The happy blues

Perhaps the saddest part for me of the whole coronavirus situation is the cancellation of the plans we had made to spend time together with family, here in Asturias as well as in the UK and Norway. Now, I am not whingeing because many people have suffered (and continue to suffer) terribly and we and our loved ones are at least safe and well. The milestones we were set to celebrate won’t come round again but at least once it is all over, we will hopefully be able to catch up with each other again in a joyful celebration of life and love. On the plus side, though, it has been lovely to have very regular video chats with our grandchildren and to help out a little with their homeschooling. Weekly Spanish lessons with Ben, William and Evan are a delight and let me indulge in all the best bits of teaching without any of the headaches; they also remind me how scarily quickly and effortlessly young children learn new things! When Annie had finished her unit of work on rainbows and became interested in indigo, we had a great chat about natural dyeing, and as she and Matthew went off to collect bits of sheep’s wool to dye and weave, I realised this was the nudge I needed to get back to some dyeing, too.

What I realised is that it has been many months since I shared any woolly happenings on my blog; it isn’t because I haven’t been doing anything, just not writing about them so perhaps it’s time for a quick catch-up. Last year for me was all about exploring the possibilities of using natural materials in dyeing, in particular substantive dyes that require no mordant but can be modified in an alkali (washing soda) or acid (citric acid) bath to give a range of shades. Green walnut leaves – of which we have an abundance – gave some beautiful coffee and cream tones in wool and silk.

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Blended together on the hand carders, they made rolags that looked like spun sugar.

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The fibre worked up beautifully into a marled yarn which I wanted to use to make a scarf as a gift, something light and feminine without being twee. As I hate am not a fan of lace knitting, I opted for crochet and a variation on trellis stitch which I hoped would work up well into the garment I had envisaged . . . and that’s where I left the story.

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Mmm, let’s just say things went downhill from there. Several centimetres in and I was starting to feel very unhappy with what I was creating, it was so clumpy and awkward and just felt wrong. Even with the most diligent of blocking to stretch those holes out, I could tell it would still be too ‘heavy’ somehow; I wanted the recipient to feel softly wrapped and cosseted in those subtle walnut hues running through Merino and silk, not like she was wearing the complete tree round her neck. Time for Plan B and here is where my heart sank into my boots because I knew that knitting had to be the answer for this particular yarn. No way could I face a long lacy scarf project, which would take me at least 250 years to finish, and thankfully there wasn’t enough yardage for a shawl so I opted for a happy medium in the form of a shawlette scarf. Yes, it meant a circular needle and several hundred stitches (aaaaaargh!) but the lace border was only worked over sixteen rows and after that pain, I knew the short rows in stocking stitch would be plain sailing, just like turning a giant sock heel. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few ‘moments’ with this knitting and I certainly ended up having to unpick several times . . . but I managed it and was pretty chuffed with the result which suited the yarn so much better. Excuse my less-than-glamorous background in the photos, I don’t have blocking boards so I just pin the damp garment to an old bath towel.

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Well, I’m feeling a tad friendlier towards lace knitting now but I haven’t quite mustered the courage to do something similar to the fibres I dyed with madder. All in good time.

Away from dyeing and something else I decided to try for the first time is felting; I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get round to this, but with Annie and William’s fifth birthdays looming, I was wracking my brain for gift ideas and thought perhaps a little felted bag full of goodies might be a hit. I started with Annie’s bag in her favourite purple shot through with turquoise, a batch of Kent Romney that had had a tough time in the acid dye bath and certainly didn’t lend itself to socks. I didn’t bother with a pattern, just knitted a long rectangle in stocking stitch with garter stitch borders at each end, and seamed the sides to make a bag, adding a garter stitch strap. I know many people swear by felting in the washing machine but I passed on that one for two reasons: first, I never use a hot wash for eco reasons and the idea of doing so for a little woolly bag didn’t sit comfortably with my green principles, also because I love the hands-on aspect of activities like this and wanted to see the felting process as it happened to better understand it. It was so simple: I poured very hot water from the stove kettle into a bowl, added a few drops of Ecover washing-up liquid and (wearing rubber gloves) beat and pummelled the poor bag to a pulp. Wow! It was a fascinating process to watch as the stitches closed up to make a wonderfully thick and soft felt, with just enough definition left in the garter stitch sections to add contrast. On a roll, I got stuck in with William’s blend of red, orange and yellow Shetland, then decided to have a bit of fun and play around with flowers and butterflies as a finishing touch. I stuffed the bags with seeds ~ they are both passionate little gardeners ~ and chocolate to sustain them in their planting escapades. What a great activity! The sequel is in the pipeline . . .

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. . . and this is where the indigo moment comes in, because having seen Annie’s bag, Matthew immediately requested one for himself, but could it be blue, please? Well, how can a granny refuse? I’ve only had the indigo for ten years (possibly longer) so it really was time to get on with it. As luck would have it, Roger had just finished building the extension to the terrace which meant there was plenty of room to set myself up with an outdoor workshop. Mmm, there was inspiration in that sky, too.

As with all new activities, I like to do a lot of background reading and research before jumping in; true, I love the experimentation and exploration and the excitement of the unknown but that has to be measured against a recklessness that could result in wasting expensive and precious resources. As with so many other things, though, it seemed the more people I turned to, the more conflicting advice I found. For instance, the temperature of the indigo vat: it should be heated and kept at a constant 50 °C throughout . . . no, make that blood heat with a warm-up only if needed . . . no, lukewarm will do, no need to heat at all. Well, excuse me, but in my humble opinion, that’s quite a difference! I read time and time again how essential it is not to stir or agitate the vat as that introduces oxygen, only to find a video clip of a lady who whipped hers into an incredible vortex, stirring crazily one way then the other around the pot. Then there’s the whole dipping scene: is it one minute, five, or fifteen? Honestly, my brain was spinning like an indigo whirlpool itself. Something that most folks seemed agreed on was what a messy business it is and that I could expect to be blue all over by the time I’d finished ~ my clothes, shoes, face, hair, the lot. That had me thinking that anyone who indulged in naked dyeing would end up looking like a woad-daubed ancient Briton but really my main concern was not to create an abstract in blue all over Roger’s carefully laid slates!

In trying to cut through the confusion, I opted to loosely follow the method used by Jenny Dean in her book Colours From Nature, by carefully stirring my indigo crystals, washing soda (the vat needs to be alkaline so the indigo will dissolve) and finally some colour run remover into a pot of hand-hot water. The colour run remover contains sodium hydrosulphite, a chemical reducing agent that removes oxygen from the vat and allows ‘indigo blue’ to convert to ‘indigo white’ ~ the science behind this process and all the activity at molecular level is fascinating stuff! Admittedly, it’s the kind of chemical I try to avoid using but the natural alternative of fermented urine somehow didn’t appeal. I know people use all sorts of fruit ferments, too, but in this first go I felt it was essential to get a proper grasp of how it all works before experimenting with that kind of thing. I put the lid on the pot and left it sitting in the sunshine for an hour or so, by which time it had formed a blue skin over yellowy-green liquid and had started to blow a few bubbles; lots of people talk about needing a large ‘flower’ of bubbles blooming in the vat but interestingly, Jenny Dean doesn’t mention it at all. Well, did I need it to bloom or not? Does it have to be a big ‘flower’ or would a small ‘bud’ suffice? Good grief, here we go again . . .

What the heck, I decided it was time to go for it anyway and slipped in a wetted skein of Merino, replaced the lid and left it for fifteen minutes.

The one thing that all experts seem to be agreed on is that indigo dyeing can’t be rushed; like raising children or making mayonnaise, it requires time, patience and lots of love. While my vat was brewing in the sunshine, I pottered about doing a bit of light gardening then decided that the extra space on the new-look terrace was just perfect for my spinning wheel and what better way to pass the time and celebrate the solstice than working with some naturally-dyed fibre in the Spanish sunshine?

Last year, I dyed some Merino in a pot of French marigold flowers in true rustic style, simply tossing the lot into the dye pot together. After a bit of tweaking with modifiers, I ended up with two distinct shades of yellow.

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I always think the wool looks a bit tortured after its time in the pot, as though the effort to not do what comes naturally and turn to felt leaves it exhausted and wrung out. I wasn’t planning on blending it with anything else, but felt a little fluffing up on the carders would help and would add a bit of air and loft to the finished yarn. Like the walnut-dyed wool, I was amazed by the range of subtle shades there are within each colour, so much prettier and effective than the solid colour of synthetic dyes. As an added bonus, there is also the faintest scent of flowers, too. Lovely.

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For spinning purposes, I’m just pulling random rolags out of my basket so that the finished yarn will be a mix of all the shades together. So far, so good, and possibly another little bag in the making.

Meanwhile, back to Indigo World and the moment of truth once the fifteen minutes were up. Having read absolutely everywhere that the wool needed to be exposed to the air for at least twenty minutes to allow the colour to fully develop, I assumed (completely wrongly, as it turned out) that I would have plenty of time to rinse the wool in cold water, peg it on the line, ditch my gloves, grab the camera and take a series of time lapse photos to capture the colour change. Ha, not a chance! It emerged yellow from the pot and had turned to a gorgeous sea green before it even hit the rinsing water. (I’d like to reassure anyone who might be slightly freaked out by my knees that I wasn’t trying the skyclad, woad-painted thing ~ it was hot so I was wearing shorts. Honest!)

By the time I had walked the few steps to the washing line, the colour had changed again into a beautiful denim blue, exactly the shade I had been hoping for. It was like a magical alchemy, over in seconds, but it had me totally spellbound.

Well, after that I was on a roll and as I’ve been spinning plain skeins for just such an occasion, I threw in a couple of batches of Jacobs and a skein of Kent Romney blended with kid mohair. I messed about with shorter times in the pot and a couple of re-dips, ending up with a range of subtle shade differences that made me very, very happy.

As there was still life in the indigo vat, I then tried a length of Jacobs fleece top and some tussah silk. Oh, those colour variations! If I could turn a back flip, I would have done . . . although possibly on the side of a mountain there could have been dire consequences with that one.

So, what next? Well, I have plenty of new projects waiting in the wings. I can really see the possibilities of creating some fabulous greens by dipping yellow yarn in indigo; I don’t have any French marigolds this year but masses of feverfew and Queen Anne’s lace, both of which are said to yield some pleasing yellow shades. In fact, there’s still a long list of plant materials on our patch which give substantial dyes to experiment with, including things like eucalyptus, heather and sage. I’m currently researching the use of bramble leaves as a tannin-rich mordant; they were used historically which is the sort of thing I find interesting and we certainly have no shortage here, although I think they would add brown to the mix so I would need to choose the dye materials carefully. I have a few rusty nails steeping in a jar of water and vinegar (is there no end to these dark arts?) to make an iron mordant water which should help to enhance colour fastness; iron deepens or ‘saddens’ colours but there’s nothing sad about the possibility of using it to yield a deep purple dye from madder. Lots to do . . . I think my main problem is going to be running out of fleece! For now, though, I’m just very happy singing the blues. 🙂

Cave days and colourways

It’s not often we have a day of weather so terrible here that we can’t spend at least a good portion of it outside, but this week has thrown us more than one such to contend with. Thick sulking ribbons of cloud have streamed in from the coast, riding the kind of gusts that send confused crows skittering sideways across the bruised sky. The mountains melt away as the valley is enveloped in rain, each violent squall hammering out its persistent percussion on the roof and hurling raindrops at the windows like fistsful of pebbles.

I always think of these downpours as brutally cleansing; they are not gentle dampenings, soft refreshings or joyful waterings but storms that scour and scrub viciously at the landscape, cascading in curtains from gable ends, filling the river with a menacing voice and casting mirrored puddles in the iron-rich soil of the empty maize fields. In nooks and crannies around the windswept garden, the mounds of tumbled, jumbled leaves tell their own forlorn story.

Confined indoors, I’m happy to potter away at household chores for a while at least but, inevitably, the fidgeting begins once realisation dawns that there will be no outside activity in the fresh air I love and crave; I’ll always consider pulling on waterproofs and setting off through the woods with a brolly but when thunder rumbles its throaty complaints above and blasts of icy hail hammer down, even I have to admit defeat. To things woolly, then. I set a pile of Merino to simmer in a dyepot of dried French marigold flowers, worked a few more rounds of a Scrappy Sock, plied a skein of Jacobs on the spinning wheel. Fidget. Sigh. I balled a skein of walnut-dyed Merino and tussah silk and launched into a new project: this was more like it. I love this yarn, the subtle blend of soft, autumnal colours and silk running through in sleek twists and ripples.

No surprise that I’ve chickened out of lace knitting and opted for crochet instead, a simple narrow scarf using a picot trellis stitch. The yarn is beautifully elastic so should stretch cooperatively with blocking and, depending on yardage, I might work something a little more elaborate at each end. I realised this would the perfect project to tuck into my bag on our travels next week . . . which meant not getting too carried away with it now.

A quick digression into the world of books. Roger and I are both avid readers and English language books are like gold dust to us, being in short supply locally. Rummaging about in the dwindling pile we bought from UK charity shops earlier this year, I came across Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, something I’d picked up in a hurry, hoping the mention of half a million puffins on the front cover might make it readable. What a gem of a read it has turned out to be, a colourful mix of geography, geology, history, linguistics, culture, character, spirituality, wildlife and nature expertly woven into a rich tapestry of descriptive language. I don’t want to put it down. I don’t want to finish it.

So, in my ‘searching for something interesting to do with wool because it’s raining’ mode, a couple of totally unconnected passages from the book wormed their way into my consciousness. The first, a description of how the daughters of the Campbell family – the only resident household on the Shiant Islands at the end of the nineteenth century – spent the long, dark winters knitting woollen socks to sell or give away to welcome summer visitors. As shepherd’s daughters, I suspect there was nothing about wool they didn’t know, the entire act of processing fleece from sheep to sock coming as second nature. The second, an intriguing journey through language, the twists and turns and textures of Gaelic and Norse, as complex and changing and knotted as any cabled pattern, revealing that the Isle of Man had once been called Ellan Shiant, the Holy Isle. Well, I suddenly recalled that somehere – where? – I had some raw Manx Loaghtan fleece, that ancient and endangered breed of sheep from the Isle of Man, descended from primitive ancestors which once roamed the Scottish islands. Serendipity? Time to get down to the full sheep experience.

This Manx Loaghtan was my first (and to date, last!) experience of dealing with a whole, raw fleece and I’m not sure I made a very great job of it. The fleece itself was beautiful, a shearling cut with soft brown underwool and golden tips; the breeder suggested I spin straight from the fleece to preserve the integrity of the different colours and through various painful learning curves, I managed to spin enough wool to make a rather curious looking (but subsequently much-loved) knitted teddy bear for Ben. Through a process of elimination, I deduced that the remaining fleece must be lurking in the dark and mysterious depths of Roger’s Man Cave, so whilst hunting it out I cadged a few rusty nails from the cave dweller himself which are now steeping in a jar of vinegar and water to make an iron mordant for future dyeing projects. Back in the house with the fleece and it was time to sort, tease, card, make fluffy rolags and -panic stations!- start some long draw spinning.

Watch an expert spinning long draw and it is a thing of infinite grace and beauty, the fibre bundle pulled back to arm’s length then the twisted yarn, so fine and consistent, running quickly onto the bobbin in a steady, mesmerising ebb and flow. Watch me doing it and it’s like a Bear of Very Little Brain trying to win a world chess championship; honestly, I’m clueless. All fingers and thumbs, too, which, of course is a large part of the problem; as a dyed-in-the-wool (sorry!) short draw spinner, letting go of the pinch feels as unnatural as trying to write with my left hand. Forget that elegant elastic thread, mine is more like a stringy washing line of lumps and bumps achieved through much muttering and grinding of teeth and there really is only so much pull-pull-pull-break-curse-rejoin-repeat that I can handle at a time. It’s like learning to spin all over again and I suppose that I need to remember that I eventually moved on from those early days of frustration and lumpy ropes of yarn to being able to spin fine and consistent yarns from a range of fibres. I would love some proper tuition one day as I suspect part of the problem is sloppy rolag preparation and the fickle nature of my wonky wheel and much of it is my lack of technique, but in the end, it all comes down to perseverance and practice. Where the Manx Loaghtan is concerned, I hit on a compromise of shorter draw, less pinch and finally managed a bobbin of something.

In the murky depths of the fleece bag, I found something rather strange: a sort of grubby marshmallow of white fleece with a texture like mauled cottonwool mixed with badly mashed potato. It took me a while (and an inspirational mug of tea) to remember it had appeared as an unexplained extra with my gift wheel, stuffed in a clear plastic bag and simply labelled ‘Shetland.’

I’ve puzzled over what exactly it is: certainly not locks of raw fleece, very definitely processed somehow but to no state I recognise. Drum carded, perhaps? It gives the impression of being something that could be spun as it is if it weren’t for the fact that it is completely peppered with field detritus of the kind sheep are so expert in gathering – twigs, stems, dried grass, seeds of all shapes and sizes not to mention several insect life forms. Carding would at least give me the chance to remove some of this clingy rubbish so I made a couple of rolags, did a test spin on the wheel . . . and decided to abandon that idea and do something far more interesting with it. Braving the weather (see, I am prepared to suffer for my art even if it means death by giant hailstones), I ventured out to collect a pile of very soggy walnut leaves and start a dyepot brewing. I chopped the leaves, stuffed in the fleece whole, simmered it for a bit then left it to stand overnight. I love the unfolding magic of this colour transformation!

Mmm, what a delicious chestnut brown. My plan for Shetland Marshmallow Rescue Phase 2 is to spin it and ply it with the Manx Loaghtan for possibly another bear-themed creation. Meanwhile, I’ve skeined and washed the Jacobs, that most reliable and easiest of spinners’ fleece, and started a second in the hope of actually getting back to building a stash of ready-to-dye skeins. Note to self: try not to get sidetracked with new dyepot ideas for a while . . .

I’ve messed about with madder, this time producing a pinker shade than before, and had a great result on Merino from dried French marigolds and an alkali modifier. I’d thought to use this in an indigo vat to produce something green, but that yellow is so yummy I’m tempted to use it as it is – and heaven knows, I need a streak of brightness under these gloomy skies.

Dodging the weather, we’ve managed to harvest the last of the squash. Now here’s a bunch of self-set mongrels if ever I saw one, but I love those textures and colours, the nuanced shades of blue and green, the deep ridges and shallow freckles. Completely delicious in every sense of the word.

The polytunnel offers gardening for wimps in extreme weathers and although there isn’t a great deal to be done at this time of year, it was a joy to pick the last of the Scotch bonnet chillies. We only had two plants and they lagged behind the other varieties from the word go but have certainly made up for lost time. There were a few bonus cayenne chillies, too. Just look at those bold colours, the perfect antidote to grim, grey days.

No matter how dire the weather, when we roll into a second or – horror of horrors – third day of being stuck in the cave, I reach a point where it feels imperative to crawl out from under the bearskins and stretch my legs outside. Swathed from top to toe in waterproofs and clutching our battered old brolly against the snatching wind, I ventured up the lane and into the woods for a short wander. The air was fresh and invigorating, spiced with the scent of wet leaves and sweet woodsmoke, the landscape around me tousled and rearranged by the lashing it was taking. The path was littered with whippy branches from the teetering tops of eucalyptus, nature’s pruning at its most magnificent. I carried a few stems home, charmed by those chunky seedpods that always make me think of wooden buttons on a grandfatherly tweed jacket or aran cardigan.

There is much of the season in these branches, their gunmetal leaves an exact reflection of the skies, their windswept form an echo of the wind’s relentless energy. I’ve put them in a vase close to the stove so that their fortifying, herbal scent wafts sweetly around the kitchen and when they’ve had their day, I shall recycle them through my dyepot.

Eucalyptus is another natural substantive dye. No need for a mordant, simply add fibre. I might just have a handy skein of Jacobs about my person. Mmm, perfect. It seems every cloud really does have a silver lining. 🙂

Dye another day

Mere colour can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

Oscar Wilde

I love colour. I love bold blocks of brights and paler ribbons of pastels; I love wide, sweeping brushstrokes and precise pointillist dots; I love the way harmonious shades melt together with heart-aching beauty and others clash in eye-opening shock; I love colours smudged and blurred like hazy rainbows or making strong statements in sharp outlines. I believe colour really does speak to the soul in a thousand different ways and for me, there is no greater source of this sumptuous soul food than in nature. Even grey skies have a singular beauty.

What a delight, then, to have the chance to spend a couple of nights recently on the Galician coast and drink in the colour and character of that wild landscape. I have to come clean and admit that I’m always left feeling a bit undecided about Galicia whenever we visit. Much of it is picturesque rolling green countryside clothed in densely wooded hillsides and draped with vineyards currently aflame in the glory of their autumn colours. The Atlantic coast is a gem, all wide estuaries and squiggly islands fringed in white-sanded beaches and studded with intriguing rock formations.

So, why do I struggle to love it? Well, after Asturias it just always seems so very busy, so full of buildings and traffic and people, the coastal roads snaking through miles and miles of built-up areas with only rare glimpses of the countryside beyond. Understandably, tourism is huge; there is a plethora of campsites, hotels, restaurants, bars and the like, many closed or looking slightly forlorn now the tourist season is over, all serving what must be an immense influx of holiday makers over the summer months. I’m not being critical, just saying all this busyness is not for me . . . and happily – as in so many other places – once you leave the hustle and bustle and impact of human activity behind, there are many stunning wild spaces that really hit the sweet spot. Even when it’s pouring with rain.

Yes, the weather was spiteful with blustery, heavy showers becoming more organised into almost 24 hours of torrential downpours as glowering skies dumped what felt like much of the Atlantic Ocean on our heads. Still, nothing daunted, we set out to make the most of it; it’s the first time in many, many months my hiking trousers and jacket have been out for an airing but they’re wonderfully waterproof so I was as dry and warm as toast – still looking skywards for enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, though! Well, a little optimism never hurt anyone.

This was the Playa Con Negro near O Grove, billed on a wooden signpost as ‘nature’s art park’ and there was no arguing with that; it was like landing in a surreal Henry Moore -inspired landscape or – to my rather overactive imagination – a giants’ battlefield from some ancient folk tale. Certainly, the geology hinted at past times of terrible turbulence and violence, immense granite boulders hurled into precarious positions and sculpted into spellbinding shapes. What an extraordinary place.

Between the dominant monoliths were veins of a different darker rock, tortured and twisted and shattered into sinuous strata, all sharp edges and angles in complete contrast to the smooth curves of the lighter, speckled granite.

Caught in hollows and gullies were rock pools, the crystal clear water revealing a captivating spectrum of colours in the rock. Reds, greens, oranges, yellows . . . now this is definitely my thing.

What isn’t my thing is litter and it was sad to find several plastic drinks bottles (and, rather bizarrely, a Fairy Liquid bottle), glass bottles, cartons and other plastic detritus scattered across the otherwise pristine sandy beaches. It’s likely they had been washed up by the tide rather than discarded in situ but either way, they shouldn’t be there. We gathered them up and placed them in recycling bins provided in the car park but given the whole issue of plastic in the oceans, it felt like the tip of an enormous iceberg. The area, quite rightly, has protected status as a special natural environment; there is no charge to park or to visit and you can wander wherever you like to enjoy and appreciate the raw beauty of the place. It is a privilege to do so and there should be no question of a single piece of rubbish being there. Ever.

On a happier note, though, I am always amazed and comforted by nature’s resilience and the sheer adaptability and determination of living things to thrive, even against all odds. From a distance, this landscape might seem barren, almost lunar in character, but on close inspection the rocks were carpeted in lichen and even the tiniest cracks boasted a variety of courageous plants making little wild gardens full of colour.

We wandered up the coast a short way and the sun decided to put in a welcome appearance, albeit very briefly. Incredible how that shift in light altered the colour in the landscape, filling the rockpools with fragments of blue sky.

Mmm, look at those beautiful blues and greens now, that creamy pink sand. Where’s my spinning wheel? 🙂

We crossed the sweeping curve of a bridge from the mainland to the Illa de Arousa and spent several hours wandering along the coastpath and beaches there. Once again, this was just our sort of place, much of it a special nature reserve with protected nesting sites for the multitude of wading birds scurrying and stabbing along the tideline and regeneration projects focused on the dunes, wetlands and native woodland.

The beaches were breathtakingly beautiful and literally carpeted with shells. My goodness, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many in one place.

Isn’t beachcombing a joy? We found ourselves totally absorbed, heads down, sifting through the piles for beauties that caught our eye. The shapes, structures, colours and patterns were exquisite and some of them were so tiny, I could sit several on a fingernail. If I were an artist I would have felt inspired to create something with such an engaging medium, a sort of impulsive, indulgent Andy Goldsworthy moment on the beach; as it was, I simply looked and touched and enjoyed . . . and thought of wool.

Where inspiration was concerned, the beaches hadn’t quite finished with me yet; there was so much colour and texture in the seaweed and plant life amongst the dunes. Forget the tourist attractions, this is all I need. Grazas, Galicia!

Home to Asturias, my head reeling with possibilities and a need to play with more natural dyes; this desperate urge has far outstripped my ability to spin white skeins quickly so I’ve been dipping lengths of wool top instead. The simple pleasure of gathering plant material from the garden and turning it into a dye is just perfect, although I’m going to have to address the mordant issue eventually. My latest little experiment has been with the French marigolds that have been blooming for months, two self-set plants that have mushroomed through the summer to shrub proportions and are covered in literally hundreds of blooms; there’s plenty to go round so I felt the bumbles could spare me a few.

I’m getting quite lazy with this process already, simmering a pile of flower heads for a while then throwing in the wool without straining the plant material off first. The flowers produced a gorgeous ruby colour in the dyepot . . .

. . . and turned the wool a pale, creamy, ‘barely there’ yellow. Out of idle interest, I snipped a small piece and dunked it in an alkali bath. Wowzer, now we’re talking! What a shade. In went half the wool. I’m already planning projects for these two, and as overdyeing yellow with indigo is a good way to get greens, I decided to dry another pile of those marigolds for further forays into the world of yellow. It’s good to plan ahead, don’t you think?

When Roger wandered into the kitchen and observed in his patiently resigned way that ‘the woolly stuff goes on and on and on‘ I had to admit – after a cursory glance around – that he had a point. Various bits and skeins of dyed fleece and silk were hanging from the overhead airer, going through the final drying process; a further batch was simmering on top of The Beast in a pot of marigold soup; the exploded body parts of a half-crocheted teddy were scattered across the coffee table, which itself was thrust out into the room to make space for my spinning wheel (sporting a bobbin partly spun) by the sofa; almost an entire work surface, save for the bit where flower heads were spread out to dry, was covered in lengths of fleece and silk being carded into fluffy rolags whilst numerous baskets and bags of projects started or projects-in-waiting were scattered across the floor. This is not to mention the growing pile of knitted jumpers and crocheted teddies mounting up in the bedroom so that I don’t forget to pack them for our UK trip next month. Even by my lackadaisical standards, I realised that something had to be done: much as I love wool, drowning in a sea of it is probably not how I’d choose to take my last gasp. Death-by-flowers neither, for that matter.

I started by finishing the teddy so it could join its friends in preparation for the journey. Along with a patchwork crochet blanket and some knitted finger puppets, these colourful bears have helped me to finish up a huge pile of yarn scraps this year, something I’m feeling very chuffed about. I’m hoping they will bring some smiles to little faces and the packets of sunflower seeds saved from our patch and hidden in their bags will help to spread the gardening love.

Next, I made a concerted effort to tidy up the finished dyeing projects and put them into safe storage until required. I couldn’t resist a little photo call first, a sort of ‘madder three ways’ moment – it’s a bit like a trio of desserts but better for the waistline.

I’m normally very slapdash with finished skeins but given that I’m hoping to build a reasonable collection over time, I appreciate the need for careful labelling so I can identify everything in the future: type(s) of fibre, yardage, weight (by which I really mean mass in grams) and ‘weight’ as in thickness, as well as information about the dyeing process. I find to my surprise that it’s actually quite a satisfying thing to do.

Putting them carefully into storage in the attic, I was congratulating myself on how I’d managed to start turning a box of plain fleece into more useful supplies and used up most of my spare yarn when a little bag of forgotten bits caught my eye: several ends of balls left over from previous sock knitting projects. On their own, they don’t amount to much but together weighed in at a couple of hundred grams which is enough for two pairs of adult socks. I sorted them into two vague colour schemes, one based on greens, the other on blues and purples and decided to launch into a brand new project (oh come on, I’d finished the teddies . . .): introducing Operation Scrappy Socks.

Now I am the first to admit that these are probably going to look pretty ridiculous knitted in large bands of totally mismatched self-patterning yarn but then, does it really matter? (By the way, I’m finding it a really fun way of working, but maybe that’s just my warped sense of humour.) As far as I’m aware, not too many people go round studying my socks and to be honest, if it’s cold enough to be wearing them then they’re going to be hidden under long trousers and inside slippers or boots most of the time. I’m not overly happy with the idea of knots but then plenty of sock patterns use more than one yarn colour so it’s not like I’m committing some dreadful crime and at the end of the day, I’d rather use the yarn than waste it. Anyway, there’s something about the season in these greens that pleases me. Whether the finished articles are funky, freaky or just downright daft they will keep my feet snug and give me a few more Brownie points on the waste not, want not scale. That’s a win-win, I’d say.

Now it’s time for a bit of a confession – well, quite a lot of one, in truth – on the subject of my attempt not to buy any new yarn this year. I’ve tried so hard to stay on the yarn wagon and I managed nearly ten months but I’m afraid to say, I’ve taken a bit of a tumble and bought a new blanket project. I do feel a wee bit guilty BUT in my defence, there is a very good reason for it, namely that I wanted to order a yarn kit from the UK and with Brexit looming with all the uncertainties regarding tariffs, international postage and the like I thought it better to buy now rather than wait until January and run into possible problems. It’s a sad fact that several small family businesses I use for things like seeds have postponed all orders from outside the UK until they know what’s happening so I feel slightly justified in my decision. Of course, what I really, really should do is hide the yarn away and promise not to start the blanket until the New Year. Yep . . . and pigs might fly! 🙂

Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂

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? 🙂