Something is bothering textile artist Jenny Nutbeem. There’s no shortage of inspiration, and her superb photography and textiles are spread out in front of us. 'I’m not taking photographs the way I did during lockdown when there were no distractions,' she says, leafing through her journal.

Then we get into a bit of soul-searching about the difficulties of eco dying on velvet fabrics, or powder dyes not holding the colour after rinsing. 'Should I just chuck them away and get a new set?' she ponders. But chucking stuff out goes against the grain for this warm-hearted and spirited woman whose concern for the environment means she reclaims and recycles whenever she can.

Jenny makes velvet, silk and linen scarves and jackets – among other things – that are individually dyed and painted using indigo and reactive dyes, reflecting the unique qualities and colours of the Suffolk coastal landscape.

Great British Life: Jenny Nutbeem with her 'autumn avenue' of naturally printed and dyed silk scarves at White House Farm, continuing the cherry theme. Jenny Nutbeem with her 'autumn avenue' of naturally printed and dyed silk scarves at White House Farm, continuing the cherry theme. (Image: Marion Welham)

In November 2019, Jenny hit on a formula for botanical printing which led to a whole new adventure during lockdown the following year. For her, she says, lockdown was a real eye opener, giving her time to look and to experiment in areas she hadn’t really explored before. The walks she had always loved took on new meaning as she studied and absorbed nature in ever more detail, taking photographs and collecting material.

Back in her studio in Kelsale, she experimented using plants and leaves she had found to transfer images on to fabric and paper. She played with inks and dyes from her beloved oak leaves, onion skins and walnuts.

'Years and years ago, I started dyeing with plants and I spent a whole summer trying out dyes with lots of different plants from the garden.' But those natural dyes were purely for yarn for weaving and knitting and remained un-used in a bag, while Jenny focused on indigo and other synthetic dyes for her sumptuously colourful velvet, silk and linen scarves and jackets. Then she tried using the natural dyes on silk and they took on a whole new meaning; even the spring daffodils were pressed into service to produce a stunning yellow.

Great British Life: Velvet scarf dip-dyed with iron and tannin added.Velvet scarf dip-dyed with iron and tannin added. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

This fusion of art and nature was on display at last year’s Spreading our Wings, a Suffolk Craft Society and RSPB project, when Jenny’s naturally dyed and eco-printed Minsmere Oaks panels were hung in the café at RSPB Minsmere.

At a Waveney and Blyth Arts trail, where the theme was Between Two Worlds, she hung her recycled, eco-printed sheets between two trees, an oak and a birch. 'On the oak side I printed with oak and on the other with birch,' she explains.

Last year, the theme was Amplify the Positive, so she chose to focus on the words of Julian of Norwich, 'All shall be well…' She wrote the words with iron gall ink – made iron salts and tannic acids from vegetable sources, usually oak galls, that was used in medieval times. 'I think people really appreciate that,' she says.

Great British Life: Eco-printed sheets between an oak and a birch for Waveney and Blyth Arts, Potton Hall. Eco-printed sheets between an oak and a birch for Waveney and Blyth Arts, Potton Hall. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

In April 2021, Jenny was invited by Jason Gathorne-Hardy to be part of a Textile and Natural Dye residency at White House Farm, Great Glemham. Obtaining dye from the bark of a dead cherry, then from cherry leaves, sparked off a whole cherry theme. Spring 2022 saw the first Suffolk Sakura event, an entire weekend celebrating the Japanese cherry, when Jenny’s silk scarves represented the blossom of the many varieties of Japanese cherries at the farm.

By sheer coincidence, Japan has been a key part of Jenny’s life. 'I’ve been four times. I’ve always loved the Japanese aesthetic.' Her first visit was in 2009; she was also encouraged to visit by a cousin, working there as an academic.

'The thing that struck me about Japan is how disparate things are. Some of the modern stuff is so plastic and technological, yet the traditional is the complete opposite. I think, in this country, we are going back to traditional because it’s getting lost and people are realising that.'

Great British Life: Jenny's blue indigo resist dying with contrasting colours painted in. Jenny's blue indigo resist dying with contrasting colours painted in. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

Jenny admires Japanese Shibori, a centuries-old process, reflected in her own work. She shows me the effect of pleating, binding and resist dying with indigo, and how the colours change from green to blue when the fabric is exposed to the air. She then paints on contrasting colours. The effect is sensational.

Which fabric? Which dye? Which mordant to fix the colours? It’s all a matter of trial, chemistry, and occasionally error. She obviously has a method, but she's not so keen on meticulous record-keeping. 'I’m much more on it and instant,' she says. There’s also the excitement of never being quite sure what she's going to get with her dying techniques.

Jenny discovered the joys of indigo on a textile course at the London College of Furniture, which became City of London Polytechnic. But that's only a tiny fraction of her remarkable life story. On leaving school, she did an art foundation course in Camberwell. After that, her story zig zags from being pregnant with her son at 18, therefore missing out on a textile degree, to having her daughter at age 24. But she carried on 'with little tins of Dylon, experimenting with colour and pattern'.

Great British Life: Eco-printed silk scarf with indigo overdye creates a beautiful metallic sheen. Eco-printed silk scarf with indigo overdye creates a beautiful metallic sheen. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

At one point she was honing her sewing skills with a tailor who made wedding and society gowns that showed up in Tatler magazine. At another she was teaching in adult education and juggling in-service training in paper-making, felt-making and screen printing with her college textile course.

'I realised then what made me tick. It was absolutely brilliant, such a magical time.' She continues her teaching with school and community workshops.

Jenny became familiar with Suffolk in parallel with her London teaching life back in the late 1970s. Her father bought the Old Mill House in Badingham; Jenny and partner Adrian visited with the children, to find the home they couldn't afford in London. They found 'an inexpensive little brick cottage', but work commitments prevented them from living in Suffolk full time.

Great British Life: Inspiration, a garland of cobwebs on a cosmos. Inspiration, a garland of cobwebs on a cosmos. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

By the 1990s, Jenny was selling her work in London when an old family friend in Southwold suggested she took her work to Craftco, the craft co-operative in the town. So she did, and soon started working at the shop part-time, years later becoming a director.

By the time she eventually moved from London in 1996, she was doing trade shows at Earl’s Court and the British Craft Trade Fair, Harrogate, with colleagues from the Suffolk Craft Society. Three years later, a bursary from the society enabled her to spend two months in Jaipur, India, with the Anokhi textile company.

At the time of this interview, Jenny has just returned from a stay with her brother in Berlin. This prompts the extraordinary story of how her father, a Berliner, was sent to England at 16, for safety, when Hitler came to power. He was one of the famous Dunera boys, packed off to Australia on the ship Dunera by Winston Churchill, later described by Churchill as 'a deplorable mistake'.

Great British Life: The reaction between the tannin in oak leaves and iron in the cloth. The reaction between the tannin in oak leaves and iron in the cloth. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

After 18 months in a prison camp, his aunt managed to propose Jenny's father for the British Army to interrogate German officers, as he spoke very good English. He became a captain, later stationed in Italy. 'Which is where he met my mother,' says Jenny. 'They married there, then came to England to live in the top flat of my aunt’s house in Notting Hill, which is where I was born.' She grew up there with the cousin who later hosted her visits to Japan.

Jenny’s great love is being outdoors and it’s easy to see how it has inspired her work.

'I have a lovely group of friends who are my sort of tribe. We’ve walked most of the Cornish and south west coast path, as well as walking and rowing in the Lake District.' She also loves joining with others in music and singing, and is a member of Heartbeat, a long-established women’s choir singing a cappella. She also plays percussion with the Suffolk Kitchen Band and enjoys traditional French dancing.

Great British Life: The Suffolk landscape inspires Jenny's watercolour cards. The Suffolk landscape inspires Jenny's watercolour cards. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)

Jenny's observation of the Suffolk countryside is extraordinary. The skies, the birds and the marshes are stunningly portrayed in watercolour and ink on cards she creates for Craftco and Suffolk Crafts Society annual exhibitions alongside her textile work.

We are again leafing through the 11-year photo journal. 'I would always, in the past, have taken at least one photo a day, but I’ve been very slack about it lately. During lockdown I had no distractions to really getting into stuff. It’s weird, I don’t know if my life’s changed or I’ve just become lazier...'

Looking at the sheer volume and excellence of what she has recently produced, I beg to differ.

Great British Life: Jenny's scarves using eco-printing with leaves on naturally-dyed silk. Jenny's scarves using eco-printing with leaves on naturally-dyed silk. (Image: Jenny Nutbeem)