After a creative childhood growing up in Sydney, textile artist Victoria Pemberton studied visual arts at the Sydney College of the Arts. Originally interested in film and photography, it wasn’t until after completing her studies that she began to discover textiles, and to experiment with dying. She was quickly drawn to the process of working with indigo dye, which she likens to working in a photographic darkroom. ‘When you first pull your cloth from the vat it is a bright luminous yellow green, which fades to blue as it oxidises’ she explains below. The metamorphosis from vivid yellow/green to intense blue right before your eyes is an almost magical transition.
As someone who works with chemicals on a daily basis, it’s very important to Victoria to work in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. In recent years she has focussed on sourcing only natural plant based dyes and natural fibres, like cotton, linen, silk and wool.
‘All my work is created with intent and thoughtfulness, and works are intended to be functional, but also to be things of beauty’ Victoria explains. ‘Each piece is an exploration of colour and technique, and all are unique’.
Victoria’s practice mainly centres around Itajime and Arashi shibori, which are characterised by geometric repeating lines and pattern, created by precise folding and compressing of fabrics before submerging them in the intense indigo dye. She explains below that it’s a technique that takes a lifetime to master, but the results (even the mistakes!) are always beautiful.
In addition to her creative practice, Victoria also hosts regular shibori dying workshops – however she’s on the lookout for a new venue in Melbourne to host these popular classes! She’d love to hear from anyone with a space that might be suitable!
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?
I was lucky as a child, my parents loved to travel and collected many different types of art, so I was exposed to creative things from a really young age. We went to galleries and the theatre quite often in Sydney, and always when we travelled. Art became a passion, and when it came time to go to university, I was able to attend Sydney College of the Arts where I graduated with a Bachelor of Visual Arts. Originally I was enrolled to do film, but I ended up in the photography department. The part of the process that I loved the most was working in the darkroom, processing film and developing photos. After university other interests diverted me, and photography dropped off my radar for awhile.
Somewhere in there I taught myself to sew, for some reason I really wanted to make a quilt! So I learned to sew while making a quilt, and I got quite stuck on it. I think that renewed some creative energy within me, because after that I just wanted to make things, and I knew I really wanted to work with textiles. At first I wanted to design my own prints but I didn’t know how, and I think I must have just seen hand dyed fabric somewhere, because the next thing I knew, I had a dye kit heading in my direction and I was dyeing anything I could get my hands on.
How did you originally get involved with the art of shibori? What attracted you to this method?
After my initial experimenting with dyes and dare I say it – tie dye – I began to wonder about traditional dye techniques around the world. I thought to myself that surely tie dye wasn’t all there was out there! Happily I was right, and I googled traditional dye techniques, found something called Arashi shibori and fell in love.
Through reading, studying and being exposed to very traditional work, I also discovered the idea of creating colour using natural sources, and I began working with natural dyes.
It’s often said that Indigo is one of the easiest natural dyes to begin with, so I started there. In some ways it is, in others it is a dye that takes a lifetime to master, but the results are always beautiful. I’ve spent more time working with indigo now than any other dye, and the process is so similar to working in a darkroom. I think perhaps that aspect of it really closed the deal for me. When you first pull your cloth from the vat it is a bright luminous yellow green, which fades to blue as it oxidises. The depth of colour increases with each repeated dip in the vat.
Alongside my continued use of indigo, I’m now also investigating and using other natural dyes further than I’ve done in the past, which I’m really excited about.
You regularly teach indigo shibori dyeing workshops. Can you elaborate on the techniques you teach in your workshops?
The name or term ‘shibori’ actually encompasses a whole slew of resist based dye techniques, by binding and folding, twisting or compressing your cloth in a variety of ways. There are three main groupings that I see, which are stitch resist, Itajime and Arashi shibori. I’ve really focused my energies on the latter 2 areas; both of these styles are widely practiced and quickly recognisable.
Itajime shibori uses shape resists and is very geometric, it gives you a singular repeating pattern across a grid or whatever way you choose to fold your fabric, and Arashi shibori is line work, where cloth is wrapped around a pole with string and compressed. The precision of your folds and the way you wrap your string influence your final designs in both techniques.
In my workshops I teach both the structure of true Japanese shibori, and also the looser western ‘wabi sabi’ style that most people are familiar with. Students are also provided with the know how to set up an indigo vat, and I teach its quirks and character along with the dye process.
Beyond the distinctive indigo palette of traditional shibori, what influences the aesthetic of your work?
I’ve always been very drawn to geometric patterns, shapes that repeat, so traditional shibori has been quite influential for me. On the flip side I am very drawn to calm and quiet design, I believe that less is more, so I’m also drawn to design that shows restraint. I think that shibori really has both of these things, both in its patterns and in its practice.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process? How do you approach the creation of a new textile design? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively?
My creative process begins with a desire to know more and try new things. If I’m looking for inspiration I usually flick through one of my shibori books, some of which are written in Japanese so I try to figure out how a design has been achieved. This usually then becomes a base for me to work from, and I’ll either stay true to a traditional design or put my own spin on it. Additionally I try to always design things that I find useful, or would want in my home. I always want my designs to have a timeless element; it’s important to me that my work fits into someone’s home and life seamlessly and effortlessly.
I plan my designs, or I have a set idea that I work towards, but then I can also be quite intuitive and I’ll change my design or ideas as I go, keeping the original idea in mind but not being constrained by it. For example my wabi – sabi pillow slips came about by accident, hence their name!
All of my work is created using natural fibres, dyes and mordants. I also use a selection of clamps and shape resists, kitchen string, pipes, buckets and dye pots. I do all of my dyeing outside.
What does a typical day in the studio involve for you?
All of my days start out quite early, I’ll head out into the morning for a run before doing anything else. After breakfast I’ll drop my son at kinder and then it’s back home to do a quick work through of my running sheet for the day. Since I have two work spaces I tend to break my days into ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ days, and will either spend the day outside dyeing, or inside working on whatever happens to need doing that day.
On a wet day I usually dye a variety of pieces, I like to work on a few different things at once, and try to divide my days work between small and large items. I’ll do both shibori and straight dye work. Recently I’ve also got some hot dye pots going as well, so I tend to hop about tending to lots of different things!
On dry days I do all the finishing touches, all the sewing, tagging, photography, order packing and all the other parts of being a one woman show. I’ll set aside time to answer emails, do some admin work, plan for upcoming designs and my weekly schedule.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
I can’t go past mentioning the work of Tanya Stubbles, we have one of her artworks and it inspires me daily.
I’ve been very drawn to woodwork recently, and I just did a swap with Erin Malloy for a hand carved arrow, it’s excellent!
I follow Grown and Gathered on Instagram, and I really love the work they are doing, I think it’s super cool and incredibly inspiring.
He’s from New Zealand, but the work of tattooist Victor J Webster resonates with me, and I’m honoured to have one of his pieces on my arm!
Can you list for your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of a bolt of creative inspiration?
My small and much loved collection of shibori and dye books, in particular Shibori – The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing written by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, Mary Kellog Rice and Jane Barton. Any of Jenny Dean’s dye books are also excellent.
Instagram, of course! It’s a bit addictive, and I follow some incredibly talented people.
There’s nothing quite like going outside for a walk/run especially if it’s in the bush. Having that opportunity to clear my head and not think about work for a while usually reinvigorates me.
For the fibre lovers out there, The Woolful podcast is amazing, I often listen to it while working.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to pursue my passion as a career, so every day doing that feels like a pretty awesome achievement.
What would be your dream creative project?
I’d love to travel around the world visiting dye houses and learning from dye masters the dye traditions of their country / family / tribes, as well as their different approaches to textiles and fibres.
To gather together those different techniques, honour their origins and create some kind of large scale dye installation at a major gallery would be a dream come true. There is just so much to learn.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m going to Japan for a work / play holiday at the end of the month. I’ll be visiting the Arimatsu Shibori festival, a few dye houses and I’m really excited about going to the Little Indigo Museum, owned and run by Hiroyuki Shindo, whose work I find incredibly inspiring. It’s possible I’ll have a bit of a fan moment and stutter a little when I meet him!
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I’m a pretty big fan of Brunswick and the surrounding areas, and anywhere along the Merri Creek trail. I love the houses and gardens, as well as the inner city lifestyle, and I love the parks and trees! I’m a country girl at heart, so the bush corridor along Merri Creek makes me really happy.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
My husband and I recently celebrated our six year anniversary at Gingerboy in the city. We’ve been there a few times and have never had something we didn’t love.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Out for a run, hopefully on a trail and not a sidewalk. After that, relaxing with my family, walking the dog and going to the park!
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
The partially unmapped running track between Studley Park boathouse and Fairfield boathouse. You’d never know you were in the city, it’s so peaceful and lovely.