Friday 11 December 2009

Victorian Farm Christmas

The Christmas specials of the Victorian Farm start tonight at 9pm on BBC2. I love this programme - apart from the fact that Ruth is a good friend I think that they are really well presented and thought out. The whole team work well together, not just the presenters.

Why am I telling you about it - not just because I love the programme but also I am going to be in it! Not sure which of the 3 episodes it will be, but I was invited along to dye ribbons in natural dyes for the Christmas decorations and presents.

Here's Ruth and I during the filming, I actually really enjoyed it - I hate having cameras round me, can even be funny about having my photo taken, but Ruth was so good at leading and the crew were fabulous to work with.

The filming was back in June and I did mention in my blog then that I had been to Shropshire. What I would really like to express is my thanks to the Society of Dyers and Colourists for lending us the original sample of Mauvein that they have in their display at Perkin House, Bradford. You can see the wooden box in this picture - it is the original box that was posted by
William Perkin and still carries the stamp and post mark on the side. The yarns inside are silk and cotton. The colour is absolutely stunning, I may not want to work with the synthetic colours - but it is very obvious why they caused such a stir when you see them close up like this!

We had hoped to try out some new fangled chemical dyes as well as the natural dyes during the filming, but time did really run away with us, so I would like to express my thanks to Kemtex as well for supplying us with some samples to try. Everyone I approached was really helpful.

We used cochineal, weld and indigo in the ribbon dyeing. Ruth was made to work and I supervised, the colours we achieved I think you will agree are pretty fine!

Ribbon dyeing workshops are one of my favorites to run particularly round the November/December time as you can really personalize your Christmas presents with them. All done for this year - but there's always 2010!

Thursday 10 December 2009


After I don't know how long we have finally updated our braiding booklet! We actually managed to get it ready for TORM, but this is the first chance I've had to write about it!

A good friend of ours - Jane has become obsessed with braiding since she first bought a disk and spends endless hours creating and using them - all her Christmas presents are going to be tied up with hand made braids in Christmassy glizzy type yarns, she's even dreaming up her own designs by combining different patterns together -

Take a look as these -

She provided me with lots and lots of good samples of the various patterns in the book so I've been able to put photos of the braids with the instructions at long last! What a difference it makes to the appearance! I've also put a photo on the cover, and to crown it all there are at long last instructions for making a rik-rak braid!

If you have an orginal copy of the booklet then you can get an addendum sheet with the rik-rak braid on - just email me and I'll send it to you, or alternatively come and see us at one of our events and collect one! If you don't have the booklet - well.........Braiding Booklet

The price of the booklet remains the same - £3 (good value hey!!)

This picture shows you the squisk or the disk - the squisk can be easier to use for the flat braids like the rik-rak as you need to define the warp and weft threads more, but any of the braids can be done on either tool. John created the squisk because someone asked him to make a square plate, when he tried it out he decided it was simpler to make a larger disk with 2 sides cut off!! Some people prefer working with 1 and some the other!

The squisk is £12 and the disk is £9.50 the kits are £18 and £15 respectively and these include the booklet, overlay and pins and 3 naturally dyed wools. Braiding Disk Kit

Thursday 26 November 2009

Briefly home!

We are home again - but briefly!

T.O.R.M. was great fun, as always. Here's John in 18th century costume just putting cloth out on the atall - we haven't opened yet! (He looks neater when his waitcoat is on!!!)

We set up early on the Friday morning and the market opens at midday, from then on you barely get a minute to think, but it's always really good to see friends and customers old and new. The social side is just as important as the trade really!

Forest Glass were just behind us with all their beautiful historical handblown glass. I love it - most of my glassware now comes from them!

Trinity Court Potteries were no where near us - but we share a cottage with Jim and Emma, so I had to show you their beautiful pottery too!

My final picture is History in the Making - Simon handmakes all the furniture that you can see here When we are all camping in the summer they bring their four poster bed which Simon made with the hangings hand stitched by Lesley - really stylish!

Our next trip is to Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fayre - off tomorrow!

Tuesday 10 November 2009

T.O.R.M. and preparing stock

Keeping up to date with this blog is quite hard when working away so much, but I guess it's time for an update!

The heading is T.O.R.M which stands for The Original Reenactors Market. There are two markets a year one in March and the other in November which I wouldn't miss (unless something catastrophic happened of course, she says touching wood rapidly!) They are held at The Sports Connexion, Ryton on Dunsmore, Coventry. It's a huge sports complex, (I believe it's where Coventry City practice, but not being into football, that may be wrong!) the whole place is taken over by historical traders - you can buy anything you need from any period in time (well it seems like it anyway!) If you have a requirement for pots, swords, muskets, flutes, drums, clothing, cloth...............etc, etc.

For me this is my showcase for historical yarns and cloth, and all John's textile tools. I started this business by chance because I wasn't able to get involved with the "battle" side of reenactment when I joined the Sealed Knot, because the boys were only 5 & 7. They were too young to be left - so I needed to give myself a "character", decided that I'd be a 17th century embroideress and learnt to spin and dye silk to make my embroidery threads. Some kind soul asked if they could buy some and the business was born! I started trading at TORM about 14 years ago now maybe even longer - I've lost count - and love the atmosphere there, and the cameraderie!

What this actually means is that I am madly busy in the dyehouse and hanking/balling/bagging etc, etc! I sell dyes as well as the dyed items - I think customers value the fact that I am selling the dyes that I use - so they can see the quality in my own colour production! I also have a couple of dye kits, one for indigo dyeing and the other is the Mediaeval Dyekit.

John's textile tools are always popular - though I say it myself his braiding disk is the best on the market, and we've produced a booklet with a variety of braids to try! Working from achaeological finds and illustrations in the books of hours and paintings he's also produced reproduction niddy noddy's, spindles, tablet looms, lucettes, distaffs. ......

I always label my hanks with the dye - it means that customers can see straight away what has been used and whether it is appropriate to their period - or they can ask. We can be very pedantic about what a customer can or can't have in terms of dyestuff and their period/status!!! (It also means I don't have to wrack my brains to try and come up with fancy dancy names for the colours!!!

Ah well back to labelling - those silks have been hanked up now and are nearly ready!

Friday 16 October 2009


Several computers later I finally manage to get onto blogger!!! We have been away as usual to here there and everywhere (well Mid Wales, Buckinghamshire, London and Northern France if we're being exact) and when I got home I couldn't get my computer to switch on. It would go to a screen which said " you did not close down properly you want to open in this that or the other mode, a load more waffle and a count down timer clock. When the clock got to zero a dotty bar came across and the computer would start the whole process again. I'm sure it would still be doing it, but my son in law said buy a gizmo to put the hard drive in and connect it to another computer. £40 poorer I connected to my fathers computer - which didn't want to play either!!! I wish I wasn't such a technophobe, but I don't actually know where to get help that works for me!!!! If I read the help files they are talking gobbledygook and if I go on a course it's toooooooo basic.

Anyway enough of my whinge, I haven't done any dyeing - for obvious reasons, although I have done a workshop in Buckinghamshire which was really excellent and hopefully there are a new wave of enthusiastic dyers in that Guild! Tomorrow I am off to Gloucester to do a talk to another Guild and then on Tuesday I go to Poland for the 28th Dyes in History and Archaeology Conference, so I guess I won't get much opportunity to write other than this evening!

Yesterday was the birthday of both my John and Helen Melvin's John if you've read earlier posts there is a note from Helen asking for a sundial to be made for her John's birthday present - it was duly delivered!

It is a polar dial rather that the usual vertical or horizontal dials that are most commonly seen on walls or in gardens. They have to be made specifically for their location or they won't tell the time accurately, but this dial is the same wherever it is - however your latitude and longitude are very important - it has to be positioned at an angle equal to the latutude of the location and facing south.

It is made from Welsh slate from the Berwyn Slate Mine in Llangollen and hand made, polished and carved with all the details needed to tell the time. I have to confess that I am beginning to appreciate more and more the many complex ways they had for telling the time in the past. Before the advent of the trains we had different times in different parts of the country (UK I'm talking about here, but I think it must have applied everywhere) it was only because you needed to know what time a train was going to arrive or depart that it got changed!

The gnomon and pillars are made from brass, the box on the left hand side is the equation of time - this indicates the difference between clock and sun time. The earths orbit round the sun is an elipse, not a circle so there are inequalities between the two times, you have to add or subtract the difference shown on the chart from the dial to get the "clock" time. Easy!

Then you need the sun to shine!

Monday 28 September 2009

Failed Experiment?

Isn't it amazing how the mind can play tricks on you?
Between my back door and the dyehouse door there is an elder tree, at the moment it is overloaded with berries and taunts me everytime I walk out of the back door!
In the back of my mind I was convinced that I had read in Ethel Mairet's book (Natural Dyes) that if you dye linen with elderberries then it is a permanent dye, so I thought I would do an experiment!
The first thing was to find the book - this was a success!!! I found the relevant page and read under
"Elder Sambucus nigra Berries"
then a little further down
"Sloe* Prunus communis. Fruit"
"*on boiling sloes, their juice becomes red, and the red dye which imparts to linen changes, when washed with soap, into a bluish colour, which is permanent"
Aha - I had read it, but got my berries muddled! So off I went to the sloes at the end of the field. This photo looks like a damson but I can assure you the thorns got us when collecting the fruit! (I fancy having a pick at the lichen, but I'm a good girl and I won't touch it!!!) from the bush we got about 750g of fruit. Into the pan it went and was boiled for about 3/4 hour. I then left it overnight and maybe this is where things went wrong!
The colour of the fruit when boiling was much darker than this pinky colour I have here - this was taken after straining out the mush, it's frothy cos it's just been strained into a jug and then poured back into the pan.
I had a piece of linen cloth and a piece of wool cloth which together weighed about 150g, so I thought that was a very generous ratio of dyestuff to fibre and immersed them and heated them back to boiling and kept there for about another 3/4 hour.
The colour was a pretty wishy washy pink as far as I can see! The linen is on the left and the wool on the right.
So the instructions say wash in soap and the colour should change - out came the soap flakes - hmmm neutral, olive oil soap? Still no colour change, in the end I decided that all my detergents are neutral and tried adding washing soda to the washing water!!! I have to be honest and say I can't see much happening in the water, but I left everything soaking overnight again in the vague hope that some miracle would happen. !
I guess the answer has to be - NO!
The wool (on the left) has actually changed more than the linen (which looks exactly the same to me!)
I will do a lightfastness test on them in my South facing window and see what happens, but I don't think that this has done what Ethel suggested!
I have also now found a reference in Dominique Cardon (Natural Dyes) to dyeing with Elder - so maybe I will collect the fruit and try it. Bilberry seems to be the best of the fruits with quite a few finds showing evidence of being dyed with them, however my absolute FAVORITE pie is bilberry, (or whimberry if you're a Lancashire lass like me) so if I pick any I know where they'll be going and it won't be a dyepot!

Thursday 24 September 2009

Flags for the Battle of Flodden

Earlier this year I received a commission to produce 3 flags for the Battle of Flodden site at Etal Castle (English Heritage)

The first thing to be established was - which 3? I enlisted the help of a friend who studied heraldry to help with this one - we came up with a list of 12 flags known to be used at the battle and EH chose Argyll, Huntley and St Cuthbert.

The flags were to be naturally dyed and handstitched, approximately 3 ft square and on 8ft poles with finials.

The images above are what I had to work from with information on which colour was to be used where. The biggest challenge was finding a good linen to make them up. I tried all my favorite suppliers and Goodmans Linens found a lovely sateen linen with a very close weave, suited the purpose admirably! For the boars heads and crosses in gold I used a hemp silk - it had more stability than a plain silk and the lions were to be in the undyed linen.

After working out how much of each material was to be dyed in each colour I set to work scouring, mordanting and finally dyeing.

The linen was mordanted in alum and washing soda and the hemp silk in aluminium acetate, all the cloth was also mordanted in tannin. The black was iron over the tannin and then into indigotin.
The gold was produced with Persian Berries. Although I know they were used historically I am quite late in coming to love this dyestuff. I have only really used them if specifically requested to , I tend to prefer weld or dyers broom - but on this occasion I knew I'd get a better colour tone with the berries! The blue is indigotin - obviously! I had blue nails for a couple of weeks after this dyeing - to get the cloth even I had to move the fabric under the surface almost continuously and I couldn't use rubber gloves! I had tried to get the blue darker, but after 4 dips I really didn't think my hands could take anymore!
So there we are our base is ready to go! John was given the job of working out the Argyll flag - triangles of the correct size were beyond my brain power, but I set to work on the other two.

Working on the Huntley first (the boars heads seemed an easier option than the lions to break myself in!!) I've enlarged the boars head to a useable size and I needed 6, 3 each side . The paper was used as a template to cut round for the cloth and then I blanket stitched all round the edges before attaching them to the background pieces. The two sides were joined together and the hanging loops put in.
Here's the finished article! (On pole with finial!)

As I said it was John who did all the work on the Argyll flag - just to prove he can do the handstitching as well as the cutting out here he is!

The finished flag - I folded it back so it's obvious that there are two sides the same.

The last flag to be completed was the St Cuthbert, this is known to have been carried by the English Army, although I don't actually know the relevance! It required 2 crosses and 8 lions, the crosses were relatively easy, they were just blanket stitched onto the background.

The lions were first blanket stitched onto the background and then the details added in to give them definition

The finished flag looked like this!
So now you know why I've been so quiet recently, in between going away - I've been sewing round lions and crosses and boars heads and wish I could work with a thimble on, there is a very definite hole in my middle finger!

Tuesday 8 September 2009


I am so shattered at the moment that even when I think I will come up to the computer and do an update I go to bed instead!!! I think it stems from being away every weekend (which takes out Fridays and Mondays with packing travelling, unpacking, washing and getting things ready to go again.) Then Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are re-stocking and sorting orders days! Life is a bit of a blur to say the least - at least there is a break after this weekend until the first weekend of October!

Having said all that I have just spent a fabulous weekend working at Mellor Open Weekend. The site is amazing and our hosts Ann and John Hearle were lovely, made us very welcome and clearly are totally devoted to their project! So with that in mind I am going to tell you about it all!

John has owned the Old Vicarage for over 40 years and has a history in textiles - being a professor (retired) from Manchester University. (He's quite happy to talk to little me about cotton too!) Ann is totally involved in the organisation of the Heritage Trust and the open weekend. Their garden is gorgeous but currently dug into trenches for the archaeologists to have a good rootle in!

We first found out about the site last year when we were contacted by Stockport Museums to go and spin and dye for the dvd being produced for the iron age site. I understand that this will be available from December this year.

We set ourselves up by the round house, the ground was incredibly soggy but there was plenty of straw to put down, the marquee next to us had weaving and pottery demonstrations, there was metal detecting for the children and Ancient Crafts had a display of tools and a lathe for working stone. There were lots and lots of visitors - it was an incredibly popular venue, guided tours were given of the digs and there was a display in the village hall of all the finds. The main feature was the amber necklace , but there were so many finds that it filled 2 rooms of the village hall!

I'm really sorry I have no photos with this post - I took some pics on my phone, but when I try to email them they won't go - the technophobe strikes again. If they ever work I'll update this entry!

Saturday 22 August 2009


I'm sure I've probably mentioned somewhere along the line that I have 1 pet sheep - Blarty.

I wanted Wensleydale sheep, years ago, when I started spinning; so I bought 2 ewes Winnie and Minnie - sadly I don't have any pictures of them - they were 1 year old when I bought them and the farmer next door introduced them to his Welsh ram that first autumn, next Spring I was presented with 4 baby boys - 2 sets of twins each. (Mr Fox got one of them very young and two went to the butcher - but Blarty -!)

For some reason known only to herself Winnie decided to do what sheep do best and give up the ghost - we fought all day to keep her alive; the vet said that somehow she had got dehydrated???????? (it was doing what it does best in Wales at the time and raining with a vengeance!) We moved her to the stable and I had to go our every 1/2 hour to give her water with sugar in it through a syringe to the back of her throat - I went out at 9pm, at 9.30pm she was no longer with us........ I'd been going since 10am!!!! Weeeell I couldn't leave Minnie on her own could I? So Blarty stayed. His name comes from the fact that I refused to name him, but he Blaaaaarted a lot, and became known as "that Blarty thing in the field"!
A couple of years ago Minnie decided she's had enough, we're not sure why, but we still have Blarty, he's about 10 maybe even 11 this year and still going strong......
Why am I telling you all this?

I was in the dyehouse this morning beavering away and suddenly I heard "Blaart" very loud, so turned round to find Blarty rather closer that usual! I was a little slow with the camera - as you can see he's already got bored and is moving on....!

Farmers! - they use your fields for access and are the worst culprits for leaving the gates open! "Oh" said Ewan, when I went out to see what was going on - "I thought the field was empty" How long has Blarty been here?!

I never got round to starting a dyebath today, although I've several things on the go for tomorrow..... but I thought you might like to meet my friend, who spent most of the day following me round.

His fleece is lovely - curly but strong - and I dye it regularly, mainly for my own samples, but I occasionally give some away to those that appreciate where it's come from!

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Catching Up

I can't believe how long it is since I wrote something! Life has been absolutely manic - and isn't slowing down yet either!
Trying to think about where we have been since Penryn - well there was Azincourt at the end of July, it was a really fun trip - I went with a friend called Claire who encouraged me to join the Sealed Knot way back in the very beginning - you could almost blame her for where I am now!! (John was working at Kelmarsh demonstrating dyeing at the English Heritage event "Festival of History".)

I had to borrow Claire's tent for Azincourt so here's a photo of the stock laid out, it worked quite well in her round tent, the only trouble was I had to camp in a modern tent over by the museum - very uncool at a medieval event!!!

I returned home on the Wednesday and did a quick turn round to Norton Priory - there on the Friday for the "Medieval Mersey Traders" weekend. Sir John Myddleton's Companie are their signature event each year drawing their best visitor numbers - and we even managed to increase them again this time! We were shortlisted for a prestigious Merseyside award "Tourism Experience of the Year". As our competition was Liverpool Museum and Art Galleries in their "City of Culture" year, I think we came out rather well!!

I love going to Norton it's such a tranquil place - in the middle of an industrial estate (albeit an upmarket one) with a major dual carriageway running alongside it - the gardens are beautiful. This photo is of the avenue we were camped in, there is also a medieval herb garden (which was featured on the Secret Gardens programme on BBC) and there is a huge walled garden which houses the national quince collection (and I believe gooseberries as well) there's a good cafe and the amazing St Christopher statue as well as the excavated ruins!!
I haven't any dyeing news at the moment - we've been away too much for me to do any, but I'm home for the next week and a half and hopefully will re - visit the brazilwood dyeing I attempted earlier in the year when running my "dyeing the reds" course for the Online Guild.
I find writing this blog helps me focus on what I'm doing (I know I've not written anything for about a month, but I do have an excuse!!) and I'm really enjoying going back over photos and reliving events - they seem to flash past when we're away this much! I was updating the events calendar on the website earlier and realize that it goes on into October before we really get any let up - it's no wonder I never remember Christmas!
Many thanks to all of you who read and follow my blog, I will hopefully have something more "meaty" for you soon!

Monday 13 July 2009

Our other kind of work

Last Saturday found us working in the middle of a field in Penryn, Cornwall, doing what seems to take up virtually every weekend from May through to certainly October, with some of November and December thrown in! We were doing period demonstrations - on this occasion early Medieval - but it can be anything from Roman through to the advent of chemical dyes (Victorian). We dress in the appropriate clothing and talk about whatever our subject may be for that day. Normally I get to be a dyer, although sometimes I am a spinner and occasionally I even get to be something totally different. John has far more variety, he is an apothecary, or a pin and needle maker, or a cartographer (his Saturday job!) or plague doctor, or jet worker, lots of varieties of John!
The top picture is our 2 awnings side by side, dyer on the left and cartographer on the right. We both had lots of interest over the day - it was so wet that anyone who actually turned out had to be interested! Really the residents of Penryn were fabulous and came out in quite large numbers!

This is John's table with beautifully made sun dials (but no sun, so we couldn't tell the time!) actually you can see three versions of sundials, the one hanging up is a shepherds dial and was carried round, the one flat on the table is a Capuchin dial and the one whose face you can see on the stand is an Equatorial dial. He has a selection of maps and devices for measuring distances and writing implements for doing his mapping.

I have a dyebath - well actually its a twin tub version I have the ability to have 2 colours on the go at any one time. Usually I do onions skins as they are really simple and woad as it is very complex (and magic!). There are a selection of hanks hanging up - they are hung out like this everytime and have been in use I would think for at least 8 years. The madder, weld and woad have not faded at all, the brazilwood on the left has faded quite dramatically - it was only an exhaust bath so was never particularly dark and paler colours are known to fade out first - the hank is almost white on the outside and very pink on the inside. The same applies to the turmeric hank at the other end, it is virtually white on the outside but very yellowy gold on the inside. The tops that are on the far right have been dyed in an exhaust onion skin bath, they are actually darker than they look here.

We are normally allowed to trade at these events so in the background you can see a small selection of stock as well. There is a tray of silks, some cloth hanging up, linens in their trays, wools in baskets and some of John's woodwork. At the front of the table is a box with some dyestuffs in and madder root, a woad ball and a pomegranate husk on top, then there is a medieval piss pot and a glass bottle with essence of John in it!
We have put a tremendous amount of time into researching what we do, so it's great that we get these opportunities to use our knowledge to educate people, especially children. I love watching their faces when I pull a piece of cloth out of the woad bath and ask them what colour it is - "yellowy or greeny" they say, "oh no!" I say "it's blue!"