Wool And wildflowers

Blog by Claire Bennett, Scotland Partnership Manager and owner of Hook And Teasel

This week 10-16th October was officially #WoolWeek, oh and my birthday, my two favourite things yarn and cake (not thinking about the age). To help me not think too much about the age thing, I decided it would be a fantastic idea to combine my love of yarn, silk and merino fibres for my art crochet, with my love of wildflowers that I have gained through my day job with the wonderful initiative Grow Wild; which campaigns to get more people sowing and enjoying wildflowers, creating more wild spaces for habitats and people alike.

My #WoolWeek challenge was to crochet a wildflower a day for the week and to create a wearable collar piece at the end, inspired by all the individual botanical specimen makes.

It started with a quick chat from a busy Central Station in Glasgow with the @Campaignforwool and my lovely colleagues @GrowWildUK to explore the cross over between our campaigns. There were so many links to explore, plants playing a huge part in the dyeing of wool and extracting properties from wildflowers to make natural hand dyed yarns and the links between sheep and the role they often play in managing land and the maintenance of wildflower areas. Along the way I will be blogging about the British and uniquely native wildflowers you may not know about, each having some connection to inspiring yarn dye colours or having uses in the production of hand dyed yarns, even just inspiring their names.

The train journey back to Edinburgh, fear and panic set in as I realised I needed to try and source high quality, hand dyed yarns and wanted to use the opportunity to showcase local and indie yarn dyers to share their craft, with very little time to organise.

A few e-mails were sent around to the producers I knew and whose yarns I loved and use regularly in my wearables. I was overwhelmed by the response and my first yarn donor was a welcoming and enthusiastic Jess at Ginger Twist Studios based in Edinburgh who brightened up my Sunday with her wee personal offering of her own high twist silk/merino yarns whilst knitting of course.

Day 1: Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace)

I started with Wild Carrot (Bird’s nest, Queen Anne’s Lace, Bishop’s Lace) given the name and the lace like flower heads, this looked a technically easy one to start with! And more importantly the yarn was a lustre mercerised off white silk yarn I hadn’t used for a while since making a shell piece, perfect for a clear stitch and finish.

Trying to recreate nature you quickly realise how complex the botanical structure are that you are trying to exact. The forgiving thing about crochet is that you can give impressions of texture and form through very simple stitches, here using simple chain stitches, single and double crochet stitch and wire for the cage under stems.

Wild Carrot has featured in our Grow Wild Scotland seed mix and the bees and pollinators love it, it looks lovely mixed into other wildflowers. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew note medicinal qualities of the wildflower and the flower heads are often used for dyes.

Day 2: Wild Teasel

One of my favourite wildflowers is the teasel, featuring at the Grow Wild Scotland flagship site in Barrhead, Water Works (@WaterWorksGrow). I used the high twist purples that Jess from Ginger Twist Studios donated and added a touch of Shilasdair pink ‘Foxglove’ yarn for the highlighted flowers on the spikey seed head. I used wire ribbon to form the body of the teasel head and crocheted small loop stitches through this, a tad fiddly.

My time working with the team and community in Barrhead inspired my business name and look. In fact my logo illustration was done soon after a visit to the site. Bringing back with me cropped seed heads that were so stunning even dead, I decided that this was probably my favourite wildflower and carnivorous too with its stem and leaf pitcher style system.

I particularly like the heritage connection that Teasels have. They were used in gigs of around 3000 teasel heads, to raise the nap in cloth for velvet for example. Even though metal combs replaced this purpose, it is suggested that nothing has replaced the natural ability of a Teasel. The combing task was called carding named after the scientific thistle name Cardus.

Photo: Knockando Wool Mill, Speyside, Scotland 

I then received a really interesting e-mail from Jon at Natural Born Dyers, who offered as much as his partner Claire could spare from her oddments. I was really unbelievably overwhelmed to receive this hugely generous parcel in the post. 

Day 3: Wild Tansy, Lady’s Bedstraw, Weld (Dyer’s Rocket)

This trio of vibrant wildflowers are known to yarn dyers and have their names linked to their purpose through history. My favourite of these to crochet was the wild Tansy, and a very happy name it is too. I used ‘Tansy’ colour hand dyed yarn from Shilasdair yarns (Shilasdair is the Gaelic for the Flag Iris and ancient dye plant) combined with a bright crochet cotton.

Shilasdair and Eva Lambert who founded the company have used Tansy as a favourite, sourced locally and preferring it to the “old, smelly woad recipes – which required liberal macerations with urine”, yes I can see why. The colours at Shilasdair really do describe the landscapes of the Highlands and Skye, subtle but vibrant.

The bright green silk yarn was provided by indie yarn dyers Natural Born Dyers who are passionate about the wildflowers and plants they choose to colour their yarns.

Jon at Natural Born Dyers has a background in plant biology and offered invaluable information and requetsed I crochet the Weld plant (aka Dyers rocket), which is a favourite of theirs in the dyeing process and somewhat easy to find in derelict and poor growing conditioned spaces. How could I refuse, the spikes of the Weld are architecturally beautiful and no doubt a firm favourite with bees. I also had some lovely Shilasdair ‘Tansy’ colour yarn for the occasion.

Jon said, “Mostly I harvest it from derelict ground, as when I have grown it in my allotment the colour is nowhere near as good as from plants growing in rubbish conditions. I also use bramble leaves (always available), oak galls, birch bark and occasionally tansy.

It is always interesting to hear about the stories and heritage attached to wildflowers. In particularly discovering that Lady’s Bedstraw, which as well as being used for dyeing, had a purpose stuffing mattresses, hence the name. And the coumarin scent helped as a flea repellent and smelt nice too!

Day 4: Sheep’s Bit Scabious

Inspired from the deep blue yarns I received from Natural Born Dyers and given the appropriately themed name, I attempted the Sheep’s bit scabious. Found across the UK, but predominantly in Wales and celebrated in Ireland. Also known as Devil bit scabious, the common name 'Sheep’s bit' gets its name due to the fact that sheep like eating it! 

Quite a few of our Grow Wild community projects have carefully and in a controlled manner, introduced sheep to an area in order to clear the land of invasive species to create more bio-diverse wildflower areas. One of which is our Scotland project at the Mull of Galloway lighthouse, previously a walled kitchen lighthouse keeper garden, the Mull of Galloway Trust are restoring the land to its former glory as an open community space where young people and the local community can learn about habitats, food growing, wildflowers and the bio-diversity that this wild space will and is starting to introduce. Working in collaboration with SNH, Logan Botanics and RSPB planting in this protected area is managed and appropriate native species are being restored.

Find out more about the project here. And follow them on Twitter.

To give the texture of the flower I used bobble and crocodile crochet stitches and introduced steel yarn for the finer detail.

Day 5: Wild Madder Root

Ok so technically this part of the Madder is not a flower, they are found above ground on the madder, but I loved the colours of the root and so have yarn dyers through the ages. The genus name Rubia (Rubia Peregrina) means red, which is exactly the hue it gives to the yarn, unlike the colour of the flowers a pale yellow/green. It is part of the coffee family and provides a wonderful deep rich stain.

The yarn I used was the high twist red from Ginger Twist Studios and Shilasdair ‘Autumn’ orange, I love these yarns.

Woollenflower is Julia Billings, knitter and horticulturalist, who experiments with madder and other plant extracts for dyes and testing combination of madder root to accompanying mordants and modifiers. I will allow Jules to explain the technique in her blog documenting the process.

Photo: Botanical Wildflower specimen plate

A huge thank you to all the wonderfully generous yarn producers and skilled craftspeople who have perfected their techniques over years, often generations.

And stay tuned, as Claire will be creating a wearable jewellery, based on these pieces.