Otterly Lovely and Adorably Dormouse

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

Otterly Lovely in charcoal, watercolours and ink by Michelle Thomasson

Working on water colour paper is reassuring; I can roughly judge how the colours will flow and when I am working in mixed media I often add pastels, charcoal, ink or even fluorescent pen colour to the drawing, I love the texture, shadow and light that it brings.

How to translate some of those drawings onto a piece of cloth? That was a new challenge for me because I wanted to have some nature themed, cheerful banners hanging in Paula Fahy’s garden for the Brighton and Hove Artist’s Open Houses May 2019.

I returned to embroidery and crochet crafts several years back and have used embroidery in small art and poetry pieces but I hadn’t attempted ‘painting’ on textiles with anything other than embroidery stitches and folk-like felt shapes. I borrowed a few books from our brilliant library on natural dyes and decided upon the least toxic route I could find to mordant pieces of calico for some banners. The mordant helps prepare the fibres for the natural dye, producing a deeper, longer lasting colour and I needed the overall colour of the banners to weather well as they would be hanging outside for at least a month.

I dipped the calico pieces into a mordant mixture comprised of alum and calcium carbonate, once rinsed I soaked the material in water with organic henna (auburn colour) and simmered other pieces in fermented birch bark mulch which produced a rusty-pink colour.

Fermented birch bark mulch boiled then strained

Jane a good friend took a piece of the calico and boiled it with red onion skins. All three pieces absorbed the natural dyes, but I also used one calico test piece without pre-mordant treatment - it did not absorb the henna colour well. The comparison pieces are shown in the photo below:

Lighter piece of calico on the right was not soaked in a mordant before it was dyed with henna

For more information on natural dyes please see the two links below. Jenny Dean’s website is a treasure trove of information and there is a new edition of her invaluable book ‘Wild Colour’. A new book by Babs Behan ‘Botanical Inks’ also has clear information and a beautifully layout.

Otterly Lovely gets a stitched outline

To translate my otter drawn with watercolour pencils, ink and charcoal I used a technique recently learnt from textile artist Sue Stone in Sue’s very helpful online course, using simple back stitch for the form or outline can make an effective basis for your textile piece. Here I used hand stitching and machine zig-zag for Otterly's outline:

Once I had the reassuring form it felt less daunting to apply textile paints, applique and embroidery for the river scene. (Further information about Sue Stone please see the last 2 links below.)

With Otterly Lovely completed I felt more comfortable using textile paints and stitch so I didn’t feel the need to follow an outline from one of my paper drawings for the little Adorably Dormouse that was to follow.

Adorably Dormouse charcoal, watercolours and pastels by Michelle Thomasson

The red onion skin ground on the cloth provided a rich toned background; I worked with that colour palate for the textile paints and nestled dormouse in the stitched outlines of several leaves, I also used running stitch for the darker areas of fur on the dormouse's tail and little behind. (The beautiful ceramic Woodpecker perched alongside was hand built from clay by Jane Sweeney).

Adorably Dormouse on a naturally dyed banner, textile paints and embroidery by Michelle

I would like to progress to all natural dye artwork but I still have to learn how to make natural dye and botanical inks that would give the opacity and rich colour blends created with standard non-toxic textile paints. I am growing Madder and Weld in a patio pot, I now have to wait for the plants to grow, it is process that needs patience, I am trying to grow that too!

Banners in Paula's garden for Brighton & Hove Artist's Open Houses May 2019

Natural Dyes with Jenny Dean:

Babs Behan's Botanical Inks:

Textile Artist dot org is a wonderful resource created by Sue Stone’s sons Joe and Sam Pitcher, there you will find valuable information about Sue Stone's work along with other international textile artists: and

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