Category Archives: why use plant dyes

This is for posts that opines on the delights of plant dyeing

Madder red and indigo bluedyed handspun and knitted jumper

From fleece to jumper in 6 years

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 11th February 2020

Ever since starting to grow our own dye plants I have wanted to create something I could wear, something that had been created from scratch. In the past I have been quite content to use bought materials to create works of art and craft but as I got older this has appealed less and less. I used to be confused by people who wanted to go back to creating the raw materials of their crafts. I thought that the raw materials were just tools to aid creativity and it was easy to buy the best. I never concerned myself about where they came from or how they had been produced. In time something changed and the thought of creating the raw materials myself began to be more important. I do not really understand the reasons why.

Growing our own dye plants was at first a sort of curiosity but one that propelled us into the world of spinning fleece. After all if you are prepared to grow your own dyes then it no longer seems right to use them to dye commercially manufactured textiles. What would be the point of that? So fleeces were obtained and Susan set out on the road of learning how to clean and mordant them. Later came carding, spinning (drop spindle and wheel) and plying into yarn with diversions into weaving and peg loom weaving. But learning all the steps to achieve a finished dyed garment has turned out to be a steep hill to climb.

Once I had learned how to spin I decided to dye sufficient fleece to make a jumper and trusted to my ability to learn how to knit when I had enough yarn.

Red madder dyed fleece being carded into rollags and spun into yarn

Red madder dyed fleece being carded into rollags, spun and wound into balls ready for knitting

The first photo I have of the beginning was taken in 2014 and shows some of the madder dyed fleece and yarn. However by the time this was taken I had probably been at it for quite a while. The dyeing process was done very carefully so as not to felt the wool. Chopped root was heated to about 60ºC and the fleece added. The dye pans were then placed in a hay box and left overnight. The next day the fleece would be removed and the chopped root at the bottom of the pan was pounded to help release more alizarin (the chief red dye of madder). The pot was then reheated and fleece reintroduced. This might be repeated 3 or more times before a suitable red was obtained.

Slowly, slowly I built up a good stock of dyed fleece to spin. The shades of red varied so I tried to blend the darkest with the lightest to obtain as even a result as possible. Even so the yarn shows a variation in colour which results in the very pleasing stripes of the finished jumper.
Once I had enough I needed a knitting pattern and I quickly found out that knitting patterns are created for consistently even commercial yarn, not home-spun. But with help from our good friend Brian Bond and a few test squares of my own knitting I ended up with a ‘sort of’ pattern I thought I could work to. This was adapted from a cardigan design in one of Brian’s books that I liked the look of. But that’s where it all came to a bit of a grinding halt. I started on the indigo dyed blue rib of one side of the jumper but after several weeks of trial, with much undoing I had barely got into the red. The level of concentration needed to knit was so great that the slightest distraction caused dropped or added stitches or some other mistake. Even when I thought I was concentrating I would often find myself knitting the wrong stitch and all this before I had got to the point of having to reduce the number of stitches or do any of the fancy edging. It was too much.

shows blue rib and a bit of the red dyed yarn knitted on circular needles

This is as far as I was able to take it on my own.

The wool and the bit of rib stayed in its bag for months until Susan took pity on me and decided to have a go herself. Susan can knit but has no experience of knitting with irregular yarn. So what did get knitted took a long time and wasn’t remotely the right shape or size. Susan was canny enough to know that sewing the pieces together would have resulted in an unusual jumper to say the least. So back into its bag it went. Then along came Tracey Ballard who said nonchalantly “Oh yes I’ll finish that off for you if you like”. It meant that my dream of doing it all myself was truly out the window but by this time I was a pushover to accept any help.

No doubt after much remedial work (we suspect more than has been admitted to) Tracey turned up with the finished jumper a few months later. It was exactly as I imagined it. It is heavy and warm and it fitted perfectly. It is the first new jumper I have worn since one my mum knitted me many years ago. I failed to do it all myself but the feeling when wearing it… well it’s indescribable. The colour red is bold and bright. Red was my fathers’ favourite colour. He would buy me red shirts for Christmas which I would never wear. Now I have a totally unique red jumper, one that could never be bought in a shop and one that I will be proud to wear and show off for the rest of my life. No doubt my Dad would have approved.

Ashley wearing the newly delivered jumper

The smile says it all.

Thanks to Susan and Brian for encouragement and advice. Special thanks to Tracey for finishing it off. It is friends and the small things that make life worth living even if they do take 6 years to complete.

shows rear of red madder dyed jumper with red stripes - the result of uneven dyeing

The back of the jumper showing the stripes produced by variations in the dye.

Why do we do craft?

 

 

A philosophical post by Susan

Ashley mentioned in an earlier post that we were recently interviewed for British Fibre Art Magazine (see issue 10 July/August 2018). Rainy, the editor, posed some excellent questions about why we do what we do, which prompted some serious thought and discussion here at home.

Several themes emerged.

Ashley and I both had mothers who made things. My mother was passionate about colour and had a very good eye. Her greatest joy was working at the sewing machine, making clothes and soft furnishings. She was definitely a thwarted designer. Ash’s Mam came from a family of very skilled knitters. I wonder if this gave her the confidence, once the children were grown, to try a huge range of crafts? She mastered many styles of lace-making, was an accomplished cross stitcher and quilter (see Baltimore quilt above) and made all manner of 3D objects. Both women were motivated by mastering technique and producing a beautifully finished product.

Ash and I both studied science at A level and university. I think that’s why we like careful experimentation and are constantly trying to understand more about how plant dyeing works. Ashley studied biology specialising in botany, so it makes sense that he’s so driven to grow and explore different plants. I’m more interested in the history of science and the recipes which have been lost.

I also realise that not having children (I had cancer in my mid twenties) has affected our life choices a great deal. We were freer to downshift when the mortgage was paid off and there were fewer external pressures on us to conform.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t thought a lot about what we might ‘leave behind’ after we’re gone.  And what constitutes ‘right living’. While we were in well-paid work we supported various charities. After we shifted to part-time lower paid work, we became were involved in local community projects and environmental campaigning. Ashley retrained in horticultural therapy and got enormous fulfilment from enabling people be happier and more active through gardening and the outdoors.

Gradually, over the last two decades, we have moved further away from the mainstream as we have managed on a steadily lower income. This has an interesting effect. It’s like being on a permanent retreat at a 10% level. You see things slightly from one side, more critically. The mainstream media is less relevant. You spend more of your time producing rather than consuming. For example, in the 2000s we made huge amounts of very passable wine, excellent jam and lots of vegetables. Our focus gradually shifted onto beekeeping and plant dyeing, which at least offered the opportunity of some income rather than risking liver failure and tooth decay!

In the process, we also had the time and emotional capacity for hands-on care for friends and relatives. This isn’t something we anticipated. It emerged out of making deeper connections in our neighbourhood when I got involved with transport campaigning locally. When you find careers away from where you grew up and you don’t have children and you are quite extreme introverts, you don’t make friends on your doorstep easily. Suddenly we entered a fascinating network of extraordinary people. Maybe it’s special to Hitchin, or special to the particular neighbourhood where we live, but I suspect every street has these networks waiting to welcome you in.

One such very special friendship was with Diane who tragically developed motor neurone disease. By 2005 our work/life situation was flexible enough that I was able to join the team of friends and family who supported Diane so she could have her wish to remain at home throughout her illness. This gave us the experience and confidence to home-hospice, first Ashley’s Mam and then my own mother as they in turn developed cancer and died. We didn’t do this unsupported. There were  palliative care services in the community in both cases. Siblings also helped. But we were able to be fully present and ‘live in’ when our mothers needed us. Both times it was heart-rending and emotionally exhausting but it also felt completely the right thing to do and we have no regrets.

So how does this relate to modern craft?

I read a book by Professor Susan Luckman last week at the British Library: Craft and the Creative Economy[1]. And it all fell into place.

She explores from all angles why the hand craft movement is currently thriving in developed economies. What desires and needs are being fulfilled for the maker and consumer?  Is small scale hand-made artisan production an act of resistance to unsustainable capitalism, a distraction or a self-soothing coping strategy? She explores whether the popular archetype of the entrepreneurial craftsperson with a balanced home/work life is a fantasy, a romantic ideal or a valuable alternative microeconomic niche. Perhaps the popularity of the ‘home made’ reveals the depth of hunger for meaning and making ethical retail choices? People want in some way to reject mass consumption of disposable items where the environmental and social impacts are externalised, hidden from view.

Luckman resists any simple answers. She accepts that the craft movement is tiny in the grand scheme of things and mostly serves a privileged elite. She is also deeply sceptical of the gender stereotype of the glamorous ideal female – attractive wife, mother, home-maker and entrepreneur running it all from home and letting you, the customer, see every detail of the home environment where this blissful production takes place. She warns against the fetishisation of hand tools and a false dichotomy of design and making.  And she accepts that crafting is a soft option compared to politics for changing the world for the better.

But, she does come down on the side of hand-made crafted items having a special quality for the maker and the consumer, which might signal a future with more sustainable and kinder economic models. She likes Jane Bennett’s[2] concept of ‘vibrant matter’ and ‘enchantment’ to explain the emotional responses many people have to the hand made.  This suggests that hand made items that are aesthetically pleasing, made of natural materials, carrying visible signs of the making process (or accompanied by a story online) do broaden attitudes to consumption, valuing and repair. They do pose questions that can be more broadly asked about sourcing, embedded energy, lifecycle and sense of purpose.

Luckman also suggest as crafters we should be bolder. The emotional desire for the hand made should not be underestimated. It is not naïve. As crafters we should be proud to “dig where we stand” and not be afraid to shout about our values and ideals. Without giving in to a pressure to conform to airbrushed social media archetypes, we can powerfully affect people who connect with what we make. We can ‘tweak and bend capitalism’ and create ‘useful and healthy identities as workers’.

I realise that I am already living in what Luckman calls the ‘downshifted cultural economy’. Ashley and I are practicing craft for the enchantment of making vibrant objects, enhancing our wellbeing and usefully supplementing what Luckman describes as a ‘larger strategy of downshifted and slower living’.

Having read her book, I feel empowered to be bolder, tell more about my choices, my politics, my wider values and my struggles to navigate this territory.  She recommends not feeling ashamed to keep telling your story as you go through life’s ups and downs, share how you are actively designing your life. It might have a bigger effect than you imagine.

[1] Luckman, Susan (2015) Craft and the Creative Economy[1] Palgrave Macmillan

[2] Bennett, Jane (2001) The enchantment of modern life: attachments, crossings and ethics. Princeton University Press; Bennett, Jane (2010) Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things, Duke University Press.