Caroline Nixon: Stitching into botanical magic
Challenging life events can come crashing into our lives and turn our worlds upside down. But for some, those events can also provide opportunities to rediscover one’s creative path. Such was the case for Caroline Nixon.
Having trained and worked as a doctor for much of her career, Caroline became the patient in her mid-50s. Her diagnosis forced early retirement for regular treatments. Ironically, those disruptions resulted in Caroline’s ability to return to her love of sewing. And slowly but surely, the patient would become a textile artist.
Early in her art journey, Caroline found a passion for printing and dyeing fabrics. But her health challenges prevented her from using chemical-based products. So, armed with her science background, Caroline literally began foraging outdoors to discover what types of natural dyes surrounded her. As the saying goes, the rest is history. And Caroline is now a world-renowned expert on eco-printing and dyeing.
We’re thrilled to share this intimate interview with you that explores both Caroline’s process and creative path. Her sense of humour is a wonderful complement to the instruction and inspiration she so generously offers. You’ll learn where she sources her materials (including her infamous fish kettle), as well as her techniques and tips on eco-printing. We promise you’ll be inspired to explore the eco-printing world after hearing Caroline’s story.
Caroline focuses on natural dyes, eco-printing, hand stitch and repurposing. She grows many of the dyeplants herself, mingled among the veggies in her garden. She offers workshops at her home in Warwickshire, UK, as well as France, Greece, Italy and Portugal. Caroline has exhibited her work across the globe.
From doctor to patient to artist
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Caroline Nixon: One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting with my beloved grandma learning how to hand sew, and later, to use her ancient treadle Singer sewing machine.
I also adored her big collection of vintage buttons kept in one of those large glass jars they used to have in sweet shops. For me, those buttons were more enticing than sweeties!
Sewing became my go-to activity when I wanted to relax, but it was some years before I realised it could also be an art form. That was the moment when a whole new and exciting world opened for me.
When I discovered the soft, harmonious colours of natural dyes and the photorealistic prints that could be obtained from leaves, I realised I had found my textile ‘home.’
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Most of my work comes from my own imagination and experimentation, but there are people who have been a big influence and inspiration.
A workshop with Angie Hughes on printing and embellishing velvet provided the lightbulb moment that sewing could produce something much more exciting than clothing.
Following that, books by Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn opened my eyes to the possibilities of colouring and patterning my own cloth for backgrounds on which to stitch.
In terms of ecoprinting, I am greatly influenced by Irit Dulman, whom I consider to be the world’s most talented ecoprinter.
My science background also definitely influenced me as an ecoprinter. Unexpected results are exciting, but I wanted to understand the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how.’ Exploring the science behind the art has helped me get reproducible and reliably colourfast results that still bear an element of serendipity and surprise.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
A circuitous one!
I trained as a doctor and worked for the NHS all my working life, complemented by interspersed periods of volunteer work in various parts of Asia. Unfortunately, I, myself, became sick in my early 50’s, and I had to retire early on health grounds. In between treatments, I found myself with plenty of time to sew.
Working with textiles was my comfort and motivation during those times. But something felt wrong. I was trying to lead the healthiest possible lifestyle with nutritious foods and lots of fresh air, but using chemical and synthetic dyes did not chime well with those efforts.
I started to explore the possibilities of natural dyes and was immediately entranced by their subtle, harmonious colours. Then, quite by chance, I met Nicola Brown, a wonderful felter and ecoprinter, who generously shared her knowledge with me. She opened up the exciting world of ecoprinting.
My last volunteer post abroad was in Bangladesh, and there, I saw first-hand the harm done by the garment industry in terms of human exploitation and damage to the environment. That inspired me to work wherever possible with natural processes and to use repurposed and recycled textiles.
One of my greatest joys is rummaging in French flea markets for vintage linens, and I am on a mission to give them the chance to be used and appreciated again by turning them into clothes, cushions or textile art.
Fish kettles and other found materials
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
It often starts with the planting of a seed, the taking of a cutting, foraging in the woods and hedgerows, or finding a new exciting leaf with which to experiment. Sometimes, I will be working to a specific brief. But more often than not, the leaves themselves ‘tell’ me how they should be composed, which natural dyes will complement them, and which cloth will best accept their pigments.
The crucial elements for ecoprinting are heat, moisture and pressure. This is achieved by placing the leaves on the cloth, rolling tightly on a pole, and binding tightly with twine. Then everything is steamed with plain water to develop and set the colours.
As the seasons progress, the leaves change, so my favourites to print with change during the year. Horse chestnut makes wonderful big dramatic prints in spring. Paeony and geranium are wonderful in summer. Maple and oak are special favourites in autumn, and in winter I move to the rich red prints of eucalyptus
Ecoprinting is a process in which you need to ‘commit’ quite early. Once the bundle is rolled and steaming in the pot, it’s too late to decide to just pop a couple more leaves into the bundle! So, once the leaves are laid out, that is often a moment for a long pause and reflection. I look to see is the composition balanced? Are there any gaps? Have I got the leaves the right way up?
Colour and texture are applied with natural dyes, sometimes with shibori techniques.
Many of the dyes I use are grown in my own garden. Weld, madder and dyer’s greenweed are favourites. I also buy natural dye extracts, including cochineal bugs from a women’s co-operative in Mexico and sappanwood from a sustainable plantation in India. Sometimes they are used first to give a coloured background, and sometimes they can be applied afterwards to modify the colours.
And then comes the ecoprinting.
Once the fabric has been ecoprinted I prefer to do my hand-stitching first with no backing and no hoop. I have a lovely stash of threads collected in flea markets, charity shops and donated by friends.I also dye threads with natural dyes, often tossing them into the dyepot along with my fabric.
After that, I mount the work on a backing fabric if I am also going to add free machine embroidery. I have an ancient old model Bernina sewing machine. It weighs a ton, is built like a tank, and it ploughs effortlessly through many layers of fabric. I also have a brand new Bernina for clothes making, but for free machining, I usually reach for the trusty old Bernie.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
My huge fish kettle always gets a laugh, but I don’t want people to worry that they need a pot as big as that! I use it for workshops and for large commissions. And yes, I bought it at a French flea market.
I have a huge collection of pots and pans, donated by friends and bought in flea markets and charity shops. Preserving pans for jam making are a favourite. With some techniques, the metal of the pot will affect the colour of the prints. For example, copper pots can accentuate the greens.
When it comes to choosing fabrics at flea markets, I always look for natural fibres. Vintage French linen bed sheets are a favourite, as well as preloved cashmere and lambswool sweaters from charity shops.
I also love incorporating lace and monograms and often wonder who was the woman who made these delicate fabrics? What was her life like?
Anything bought second-hand goes straight into the washing machine and then is stored in a plastic bag until it is used and to help keep Mr. Moth at bay. (After boiling in the dyepot, though, Mr. Moth is gone for good!)
What currently inspires you?
I’m most inspired by the materials I use: the leaves, the dyes and the fabrics. They all have their own personality, and I love the challenge of working out how to maximise their potential ‘Nature.’ What could be more inspiring that to step out into the garden in early morning hours to harvest leaves with which to work?
Other ecoprinters also greatly inspire me. We are a close-knit group and share information generously. It’s wonderful to see how people start with basically the same knowledge base and then evolve their own unique way of using it to produce incredibly varied work.
Room to explore
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
Can I be greedy and have two?
The first would be my opera coat. I found a wonderful piece of vintage wool/silk. I suspect it was intended for upholstery, but it was the perfect weight for a coat.
It was such lovely fabric that I auditioned many ideas before eventually deciding I would make a coat, incorporating all the techniques I knew. It really gave me scope to play with dye, shibori, print and stitch.
I wore it for the first time to the opera, hence the name. It was my first-ever entry to the Festival of Quilts, and it won a prize and became one of my proudest achievements.
The second is a piece called ‘les brodeuses inconnues’ – the unknown embroideresses. When rummaging in French flea markets, I see vintage textiles and big old pots in which to simmer my dyes. And I find the household textiles with beautiful embroidery and monograms very poignant.
Who was she—the lady who stitched this so exquisitely?
As an homage to them all, I pieced together a background of vintage embroidery, lace and monograms. And then I ecoprinted it with plants from the French hedgerows, integrated it with hand stitch, and added image transfers of ladies from old French photographs. I only have to glance at it to be transported right back to the France I love.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Though natural dyeing has a long history and comprehensive knowledge base, ecoprinting is a relatively new art form. There are many unknowns, so I am always experimenting and always asking ‘what if…?’ My work evolves as I discover new and exciting interactions between
leaves, dyes and fabrics.
Due to these discoveries, when I look back at my work from five years ago, I am surprised by how much I have extended my colour palette, composition and range of techniques. Nature is so full of wonderful surprises, I feel sure these discoveries will go on and on.
For more information visit www.handmadetextilesbycaroline.co.uk/
Caroline loves to work with natural dyes. Let us know about your own botanical printing or dyeing experiences below.