Dyeing at Denny Abbey again

For several years I have been tutoring  two workshops each summer at The Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire and, even though the journey from Sussex means getting up about 5.30am, I was keen to continue the workshops this year after our move. I always enjoy working at Denny Abbey, not only because the setting is so beautiful but also because the atmosphere there is so peaceful.  I also love to visit the dye garden at Denny, for which I supplied some plants from my own dye garden several years ago. This year was especially poignant for me, as I no longer have my own dye garden, so it was good to see the plants I had supplied thriving and flourishing.

The workshop followed my usual Denny format, starting with an introductory talk . Then in the morning we dyed wool and cotton samples, using two substantive dyes (rhubarb root and buckthorn bark) and two adjective dyes (madder and weld). We then used four colour modifiers on some of the samples, which meant we ended up with five different shades on each fibre from each dye.

In the afternoon I made an indigo vat and we dyed some wool and cotton samples and the students were then able to dye some of the materials they had brought with them. The day finished with a session round the table, assembling the 22 wool and 22 cotton samples on sample cards and dealing with any further questions or observations.

For me the high point of the day is always when the colours begin to emerge and I can see the students’ delight and hear their excitement at the range of beautiful colours we are achieving. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I teach similar workshops, the magic of these moments never fails to fill me with pleasure.

Dyed samples drying outside

Some of the dyed samples drying outside on pieces of old farm machinery

Dyeing at Stanmer Park, Brighton

Last week I led my first workshops in our new local area, working with dyers from several groups in Sussex for two days of plant dyeing.

The workshops took place in Stanmer Park, which is a beautiful location next to the University of Sussex, just outside Brighton. The venue for our workshops within the park was the Plumpton College potting shed, which had many stainless steel work tops, a couple of power points and a large ceramic sink, but rather limited space to move around. However, this did have the advantage of making it easy to communicate with everyone at close quarters. We used gas and electric heat sources and obtained a range of colours from madder, weld, rhubarb root, buckthorn bark, indigo and woad, plus one or two plants selected at random from the park.

Inside the potting shed

Inside the potting shed









Among the participants were experienced dyers and some relatively new to the craft. The opportunity to share and exchange skills and experiences was appreciated by all of us. One thing I learned is that storing fresh woad leaves in a fridge for over 24 hours may not be a good idea, as the vats made from fresh leaves that had been picked two days before they were to be used were not successful. The kind person who provided these leaves had kept them in the fridge for about 24 hours and I would not have expected this to have destroyed their blue dye potential, although I’ve never stored woad leaves in this way before. As we didn’t want to use them until the second day, we removed them from the fridge in the late afternoon of the first day, poured boiling water over them  and left them to steep overnight, ready to use the next morning. Unfortunately there was no way they could be persuaded to yield blues, although some generous participants declared themselves pleased with the yellowish colours achieved from the vat. However, the same leaves were then simmered to produce some pleasant pink-tan shades, so the experiment was not entirely without success.

The vat made using one woad ball was more successful. (See my earlier post for details of using woad balls.) 

One skein just removed from our small woad ball vat

One skein dyed in our small woad ball vat









Another successful experiment was with powdered rhubarb root. I made a strong, hot solution of washing soda and water, added the rhubarb root and stirred very well. The solution gradually became a deep red colour and we added some alum-mordanted and unmordanted skeins and left them to steep without heating. (NB Never heat washing soda solutions when dyeing wool or other animal fibres, as this may destroy the fibres.) After several hours both the mordanted and unmordanted skeins had become a rich madder-type rusty red. I was surprised to achieve such a rich red shade, as my earlier experiments using this method of dyeing with rhubarb root had produced paler, pinker shades. (See my earlier posts on dyeing with rhubarb root.) I suspect the difference in colour depth was probably because this time I used a stronger concentration of rhubarb root and washing soda.

The madder dye bath was made with freshly-dug madder roots, which gave excellent colours. Before use, the root was washed well and we also rubbed off some of the outer bark-like layer. We then chopped it as small as possible and poured boiling water over it. We left the root to steep in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then poured off the liquid into a dye pot. Then we poured boiling water over the same root again and left it to steep as before. Then we again poured off the liquid into the dye pot. (Note: this process removes some of the yellow and brown pigments which can make the dyed colour too rust in tone, rather than red. The liquid from these “steepings” can then be used for a further dyebath to achieve coral/rust shades.)  This pot of dye solution was put to one side for later use and we returned to the madder root, which we simmered again in fresh water for about 30 minutes until we had a rich red liquid. This was strained off and became our first dyebath. We allowed the temperature to cool a little, (if the temperature is too high when the fibres are added, they may become too brown in tone), then added unmordanted and alum-mordanted skeins. These were left to soak in the dye liquid without any further heat, until they had achieved a suitable depth of colour. Some of the skeins were then treated in acid, alkaline, copper and iron modifiers, giving a wide range of red and coral shades. Then we used the combined liquids from the first two madder root “steepings” to make a further dyebath, from which we achieved orange/coral colours. The same madder root can also be re-simmered for another dyebath, which will produce paler shades of coral.

To show the participants what can be achieved without a mordant, we used weld (dried, rather than freshly harvested) on unmordanted skeins. The weld gave good colours and the skein modified in washing soda was almost as brilliant and deep in colour as skeins mordanted in alum would have been. (Note: when storing dried weld, it’s important to keep it away from the light, otherwise much colour potential may be lost. I usually store dried weld in brown paper sacks.)

The following photos show some of the colours we achieved.

Some of the madder, weld and rhubarb root results

Some of the madder, weld and rhubarb root results

Some more dyed skeins, including the blues

Dyed skeins, including the blues

Revised editions of “Wild Colour”









The UK version of the revised edition of “Wild Colour” is now available and the US version should be available in November. Several people have contacted me with queries about these two editions, wondering whether they are in fact the same and why one edition appears to be more expensive than the other in pounds sterling on Amazon. I thought I would try to clarify matters by explaining that the only real differences between the two editions are in the spellings of words such as “colour/color” and in word usage, such as “clingfilm/saran wrap”. As far as the plant details are concerned, there is a slight slant in emphasis in the first paragraph of the woad pages in the US version, mainly because woad is considered to be a noxious weed in some US states. Apart from that, the text on the other plant pages is virtually the same in both editions, except for some spellings. The bibliography pages in each edition also vary slightly, as the US publishers insisted on including a list of US suppliers, which meant that some titles had to be removed from the US edition’s bibliography to make space for this. I chose not to reduce the bibliography to include suppliers in the UK edition, partly because so many readers will have internet access and it is often more reliable to find suppliers that way, as over the years of a book’s life most lists of suppliers tend to become out of date. Also, because limitations on the space available would have meant that I could only have included some suppliers and not others, I wanted to avoid causing offence to any supplier not included. As far as the dyeing instructions are concerned, they are identical in each version, so it really doesn’t matter which one works from.  Both editions are paperbacks and the front covers also differ slightly. I am disappointed that the words “revised and updated edition” don’t appear on the front cover of the UK version, although they do appear inside.

The reason why the US version costs more in pounds sterling than the UK edition is because the US price is in dollars and has been converted into pounds sterling for sale in the UK. I have no idea why the US version has not been made available on the same date as the UK version. I’m afraid I am merely the author and I have no control whatsoever over such matters.

Some people have also assumed that, as Karen Casselman seems to appear as “co-author” in the Amazon description of the US version, she must have part-written the book, which would make it a different book from the UK edition. This assumption is false. Karen Casselman played no part in this revised edition of “Wild Colour” but the US publishers insisted her name should remain on the cover of the US edition, probably because she was the “consultant” on the first edition of the book. The US publishers of this first edition insisted that there should be a known N. American “name” associated with the book,  because they feared that otherwise “Wild Color” might not sell in the US, as my name would probably not be known to US dyers. Apart from providing the “name”, Karen Casselman’s role was to advise on matters specific to N. America, such as where in N. America certain plants might be located and whether there were restrictions on growing certain plants in some US states. The text of all editions of “Wild Colour/Wild Color” has always been mine and mine alone, so any errors are solely mine and not the responsibility of anyone else.

Perhaps I should also add a few words here about how and why the revisions were made. When the publishers told me they were prepared to reprint “Wild Colour”, I would have been happy for the text to have remained unchanged as, to my knowledge, it did not contain any errors or any out-of-date information. However, the publishers would only reprint if I made changes to 30% of the book’s text pages. These changes could be small (eg to only one word or sentence on a page) or could include larger changes, such as revisions to several paragraphs. But whatever changes I made, they had to fit into the text areas as already established around the colour sections and photos, because none of the existing colour sections could be moved or changed.  I was also not allowed to add any further pages, so I couldn’t add any more plants or techniques, which would probably have been my chosen way of revising the book. It was also not possible to add plants or techniques by replacing existing ones, as the added ones would not fit with the existing colour photos, which could not be changed. Text could only be added in any spaces at the top of pages above photos, as in the green boxes added on pages 39, 41, 55 and 57, or on pages where the text did not run to the bottom of the page. Otherwise, revising meant painstaking juggling of words, so as to retain the same number of letters + spaces while also making changes, such as in the changes made to some of the indigo and woad dyeing methods. Readers familiar with both editions of “Wild Colour” may find it difficult to locate the revisions, because at first glance the books appear so similar, but changes actually occur on pages: 15, 25, 30-31, 36-37, 38-39, 40-41, 44-45, 46, 49, 52, 54-55, 56-57, 58, 69, 74, 78, 83, 94, 98-99, 100-101, 102, 105, 110, 114-115, 119, 120, 125, 133, 139, 140-144

I hope all these comments help to clarify matters.

Our new local area

We have started to explore the countryside around us here in West Sussex and have come to the conclusion that we are very fortunate to have ended up here in Findon. Findon is a delightful village and everyone has been very friendly and welcoming. There are two shops here selling basic foodstuffs for our daily needs, plus a post office/newsagents/general store, and also several pubs which offer food, and an excellent Bangladeshi restaurant and take-away. Our new home is in the South Downs National Park and very near Cissbury Ring, which is an iron-age hillfort, with the remains of Neolithic flint mines.









 This is a view over the Downs from the base of Cissbury Ring.

















The above two pictures show some of the local vegetation. It’s interesting to find so many shrubs and flowers here that are not familiar to us from Bedfordshire and we are beginning to identify some of them. Among those we’ve identified so far, I think we’ve found wild parsnip, hemp agrimony and the wayfaring tree, Viburnum lanterna. Apparently the latter was named the “wayfaring tree” by John Gerard, the 16th century herbalist, because it was such a common roadside tree and therefore very familiar to wayfarers.










This is another view over the downs, taken on a rather dull day. If you look very closely you should be able to see some sheep in the distance, just in front of the trees. Each year in September, Findon village has a Sheep Fair, which is held on Nepcote Green, just at the end of our lane. Apparently this fair dates back to 1261, but nowadays sheep are no longer auctioned at the fair. However, this year there will be sheep judging in two categories, Downland and Rare Breeds, and sheepdogs showing their skills, so there should be plenty of sheep on show.