Friday, 29 July 2016

Blending Wool Colours on Hand Carders

"This old fleece is terminally grim, Beaut.  Get over your hoarding issues and chuck the thing out." 
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was staging an intervention rather than supporting my search for inspiration and getting vexed at my disappearances under the spare bed. I called back up from beneath it.
"That's the Welsh Mountain X Dorset Down fleece I used last year for exhausting Japanese Indigo vats. Never was soft and the long soak in alkali has done it no favours.  I knew I kept it somewhere because I was sure these varied blues would be perfect for sky colours. Remember that book, Knit the Sky?"
"I remember telling you this fleece was NOT suitable for knitwear."
"Never mind how harsh the wool is, doesn't matter if you're spinning the sky as art."
Elinor kicked a heap of fleece off the duvet and jumped down, one small sheep and her forceful opinions landing on my prostrate rear end.
"Art?  My cotted rump.  Not another one of your so-called wool works.  Which lucky relative is going to have a sky blue objet de laine foisted upon them?"
I rubbed the offended part.
"Ooo, those hooves could do with a trim. Sharp as your judgements. I know my sister was really pleased to be given the Harp wool work, because it's up on the wall in her hall."
"Be honest, Beaut, it was just too big to stick on the fridge door."
I shoved a long lost pillowcase full of grey fleece in her general direction and felt gratified to hear a muffled bleat.
News of Art Challenge Wales had reinvigorated my flagging artistic morale.  Open to everyone to enter and held last Saturday, just along the coast in Porthcawl, the challenge was to create a piece of art in public on the sea front, between having your canvas stamped at 9am and handing it in to the Grand Pavilion at 5pm. Here are my sister, daughter and niece, enjoying aesthetic sustenance while better breakfasted artists 
sallied past.  My plan was to spin yarn in the colours of the sea and sky.  At 9.46am with the tide full in, I loaded grey and blue locks onto a hand carder.  OK, overloaded, I know I always put too much wool on, which makes heavy work of carding a fat rolag.  Checking the horizon for colours, I dragged away at the carders til I had eight rolags ready to spin longdraw - artistically irregular.

Because the colour changes in the rolags had spun into a single of continuously shifting hues, even Navajo chain plying often mixed shades up within one stretch of yarn. Winding the plied yarn straight from the bobbin round a driftwood stick displayed the broad effect of my colour choices, in a blurred fashion up close, better from a distance.  So, call stick number one Impressionist and try not to panic about the time, 11.15am already.  With the tide turned and the waves much further down the beach, I only made five rolags for the second length of yarn, less focussed on sea greys and more on sky blues.

The frame, which had been stamped for me when we arrived in Porthcawl, was a gnarly piece of driftwood which had already been drilled in the privacy of my own garage.  Six pairs of holes to take copper wire fixings, to be twisted through beach pebbles with holes.  I managed to shatter one stone while curling up the wires, but Pip averted crisis by nipping down to the beach to find shells with holes instead.  
Here are the first two yarns, safely in place by lunchtime.  The sun shone for much of the afternoon in a deeper and deeper blue sky. Keeping to just blue and white wool on the carders gave much crisper colour changes, accentuated even more by the stronger contrast of adding darker blue to the rolags.  The afternoon yarns looked quite different to the morning blends, effects I shall try to bear in mind next time I am carding dyed fleece to make yarn for knitting.  Guided by the falling
tide, only four, three, then two rolags' worth of yarn had to be spun, so all my six sticks were wrapped in yarn shortly after 4pm.  Handing it in at the Pavilion, I realised my thing didn't stand comparison with the proper art on canvas, but I really didn't mind, being most satsfied with my 'Driftwood Tide'.

Elinor Gotland sauntered down the headland to meet us.
"Sky Tide would have been a better name, Beaut.  At least you've got that awful fleece out of your stash - and that blue sky art foolishness out of your system."
"Oh, I'm still blue sky thinking, Elinor.  Might go Yves Klein
abstract with pure indigo next."
My companion looked around at my family, put her head in her hooves and groaned.
"That sister of yours has been encouraging you again.  She's such a bad influence."

Friday, 22 July 2016

A Trial of Dyeing with Ragwort Flowers

I fondly imagined that once I stopped work, all that free time would mean the garden was kept much tidier and more productive. The reverse has been the case.  I wake up with a great list of things I fancy doing and weeding rarely seems a priority.  Horticulture has slipped to such a point that this week, my companion noticed there was ragwort flowering by the front path, where I used to grow weld.  She backed away in horror.
"I'm not being funny, Beaut, but that ragwort is toxic stuff."  
Having persuaded the man himself that the whole front garden could become a trendy wild meadow, if we just let the grass grow tall all over it, I was pleased to see a few new plants moving in. Elinor Gotland stood well clear as I opened the front gate for her.  
"Mind out, you can get a nasty rash from ragwort sap. If I were you, I'd stop messing about and get rid of the whole lot." 
"If I were you, I'd have eaten it all.  I thought sheep were supposed to keep fields clear of ragwort.  You didn't fancy nibbling off the young shoots this spring, then?"
"Ooo, no."  She glanced at my midriff.  "Some of us take care of our figures.  And it's terribly bad for the liver." 
I suppose her liver does have a lot of sloe gin to cope with. For the entire walk into town, Elinor lectured me on herbicides and how simply pulling the ragwort up would just mean bigger, bushier plants next year.  I rather liked the flowers and had no intention of unleashing chemical warfare.

Searching Wikipedia, I found there are four kinds of ragwort in the UK.  Mine look like the common type, Senecio jacobaea.  While it is poisonous to livestock, I can't see it doing much harm in a garden and it does add a cheery brightness.  The entry notes that the leaves will dye green and the flowers, yellow, which of course, made me wonder about dyeing with mine.  Websites often claim that plants will dye all sorts
of colours, past disappointments have made me wary.  I found this excellent blog, which seemed more plausible, considering my own track record of beige results and also, this one, written by someone I know and respect online, which made me feel considerably more optimistic about having a go.
Putting on gardening gloves, I collected over 1 kg of flower tops from the garden.  Took the dog for 
a walk and had as much again stuffed into a carrier bag by the time we got home.  
"You're mad as a box of frogs, bringing that horrible stuff into the house.  We shall all be poisoned by the fumes."  My companion flung out of theback door with her nose on the air, while I rammed the dye pot with the whole 2.5kg, brought it up to a low boil for a couple of hours and left it to cool. 

Once the flowers had been sieved out, the fluid had a strong golden bronze colour which changed very little with vinegar added - jar on left, and deepened to brown with soda ash as an alkali - jar with spoon.

Deciding to go for maximum effect at a ratio of 100:1 plant weight to wool, I simmered 25g white fleece, scoured and mordanted with alum. It came out a bit greener than the photo, not quite beige, but not a vivid yellow either. On the right, the colour did deepen after a soak in alkaline soda ash.

When I came out to check the colour of the dried fleece , I found my companion had already made a unilateral strike on one area of my meadow garden.  I wasn't sorry. That reopened border by the path got planted up straightaway with some trusty classic dye plants - weld and woad and madder.

Friday, 15 July 2016

How to Stick Weave a Snail Brooch

The book shelves swayed rhythmically as the printer churned out another set of pages of my minimum opus, an A4 book called 'Dye Plants'.
"Not a catchy title, is it though, Beaut?"
"Oh, shut up, Elinor."  My patience was wearing a little thin. Computer assisted self publishing is all very well, in theory.  
In practice, for technical reasons obscure to me, the oh so clever automatic A5 booklet format kept putting the pictures in all the wrong places and having redesigned it myself, for A4 size with a spine, I forgot that the wider margin had to be on the other side for all the even pages.  A warning message appeared.  The coloured ink was running dangerously low. Why oh why did I not get organised in good time for Wisley Arts Fest?
Elinor interrupted my concentrated collation of final copy mark 5.
"Heard of a wonderful new invention, Beaut.  It's called the wheel.  You should haul  your arse out of the Dark Ages and sell this as a download."

I have decided to take her advice on virtual publishing.  For anyone who comes to our Stick Weave a Snail Workshops at Wisley this weekend, if you fancy making another when you get home, here are the online instructions.

To read how to make your own weaving sticks, see this blog.  You will also need thin, bendy, lightweight wire, which you can buy in a coil in garden centres, two 4m lengths of fairly thick yarn in the colours you want for the shell and another 3m yarn for the head, two beads for the eyes and a large darning needle to finish off.  Cut a pair of one metre lengths of wire, thread one through the hole in each weaving stick, then twist all four ends of wire together securely.  Holding the twist in one hand, pull the sticks to the middle of the wires and press the bend in the wires firmly against the base of the weaving sticks, to flatten any bump of wire
which would stop your weaving slipping down smoothly.  Take the two strands of coloured wool, hold both weaving sticks in one hand and pass the wool between them. Working with the two strands together, bring the wool round
behind the left stick and from the front, pass it back between the sticks again.  Next, bring the wool round behind the right stick and back between.  To lock the two loose ends of wool, lift them up and over the first weave, then back between the sticks.  Leave the ends loose and carry on weaving the wool in figures of
eight around the sticks.  Do not pull the wool tightly, just wrap it gently.  When your weaving is near the top of the two sticks, pull one stick upwards so half of it is showing, then pull up the other stick to match, allowing some of the weaving to slip onto the wires.  If it is stiff to pull, rotate the stick between your fingers as you pull upwards.
Carry on weaving, smoothing the woven wool down the wires when it becomes tightly packed.  Once there is only 30cm left of the coloured wool, put the ends of the 3m white wool together and run it back through your hands to the mid-point.  Put the middle loop of the double strand of wool over 
one stick and continue weaving until there is only 5cm of the white wool left.  Slide all the weaving off the sticks and onto the wires.  At the far end, pull on the loose coloured yarn ends to tighten, neaten up 
the twist in the wire and wrap the yarn ends round it a couple of times.  Usewire clippers or strong scissors to cut the twist in the wire to about 1.5cm long.  Fold the twist down flat against the weave so it secures the wool twisted round it.The woven yarn will now be spread loosely along the length of the wires.  Starting at the tail end, slide the weave down so that it sits fairly firmly at the end
and start to curl the snail up.  As you curl it, press the next section of weaving up more firmly until your coil reaches the
point where the weaving changes to white yarn. Leave the 30cm long loose ends of coloured yarn hanging outside the coil.  At the top end, slide the white weaving down firmly, leaving the wires below the weaving sticks exposed.  Use clippers or strong scissors to cut the wires just below the weaving sticks. 
Take one wire from the pair on each side and twist them together.  Pull on the white yarn ends to tighten and wrap around the twisted wire, clip to about 1.5cm.  Remembering that the snail head will curl in the opposite direction to the body, flatten the twist against the inside of the weave and start to coil the snail’s head.  The two outside wires of the pairs need to be passed through the weaving when the coil completes one full circle.   Slip
one bead onto each of the remaining wire ends and bend them round to secure the beads, making the snail’s eyes.  Thread the loose ends of coloured yarn onto large darning needle.  Holding the coil firmly, stitch right through to the opposite side, poke the needle back in about one centimetre further round the circumference and stitch straight through again.  Do this a couple of times, then loop the yarn tightly round the weave
to fasten off and cut the ends.  Now you can either use a sticky pad to fix your snail to the bottom of an upturned flowerpot or wherever you fancy standing him, or use a smaller needle and thread to sew a brooch pin on to the back of your snail.

This book, 'Dye Plants' is 23 pages long, with plenty of pictures.  It is a beginners' introduction to choosing, sowing and growing garden dye plants, harvesting leaves and flowers and making dye baths, with an overview of autumn foraging, berries, roots and bark dyes.  If you aren't going to Wisley, email me at and for only £3, I'll send you the pdf.  Printed copies are £5 plus p+p at cost.
Cracking cover, isn't it?  Original art by my friend BG, who is going great guns at local exhibitions, gets commisions from abroad and - she's even worse than me at IT.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Making Wool Fairy Variations on a Festival Theme

My companion, Elinor Gotland, has never felt entirely comfortable with fairies.
"It's a sad day when a sheep can't take a stroll round the garden without being buzzed by a flimsy flying squad. Worse than midges, Beaut. Think I might hang up some fly papers."
"Don't you bloody dare. You know I'm making these wool fairies for Wisley Arts Fest.  Oh, I do hope the weather will be kind."  With which fervent wish, I carried on labelling up the rustic crew, who all have wool dresses dyed with madder, woad and Dyers Chamomile from the garden.  On the weekend of 16th and 17th July, I shall be demonstrating spinning on a wheel, my sister will be doing stick weaving workshops and BG will be needlefelting pictures in our Rich & Strange marquee at RHS Wisley Gardens.  While the family support makes me feel much less the lonely Sole Trader, Wisley Arts Fest will be my first significant foray beyond spinning at agricultural shows or having a table at a local craft event.  Just looking at that link to the online advertising for the big event makes me feel squirmy inside.  Only a week to go.  What the hell, it looks like fun.

Making fairies is also fun, but after putting a couple of dozen together, the urge to muck about has rather slowed up my production line.  While I still use the basic method I started with last Christmas, putting in two long pipecleaners, wrapped with wool like the arms, running down inside from the head, can give them fairy legs.  And what footwear suits going to a festival better than boots?
Using a stiff, 18 gauge florists wire, instead of a pipecleaner body, will hold the fairy standing upright from a base.  And what more sylvan base than a sawn section of silver birch from the wood pile, with a 1mm hole drilled into the centre to hold the bottom of the florists wire?
Elinor scuttled into the kitchen, most perturbed.
"Those fairies are up to something, Beaut.  Everywhere you look, there they are, whispering together."
"Nonsense.  You're getting paranoid. Just let me make a nice cup of tea and we'll go out on the patio and see what's what."
"Mark my words, fairies have their own agenda and it takes no account of yours. One of these days, those boots are going to walk all over you. Just don't say I never warned you."
Looking round the garden, I had to admit my companion had a point. There was definitely something going on.  Over our heads, the silk fairies were yet more frivolous and flighty and even the Rastafairi were on the move, a lot less chilled than usual.
Low in the vines, there was one fairy, surely too heavily pregnant to fly off. Oddly enough, the sight of her seemed to reassure Elinor, who took her tea over and settled 
down comfortably to regale the poor thing with stories of difficult lambings.
When she came back, I was all agog to hear the news.
"Is it her that all the fuss is about?  Are they worrying about the new arrival?"
"Oh no, Beaut.  If fairies don't like a baby, they'll just swap it for a Changeling.  The word is, there's going to be a wedding."

Friday, 1 July 2016

Peg Looming Raw Fleece Mats at Fernhill Farm

."Glastonbury looked a proper mudfest on TV.  I'm glad this cold stopped me going on Spinning Camp."  
My companion, Elinor Gotland, was in the garden, sipping lemon and honey. She looked distinctly peeved to see me arriving home clean, fresh and in riotous high spirits.

"Oh, we had a ball, our new marquee is marvellous, didn't matter if it rained.  Great Hen Party last night, there was Prosecco all round and Long Island Tea to follow."  I carried in my stuff from the car.  "Look what I made on our trip to Fernhill Farm.  There's a whole fleece woven into both mats.  Go on, try sitting on one, they really insulate your bum from the cold 
ground, be perfect to cushion the knees while gardening."
Elinor gingerly lowered her arse onto a mat and tweaked at a lock of the wool.
"This sheep could have done with a shampoo."
"Fernhill Farm has 2,000 sheep. Their shearing barn is a dream of comfort and convenience, but funnily enough, I didn't see a Beauty Parlour."
My companion sat looking 
through the holiday photos.  
"Ooo, I see what you mean, that barn is a cut above kneeling on a groundsheet wrapping fleeces in the middle of a field."
"It certainly is.  They can even do weddings and parties in there, the farm has lovely, ecofriendly accommodation with reed beds to treat the waste.  We might book an indoor camp there this winter."
Elinor bounced on my fleece mat.
"Fair play, this is comfy, Beaut. Bet it took you a while to do."
"Only an hour or so.  Jen has had her Dad make these massive peg looms with 10mm steel rods 5cm apart.  They have a hole to thread strings through to be the warp, which you knot at the length the mat is going to end up.  She showed us how to take a whole raw fleece and just draft it a bit as you go, putting in a little twist while weaving it in and out of the pegs. Once the weaving is packed up to the top, the pegs get pulled up and the wool slides down onto the string.  Doesn't take long at all with a big, thick fleece."
"Looks like you all had a good time without me."
Elinor gave me a dark look and blew her nose violently. 
"Didn't mean it like that. I couldn't believe we were working with such gorgeous wool.  Jen only picks out the very best fleeces to sell for proper spinning.  Should have seen us rootling through those bags, with half the fleeces unrolled on the floor and everyone eyeing up what the others had their hands on."

"Oo look, it's Barry in this photo. I like his mat more than yours. 
A man of such good taste. Grey is the most elegant colour."

I've put my mats in the suint vat and given them a rinse, just to get the worst off while leaving the lanolin waterproofing.  The Happy Campers UK will be in Somerset again for a long weekend of spinning, knitting, weaving and pretty much anything to do with wool, 9-11th September 2016.  

Do come and join us, there is a B&B in the farmhouse if you don't have a tent.  It's very informal, just a random group of adults doing whatever project they have in hand, with general skill sharing. Don't imagine you haven't any useful skills, you can always join me doing my best thing - washing up.

I'm pretty sure Elinor will be there doing her thing - drinking tea and supervising.