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On the Map 2022, #2 Cordwainers Natural Dye Studio in London, the U.K

This is a story about Cordwainers Natural Dye Studio which is a natural dye & educational studio located in London, United Kingdom.

1. Address & Location

Newham and Hackney, London, United Kingdom - Growing zone 5a - with a temperate climate with continental winds, warm summers, cold winters and dryness. In 2020 we had no rain from May till August so do not believe that the UK has rain all the time. London also has a microclimate different from the rest of the southeast UK due to residual heat from roads, pavements, buildings, aircon units and reflections off glass buildings. We do still get the cold with the recent winter dropping as low as -5c. The hottest days we had in summer 2020 were 36c but we have 85% humidity with that.

The indigo is grown in several small sites across Hackney and Newham with the largest number of plants currently being on a council-run housing estate in the middle of Hackney - next to the bakery that made Megan and Harrys wedding cake for those that like that kind of thing.

2. Indigo plants & practices

All photos were submitted by Deborah Mitchener from Cordwainers Natural Dye Studio

CNDS began as a project in 2019 managed by Cordwainers Grow, a local community interest company that focuses on connecting people with nature through discovery. Cordwainers Grow has a long history of growing indigo in Hackney, starting at the London College of Fashion site on Mare Street. Where, in 2010, Kate Poland working with Liz Spencer, (the Dogwood Dyer), set up a dye garden to engage the students. Woad, polygum, weld, madder and a variety of other dye plants were grown on site until the space was handed back to the college in April 2019. Since then members have planted woad wherever they find space such as a local park, a community garden and happily share seeds across the UK.

Debbie founded CNDS in September 2020 but has been growing Isatis Tinctoria since 2013 when Kate gave her five small plants. These plants have been growing on a site in central Hackney ever since and are now in their 9th generation. Up until now Isatis has been grown for personal use and experimentation but 2022 is a step change into upscaling production, and trialing different types of indigo producing plants such as Polygum Senbon, Maruba and Kojoko. It is hoped that the growing spaces will produce enough pigment for classes as well as a large fabric project and a collaboration with an underwear maker.

Continuing the annual Woad day set up by Cordwainers Grow is an ambition of the studio with 2022 looking to focus on sharing different types of indigo vats as well as plants, fresh woad dyeing and pigment extraction.

CNDS became a stand-alone company in November 2021 and provides specialist sampling services to established and emerging designers with a growing focus on working within costume for media production. So far the studio has worked on sampling for several homeware brands, high fashion modesty wear, lingerie, handweavers, florists, and millinery. It also produces some sustainable and locally made items for sale directly to the public such as Irish wool socks, waste sari silk ribbons, printed and plain dyed napkins.

Teaching and sharing knowledge is also a large part of the focus with an emphasis on making knowledge accessible for all. Partnerships with local community focused organisations have allowed for free weekly classes as well as a trial of an online community club called ‘The Natural Colour Club’. This is refocusing into a partnership with the London Urban Textile Commons to produce a monthly community offering called ‘Grow Dye Make’ launching February 2022. Public-facing classes will resume in 2022 on site at the studio in East London.

September 2020 saw Cordwainers Dye step forward as the income producing arm of Cordwainers Grow and opening a dye studio. Moving into 2021 the studio will develop into a community teaching space, a to hire dye studio for new natural dyers and a hub of experimentation around sustainable local dye production with a focus on Isatis Tinctoria.

3. Culture & Story of the region

Language: English

Culture: Debbie grew up on a small holding of 6.5 acres on the Sussex coastline. Growing up in this farming environment meant she started her entrepreneurial journey age 10 by growing courgettes to sell to the market as well as helping in the greenhouses with planting and harvesting. This set an understanding of nature, growing and getting hands-on from a very early age.

Starting work in theatrical costume from the age of 17 meant a move to London and constant travel for a number of years. Finding a home in Hackney, East London 25 years ago also allowed for the development of the gardening bug. Having children further cemented the desire to get in touch with the soil, and when a change of circumstances meant a need for a new career working with the community and land seemed an obvious choice. Meeting Kate and Nat from Cordwainers in 2012 led to the discovery of dye plants and the rest they say is herstory.

Ancestry: Ancestors are from Wales, and Wessex. They can be traced back to the 9th century in Somerset and the 16th Century in London. Originally tanners, becoming Cordwainers after the killing of John Hoppe by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset in 1662. The resulting support of the Earl helped the family to make the leap to the more prestigious career path and cemented their presence in the heart of the city around St Paul's Cathedral. In the late Victorian period the family owned a shoe factory on the River Lee in Hackney employing 500 men, women and children. All good things come to an end and bad investment coupled with the outbreak of WW1 meant a complete loss of the family fortunes. The family left Hackney and ended up in Hampshire and Sussex. However, Debbie returned to Hackney in 1995 and has enjoyed getting in touch with her family's legacy in the area.


Cordwainers Natural Dye Studio


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