Hooters Hall

Making Colour in a Roundhouse

The Roundhouse at Flag Fen

The first time I made colour with fire and plants was in a reconstructed Bronze Age roundhouse. It caught my imagination and sparked inspiration. It was an antidote to the lethargy that was plaguing my love of fibre craft.

I was tired of the modern day fibre craft consumer capitalism. A jaded world where the goal to hoard a yarn stash bigger than could ever be used in a lifetime of knitting, crochet or weaving had become more important than learning the skills of the craft. I was tired of the fetishising of yarn on social media, where #yarnlove and #yarnporn confused want with need, to sell the belief that there’s always another skein that you have to have.

I’m a shepherd to a small flock of rare breed Jacob sheep that I keep on my smallholding. Sheep grow fleece which needs shearing every year and it seemed wasteful not to do something with it. So I taught myself to spin yarn from my flock’s fleece. As I write that sentence it seems simple and in a way it is. Yarn is just fleece with a twist in it. There is of course work that needs to be done in preparation. The fleece needs to be cleaned without felting and then carded into batts, fluffy rectangular pillows of neatly aligned wool fibres ready to spin. None of that work is complicated though, just time consuming.

To spin a yarn you need a drop spindle or spinning wheel to add the twist. Then we come to the goldilocks moment of yarn making. Too much twist and your yarn will become a wild thing, knotting and twisting in on itself. Too little twist and your yarn won’t be a yarn, just a collection of fibres that fail to hold together. Adding just the right amount of twist is where the skill is. A simple skill but one that takes time and patience to perfect.

Jacob sheep have a piebald fleece so I had white, black and, when I blended the two together, grey naturally coloured yarn. The natural colours have a softness and depth that lifts them beyond a simple monochrome palette. I wanted to add to my palette of yarn colours without losing that softness and depth. I wanted colours to complement and enhance the natural rather than dominate. The craft of natural dyeing offered everything I was looking for and learning to dye with plants, that I could grow myself, would be another step away from the cloying consumerism of the modern day fibre craft world.

I wasn’t the only shepherd drawn to a day of natural dyeing in the roundhouse. There were three of us in an eclectic group made up of artists, fibre crafters, smallholders, historical re-enactors and experience hunters. Our teacher was an historian with a knack for combining historical facts with anecdote. We made our introductions and shared experiences but my fellow dyers faded into the background as we entered the roundhouse.

The first thing I noticed is that in a Bronze Age roundhouse there are no sharp corners. There are no darker recesses where walls meet and shadows gather. Instead the walls curve and encompass, holding the circular space in a protective embrace.

We know that curves and circles bring comfort on a deeper subconscious level. Curved architectural lines activate the emotional areas of our brains sparking a visceral pleasure. In contrast straight lines with angles activate our fear centres, signalling a threat. The preference isn’t just driven by innate fear of the harm sharp points and corners can cause but a more basic preference, for the arc of a curve instead of the linear. It’s not just me, we’re all hard wired to prefer the embrace of the roundhouse.

Our mundane small talk paused as we left daylight at the doorway. The welcoming gloom radiated in a concentric graduation, deepening as I moved towards the circle of comfortably worn wooden benches. The outside receded, reduced to a bright rectangle. Inside welcomed me with a dirt floor and a central fire, the flickering heart of the roundhouse.

The burning wood filled my senses. Drawing me in with warm light. The flames danced to a melody of crackles as wood smoke spiralled upwards, infusing the space with its own sweet scent. Fire can signal danger but taken and tamed by our ancestors it was a gift. Fire extended the day, provided warmth and a means to cook. Fire warded off predators and illuminated dark hidden places.

Dyepots on the Roundhouse fire

The fire in the centre of a home like the roundhouse was a social nexus. It may have been more. Today we hypothesise that campfires enhanced the social behaviour of our ancestors. We know that the multisensory fire experience induces a relaxation response, lowering blood pressure. Relaxed, calmer more tolerant people would have benefitted in the social milieu of fireside interactions. Those who were less susceptible to the relaxation response of the fireside didn’t benefit and perhaps lagged behind in the long distance evolutionary race we are still running now. As we sat in the roundhouse sinking into companionable silence I could feel the tensions of new relationships fade, eased by that unconscious relaxation response, we coalesced as a group.

Stones circled the fire, echoing the embrace of the roundhouse, to make a primitive hearth and natural resting place for a collection of pots. A mismatch of sizes, styles and ages. The pots varied from the most basic cast iron cauldron to more refined Victorian preserving pans with handles and pouring spouts. All too large, too heavy, with too much care needed and not dishwasher safe or easy to stack in a cupboard. Lacking the cachet of more fashionable vintage kitchenalia. A collection discarded from everyday use to the auctions of eBay and car boot sales. Now rescued to live a second functional life as dye pots.

Vintage cooking pots with a new life as dye pots

Picking one of the simpler pots I traced the comforting circle of the thick enamel rim with my finger. I appreciated the solid functional shape and heft as I carried it by the handle to fill with water.

A year on from my day in the roundhouse I have a collection of similar pots, all rescued from disuse. Each has it’s own character quirks, slowly revealed through the familiarity of use. I think of my pots as co-workers in the dye process rather than tools. Getting to know your pots means you can bring out the best in them. My vintage copper cauldron from France works best in the embers. The impressively large brass Victorian preserving pan is slow to warm up but perfect for a long simmer and my lidded iron cauldron will stand firm in the centre of the fire, containing even the most furious of rolling boils.

Of course there are plenty of standardised mass manufactured pots that could be used instead but my dyeing isn’t about mass production. I want to make yarn with terroir. Like a fine wine with all the characteristics of the environment it’s produced in. I want yarn that I’ve crafted, spun by my hands and dyed with plants that I’ve grown. Yarn that can’t be bought. Yarn that’s made by me.
More than that I want yarn that’s the product of a time and place. Yarn that holds memories and evokes the senses. I want to wear a knitted hat, wrap myself in a woven blanket or look at a tapestry and remember the sun on my face and blue skies over crops heavy with harvest on a midsummer day, autumn leaves caressed by an ethereal mist, a heavy frost and hands warmed over a fire surrounded by dye pots. Sun bleached twigs and sweet scented herb prunings that burn so fast the dye pots needed constant tending to avoid boiling. Damp logs that meant a slow dye day with time to daydream amid the heavy smoke and wayward falling leaves that added an unknown something to the dye pot.

I’ve learnt that dye pots are influential partners in the creation of a yarn with terroir. Their character and history brings a unique ingredient to every dye bath. Iron pots will sadden colours bringing a beautiful melancholy to even the brightest of shades. The best reds are born in copper and even the non reactive brass, enamel and aluminium pots will enhance or diminish the eddies and flows of the dye around the fibre, depending on their size and shape. Influential as my dye pots are though it’s the botanicals that reign sovereign. Without the dye plant a dye pot is after all just a pot.

In the roundhouse we had the three main dye plants to experiment with madder, woad and weld. Red, yellow and blue. Each dye plant has it’s own character and foibles which I’ve come to understand as I’ve planted and nurtured my dye garden.

The basic science of bonding dye to yarn is enhanced by the art of the natural dyer. We blend heat, time, acidity and oxidation like a chef blends spices. Complementing the artistic skill is the knowledge of other elements that are beyond our control. Weather and soil will influence the quantity and strength of dye molecules in botanical dyestuff just as they influence the yield and taste of crops. For me dyeing yarn this way is an irresistible, unpredictable blend of science and artistic endeavour.

In the roundhouse as I waited and tended the fire conversation turned to the past and the dyers who first unlocked the secret of colour from plants such as Weld which we were adding to our dye pot. Maybe they started as dyers with berry staining and gained a reputation for their natural aptitude at colouring yarn and fabric with consistency. The colours from berries are bold but transient and usually limited to a palette of reds and purples. They stain rather than dye. Berry stains fade with light and daily use so perhaps the dyers started to look beyond the obvious. Seeking more permanent colours in leaves and flowers.
Or was it more pragmatic ? Berries are seasonal and not as abundant as vegetation. Maybe it was just about being able to dye more yarn, more often. What would draw someone to weld though? Perhaps those flower spikes like school children’s hands raised high “pick me, pick me.” Or was it just an accident of common place abundance ? A patch of weld flourishing on poor land that was no good for crops or grazing. Worth experimenting with because it was easy to gather and not used for anything else.

Did dyers benefit from the social milieu of the communal fireside? Did they take advantage of the fire induced relaxation to seek favours of yarn and space amongst the cooking pots for their dye baths ?

What kind of person was a dyer ? Making colour didn’t feed anyone or make clothes warmer. Were they valued and did they sell their skill, making promises of rainbows ? Or were they more circumspect about their dye craft ?

In my own dye practice I’ve learnt patience and problem solving. I’ve spent hours simmering and soaking a dyestuff that yields a dye bath with uninspiring muted results. Then I’ve found a way forward from that disappointment. I’ve taken a chance by adding a modifier, perhaps iron or some ash water, and been rewarded for my persistence as the modifier coaxed more colour from the dye bath.

Dyeing with plants has also taught me the folly of over confidence. I’ve created a perfectly coloured dye bath which failed miserably to live up to my sanguine prediction of success. The colours released by extraction refusing to transfer their vibrancy from water to yarn.

Dyeing with weld in the roundhouse I learnt that sometimes a dyer just needs to have faith in chemistry. A dye pot of weld doesn’t look like much. The yellow stays hidden locked in a murky botanical soup only revealing its true self when it bonds with yarn.

In the gloom of the roundhouse it was hard to see the nature of the colour until I lifted my yarn from the dye pot. It can vary in shade but weld yellow is always vivid in comparison to the muted greens and browns that most vegetation produces. The brilliant coloured plumage of a blue tits breast, buttercup, dandelion and cowslip yellow captured from nature by the craft of the dyer.

Did the first weld dyers gasp at what they had made? Did they shout the excitement about the new addition to their palette? Or did they say nothing and hold their acid yellow yarn tight ? A secret for themselves, waiting for the perfect time or person to share success. Maybe it meant something less esoteric, more value, more trade and food on the table.

Were they cautious? Perhaps they thought success would be transient and fade like berry stains. Carefully washing their yarn and leaving it to dry hung over a useful branch. Returning the following day to quietly marvel that their new yellow remained steadfast.

Assured that the colour was permanent did they start to wonder what to make with yellow yarn and how it would look woven into cloth ? Or did they return to the patch of weld and gather more for their dye pots anxious to see if they could repeat the result ? Leaving the making for others.
As the days grew shorter did they think to harvest the remains of the weld patch and hang it to dry in a roof space ? An experienced dyer might have guessed that dried weld needs soaking overnight before simmering to extract the dye. They would know that adding more water to a dye bath then more yarn will give you progressively paler shades until the dye is exhausted.

Did they prize the brightest colour ? Or like modern day yarn hoarders did they lust after the perfect gradient yarn that captured the spectrum of shades and tints we name yellow ? Taking the first steps onto an acquisitive spiral that ends centuries later with #yarnlove and #yarnporn.

The results of a day of natural dyeing in the roundhouse

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