Woollenflower Weekend - natural dyeing with Julia Billings

Jules' studio

My interest in natural dyeing was first sparked when I found some oak galls in the local 'Skeleton Woods', a beautiful little woodland where I'd take my boys to burn off energy when they were little.  I discovered that these mystery objects could be used to make dye and ink, so gathered what I could and saved them in a jar, which then got lost in the chaos of my tiny kitchen (unusually I don't think anyone tried to eat them, or at least they never owned up to it!).  Life was busy so I put 'dye experiments' on my to-do list and then carried on with life and business.

We moved to our new site here in Walsden, just outside Todmorden in 2020, and the building came with a large expanse of outside space.  It seemed like the right time to mess around with some dyes.  We set up some large raised bed planters in 2021 and now have a developing crop of madder, woad, dyer's chamomile and bog myrtle.

Of course growing is just the first step and despite buying (and selling!) some wonderful dye books, I got a bit flustered at the sciencey bit and the possibilities that it could all go horribly wrong after investing all that time and energy in a one-year-one-chance crop.

I'd seen that Julia Billings from Woollenflower was running dye courses in her Glasgow studio.  Having known Julia (Jules) for several years from the yarn show circuit, I knew that I should take advantage of her incredible knowledge, experience and calm, patient nature as soon as possible!  And having family in Glasgow made it easy, so I booked on her one day 'Local Colour' intro course and headed up to Scotland in June 2022.

Julia's studio

Jules' studio is in the east end of Glasgow in an old college, which turned out to be on the site where my partner and in-laws had lived in the 1970s!  The beautiful white studio had huge windows and high ceilings, perfect for checking colours and drying skeins.

There were about 8 of us on the course, with various levels of knowledge, but Jules managed to pitch it just right for all of us from absolute beginners to those with some decent experience.

There were already 5 dye vats steaming away when we arrived - I loved the way that Jules had done enough prep to make sure we could get stuck in with the dyeing straight away. 

tending the dye vats

We used skeins of wool that Jules had scoured, pre-mordanted and soaked, and each pair of us was assigned a vat from birch leaves, birch bark, nettles, pomegranate husks and walnut shells.  After testing the vat for acidity and adding copious amounts of vinegar to our birch bark, the yarn and some fabric scraps went in, so we could test on both animal (protein) and plant (cellulose) fibres.

checking the colours

We covered the technical aspects of preparing the fibres and vats whilst they steamed away.  Jules' handouts are just an amazing resource of dyeing detail, but laid out on a way that was easy to follow and understand. Her focus on this day was to introduce us to dye plants that could be foraged locally and responsibly, even in more urban areas.

We talked through this, periodically getting up to keep the fibres moving and see how the colours were developing. Finally we got to see the colours emerge as we lifted the skeins and fabric strips from the pots!  Gorgeous greens, yellows, browns and warm dusty pinks.

skeins after dyeing

After lunch, we took half of the skeins and immersed them in an iron bath to sadden the colours - it was amazing to see this magical transformation and produce a completely new set of colours! 

the iron bath

the final skeins

The skeins were squeezed and hung up to dry, whilst Jules took us on an informative walk around the area and Glasgow Green to see just how many dye plants were there on the doorstep.

local foraging with Jules

We then finished the day by labelling and dividing up the skeins and swatches so we could all take a full set home - a gorgeous reminder of the day!

the final results

Jules is such a great teacher and so full of plant and fibre knowledge - I would jump at the chance of doing another one of Jules' courses and I do hope we can bring her to Beyond Measure to share her knowledge.

Jules also sells her own beautiful hand dyed yarns, kits and ready to dye fibre packs to get you started on your dyeing journey!  You can find out more about Jules and her courses on the Woollenflower website.

Jules' Yarn

And you can find our beautiful embroidery thread collaboration here in the Beyond Measure shop too...

our embroidery collaboration

I hope to find more time to try out my new found dye knowledge, not on a commercial scale but as a way of connecting more with our local environment and the plants we are cultivating here at Beyond Measure.  So do watch this space and let me know about your own experiences of dyeing with plants...




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