Thursday, 30 August 2012

From chutney to the stars

When Professor Stephen Hawking told the capacity crowd at the Paralympics opening ceremony the other night to “Look up at the stars” and be curious, I’m pretty sure my green tomato chutney wasn’t featuring in his mental landscape. Being curious about everything though makes for a fascinating life. Having been both amateur astronomer and chutney-maker in my time I can vouch that both involve a good deal of exploration, of one’s self and one’s environment.

As a small child, before my brother was born, when sent to bed in summer I’d invariably creep to the curtains and watch the sun set and the stars come out. As an adult, after putting my children to bed, I remember watching progress of, I think it was, Comet Swift-Tuttle standing in a cardboard box under an ideal dark sky in the garden of our thatched country cottage, hoping my feet wouldn’t get too cold. Even today I’m delighted by the continuing detailed images from Hubble, like this picture of globular cluster M68. This is probably more what Stephen Hawking had in mind!

Chutney too has warranted a lot of curiosity, from receiving an Olive Odell book on preserving as a young wife, to my continued lapping up of new recipes and new fruits to try. My Medlar tree delivered in abundance for the first time last year, involving a frenzy of recipe searching, and netting several jars of very tasty medlar jelly and even a medlar tart, recipe origin anno domini 1545, thanks to a fantastic site full of ancient recipes – it’s a whole universe for exploring in itself! Curiosity is something that should never be allowed to fizzle out in human beings, however tired or busy we become. You just don’t know what you can do until you try.

Stephen Hawking’s words at the opening ceremony were poignantly motivating, telling us that whatever difficulties we face in life, there’s “always something you can do”. And finding out what you can do is a worthwhile journey to make. I didn’t know I could spin – or would even like to – until trying it four years ago, and my has there been much fluffy water under the bridge since then. Fibres from Ramie (my latest conquest) to Yak, Possum and Llama, Angora bunny fluff and Angora goat (mohair) and multifarious sheep crosses, have expanded my horizons beyond my wildest dreams, from my first faltering try at a spinning wheel.

What we as a society can do if we try is summed up for me in that other Curiosity, the one sitting quietly working away on Mars and sending back phenomenal images like this of the landscape at the foot of Mount Sharp on the Red Planet. Whilst I’m enjoying a bit of blue sky backing the red colourings around me in at the start of autumn, Curiosity is almost mirroring the colours I see in the landscape of another world. And that, to me, is utterly fascinating. Here’s wishing you a week full of worthwhile curiosities.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Opening Statement

Firstly apologies for not updating the blog last week: I was away - not with the fairies but with best buddy Frances exploring the West Country, and trying to steer well clear of anything related to computers.  Everything else, though, we enjoyed in abundance:  good friendship, tea & cakes, Gertrude Jekyll gardens at Hestercombe and Barrington, a boot full of willow collected from Musgroves, and local cider and cheese – a winning combination.  We also enjoyed our first go at using a peg loom, weaving the rug opposite in the hotel room over 2 evenings. 

We certainly got some strange looks from chamber maids and hotel staff coming in with a peg loom and leaving skeins and balls of wool around the room as we worked.  It took just a couple of hours on each of two evenings to complete this, our opening statement in rug-making terms. I could never see how a peg loom could work, until we lifted the first set of pegs and slid the weaving down the warp threads.  Even then it didn’t seem real.  Would this really hold together?  As you can see it certainly did, and now I can’t wait to make a bigger one, perhaps even using some of my mega yarns. 

This small but epic production is on a linen warp and comprises fleece from a sheep called Noggin, sadly now in the Great Sheepfold in the Sky.  It represents the whole gamut of fibre preparation from washing and carding the fleece to spinning, plying, dyeing and weaving.  My Noggin rug yarn was dyed with plant dyes only.  If you’re interested, from top to bottom (up to down) they area;  exhausted woad; exhausted Brazilwood; woad over weld, dyers’ greenweed and exhausted dyers’ greenweed, Brazilwood, woad, pear leaves modified with iron water, Golden Rod, Golden Rod with pretty exhausted woad, medium-exhausted Brazilwood and exhausted woad. 

It’s given me encouragement to get plant-dyeing again before the dyers’ greenweed and Golden Rod are completely over in the garden, so I’m busy washing fleece on sunny days – a beautiful Leicester cross with lustre picked up from The Farm Animal Sanctuary stand at Fibre-East.    I’ve already got a haul of my own madder root, grown from seed and left for Jenny Dean’s suggested 3 years before harvesting. 

My bedtime reading in the hotel, after excited bouts of weaving, has also inspired me onwards. It was from Jenny Dean’s blog: the three entries on Anglo-Saxon dye experiments, in which she used only plants, including to produce the alum mordant replacements, and came up with a fantastic array of colours.  From a kitchen now scented by coloured willow, plants cut for dyeing and yarn waiting for its transformation, here’s wishing you all a similarly colourful and productive week ahead. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Bees, blackberries and botanics

Even if you ask them most politely, bees are just too busy to stand still while you photograph them. I want to let them have the best of the Golden Rod (Solidago), before I take some for natural dyeing on recently-purchased fleeces. At this time of year all my interest coalesce: bees (I’m a would-be bee keeper), plants - their uses and history, and wool.

With the huge range of acid dyes and ready-dyed Merino tops (rovings) available, it’s thought-provoking to realise just how much time our ancestors must have spent achieving a wide range of colours from natural materials. Having been lucky enough to go on a course run by natural dye expert Jenny Dean, and having successfully replicated shades of the colours in her ‘Wild Colour’ book, I can vouch for the necessity of having all one’s dyeing ducks ready in a row before starting.

Dye plants feature in the new ‘Garden of Edible and Useful Plants’ at London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, which opened a few months ago. The Chelsea Physic is one of London’s hidden treasures whose influential history is somewhat masked by its lower profile today. I say that with great affection, being one of those who’ve studied and received a Diploma in Plants & Plantsmanship in a slightly musty classroom in the Chelsea Physic’s inner sanctum.

The head gardener’s aim for the new space is: “to bring people closer to the plants which are inextricably woven into our everyday lives”. Have we forgotten already how inextricable that link is? I hope not, or the work of centuries will have been for naught. Making sure you had the right plant for making medicine or indeed for dyeing resource-expensive cloth in times past was essential. The eyesight of many scribes and medieval monks was devoted to keeping the knowledge chain intact. You can see the intensity of effort by tracing illustrations of the common blackberry from the Juliana Codex (the Vienna Dioscorides), through other copies of both Dioscorides’ and also Apuleius’ texts, such as the 11th Century Bury Herbal.  (See if you recognise woad or madder in the Bury Herbal pictures!)

A blossoming of interest in herbal cures and dyes amongst intellectual ladies like Maud Grieve in the last century gave the knowledge of centuries a helping hand into the modern era. Today, the mantle of spreading useful plant information to create a sustainable future has been taken up by the Plants for a Future database, which is a superb resource. It alerted me to the existence of a Dyers’ Woodruff I hadn’t come across: like every human being I still have a lot to learn.

Blackberries have various medicinal uses as well as offering potential - if rather elusive - to the natural dyer. My own experiments dyeing with blackberries are mixed. Thinking I’d sufficiently mordanted my Teeswater locks to achieve a purple-pink colour, they promptly turned smokey blue when I washed and felted my yarn. But experimentation is all part of the fun, as Jenny Dean’s trials re-createing Anglo-Saxon dye colours show.

There’s just so much out there that could bring us back into balance with nature. Here’s hoping you find something natural that opens new vistas in your coming week.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Bubble-gum, flag-bearers and barcodes

Does anyone else remember collecting picture cards from different types of sweets in the past?  I think some came with that very flat pink, dusty bubble gum that we used to pop and have it stick to our noses and chins. And some may even have been in those packets of white candy mock-cigarettes (how times have changed!).  One set held my childhood attention: it was a series of national costumes from around the world, featuring grass skirts in the Pacific isles, Kaftans, bark cloth from Africa and back to Europe with Dutch girls with triangular pointy hats and clogs.  It was one amongst many unconscious triggers firing me towards the world of textiles I now inhabit.  That trigger was pulled again last Friday as I sat watching the Olympic opening ceremony.

What a textile-fest!  Some of the countries chose only to show off their textile heritage with their flag-bearer, such as the glimpses of beautiful goldwork on the Kazakhstani flag-bearer’s hat and coat.  Others ‘went modern’ with only a hint of their colourful textile heritage to be seen. Yet the one getting my gold medal for textile display was Cameroon. They’d gone the whole way with traditional hats and flowing patterned robes.  

Such occasions used to be a real celebration of costume diversity, but this year few teams ventured as far as  Tuvalu and Kiribati in showing off proudly their national dress.  As ‘globalisation’ spreads its levelling glue, let’s hope traditional textiles and costumes aren’t levelled along with it. It would be a real loss if, like office buildings and hotel rooms, they all began to look the same.  

Our eye for spotting differences and enjoying detail is part of human evolutionary make-up, and enabled me to enjoy the first the mystery then the revelation of Thomas Heatherwick’s magical Cauldron with its copper Petals.  But humankind’s ability to copy is also inbred – and it’s not always used to the good, as I’m sure many designers and makers have found.  Responsible business has come a long way from the bad old days in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies were involved in disputes over the ancient herbal intellectual property of local peoples.  Yet protecting intellectual property is still high on the world’s business agenda. 

Protecting ‘design’ IP is felt to be difficult but the Design Council is trying to push things forward with useful tools like its downloadable Guide to Legal Issues & IP.  On their website I also came across a concept new at least to me:  that of the Creative Barcode.  It can be embedded into everything connected with one’s original work of creativity, including presentations, literature etc, and at a surprisingly low-priced entry point.  So perhaps we may all in future have solid ground on which to stand up and defend the differences that make our output unique, amongst the estimated £8.5 billions’ worth of clothing and textile industry products sold each year in Britain. 

Here’s wishing you a positive week of celebrating differences and making your own unique and sustainable mark on the world.