Anne Maile- The Old Alchemist

by Ellie Foden

In 2013 a collection of materials belonging to the textile designer Anne Maile was donated to the London College of Fashion archive.

Born in Anstey, Anne is best known for three books she published on tie and dye in the 1960s and 1970s. She studied Drawing and Industrial Design at Leicester College of Arts and Crafts, and for three years she worked as a knitwear designer at a factory in Leicester, before marrying in 1934, having children and moving to London. It wasn’t until these children were old enough to go to school that Anne found she had time to pursue her creative instincts again.

She began to study Fabric Design at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in 1950, and it was here that she was introduced to tie and dye for the first time. Soon she was experimenting in her kitchen at home with different shapes, patterns and dyes, inventing her own techniques as she went along and earning her the nickname ‘The Old Alchemist’ from her children. At this point very little was known or written about tie and dye, so as Anne’s interest in the craft grew, she visited museums in order to research and document its historical development in different parts of the world. She also became more methodical in her approach to her experiments and began to record her findings in notebooks for not only her own reference, but also for use by fellow students at Camberwell. The circulation of these notebooks meant that eventually Anne was invited to give short courses and lectures on the subject by institutions. By 1963 interest in tie and dye was sufficient for Anne to write her first book, Tie and Dye as a Present Day Craft, which was published by Mills and Boon and has since been translated and reprinted several times. Until this point tie and dye had been practiced in most parts of the world and even appeared in western fashion on occasion, however during the sixties and seventies a number of aesthetic trends and cultural factors aligned to facilitate its widespread appeal.

Initially the colourful unique patterns rendered by tie and dye became associated with the cultural revolution of the mid-sixties because it was compatible with psychedelia and the rise of individualism.  As the decade progressed, high sixties modernism gave way to nostalgia and the desire for authenticity, which was further fanned by the recession in the seventies. Countercultural concerns regarding ecological awareness and the rejection of planned obsolescence and mass production also filtered to mainstream society and as a result fashion witnessed not only a series of retro and ethnic revivals, but a home crafts revival. Among those crafts, tie and dye was particularly popular, not only because it sat at the intersection of several key trends, as a historical and ‘ethnic’ craft, but also because it was affordable and accessible.

As tie and dye underwent the transformation from ancient craft, to mass fashion, Anne’s preliminary research in the 1950s situated her as a leading authority on the subject in the UK. During the period she published her second book Tie and Dye Made Easy (1971) and exhibited and sold her own work. She also shared her expert knowledge with the public by collaborating with Dylon to produce a pamphlet, writing articles for women’s magazines, appearing on television programmes, and continuing to teach and lecture on the subject. However, despite renewed public interest in the craft, by 1971, owing to illness Anne had to give up most of her busy schedule. Around this time she began experimenting with tie-dyed paper and published her final book on the subject in 1975 (Tie Dyed Paper). Sadly, Anne passed away in 1976 after a long period of illness. At the time she had been working on an unpublished children’s story based on her work with tie dyed paper, Adventures in the Tie Dyed Paper Kingdom.

The Anne Maile collection is comprised of not only tie-dyed paper and fabric samples and wall hangings, none of their vibrancy diminished by the passing of time, but also various items relating to her career in researching, teaching and publishing on tie and dye from the early 1950s to her death in 1976. These include her early research notebooks which meticulously document her experimentation with three dimensional examples, diagrams and instructions, as well as manuscripts, hundreds of slides and photographs and two reels of film. The Anne Maile collection presents a remarkably complete record of an unsung textile designer’s life’s work. It was always Anne Maile’s wish to share her knowledge and see tie and dye promoted as a craft for all, and the collection is now available and waiting to inspire the next generation of designers and researchers.


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