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Plant Dyes: A Character Study of Red, Yellow and Blue

Red

Madder, common madder, dyer’s madder, a distant relative to the coffee plant, Rubia tinctorum is a master of disguise and deceit. A perennial plant that can grow a metre tall yet hides its height with weak stems that flop towards the ground without a support. Not that madder doesn’t want your attention. Every stem and leaf wears a coat of tiny hooks. Get too close and madder will grab you tight, a thousand tiny barbs seeking an irritant embrace.

Madder lives for years but would have you believe it dies every winter. As the days shorten it stars in a tragedy of faked decline. Leaves dry and stems wither. A bed of madder will take on the appearance of a mulch of straw, spread across the soil. Then in early April, amongst the lifeless husks of last year’s growth, you will see a collection of tiny buds. Vibrant and jewel like against the dried decay they herald madder’s resurrection as once again it returns.

Madder blossoms at the end of June. Small unimportant pale yellow flowers. Tiny stars that transform for madder’s summertime deceit. Each flower becomes a perfect swollen green sphere. A berry that darkens to a luscious blackcurrant but the similarity is on looks alone, the fruit is inedible. As summer progresses the berries of madder dry and shrink revealing peppercorn seeds, another visual mimicry.

Madder’s perennial drama of growth, death, resurrection and impersonation distracts from its true utility. Below ground are the roots. A secure vault that once unlocked by the dyer’s craft will reveal the red of alizarin.

As above ground madder cycles through its annual death and rebirth the roots maintain a steady growth. At three years you can harvest enough root to dye with. At five years the roots are pencil thick and at their best for dyeing. Unharvested the roots will continue to grow, at fifteen years they can thicken to an inch or more.

In a final attempt to disguise and deceive harvested madder roots have a yellow heart when cut. Then slowly air reacts with the root, turning the chemical key to unlock the secret store of red.

Yellow

Weld, dyer’s rocket, dyer’s weed, woold or yellow weed. The names give a clue to the nature of Reseda luteola. An itinerant plant whose fine black seeds hitch a ride on the wind and settle in neglected spaces. Weld will grow thick stemmed and lush on rich moist soils but the ease of a comfortable environment robs it of usefulness as a dye plant. The best weld for dyeing grows thin stemmed in dry, sandy soils.

Unfussy in it’s search for a home and willing to colonise more inhospitable land, once weld has settled on a place it doesn’t take kindly to being moved on. Replanting leads to a deep sulk and failure to thrive. It’s not that weld is being contrary or ungrateful for the human attention that replanting brings. It’s a biennial and in it’s first year the growth is mainly below the soil. A deep taproot, impossible to replant in it’s entirety, searches out nutrients to feed the unimposing rosette of green that hugs the ground above.

In the second year weld abandons its cautious, unassuming form. It reaches for the sky with a flower stalk that shoots wildly high. The exuberant transformation reveals weld’s main character flaw — impetuosity. A character flaw that means dormant seeds will take a chance and germinate at anytime of year if there’s a hint of warmth. Some plants will even rush to complete an entire life cycle in one season. They abandon the careful storage of nutrients and race towards sexual maturity. Desperate to reveal their flower spike in all its glory. The architecture of the flower spike is the showiest part of weld. The actual flowers are small, neatly arranged yellow to green blossoms that cloak the length of the spike.

If threatened by drought or physical damage weld again revels in impetuosity and throws caution to the wind. Reasoning it’s better to reproduce and spread more seed than hunker down in the safety of that unimposing green rosette.

Blue

Isatis tinctoria, woad, dyer’s Woad or glastum is a biennial immigrant from the Caucasus now a settled resident of Europe and western North America. Woad is a confident plant, staking a claim on new pastures with such zeal that in certain states it is listed as a noxious weed and targeted for eradication. A single colony of woad in Montana increased its territory from 0.8 to 40.5 ha in two years.

It’s not just the confidence of woad that has given it such a bad reputation in certain botanical circles. An impolite guest at the all you can eat buffet of soil nutrients, woad has a gluttonous appetite for nitrogen. Selfish woad doesn’t share and will empty the larder for a hunger that’s never sated. It reaches right to the back of the cupboard for sustenance with a taproot that can grow up to 1.5m in length.

It should come as no surprise that such a significant anchorage brings with it both an admirable and frustrating quality — persistance. If Woad is happy and well fed it will stay put, ignoring all polite hints to move on. That’s not to say Woad is a homebody. Wind is woad’s chosen method of travel. Though it’s not adverse to taking advantage of any passing creatures that might be going it’s way. Bunches of black seeds with individual wings sway in the breeze and then take flight. An average plant will send 500 offspring to colonise new worlds. A more prolific plant can send up to 1000.

To make sure its seeds can catch the wind and fly woad grows tall. Delicate stems topped with sprays of yellow blossoms hold their heads high above botanical neighbours. Making sure the Woad offspring have a headstart in the race to find new soils.

Woad isn’t always self serving though. It has a generous side. The rosette of dark green leaves, that provide the famous blue dye, are a product of woad’s insatiable appetite for nitrogen. It’s thanks to woad’s greed that they can be harvested more than once in a season. Planted in March the crop will be ready from July to September. If your Woad is feeling particularly generous the harvest might be extended to November and if frost is avoided even all year round. Greedy, selfish, persistant, woad is a utilitarian provider at heart

A Trio of Shepherding Hats

A few weeks ago I shared a knitting pattern for what I like to call my shepherding hat. It’s a basic beanie shape, knitted using my handspun dk weight yarn and designed to keep your head and ears cosy when busy shepherding. You can find the pattern here Shepherding Hat Knitting Pattern

I’ve been playing around with the pattern a bit and designed a hat that you can add colourwork or stripes to easily. Basically it has less ribbing and I’ve siplified the design so that there aren’t any decreases to knit.

Here’s a picture of the Shepherding hats that I’ve knitted. I’ve used the natural dark and white Jacob yarn as well as the blended Jacob.

The hat pattern is a single size that should fit most adults. Casting on 88 stitches gives you a hat that has a 56cm circumference. If you want to change the size increase or decrease the number of cast on stitches. Eight stitches is approximately 5cm so reducing the number of stitches to 80 will make your hat circumference about 51cm. You will need to make sure the number of cast on stitches is divisible by 8 for the crown shaping to work.

You can keep your hat plain and simple or if you’re feeling more adventurous  incorporate your own  stranded colourwork or stripe pattern.

The Hooters Hall Shepherding Hat Pattern 2

What you need

  • 3.5 mm 40cm circular needles
  • 4mm 40cm circular needles
  • 4 mm double pointed needles
  • 150g of Hooters Hall dk handspun yarn (if you want to knit stripes or colourwork you will need varying amounts of the colours depending on what colourwork or striped design you choose)
  • Tapestry needle
  • Stitch marker

This pattern is one size for adults hat circumference 56cm. You need to be able to knit in the round and do knit and purl stitches

K = knit

P= Purl

K1P1 = Knit one Purl one ribbing

 

The pattern

Cast on 88 sts using 3.5mm 40cm circular needle

K1 P1 and join in the round placing a stitch marker at the start of the round.Continue K1P1 ribbing for 4 more rounds (5 rounds in total.) If you want to make the ribbing longer you can. You can also choose to do a Knit 2 Purl 2 ribbing as an alternative.

Change to 4mm needles and Knit all stitches. Continue knitting until the hat measures 13cm from the brim or whatever height you prefer. You can knit all in one colour or change the colour of yarn and knit stripes.

You can also knit a stranded colourwork pattern just choose a pattern that will fit into 88 stitches. (work out how many stitches a single pattern repeat covers and divide 88 by this number if the result is a whole number then the pattern will fit)

Crown decrease (decrease 8 sts every other round) switch to 4mm double pointed needles when necessary, for me this is usually at round 7.

If you have changed the size of your hat by increasing or decreasing the number of stitches you will need to adjust which round you start on for the crown shaping.

For example if you reduced the number of cast on stitches to 80 you would start on round 3 below.

If you have increased the number of cast on stitches to e.g. 96 you would need to add 2 rounds round at the beginning. Firstly K10 K2tog repeat to end of round then a round of knit all stitches before starting at round 1 below.

Round 1. K9 K2tog repeat to end of round (80sts)

Round 2. Knit all stitches

Round 3.K8 K2tog repeat to end of round (72sts)

Round 4. Knit all stitches

Round 5. K7 K2tog repeat to end of round (64 sts)

Round 6. Knit all stitches

Round 7. K6 K2tog repeat to end of round (56 sts)

Round 8. Knit all stitches

Round 9. K5 K2tog repeat to end of round  (48 sts)

Round 10. Knit all stitches

Round 11. K4 k2tog repeat to end of round (40 sts)

Round 12. Knit all stitches

Round 13. K3 K2tog repeat to end of round (32 sts)

Round 14. Knit all stitches

Round 15. K2 k2tog repeat to end of round (24 sts)

Round 16. Knit all stitches

Round 17. K1 k2tog repeat to end of round (16 sts)

Round 18. Knit all stitches

Round 19. K2tog (8 sts)

Break yarn and using tapestry needle pull yarn through remaining stitches.

Weave in ends.

Block. Dunk your hat in warm water. Remove and roll up in a dry towel. Place over a balloon or head sized object and leave to dry.

Fibre Farming and a Shepherding Hat

If you follow Hooters Hall on Facebook or Instagram you will have seen some of my posts talking about transitioning to becoming a fibre farm. When we first started our smallholding journey we planned a mixed smallholding with a focus on raising rare breed pigs and growing herbs to flavour the sausages we would make in our own butchery. We did just that and our pork and sausages proved very popular.

With a need to keep on top of the grass growth in our paddocks we decided to get some sheep about a year or so into our smallholding life. We started with three Jacob ewes and soon added a ram and some more ewes. Now we have a gradually growing flock, bred here at Hooters Hall. Its not all about the wool of course we also have some Angora goats and have bred our Golden Guernsey goats with our Angora Billy to produce goats that shed their fleece. With fibre comes fibre crafts and over the past 5 years I’ve progressed from improving my knitting skills to spinning my own yarn and learning to weave. We’ve also developed our skills in shearing and small scale fibre processing so we can process all the fibre we produce at Hooters Hall.

It reached a point this year when we had to consider the direction we were heading in. With only six acres we have to plan how we can make best use of the land and as most smallholders discover the dream might be to work on your smallholding 24/7 but the reality is that most people have mortgages and that means earning a wage in non smallholding employment especially when you first start . So for a stress free life its important to find a balance between smallholding work and the day job.

For us the life balance is with fibre farming. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever keep pigs and make our own sausages again but it won’t be the main focus of our smallholding. We’ll continue to grow our own veg, herbs and natural dyes but our choices about how we use the land, the buildings we have and the equipment we invest in will be made with the goal of fibre farming rather than mixed smallholding.

So what does fibre farming mean ? There’s a long history of sheep farming in Britain but fibre farming is slightly different. We raise sheep and goats to produce fibre for fibre crafts rather than meat or for selling livestock on to other farmers. Some fibre farms focus on producing commercially popular fleeces and having their fibre spun into yarn at fibre mills.

At Hooters Hall we’re aiming for something slightly different. We want to produce fibre for handspinning, weaving and felting. Our goals aren’t just about fibre production but also fibre crafts. We want to process all our own fibre share our knowledge about small scale fibre processing, inspire people to learn about fibre crafts and develop their own skills in using fibre and creating for themselves.

In the medium to long term that might mean hosting fibre retreats here at Hooters Hall and maybe expanding our fibre processing with investment in mini mill equipment. Right now it means sharing our knowledge about fibre processing, fibre craft projects and selling the fibre from our Jacob sheep and Angora goats.

So with that in mind here’s my latest knitting project the Shepherding Hat. I wanted a simple beanie style hat to wear when I’m doing shepherding tasks. It needed to be a dense fabric to keep those winter winds out, a snug fit so it would stay put when I’m busy shepherding and a quick and easy knit made from my own handspun yarn.

The Hooters Hall Shepherding Hat

What you need

  • 3.5 mm 40cm circular needles
  • 3.5mm double pointed needles
  • 150g of Hooters Hall dk Weight handspun yarn
  • Tapestry needle
  • Stitch marker

This pattern is one size for adults. You need to be able to knit in the round, make knit and purl stitches and do a knit 2 together decrease.

Abbreviations

K = knit

P= Purl

K1P1 = Knit one Purl one ribbing

K2tog= Knit two stitches together 

The pattern

Cast on 92 sts using 3.5mm 40cm circular needles

K1 P1 and join in the round placing a stitch marker at the start of the round.Continue K1P1 ribbing until your hat measures 11 cm or desired length. (If you make your hat longer you will use more yarn.)

Decrease round K21 K2tog repeat to end of round (88 sts)

Knit all stitches for one round

Crown decrease (decrease 8 sts every other round) switch to double pointed needles when necessary, for me this is usually at round 7.

Round 1.K8 K2tog repeat to end of round (72sts)

Round 2. Knit all stitches

Round 3. K7 K2tog repeat to end of round (64 sts)

Round 4. Knit all stitches

Round 5. K6 K2tog repeat to end of round (56 sts)

Round 6. Knit all stitches

Round 7. K5 K2tog repeat to end of round  (48 sts)

Round 8. Knit all stitches

Round 9. K4 k2tog repeat to end of round (40 sts)

Round 10. Knit all stitches

Round 11. K3 K2tog repeat to end of round (32 sts)

Round 12. Knit all stitches

Round 13. K2 k2tog repeat to end of round (24 sts)

Round 14. Knit all stitches

Round 15. K1 k2tog repeat to end of round (16 sts)

Round 16. Knit all stitches

Round 17. K2tog (8 sts)

Break yarn and using tapestry needle pull yarn through remaining stitches.

Weave in ends.

Block. Dunk your hat in warm water. Remove and roll up in a dry towel. Place over a balloon or head sized object and leave to dry.

This picture sums up what our fibre farm will be about the sheep, the yarn and the craft