigo when we started importing from overseas.
Weld is my favourite plant dye. I remember the magic moment when I found it here on chalk MOD land that had’t been sprayed. It used to be all over the place but sadly no more. Weld makes the most wonderful yellow.
I love using onion skins for yellow as well.
What mordants were you using
I started off with the really natural ones like vinegar and oak galls which are great but I was running a business and needed consistency and so I used alum a lot.
We are going through a revolution in fashion at the moment. What do you think the future of fashion is?
Future of fashion should not be throwaway. Buy less, good stuff that will last.
Use native fibres and natural materials not polyester.
What advice do you have for someone getting into natural dyeing?
Follow your instinct. Work backwards, what colours you want to achieve? What are you drying to make and then think about how to get there.
I Recommend a great book by Jenny Dean.
Thank you Sarah x
Image: Sarah Burnett with Co-Founder Vanessa Barker