It was just a few days ago that I was invited to a barn in the middle of a field in rural Buckinghamshire. As I drove through the gate the sheep and their lambs looked up quizzically from their grazing. I could see wisps of smoke floating up over the hedge. A witch’s hat and broomstick were leant on the gatepost and there was the soft murmur of female voices.
Was I really being permitted to enter the inner sanctum of a north Bucks witches’ coven? As instructed, I had brought with me my mordanted angora goat fleeces, but sadly, some moths had got there before me and taken the best bits.
The smell of wood smoke became even stronger as I opened the gate and entered the hedged area. Were these mild mannered ladies really whispering spells as they prodded the fires under the cauldrons to get the contents to boiling point? Actually, what I had just happened upon was the annual dyeing evening of a local group of spinners. An amazing gathering keeping rural crafts alive in 2011, using traditional methods from hundreds of years ago. What we would now term as ‘eco-friendly’.
There were other ‘cauldrons’ bubbling away, each with its own natural dye: log wood, brazil wood, madder, bog myrtle, indigo and weld, to name but a few. What was fascinating was observing the gradually and very subtle change of colour as the spun yarn and raw fleeces were taken out and washed and hung up to dry. Sometimes a knitted button was included, to ensure that it would be the same colour as the yarn. Sometimes just half the wool was dyed, thus creating some incredible contrasting colours.
The dyes for this are all totally natural and therefore giving wonderful subtle and earthy colours. This must been one of the greenest and sustainable events that I have ever been to.
Observing the whole process were some of the sheep, making the whole scene quite surreal. Almost as if they were extremely proud of their produce and were quite at ease showing it off – the ovine fashion parade!
As home made cakes and hot potatoes were handed round, together with a glass of wine, the whole occasion took on a somewhat surreal atmosphere. This event has been quietly taking place annually for the past 25 years, hidden in this Buckinghamshire backwater. Only the farmers who produce the sheep and the ladies who spin the yarn are invited.
Witches’ coven or not, this surely has to be one of the best ways of ensuring that rural crafts are kept alive. People in cities would pay a fortune to have the ‘experience’.
These colours are just staggeringly beautiful and so varied. What is most amazing, is that they are all from totally natural dyes