I’ve been reading a great new blog http://fibrefanatic.wordpress.com and promised Nadie that I’d send her this story. After I sent it I thought the rest of you might like to read it too.
This instalment contains no animals (unless you count the passing mention of my Aasta, my Old English Sheepdog from years ago and my comeback sheep, Tiffany who produced the wool). So here is the animal free zone story of how I learned to dye and break the one minute mile in the process.
About 35 years ago I bought an Old English Sheepdog. She needed something to herd (she tried magpies but they kept flying off) so we bought a sheep from a backyard in Penrith when we were out on a drive one day. Every year Tiffany needed to be shorn and her wool started to accumulate. With no thoughts of stockpiling it and becoming wool barons, I learned to spin – basically in self defence. Tiffany produced kilos of wool every year and we lived in a very small house.
Learning to spin was fraught with dangers not previously considered. Of course, like everyone else the first thing I did was closely examine the spinning wheel for the sharp object that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger and put her to sleep for 100 years. While there were times in my life with a twelve month old baby girl that a long sleep was very tempting the thoughts of what she’d accomplish left unsupervised was a nightmare all by itself. Just for the record, I’ve never met a spinning wheel with a finger pricking sharp piece attached to it. I can only assume that Sleeping Beauty was a real klutz.
Anyway, back to my spinning lessons. I lived on an acre at the bottom of a deserted street miles from the little village of Hill Top in the Southern Highlands and couldn’t drive so if I wanted to learn anything I had to borrow books from the library when Graeme drove me to Bowral each week and teach myself. Bec, added another hurdle to learning to spin because she thought the spinning wheel just perfect for poking pudgy fingers in to see what happened. I ended up, book on my lap, safely enclosed in Bec’s playpen while she free ranged around the loungeroom with her toys, perfecting my spinning.
Once I could produce a reasonable skein of yarn I taught Graeme's Aunt Rae to spin (and then she took herself off to TAFE and is now a master spinner and master weaver!) Rae lived up at Eungai (far north coast of NSW) and we used to visit for a couple of weeks each year. During our visits Rae and I would usually try out new crafts together (believe it or not, Rae never wanted to try quilting!).
The holiday where I taught Rae to spin she took to it like a duck to water. Rae took full advantage of my spinning wheel being in residence and we even took in on picnics with us so we could keep spinning while Graeme, his Uncle Robert and our kids (we had two by now) could enjoy themselves in the canoe. With quite a few skeins produced, we decided to have a go at natural dying the skeins and some fleece. Of course I had a few books on the subject and we set about getting all our supplies together. We needed a range of mordants to experiment with the various colours they would produce with the gum leaves, barks, lichens etc that we’d gathered, so we headed off to Macksville (nearest largish town to Eungai) to get the equipment and mordants we needed.
Rae went to the co-op for the equipment and I was put on chemist detail. I was a bit of a hippy in my youth, flowered jeans, long hair, head band around the forehead, flowing cheesecloth tops etc. (I don't know if this had anything to do with the next part of my story, but it may have contributed.) I asked the girl behind the counter to sell me some chemicals (I can't remember the actual chemicals now, but I asked for each by name). The girl gave me a long look and asked what I wanted these chemicals for. Without thinking it through (see I was just as scatterbrained in my youth) I said in my most confident artisan's voice, "Dying".
She then gave me a scared look, put her hands up as if to calm a wild animal and said, "Just wait here, I'll get the chemist." She then disappeared out the back, where I could hear a whispered conversation taking place. The chemist came out, the girl pointed to me and he headed in my direction. He gave me a professionally concerned look and asked what I wanted these chemicals for.
Once again I said, "Dying" (the penny still hadn't dropped with me). The look on the chemist's face finally penetrated my little brain that was overflowing with artistic plans and I quickly said, "Dying wool not me!!!). The chemist looked sceptical at first but I managed to convince him that I really had a load of wool at home and wanted to boiled it up with leaves and lichen and needed the chemicals to help set the colours. He agreed to sell me the chemicals, but I couldn't get him to sell me the quantities I actually wanted. He rationed them out very sparingly. I thanked him in a chastened voice and slunk out of the shop.
Rae and I decided not to push our luck by sending Rae in to get some more. We'd just use what we were given. We returned to the farm and set up our dying workshop in the kitchen. The kitchen took on the appearance of a very dedicated witch’s kitchen with leaves, lichens, ferns and flowers scatted in piles on the table and benches. The chemicals were kept over on a separate counter and treated with a very large amount of respect. We were quite twitchy by now about using these mordants. To add to the witch’s kitchen look, Rae had a fuel stove and used it whenever possible because it also heated the house's hot water. Rae put the pot on the stove and carefully added the mordant while I stood well back in case it jumped off the measuring spoon and attacked.
All was quiet as the water heated on the stove. A few seconds later a very loud POP! sound erupted from the stove. Without even looking at each other, Rae and I hightailed it out of the house, banging the screen door closed as we passed and dived off the back veranda and stood out in the garden almost hugging each other in fright. We left that kitchen so quickly I’m sure we must have broken the sound barrier. Graeme, Robert, Bec and Josh sat out there where they’d been quietly chatting about farming and life in general, but now staring at us with puzzled expressions on their face. The pop hadn’t even been loud enough for them to hear it on the back porch. It suddenly occurred to me that these chemicals were poisonous, not explosive. I relayed my epiphany to Rae who nodded her head and we both laughed nervously in relief.
Even with this comforting knowledge, we were reluctant to go back to the kitchen, but we gathered our courage (what little there was left of it) and bravely (???) re-entered the kitchen. The popping sound had been made by a little bit of water boiling between the base of the pot and the top of the stove and having no where to escape. Thankfully all such water had evaporated by the time we ventured back into the kitchen.
We spent the rest of the day creating beautiful muted colours in skeins and fleece and decided that while natural dying could be a very scary experience it was worth it. I should have taken the wool back to the chemist to show 1. I was still alive and 2. I’d been telling the truth, but it never occurred to me at the time.