Hooters Hall

Posts Tagged ‘natural dyes’

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


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.


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.


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

Hooters Hall 2016: our five year anniversary

Another year at Hooters Hall has ended and we’ve been here five years now. We’ve done a lot in those five years but there’s still a lot to do. In 2016 we were able to spend more time growing our own produce and our experiment with straw bale gardening was very sucessful. The fruit trees, particularly the apricots were very productive and my squash forest gave us 75 winter squash which should see us all the way through the winter.

The straw bales we used are still intact and I think they will do a second growing season. I’ve still got some red cabbage and spring onions growing in them. Looking back on our harvest for 2016 and making plans for 2017 I’m going to be growing more elephant garlic, spring onions, sweet peppers and melons. I think I’ll skip the Kohl rabi for 2017 it grew really well but there’s only so much you can eat. The same with turnips. I had early success with baby turnips, got a bit carried away and we had a bit of a turnip glut. Fortunately the pigs helped us out with that. I’m also going have a year off growing peas and beans. They are nice but there’s only so much room in the polytunnel and I want to try some different growing challenges.

One of the best growing experiences of 2016 was harvesting fresh, homegrown melons and raspberries from the polytunnel for my breakfast. The tomatoes did really well this year too and although we had a bit of a glut it wasn’t overwhelming because we made good use of our dehydrator which means we’re still enjoying our tomato harvest now. At the end of the season we had a lot of green tomatoes and they made a really nice chutney.

Here are some pictures of our 2016 harvest


When we first moved to Hooters Hall five years ago I thought I might like to take up knitting but I remember telling a friend I didn’t think I would get into spinning my own yarn or any other fibre crafts. How wrong I was. I’ve got two spinning wheels and several weaving looms now and we’ve turned one of the rooms in the piggery into a fibre processing room. My super chunky handspun yarn is proving very popular in USA as well as UK and hopefully there will be a lot more fibre craft to come in 2017. Here’s some pictures for the yarn lovers.

The fibre we process at Hooters Hall is our own Jacob wool and mohair from our Angora goats. The sheep did really well in 2016. All but one of our ewes had twins and they are all thriving. We had a much earlier lambing than previous years because we kept our ram in with the flock from Summer through the autumn. February lambing did work quite well the lambs got to enjoy the best of the Spring /Summer grass and have grown really well with lovely fleeces. We moved each ewe inside when she lambed and kept ewes and the lambs inside for a few days before returning them to the flock We have had predator attacks over the past 5 years and learnt through experience it’s better to keep the lambs inside for the first few days. Unfortunately Amber our Angora doe didn’t fall pregnant this year but fingers crossed for 2017. We did add another goat breed to our herd with the arrival of Jen the Bagot goat. She’s doing really well and is now quite happy to eat out of my hand and even sits on my lap.

Here’s some pictures of some of the other residents of Hooters Hall in 2016 including Big cockerel one of our first batch of home hatched chickens.

If you follow Hooters Hall on Instagram or facebook you’ll have seen some of my natural dye experiments throughout 2016. I’ve tried some rust dyeing using rusty objects found on the farm as well as some eco printing using foraged plant material and dyeing with botanical dyes that I’ve grown in my dye garden. In Spring and Summer we sell freshly harvested hedgerow dyes in the Hooters Hall farm shop. I’ve already posted pictures of the results of willow dyeing and in 2017 I’ll be showing what the other hedgerow dyes can do. Here’s s selection of my natural dye and eco print experiments on cotton.

In the five years that we’ve been at Hooters Hall we’ve really got into outdoor cooking. In the Summer, weather permitting, we’ll generally cook on the campfire enjoying our own Gloucestershire Old Spot pork with herbs and vegetables from the garden and polytunnel. We’ve shared a few recipes on our facebook page and there’ll be more to come in 2017. We’re going to be exploring the world of herbal syrups and I’m sure there will be more sausage and pork recipes.

Before we moved to Hooters Hall we lived in South London. I loved living in London but you can’t beat Fenland for big skies and beautiful sunsets. Also the dark winter days are more bearable when you can watch the sun rise while doing the morning feed. Here are some of the best big skies of the Fens from 2016.

We spent our New year’s bank holiday doing a bit of polytunnel maintenance so now I’m itching to get growing again and it’s definitely time to start browsing the seed catalogues. We might be lambing again in a few weeks as well so keep an eye on our facebook and instagram for cute lamb pictures.

Hooters Hall Facebook https://www.facebook.com/HootersHall/

Hooters Hall Instagram https://www.instagram.com/hootershall/

Hooters Hall 2015

It’s a few days late but here’s our round up of 2015. The year got off to snowy start in January fortunately the cold snap didn’t last too long and it was pretty while it lasted.


Spring saw the arrival of Poppy our first British Guernsey x Angora goat. Poppy is the world’s friendliest goat here he is just after being born.

The arrival of Poppy meant we could milk his mum Spice and enjoy delicious Guernsey goat milk and a bit of goats cheese. We also had a successful lambing with a lot of twins and even a set of triplets.

Our Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets that were born at the end of 2014 continued to do well. Here’s a pic of the girls with mum Beatrice and our other sow Eugenie

I continued my exploration of the fibre world in 2015. I’m still spinning and selling our super chunky yarns in the farm shop, together with the fleece from our Jacob sheep and the mohair from the Angora goats. I also started experimenting with natural dyes. Here’s a picture of some mohair dyed with Weld leaves and a yarn spun from mohair and wool dyed with Weld leaves.

As well as growing dye plants I also experimented with using Willow to dye our wool. It turned out really well and we now stock Willow dyed fleece in the farm shop.  

We’ve also started stocking a range of freshly harvested hedgerow dyes (in season) such as nettle, elder, blackberry shoots and apple twigs and leaves.

We did a lot of campfire cooking over the Summer and tried out our homemade spit roast.

We’ve spent the year working on our sausage recipes and we now have a Classic Pork and a Pork and Apple. Both made at Hooters Hall with our homegrown Gloucestershire Old Spot pork and delicious cooked over a campfire or in a more conventional kitchen.

As 2016 starts we’re looking forward to more baby goats (I think both Spice and Amber are pregnant), experimenting with straw bale gardening, more natural and hedgerow dye experiments, growing willow for basketry and trying out some more sausage recipes.

We’ll continue to sell our farm produce online through the Hooters Hall farm shop www.hootershall.etsy.com and you can keep up to date with what’s going on at Hooters Hall through our Facebook, twitter and instagram