Last month we travelled down to my native Sussex so that I could attend a natural dyeing workshop. Once upon a time I’d have happily driven myself but these days long periods of driving just aren’t feasible. I caught M in a good mood and he was happy to make a short break of it by having lunch on the way, staying overnight and travelling back after the workshop. He had plenty of work to do to kill the time and installed himself in the lobby of the hotel with WiFi, lunch, newspapers, coffee, his laptop.
Attending a group event of any sort is completely out of my comfort zone. A short time is not enough time to be able to tune into each persons distinct lip patterns, so the best I can hope for is to just get by without making myself look stupid. I chose my home county because I don’t have to work quite so hard to figure out the many regional accents I come across living in Lincolnshire. I’m always very optimistic when I do something like this but the reality is that it’s a massive pain in the neck not being aware of when people speak let alone what they are saying. I used to hide the problem and bluff but that is tiring, soul destroying and slightly pointless. It is what it is, in general life goes on and I don’t give it a second thought.
Anyway, problems aside, I had a great day. It was relaxed and easy to keep up by the very visual nature of it all. I knew this would become a passion the minute we set off with a basket and snips to collect some hedgerow plants for our dye baths. Even though I did every sport imaginable when I was younger, walking is the one thing that creates that feeling you get when you’re deeply immersed in a good book. Dogs bouncing around and diving into anything vaguely resembling a stream just adds to the joy.
The workshops are run by Mother/Daughter enterprise Deborah and Gala, both equally lovely, interesting and inspiring (details on my Instagram posts) or have a look at plawhatchfarm.co.uk. If I hadn’t already studied my one and only natural dyeing book over and over I think I’d have struggled to keep up. I had all the basic facts at my disposal but it seemed too overwhelming to contemplate doing at home. At the end of the day, as I got in the car, I said to M, it was like suddenly being able to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics!
We made four dye baths; nettle, bracken, madder and silver birch leaf. With mini skeins dyed in each we also had a chance to experiment with modifiers to produce a further range of colours. The workshop yarns are above in the first photo. I made them up into a small drawstring bag to remember the day by. I also attached the leftover scraps to a couple of postcards. One postcard has been placed out of daylight and the other taped to a sunny window. Several weeks on only the madder exhaust has faded from pink to beige which was expected.
I wasted no time in rearranging the bookshelf in our kitchen to hold jars, pans, sieves, bowls etc. By day I’ve been brewing readily available dye matter from our wild and unmanaged garden hedgerows (I knew all that ‘ungardening’ would pay off one day!) and by night trying to read up on plants. I’m lucky enough to know someone who totally gets natural dyeing and she kindly popped a couple of books in the post the same day I mentioned I was interested. I must photograph some of the beautiful illustrations in one of them for my next post. I’ve been so obsessed I’ve been carrying them with me everywhere. Ideal for coffee dates with M and his phone.
That same week in May had less fortunate events but I’ll also save that for another post. Jake has a few more exams to go before he is finally a school leaver. A Levels have been hard work and he’s done well to keep his cool and get on with it, despite everything. E had a bit of a dramatic end to her academic year too but she’s home for summer now and I’m really looking forward to some sunshine so that we can sit outside, have the odd barbecue, take the dogs to the lake and most importantly move my natural dyeing operation outside! Both E and J enter the kitchen with t shirts pulled up over their noses complaining loudly but laughing too. I won’t repeat what they think some of it smells like.
In between the rainy days we’ve had some good weather. Summer evenings in the twenties are the best. Who could possibly watch tv on an evening like that? Not me. Riley is probably only midway through his six month advised knee rest period, but try telling a Springer Spaniel that. We tried to stick to a short walk but he rolled in fox poo within minutes of setting off which meant walking much further to a deeper stream to wash it off. I quickly discovered that bending down to collect a few nettle tops would be an open invitation to them both to gather round and stick their wet faces in mine to ask what was going on.
I’ve also been planting anything from seed that wasn’t too late in the season to start. Madder was probably a little late but I’m keeping my fingers crossed, it takes a few years before they will be usable. With J’s help I dragged four unused railway sleepers from behind the kids treehouse all the way down to where the lawn starts for a raised bed. It won’t be very raised at all but the sleepers are handy to sit on whilst tending plants at least. I did the same for where I grow gooseberries, raspberries and a few herbs but with shorter sleepers. M had to build small picket fence panels to keep the dogs from digging everything back up so he will have to do the same for my woad and madder. It won’t be pretty but it’ll be functional and that’s fine by me. With reclaimed wood and containers we’ve started off a million Marigolds and some Coreopsis. I’ve given Mum some indigo seeds to look after in her greenhouse.
One of the first plants I tried after the workshop was Weld. We had seeds lined up but I’m not sure I need to bother with such a plentiful supply at local building sites. They like disturbed ground and our garden is very undisturbed! I gathered only enough to make one dye bath. A week later when more of the flowers were out and ideal for the dye bath the builders decided to get a huge hacking tractor thing and mow the whole lot down! They even collected the hacked down weeds and grass! Luckily I have a husband who doesn’t mind sweet talking builders into allowing him inside the fenced off site to access a big untouched patch and fill a basket with enough to dry for the winter! Since I took that photo of the drying Weld I’ve bundled up some much larger pieces with the flower heads intact.
I’ve started a dyer’s journal to record my dyeing sessions and recipes. I get carried away with the process of it all and with skeins drying here and there I completely forget which dye baths created which. Eventually I think I might get organised enough to take photos as I go and record some of the sessions here. For now though I’m actually concentrating far too much on what I’m doing!
When I can tear myself away from the dye pots I’m going to find some suitable crochet patterns to try these plant dyed yarns out. One of the bases I’ve been trying out should cope with a thirty degree wash cycle although normally I would still wash woollens by hand. So it’ll be a few simple makes only while I see how they perform. I previously said that slow living wasn’t something you could achieve overnight but rather a journey to the level that suits you. A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined ever being able to take a sheep fleece, process it, spin it, dye it naturally with plants and make it into something useful. Admittedly my spinning needs more practice but I’m finally where I want to be, close to nature, creating something from natural materials.