Fusing Birch-dyed Yarn

A knitter friend visited my workshop last weekend and taught me how to fuse yarns- useful stuff for when you’re knitting and your ball of yarn runs out. We practised two different kinds of fusing on some wool I’d used as a tester in a bucket of birch bark dye. In the photo you can see a Russian Join (on the inner loop) and a Spit Splice (on the outer loop). I particularly like the Russian join, I feel like it’s a skill that will save my life someday, when I’m lost at sea or something.

If you’re interested, this blog has excellent instructions on both joins.

Afterwards, with a complete yarn loop, we discovered that we had created the perfect length of yarn needed for CAT’S CRADLE. It’s one of those school playground skills that you never lose… just try it… for the novices here are some instructions. For the advanced cat’s cradler, here are the instructions to some different loop shapes you can make, oh my this is going to keep me occupied…


Ditchling Beacon Trip

Thought this whilst cycling: bicycles are the pay-off for being an adult. Sure you don’t get playgrounds or soft play areas any more, but you get to wheel down massive hills 🙂

A lovely sunny morning last Monday, I ended up cycling up quite a few hills until I got to the top of Ditchling Beacon, great stuff, here are some photos:

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I thought the sheep on its knees was being cute, until my friend pointed out that when a sheep eats like that it’s because it has rotten legs or something. So if anyone sees the Ditchling Beacon farmer, tell him/her to look after their bloody sheep :-/

Still, had some nices sandwiches awwing at the fluffies.

Collecting Birch Sap

It’s the season for rising sap and spring tides! I had a lovely morning in Stanmer forest collecting sap from the birch trees. We set up yesterday with a crude system of drinks straws, cut bottles and blue tac, then came back today and lo and behold, lovely sap!

All together, we collected about a pint from the different bottles. Then we sealed the notches we’d cut and set up some new taps on different trees. The sap can be used as an eczema ointment, but we’re going to try and make wine 🙂

Now here’s some plant lore!

Birch, in Wales, was meaningful if you happened to be courting. It was a love emblem, or an indication that you had been accepted. The custom was to have sprigs of birch and rowan, decorated with flowers and ribbons, and to leave them where they were most likely to be found by the person intended…

– The Folklore of Plants, Thomas F Thiselton Dyer

I also foraged some birch bark, which I’m determined to make a nice rosey red from, more on that soon.

Herald of Spring Festival

I spent the weekend at the Herald of Spring festival in Bourne Hall Museum. This year’s theme was the medieval period, helped along by Peterkins the Fool and The Paladins of Chivalry– a medieval re-enactment troupe.

I had a great time hanging out and finding out about crossbows- as well as talking dyes and costume with some of the paladins. Here is my favourite medieval fact from the weekend:

At the time of the translation of the Cinderella story from French to English, furs had gone out of fashion somewhat in England compared to the continent. Due to this disparity, the french “vair” was taken as “verre” and thus a squirrel fur-lined slipper became a glass one. (!)

Here’s some of my favourite photos from the fair:

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You can check out the Paladins’ next outing at The Original Reenactors Market, Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry running from 16th to 18th March – see you there!

Winter Dye Results

To sum up the last month’s dyeing- here are my top ten best and worst smelling natural dyes!


1. Rosehips
Struck me as familiar, turns out I’d been drinking rosehip tea. I really need to stop buying tea in packets- but there are only nettles left!

2. Fennel
Even with the out of season, fairly dry, stems I picked up, it still smelt AMAZING.

3. Hawthorn berries and twigs
Apparently also a tea, who knew? I’m such a lazy peppermint person, I need to get out there!

4. Ivy berries
You have to crush the berries in hot water to produce a dye, the steam wafts the smell at you as you go at them. Smells like a nice walk after some rain.

5. Willow
Like ivy berries, reminds me of rain. I was never that conscious of the smell until I got a saucepan of it going- incredible.


1. Avocado skins and stones
I. Almost. Vomited. Who knew such a lovely fruit could give off such a bad smell? Horrific. It’s too sweet, like I imagine Paris Hilton’s perfume to be. It tries too hard. Furthermore, it has this undertone of… horror, acidic horror. Can’t forget. Lovely pink colour from the skins though.

2. Buckthorn bark
I left this to soak for a week, it fermented, it stunk out my workshop. My workshop is a pretty big place full of lovely people… I had to be extra nice to make up for that.

3. Crabapple bark
Ferments a little, smells like cider but not delicious (not that I drunk it, that would just be deranged).

4. Alder cones
Imagine chocolate, but horrible. Sort of bitter and sweet, but bad. Bad, bad, bad.

5. Buckthorn berries
The word that came to mind was “creepy”. Again, too sweet, like an annoying anime puppy.

So what are your best and worst?

Fortunately/Unfortunately when I wash things to lose the excess dye I lose most of the dye smell as well. Maybe I should take a saucepan with me to stalls?

Beetroot Dye Experiment

Following the kind donation of some leftovers from beetroot houmous, I had a go at dyeing with them. You’d think it would work well, since the vegetable usually stains hands, t-shirts etc pretty well. Alas no. I’m definitely up for trying again if anyone has had more success though.

(try the houmous, it’s delicious!)

Here’s a pseudo scientific run-through of my experience-

1. Soak beetroot leftovers in cold water for 4 days
2. Bring to simmer for an hour in a pot
3. Lower cotton skeins mordanted with tannin and alum into the pot
4. Marvel at results

This went well until step 4, at which point I was underwhelmed. The dye pot was a fantastic deep red colour but this didn’t transfer to the thread at all, which turned an ugly grey:

I then added cream of tartar and vinegar, since I’d been told that this improves avocado dye. Unfortunately this didn’t help. Actually it turned the nice beetroot smell into a fairly nasty vinegar one :-/ Finally I experimented with an iron post-mordant to see if it would change the grey colour. This is what the skeins looked like wet:

The next day the dry skeins had some small pink streaks, however, when I washed them in warm soapy (PH neutral!) water this colour totally washed out. Boo!

In a way, I’m happy with this, because it gives me a chance to try out some cotton with an iron pre-mordant. Results soon!

My favourite thing about working in a workshop is having a makers’ community around me. We can share experiences, fun and ideas. Working within a community also highlights how many uses plants can have. For example, my natural-medicine-making friend can make crabapple jelly, then I can make a dye bath with the leftover mash- and all that from fruit which would have been left to fall onto the pavement, serving only as a nuisance for cleaners 😀 I strongly recommend getting a work space!

Hawthorn dye from dried berries

Hedgerows are full of hawthorn berries in Autumn, so I took my little sister out and gathered a bumper harvest. Here they are drying with some ivy in October:

When picking seeds it’s important to leave enough for the nature and that (at least 1/3 of the fruit), so I make sure to move from plant to plant. Easy when there’s a hedgerow full of berries 🙂

Hawthorn berries are best used ripe, but I was still setting up my lab back then, so I had a go with the dried berries on a few metres of silk ribbon, here’s the result:

It’s quite light on the ribbon, I’m hoping it’s because I used only berries and that the tannin from the leaves and twigs couldn’t take effect.

This time I’m going all out and I’m using up the store of berries in one go.

I put myself to the task last night. There were quite a few of them and they need to be crushed, but I didn’t want to spend 2 hours with a pestle and mortar, so I put my thinking cap on and came up with this:

c/o The Coast

Except it was too cold, so I put everything in a bag and jumped up and down on it for a long time whilst my friend played 80s songs. It worked pretty well, here’s a montage:

Results soon, I’ll give it a bit of time to soak first. Maybe I’ll use it to dye the silk thread I got yesterday? I’m hoping for a rich gold-tannin colour… Anyone else have experience with dried hawthorns?

Urban Foraging in Brighton

I’ve been thinking up more recycling ideas and, following the kind donation of some beetroot leftovers from a friend at my workshop, I decided to try the restaurants of Brighton, such as they are.

The lovely boys at Piccolo, following a bit of TEFL English, got quite excited and gave me a bumper bag of avocado skins and stones today. Woohoo!

Here it is with some vintage silk thread and cotton ribbon I found at one of the Saturday stalls on Upper Gardner Street. The stallholder was great fun and he had braces on, I am a fan.

So- where next for restaurant leftovers? Onion skins? Red cabbage?

I’m also thinking of calling up some local food warehouses to ask after the throw away bits from carrots and fennel, let’s leave that till Monday (excitement!)

Avocado results soon…

Molusc Purple

When you’re dyeing with natural dye-stuffs you need to use a lot of material. You may need to use twice as much dye-stuff as the weight of the fibres, which adds up to quite a lot of bulk in the sauce pan if you’re working with something like ivy leaves.

Another challenge is sourcing the plant materials. Ok, actually that’s really fun, but sometimes I need someone taller to help me, so it’s a challenge, right?

Today I learnt that none of this comes close to the lengths fellow dyers go through / have gone through to get purple out of snails.
– it seems ridiculous now, but before global trade and synthetic dyes, purple was hard to come by… very hard to come by

Say hello to Tyrian purple, made from Bolinus brandaris

Apparently eaten on the Costa de Luz, does your mouth go purple?

The little snails are still around the Mediterranean, spread as far as Galicia. So basically, let’s all go on a super-fun adventurous dyer’s holiday, except… YOU NEED 12,000 MOLUSCS TO PRODUCE 1.4g OF DYE.
(I’m not sure if you kill them or tickle them, but I’m guessing some form of tickling since they aren’t extinct)

Apparently discovered by Hercules and his dog (?), the dye was limited to emperors and such. Lots more fun facts here.

Now for the modern day equivalent, and this time there really is an adventurous dyer’s holiday involved. Murex snails can be found along the more horrifically dangerous bits of the coast in Oaxaca, Mexico, and they do give off dye when tickled!

-the correct term is “milked” :-/

This time you only need a mere 400 snails to dye a skein of what looks like 200g; New World solutions 🙂 There’s a company that gives guided tours and takes you out to dinner with local dyers, it sounds great and I’d totally hang out with the tour guide if it weren’t for the different continent thing. The photo slideshow (in which I found the milking photo) is also excellent: check it out

Oh and the market price of Tyrian Purple is £2090 per gram

Worth saving up for?

So maybe squid ink would be easier…?

Finally learning to use a digital camera

“it took you four years to learn to use that?!”

– housemate

I got a beautiful digital camera as a birthday present four years ago and proceeded to brutally misuse it. Tonight I finally gave in to digging out the manual and was struck by a beautiful epiphany. It’s so easy to take good photos! There was about 10 minutes of cautious reading, another 10 of cautious trying, then ecstatic fun times running around the flat taking pictures of running water and night time. Is this something everyone just does when they get a new gadget? I suppose I thought I was too good for the manual, in the same way I wouldn’t look at a manual for a new mobile phone. Oh my pride, I’ve spent the last 4 years taking AWFUL pictures and dissing my lovely camera.

To celebrate I’ve taken some photos of dyestuffs I’ve foraged over the last week, yes! With all the enthusiasm and excitement of an absolute novice 😀

Now I just have to learn to control my shakey hands… Oh and work with light better, any tips?

from left to right: birch bark, oak galls, alder cones and hawthorn leaves and berries