Dyeing to meet you
Textile designer and natural-dye enthusiast Katherine May brings her ‘performative’ style to Mayfair.
Ask Katherine May what it is about natural dyes that makes them so much better than their artificial counterparts, and she’ll wax lyrical about their depth and subtlety; their watercolour nature in comparison to the flatness of chemically-enhanced alternatives.
Driven by a sense that she needs a ‘connection with people’ in her work, May has sometimes veered towards performance art in the projects she’s undertaken. For an installation in the Arthaus building in London Fields, for instance, she dyed 100 metres of silk, hanging it dramatically inside the full the height of the five-storey structure.
For her next project, in association with The New Craftsmen, May has been let loose in ‘the Mine’, the former subterranean perfume laboratory housed underneath Floris on London’s Jermyn St, for a unique flower-dyeing workshop. ‘The Mine is an underground passage that’s blocked off at the ends,’ explains May, ‘but is thought to run the length of Jermyn Street and perhaps connects to St James’s Palace. It’s about reactivating Floris’s old laboratory and creating quite a sensory environment – there will be perfumes you can smell, and then the correlation into colour.’
The event, taking place on 7 May (from 6-8pm), offers the chance to learn about the process of natural plant and flower dyeing, exploring the journey of dyeing from petal, plant and seed to the vat. ‘It’s about revealing the narrative that they have packed away in boxes,’ says May. ‘Chemical recipes for making perfume, dyes, stain-removers, soap, laundry powders. Techniques like extraction, distilling, maceration. In effect I’m doing the colours of the smells.’
May will create a unique textile and fragrance installation inspired by the archive books of Floris, with numbers strictly limited. Be prepared for a few surprises too… ‘Some of the ingredients are pretty extraordinary,’ says May: ‘civet, which is basically cat spray. And ambergris, which is whale sick, which they don’t use any more.’
Try saying that with flowers.
With Katherine May at Floris, Mayfair
Photographs Sam Walton
Portrait Jasper Clarke
Words Tom Horan