Creative in the Countryside: Botanical Threads
Welcome to our first installment of Creative in the Countryside. Over the coming months and seasons I will be bringing you the stories of some fascinating creative people and learning all about their relationship with the countryside and how it shapes their creativity.
First up is Alicia Hall of Botanical Threads. Alicia creates dyes from all kinds of botanicals (but usually the skins and stones of the avocados she’s eaten that week!), and uses them to create beautiful scarves, tea towels, and, in the very near future, clothing. As a blogger interested in slow and simple living, botanical dyeing seems like the perfect slow activity, from the weeks of pre-preparation and the days spent soaking, so I jumped at the chance to find out more.
I asked Alicia to tell us a little more about botanical dyeing, and got to grips with her relationship with nature and the countryside.
First things first for the uninitiated: what is botanical dyeing?
Botanical dye is a dye that is made using part or all of a plant. For example rosemary and lavender produce a dye from their leaves, the madder plant produces a dye from its roots, and the dye from avocados is extracted from their stones and skins. The dyes can be extracted just by soaking the plants in hot water, though sometimes they need the addition of chalk or iron to enhance the colours.
How did you get into botanical dyeing?
During the day I work as a gardener for the National Trust and I first came across botanical dyeing in a gardening book. I then spent the next 3 weeks collecting carrot tops from the vegetable garden at work and made my first dye: a lovely green colour that I dyed a canvas bag with.
Unfortunately I discovered that carrot top dye is not in the slightest bit colour-fast and within a few days the green colour had faded to almost nothing, so this led me to spend a long time researching and practicing techniques.
How does your work as a gardener influence your creativity?
It sounds a little strange but whenever I take something to the compost bin I wonder if I could use it to make a dye. I suppose it's a bit like the gardener who won't throw away any of the seedlings he's sown - even if he's got fifty good ones he still wants to keep the crooked and poorly-looking ones too. I always wonder if my wheelbarrow of deadheads and plant cuttings could hide the secret to a wonderful new dye colour that I'm yet to discover.
What is it that you love about botanical dyeing and creating in the countryside?
I really love plants and to me it’s a new way to connect with nature. There’s something really nice about creating beautiful things from natural ingredients, especially in the chemical filled world that we are living in. It makes me look a the world in a different way and I feel like I am keeping up a forgotten art. This is what we did before we created chemical dyes.
Everyone here in the countryside is just so friendly. I don't know if it's because there's less of us and we have to travel a little further to get to each other, but everyone stops for a chat and says hello. There's a sense of community and people seem to want to work with you, rather than compete with you.
The beautiful thing about botanical dyes is that they can be unpredictable: the age of the plant, the soil that it is grown in, the water used for making the dye and how the plants have been stored can all affect the colour of the dyes. Sometimes this can mean a subtle shift in tones, whereas other times this can mean a totally different colour is produced (for example, goldenrod flowers produce a yellow if they are open and a green dye is produced if the plant is used before it is flowering).
Why is it important to you to be connected with nature in your dyeing?
Because I use plant-based fabrics and obviously plants to make my dyes I feel it's important to understand where they came from and how they grow. I suppose it would be a bit like a cheese maker not knowing that the milk they used came from cows. Getting out in nature and seeing it grow and thrive also reinforces for me how important it is for small businesses like myself to do all they can to protect out beautiful world and to use processes that have the least negative impact possible.
How are you inspired by the countryside more generally?
Sometimes my mind is so busy that I need to get out in the fresh, open air to clear it and the countryside is the best way to do that. I also think that Mother Nature really does come up with the best ideas: different colour combinations of flowers that have self seeded together gives me ideas for new colours to try out or an overgrown patch filled with nettles makes me wonder if I can use the weeds that everyone else thinks are a pain.
This is a question I’m going to ask everyone, and I can’t wait to compare all the answers! Where in the world is your favourite countryside?
My favourite countryside is where I live on the Wiltshire/Somerset border. I am such a home bird! I think because I originally come from the other side of the country that I appreciate my surrounding landscape that little bit more, as it's all still relatively new to me. It's funny to think that when I was younger I dreamed of living in London whereas now I love driving down country lanes, getting held up by tractors and flocks of turkeys (true story).
And it's not all just green fields and hedges here. We have the famous white horses, stone circles and I can often hear the army practicing whatever they practice on Salisbury Plain. Often on a Sunday afternoon the noise travels so far that it makes the windows in my house rattle. I also love the hilly, undulating landscape which gives me views for miles, and I love to observe the changing scenery. At the moment I am really looking forward to the first signs of the yellow rapeseed fields.
You can find Alicia on Instagram @botanicalthreads (all images in today's post are from this account) to see more of the behind the scenes of her process. Her store is at www.botanicalthreads.co.uk, but keep checking back as she sells out quickly!
This post was inspired by an earlier interview I did with Alicia on my blog where we covered botanical dyeing in more detail.