How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment 🙂 ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! 🙂

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? 🙂

The more of less

 “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. ” 

The Dalai Lama

I think that ‘less is more’ is likely to be our motto for life this year. Take this blog, for example. I love blogging but this is the first post I have written for almost a month: less writing means more living. With the house renovation practically done, we can spend less time indoors and more time outside where we both prefer to be. Fewer planned visits to the UK will mean more time to explore Spain, both near and far. Fewer trips to source building materials or cart rubbish away means more time to simply ‘be’ at home, enjoying the beauty of this special place in which we live.

Living simply, however, doesn’t mean living lazily, and the first few weeks of the new year have seen us busy in so many ways. It has been wonderful to finally turn our attention to the lengthy list of outdoor projects that has been waiting in the wings for so long and – up until this week – the weather has been warm and dry and fully conducive to getting out there. One of the very first jobs I did when we moved here was remove hundreds of plastic bottles that had been tied to the fence at the end of the vegetable patch: goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago now! At long last, we have replaced the fence, taking in a couple of metres of field for extra planting space as we went. I suppose we should be thankful that there were no bedsteads involved this time but it was the usual mess of metal props, mesh and netting knitted together with endless strands of barbed wire, all on an impossibly steep slope.

There is much to do at this end of the garden, including tidying up the neglected horreo, but it’s amazing how a new fence has already changed the outlook and smartened things up. I’m planning to plant globe artichokes raised from seed inside the fence; if they grow half as well as our current plant, they should make a handsome hedge of silvery blue-green fronds. Beats plastic bottles in my book!

Our farmer friend Jairo delivered a huge trailerload of muck so we spent a couple of afternoons shifting it by hand to make a goodly pile in both vegetable patches, where it will rot down over summer into a pile of gorgeousness ready for spreading in autumn. Combined with homemade compost it is a rich, natural feed for our soil, the very stuff of gardening dreams. We’ve been hauling logs, too; how incredible that even in the depths of January, we are still putting more into the log shed than we are burning. I like that. The seating area on the courtyard is one of our most-used places, a favourite ‘room’ where we love to take a coffee break, eat meals or sit and watch the sunset. We’ve managed this far with the ugly and horrendously uneven concrete surface but at last plans are afoot for a serious makeover: a stone surround filled with building rubble to level everything, then covered in some huge stylish slates we saved from the old roof. Blimey, we won’t know ourselves!

Freed from the huge burden of house renovation carpentry, Roger has been enjoying himself with some more interesting projects. Having had to admit that our trusty old blue bench is literally on its last legs and really only held together by the paint, we decided it was time to replace it before there was a nasty accident (I hate the idea of our lovely old neighbour toppling off a rotten seat as he stops to catch his breath there). The old bench has been moved to a little-used corner (it’s still safe for one person if you know exactly where to place your behind!) and meanwhile, Roger has fashioned a new version from the wooden base of a single futon we have had for 25 years. With a lick of that Peacock Blue, it’s just the job . . . now all we need is the sunshine back. (To the left of the wall, you can see the river raging down the valley in full spate after 24 hours of torrential rain.)

Bits of planks left over from making the stairs have been fashioned into smooth, circular pot stands; these are just perfect for our ‘stove to table’ approach to cooking and are a welcome replacement for our disgracefully shoddy table mats. Treated with a food-safe oil, I’ve found they also make nifty little chopping boards.

Now, let me tell you about that rather lovely paring knife . . . a recent and rare indulgence I’m happy to own up to. It was made by my nephew Harry https://www.facebook.com/GoughCutlery/ who, for several years, has been perfecting the art of creating bespoke cutlery and believe me, what he doesn’t know about metallurgy isn’t worth knowing. I fell in love with this beautifully-crafted creation of stainless steel and recycled laburnum (fond memories of our hedges in Wales which had been planted with laburnum for tool handles), its size, shape and weight are just right for me and it is so sharp I swear you could slice air with it. There is something so satisfying using a piece of equipment like this that has been handmade with such care and attention, the application of an ancient art to modern living. Looked after properly and sharpened on a leather strop, it will probably last us for ever. Thank you, Harry!

So, after two months of virtual drought which has seen me watering pots and troughs to keep everything alive, nature is paying her debt with more water than we know what to do with. No problem, the garden was greatly in need and I have had plenty of indoor things to keep me busy. As cloth food storage bags and cotton hankies have been such a roaring success, I have sewn more of both. I finally dug out my dyeing equipment and dyed a skein of laceweight Merino for a gift; I’d forgotten just how much fun and how satisfying the dyeing process is.

Having sorted through my treasures in the attic, I am resolved to spinning far more this year as there is still quite a stash of fleece up there waiting to become socks (or other woolly delights). I’ve knitted a new pair of socks for Roger – having made them for practically everyone else last year, I thought it was about time! – and crocheted an intricate bohemian scarf as a birthday present. Gift wrap is such an environmental nightmare that I prefer to use brown paper which can at least be recycled or composted but it is a bit – well – brown. I flirted with the idea of printing with acrylic paint to jazz it up a bit but in the end I decided scrap yarn and old buttons were more my thing.

On the subject of scrap yarn, I’ve already made a patchwork blanket from leftovers but still seem to have oodles of colourful possibility left. I’m having a ball turning the more neutral colours into tiny finger puppets for little fingers; my Christmas gift to Ben, William and Evan is the promise of a regular parcel of ‘Puppet Post’ throughout the year. They are great fun but so fiddly! I’m enjoying evenings in front of the fire, rippling away at the ‘Cottage’ crochet blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year but when it’s finished, there will be yet more spare wool . . . so inevitably, another patchwork event is on the cards. This time, solid three-round granny squares which take only four grams of yarn each which means I can use the tiniest scraps; this is the perfect pick up / put down project which will be good to take on my travels, too. It really has to be the most clueless of all my blanket projects so far: I have no idea what shape or size it will be as I have no idea how many squares I will end up with. Random or planned colour pattern? Joining? Border? No rush.

We kept free-range hens for over twenty years and I have to confess to missing a few about the place, I love their comic antics and, of course, the bounty of fresh, free-range eggs. We are lucky to have a regular supply from our neighbours but when they don’t have a surplus, I have started buying them from https://pazodevilane.com/en/, a Galician company whose philosophy I love.

The hens range freely in pastures just as ours did; their eggs are deep brown and speckled with tough shells and huge golden yolks and are some of the best we’ve ever eaten. They come ungraded (but with a minimum weight) in a sturdy cardboard box which is designed to be re-used; every year, the company asks customers to send ideas for their use and for every idea submitted, a tree is planted. This is definitely my kind of thing so I’m hoping that turning a box into a soap mould will be worthy of a new tree for future hens to scratch under.

The soap in question was actually my first attempt at solid shampoo using locally-sourced ingredients plus some goodies from https://www.thesoapery.co.uk/ : olive, coconut, castor and avocado oils, shea butter, tea tree and lavender essential oils. It was fascinating to observe a different set of ingredients undergoing the saponification process; the resultant bars are silky and herbal and hardening nicely . . . and when fully cured, I have just the box to store them in!

Less complicated than soap, I’ve also made solid hand lotion bars by melting the beeswax I purified before Christmas with coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. Warmed gently between my hands, the bar melts into a rich, unctuous cream which feels and smells wonderful and can double as a lip balm. I’ve put one in an old Lush tin to carry in my handbag, and an empty gift tea tin is perfect for storing the rest until needed.

Eucalyptus forests and their processing factories are a hot environmental issue here and understandably so. The bright side for us, however, is a ready supply of leaves, bark and wood which we can put to good use in many ways.

What a simple pleasure it was to wander through our dripping woodland under my brolly this week to pick a handful of glaucous leaves, spicy scented and sparkling with raindrops. Using a recipe from James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs, I heated the leaves gently in almond oil with pine resin, cinnamon and cloves – mmm, the house smelt wonderful.

This would make a splendid winter bath oil, if only we had a bath! No problem, it’s just as good stirred into a basin of hot washing water, sprinkled onto a hanky or a steaming bowl as a decongestant or used as a body and massage oil, lovely on aching muscles after a hard run. It is so deliciously aromatic that I’m also tempted to try it in a batch of soap . . .

Second only to the ubiquitous eucalyptus, kiwis are another vigorous import whose exuberance rewards us with several month’s worth (and what feels like several tonnes) of fruit. Late February generally sees the end of our fresh supply so this week I’ve been experimenting with drying them to keep as a healthy snack; I’m thinking they would be particularly good to carry on long walks. Without a dehydrator or the desire to run an electric oven on low for several hours, it’s a game of chance played out on top of The Beast but so far, so good. Now it’s just a case of beating the blackbirds to the remaining fruit.

As part of our continuing efforts towards zero waste, this year I’ve decided to do things differently where recycling is concerned. We normally store our recycling in the underhouse barn then, every few weeks, load it into the car and deposit it as part of a trip out to do other things. No more. This year, I’m taking personal responsibility for carrying it weekly down to the village recycling point which is half a mile from home. There are three reasons behind my decision. First, Roger has spent several hours clearing the junk (yet another pile belonging to the former owner plus our own post-renovation stuff) from under the house, creating a clean, wide-open, useful space; it just no longer seems right to be met at the door by a mountain of recycling. Second, it’s a nice little jaunt in the fresh air which rings the changes from running and yoga, gives me the chance to chat with neighbours and provides a decent workout pulling myself back up the cruelly steep hill home. Third – and most important – by dealing with our recycling in amounts that I can comfortably carry, I’m hoping to shift the focus from collecting to connecting, from mindlessness to mindfulness. Recycling is fine but reducing is better and I’m on a mission to look for more ways where we can do just that. How gratifying that the very first week suggested a possibility . . .

Doing the recycling . . . spot my red coat between the bins!

Bundling up the plastic waste ready for my Recycling Ramble, I quickly realised what a lot of yogurt we eat. It’s little wonder that with such an abundance of lush pastureland, Asturias produces dairy foods of the highest quality and we are only too happy to indulge in thick and creamy local Greek-style yogurt on an almost daily basis . . . but I only had to look at the pile of plastic packaging to realise Something Had To Be Done. Cue my first ever go at making yogurt, not without a certain sense of trepidation because if I am totally honest, I expected to produce an unpleasantly runny, acidic substance that neither of us would really like. Well, nothing ventured and all that.

The process was ridiculously simple: after scalding the modest pile of equipment with boiling water, I warmed fresh whole milk to body temperature, poured it into a kilner jar, stirred in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt (not our usual one as there was no indication that it contained live cultures so I opted for one of those ‘probiotic’ thingies instead), covered the jar in a pile of towels and snuggled it up next to The Beast overnight.

Wow, but how I smiled next morning to find a jar full of thick, sublime deliciousness!

Shameless in my quest for the true Greek-style effect, I turned the lot into a colander lined with a clean tea towel and let some of the whey drain off; oh my goodness, I could die happy eating this stuff, it is so thick and fresh and clean and mild and divinely yummy.

I shall keep a bit back for a new starter which means no more plastic pots and lids, just one extra milk bottle per shop and homemade yogurt for ever. Happy, happy day. By the way, the whey didn’t go to waste, either; it’s a good food with many uses, so Roger whacked it into his spelt and seed sourdough, making a scrumptious loaf to accompany squash and chilli soup served with chestnut croutons for our dinner. Not a shred of recycling (just composting) in that homegrown, home-cooked little lot, just great wealth and pleasure from living simply with less . . . and for us, that’s what it’s all about! 🙂