I started dying yarn when I was at university over 10 years ago. I studied photography and my friend was on the illustration course and we got together at the weekend to craft together along with some others. We dabbled simultaneously spinning, knitting and dyeing which was interesting- I was learning the whole process all at once.
While studying I also did a project that incorporated weaving and natural dyeing. I experimented by collecting plant material from around London and wove it into a little mat. This was displayed with some photographs of where the plant material was collected from, so that's how it all started for me.
When I moved back to Northern Ireland from London and I was mainly photographing architecture as my job, I decided that I wanted to do something more tactile. I started dabbling in dyeing again and I also started knitting a lot too. That’s when it all started!
When was your first time dyeing? How did it go? Do you remember the first color you made or what type of fiber it was?
I remember the first time that I dyed yarn- it was in my friend’s kitchen- she let me use it to experiment for my university project! The wool was a British pencil roving and the first colour I created was yellow of course- because many things give you yellow.
In that project I don't remember all the things that I tried to dye with, but I did dye with grass and I remember it came out quite an interesting yellow! I was always interested in the provenance of fiber and yarn and where that came from so that was always been important to my dyeing and knitting practice.
Will you share something about your dyeing process? Do you have any special rituals when you get ready to work? Do you listen to anything while you dye?
I don't have any special rituals before I get ready to work although I really like that idea. I'll probably implement some rituals when I have my new studio finished. I think my small commute through the garden will be part of my daily ritual of ‘travelling’ to work. I also want to develop my sit spot, just in front of the studio. I’m going to create a nice outdoor area with a comfortable seat that can be left out all year, possibly a fire pit so I can sit for small amounts of time- tea breaks etc and enjoy the garden (which has yet to be created!) and the birds.
I do listen quite a lot to podcasts while I'm dyeing yarn and I listen to quite a lot of music so I like particularly at the moment I mentioned it in podcast about food and kind of the food industry and farming and hide these are all connected and yeah that's kind of my area of interest at the moment in podcast. I also listen to a lot of music, what genre it is depends on my mood. I’ve got to be honest though, I really want to be the person who can fully enter into the dyeing process, in body and in mind while listening to nothing- just the silence and the natural sounds. I often find my mind is somewhat overstimulated so it would be a good practice at least one day per week to implement a ‘silent’ dye day- no phones, music or podcasts. When you have time to process your own ideas and thoughts is when you are most creative, especially if you have too much going on in your mind and life- this processing time can be invaluable.
What are your essentials in your dye studio? Do you have a favorite part of the dyeing process?
Well, all my equipment is pretty essential, but apart from that I really dislike being interrupted when I’m in a flow state. So I guess something essential for me would be knowing I’ll not be interrupted when I’m in the middle of dyeing. My favourite part of the dyeing process is using new or foraged plant material- that’s always exciting!
Many dyers work with superwash wool, however your skeins are all woolly wool - does that change the dyeing process for you?
Yes, my skeins are all 100% wool, some of them are worsted spun, some woollen spun. I've never really dyed with superwash so I'm not 100% sure what the process with that is, but I would imagine you can fit more superwash skeins in a pot than you can with non-superwash skeins as they are sleeker.
As far as I’m aware superwash also soaks up the dye very quickly, and obviously there’s no mordanting or modifying processes involved with acid dyes. So in that respect natural dyeing, especially with woolly wool is much slower as you fit less in the pots, then because it’s natural dyeing you could be talking a two-three day process (at the shortest), possibly longer to get one colour depending on what you are using to dye with when you take in mordanting and modifying if you do that, plus rinsing, overdyeing, foraging, growing the dye plants. Superwash yarn soaks up dye very quickly so I guess that’s why many dyers like it; it speeds the process along. Apart from this, I can’t just order a batch from the mill as they are all custom spun or limited editions, so that also changes the dyeing process!
Can you tell us about how you became a dyer? What pushed you from dyeing for fun to selling your yarn for others to enjoy?
Well, after I started dabbling in dyeing (from my above story), I suddenly had too much to dye with but I wanted to try more things. My husband suggested for me to try selling some, then I can keep dyeing. So that’s really what I did- when I realized people were interested in what I was doing I just kept going and creating more and experimenting more.
What difficulties come with being a dyer? What are some of your favorite parts of your work?
Most of my difficulties come not really with dyeing, but are more to do with inventory, stock and planning.
Because everything is custom spun, everything has to be planned so far in advance. Sourcing the fibre from the farmers is the first thing- you need to get it late spring/ early summer and approach them before this to ensure you get the clip. Then there is storing the fibre until it’s ready to go to the mill- it takes up a large amount of space but thankfully my Granny doesn’t mind me keeping it in her hayshed. After that when it goes to the mill, it can take up to a year to come back, and if you send a lot (like I do) you then have to manage the cost of that too- so it’s important to be on top of cash flow and making sure you don’t have too much or too little stock at all times, so that aspect can be tricky sometimes.
Natural dyeing is very slow- that is both charming and frustrating.
I’m also overly ambitious with my time- I’ll make my plan for dyeing or mordanting x amount of yarn. Something won’t work as expected and suddenly you’ve spent a week futtering* at something that hasn’t really worked out as you’ve planned! Then there is the many exhaust dye baths you have to find a way to use up- and generally paler colours aren’t as popular as the brighter or moodier ones so you have to be a little bit clever about how to use them up! This involves really planning your dyeing weeks in advance- with this bath I’ll get about 4-5 exhausts so I’ll need to make this many colours with it etc etc
* futtering is an Ulster Scots term for taking on a task in an ineffectual or fiddly way, usually that wastes time
My favourite parts of my job are being able to create beautiful things with what I make. I love knitting with my yarn and seeing the fabric it creates, and how colours meld together. I often send photographs to the farmer of the flock of what I’m creating- they absolutely love it and are delighted to see what I am doing with their sheeps fibre! My other favourite part is foraging and collecting plant material, and soon I imagine it will be growing dye plants. I hope to rework my whole schedule to make that part of my work week from next spring.
Will you share a little about how, or where, you find inspiration for your work? Where do you gather most inspiration for your yarn? Places, ideas, feelings, events?
The inspiration for my yarn and colours comes from the yarn and the dyes themselves. I let the colours and fibres lead the way- ‘think through making’ rather than make through thinking- that is less creative and kind of leads you to a dead end in your making. That was our university slogan, so it has stuck with me! I think subconsciously I probably take inspiration from my surroundings and local landscapes too.
We love yarns with a story here at TWT, is there a colorway or fiber that’s particularly touched you or influenced your work?
Well, every year I love working with my Causeway yarn- the sheep are just a few miles from my studio and the farmer (who also has another job), really loves his sheep (Teeswater and Oxford Down). He looks after his small flock with his son as their joint hobby. They are pedigree and prize winning animals so let's just say they are well taken care of (maybe slightly pampered even! Haha). So I love working with that yarn, it really scratches the provenance itch for me! The yarn itself is bouncy with a beautiful lustre, and is woollen spun. Very nice to work with.
Are there specific colors that you love? Any colors you don’t enjoy dyeing?
At the moment I'm really loving all types of green especially emerald greens and bottle greens but these are not the easiest to dye! They require several days’ work but they are worth it I think. Apart from that I love just putting combinations of colours together so they zing off each other!
We’d love to shine a light on your current, or upcoming, projects. Please let us know what you’re working on, where we can find it, and how we can get involved!
At the moment I am building a new dye studio in my garden so you can following along with that in my newsletter https://www.woollymammothfibrecompany.com/newsletter-sign-up and on my Youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCU2h_M7ffMYdwGUgfspQEyw
My husband and I are working on it together with the help of some friends- I hope to move in early next year. Part of this will be the dye garden so I’m sure some of you with green fingers will be interested in that! Hopefully next year you will be able to see some yarns dye with my own cultivated dye plants too from the garden.
Apart from that I’ve been working towards my annual festive update on my website https://www.woollymammothfibrecompany.com/shop , which took place on 22nd Nov 8:00pm GMT, and I’ll be taking part in vlogmas too so you can follow along with that on my Youtube Channel too.
We also wanted to point you to Emma's own blog where she recently wrote about pale colors and what makes them special. Give that a read here.
It's always a special day when we get to stock some of Emma's yarn and offer it to Thistlers! Watch for the Hearth Sock Sets now available in the shop while supplies last.