Culture: Discovering the art of natural dyes, fabrics, and textiles

Sew and Grow is one of Milton Keynes Christian Foundation’s social enterprises staffed by young people not in education, training or employment who gain essential work experience and qualifications as they hand-craft beautiful textile products.  Sew & Grow develops beautiful and useful textile products utilising natural dyes, and repurposed materials where possible.  On our visit to the MK Foundation, the Sew & Grow team were dying, cutting, and assembling quilt squares from a mix of natural dyed cotton thinking about a commercial range of products to market such as pot handlers.  The colours ranged from a peachy pink using avocado pits/skins, tawny brown from tea and a yellow from onion skins. Inspired to have a go? Head to The Shop where a range of fabrics are available or a Dye at Home Scarf Kit.  The Sew and Grow team enjoy telling everyone about all the amazing products they are creating and colours in the natural dye bath as well as products for sale and workshops taking place.  To hear the latest just sign up to their Instagram @sewandgrowmk

More about the art of natural dying can be found in this short article in Architecture Digest:

Sew & Grow’s Product development and the team’s creative processes are based around the core values of fair labour, practising positive change and environmental responsibility.

  • grow, harvest and process natural dye plants; use plant-based extract powders; and use would-be food waste to colour textiles traditionally, ethically and with minimal environmental impact
  • use re-purposed and organic textiles where possible, as well as doing our best to source ethical materials to develop functional and beautiful products which can help people live more planet-friendly lives
  • believe in slowing down, making mindfully, and re-connecting with nature and community
  • use social media and workshops to educate and engage our community about environmental and social issues

As a technique, quilting and ‘patchwork’ has historically been used for a diverse range of objects, from clothing to intricate objects such as pincushions.  Along with patchwork, quilting is most often associated with its use for bedding, but the history of quilting can be traced back at least to medieval times. In Britain, quilting was most popular in the 17th century, when it was used for clothing combining warmth and beauty, worn by the wealthy and later for petticoats, jackets and waistcoats. Quilts were produced professionally in major towns and cities – London, Canterbury and Exeter are all linked with sumptuous examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection. There is wonderful article here from the V&A about their collection and more about the heritage of quilting and patchwork:  V&A Introduction to Quilting and Patchwork.

The Arts & Crafts movement integrated fabric and textile design into the art of stained glass, with some of the most celebrated works and designs by William Morris and Morris & Co.  William Morris and his associates set out to redefine the role of the artist within stained-glass manufacture: light, colour,  textiles, nature, and design are equally represented in UK churches from Bradford Cathedral to All Saints Church, Middleton Cheney.  Morris was hugely influenced by the work of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, who wanted to reinstate values of past times to improve society. Morris aimed to provide affordable and accessible ‘art for all.’  How appropriate then to arrive in Shepton Mallet,  Somerset to join in an open community workshop designing fabric installations while writing Found Poetry, led by Rev Gill Sakakini, Creative Pioneer Pastor.

The theme of the workshop was The Gleaning a multi-disciplinary textile installation which will be installed in the clear glass windows of St Peter's & St Pauls during Somerset Art Weeks in September.  The appropriate theme for SAW 2022 is ‘Sanctuary’

  • Sanctuary Spiritual - a holy or sacred place. 
  • Sustainable - a place that provides safety or protection i.e. the natural world, plants, wildlife. 
  • Social - the protection from danger or a difficult situation that is provided by a safe place.

Gill says she “wants to model creative church into the community, allaying any fears or suspicions there might be. I want to encourage people to use the eyes of the heart to engage with God, community and creation through arts and crafts.”  

Gill’s top takeaways for achieving community and creation through arts and crafts:

  • Join in with whatever is going on initially; it honours peoples’ projects/ideas/ and shows interest and creates opportunities to build together. 
  • Sit light to any notion of strategy. Have eyes wide open to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Most of what has happened has presented organically 
  • Think more radically than you think is radical. 
  • Now I always say yes to things/items people offer me! 

She taps into a vibrant and diverse arts community in Shepton Mallet, with cultural events held in the local library,  Art Bank (formerly the high street bank) hosts Rubbish Art Project and cafe providing an array of affordable workshops and courses “to improve confidence levels , support wellbeing and foster in inclusion in a fun and friendly way.”  Working together and creating together,  The Shepton Mallet Arts and Culture (SMart) CIC is a creative hub for artists, arts and culture practitioners, organisers and facilitators living and working in Shepton Mallet.  

The Gleaning installation in St Peter's & St Paul’s, Shepton Mallet opens on 21st September and will be followed by a programme of free events and workshops. The Gleaning is on view during Somerset Art Weeks until 9th October 2022  .

For more details on events and to get in touch with Gill about her work: visit The Gleaning.

MK Christian Foundation is worth a detour.  Sew and Grow is just one of ten social enterprises and projects to inspire a community development model through enterprise and creativity. 


We would love to hear about cultural and creative projects - are you involved in a community art project,  knitting circle or quilting group? Please get in touch so we can share your stories.