Stay at Home; some thoughts from Lockdown

I have, so far, been quiet about lockdown. But it feels odd to not share my experience on such a landmark event in all our lives. Our lockdown started a little earlier than most, with the children staying home from school on 17th March. School closures actually happened almost a week later, but we followed the Prime Minister’s suggestion that stopping all unnecessary social contact was particularly important for people with certain health conditions, and that they should be shielded for around 12 weeks. Some of you will already be aware that my children were born extremely prematurely, and had a very rocky start to life which has left them with less than perfect lungs. This means they are more likely to get pneumonia and complications arising from pneumonia. So, whilst they ordinarily live a normal life and aren’t particularly impacted by their lung issues day to day, we do need to be careful with them. My husband spent the next two days sorting out the working from home issues for his office, and he joined us on lockdown, exclusively working from home, on the 19th.

Initially, I suffered from a bout of PTSD relating to the trauma around my children’s birth and their precarious first few months. I had trouble sleeping and some deeply unpleasant lucid dreams, and was suffering anxiety attacks during the day. All triggered by the wash your hands messaging – washing your hands is a BIG feature of life when you have babies in SCBU and mine were there for 140 days. But my symptoms have improved enormously, partly as a result of the primary messaging changing from wash your hands (still hugely important!) to stay at home.

Food has been a stressful subject. It’s taken quite a while for the supermarkets to accept we are on the vulnerable list, and I really didn’t feel I could burden any of my neighbours with a full shop, so we have had to make some trips out for food. Luckily we have a very good butchers and farm shop nearby and most of the customers there have been very sensible about social distancing. Less so people in the supermarket, who seem to think that as long as they pass you at speed, they don’t need to stay the requisite 2 metres away. When you risk bringing a potentially life threatening illness back home to your children, this heightens anxieties to an uncomfortable level. But, I’m very pleased to say our local community has rallied around and we now have a weekly fruit and veg delivery (courtesy of a furloughed Italian restaurant), and Sainsbury’s now has us on their list so the kids can continue their coco pops addiction unhindered. I was also very grateful to be able to order flour from the lovely Kat Goldin at Gartur Stitch Farm so my sourdough bread baking has become a constant joy.

Homeschool is interesting. It’s not too much of a stretch to say, I am not one of life’s most patient people, so home schooling my children hasn’t been an easy thing to adjust to. But, having twins sometimes has its advantages. Whilst they aren’t necessarily in the same place academically, they are at least studying the same subjects at the same time, so I’m not coping with more than one curriculum, and they are good friends, so are supportive of one another, and happy to spend long periods just playing together. Their school’s IT and our rickety internet service has been a challenge for such a committed technophobe, but I’m just about there now.

The biggest adjustment for me has been the loss of solitude. If you are currently living alone, working from home, with perhaps only a cat for company, this may seem like a strange statement. But my pre lockdown life involved me being home alone (well, not entirely alone, as I have Merlin, my dog, for company, but you get my point) for up to 30 hours each week. I spent a significant part of this time working in my natural dye business and I’ve come to realise that solitude is a vital component of my art. Having the quiet space to be creative drives my dyeing. And that is gone for now and my dye pans are mostly quiet. But, I have been spending the little time I have in other ways. The pause has given me the chance to go deep diving in my undyed stash, to discover some lovely rarer breed yarns which will be getting the natural dye treatment. The first of these, 12 skeins of Whitefaced Woodland DK have been adorned with logwood and saxon blue indigo and will go in the shop in the next few days. I’ve also had more time to gather nettles and cow parsley and currently have yarn wallowing in vats of colour extracted from these plants. I’ve also been spending some time working behind the scenes on my website and getting myself a mailing list set up. More news on this at a later date.

So whilst it was rough at first, very recently I’ve begun to wonder if I don’t prefer some aspects of our lockdown life. Is it possible that I might be living my best life right now? Shielding our children means that we stay at home all the time. The only exceptions to this, are the daily dog walks I and my husband individually take; and we only take these because its very quiet here and very easy to stay a long way away from other people. It’s not that I dislike other people (far from it!), but as an introvert, every social interaction is a drain on my energy, and recognising the impact that has on my life has been eye opening. Our lives have become very unhurried – nobody is rushing in or out of the house anymore. I’m not chasing the kids to eat their breakfast, wash, brush their teeth, get dressed, find their school bags and get in the car – all before 8am every day. We are eating more healthily (well, apart from the coco pops!), because we aren’t relying on meals out and takeaways to make up for a lack of time or energy to cook. I’m enjoying meal planning and cooking a good deal more than I was before lockdown. I’ve learned things about thrifty cooking that make me disproportionately happy – for example, all my vegetable peelings go in a bag in the freezer now for stock, rather than in the composting bin. I’m enjoying the challenge of slightly random ingredients and making a lot of very nice vegetable soups. I’m noticing things on my walks that I’ve not noticed before; was the sky ever so blue, or the hedgerow ever so verdant? The children are reading a lot more, which pleases me immeasurably. I’m taking a great deal of pleasure from our garden and from the birds frequenting our bird table – all things I was seemingly too busy to do before lockdown. And I’m unearthing long buried wips and unfinished projects, most recently a quilt now on my daughter’s bed, which I started long before my daughter was even a thought.

So, when a friend on a zoom catch up, recently asked us all if we were ‘over lockdown now’, I was given cause to think that, whilst it feels a bit odd to admit it, a little part of me will be sad when lockdown is over and we all get back to some normality. I don’t want to go back to my too busy pre-lockdown life; I want to keep the time and energy to notice the blue sky and the hedgerow, the flowers and the birds.

This has made me to wonder if anyone else feels the same. Are there any aspects of your lockdown life which you want to take with you back into normality?

Natural plant dyeing

So, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been trying out natural plant dyes. And it’s been really good fun. There is something amazing about watching the dye seep out of plant matter and then see it transfer onto your wool.

I’ve tried to do this before – without much success but following a chat with Rita from Hedgeknits at Flockfest, I decided to give it another go. Rita recommended I buy some litmus papers so I could test the pH of my tap water. We live in a hardish water area and have a water softener and it hadn’t occurred to me this would have an impact on my dyeing result, but, low and behold, it did.

What’s your pH?

So, for most plant based dyes, a gentle alkaline medium is best. If I’ve totally thrown you by that statement, panic not! Your water can be made acidic, neutral or alkaline, depending on what is added to it. So first up, fill a pan with water and test it with litmus paper. Litmus paper comes in little strips and you simply dip a strip in your water and it changes colour to tell you the pH. You compare the colour to the chart that comes with the papers. My litmus paper was yellow (it comes in other colours) and so, yellow is neutral, orange through to red is acidic, and green through to blue is alkaline. You are aiming for mid green.

Now it’s time to raid the larder. If your water is acidic or neutral, you’ll need to add bicarbonate of soda to make it more alkaline. If its much too alkaline, then you need to add white vinegar or citric acid, to bring it back more towards neutral. My water is only very slightly alkaline and this probably accounted for my previous natural dyeing failures, so I added some bicarbonate of soda, a spoonful at a time, testing after each spoonful, until I got a good green on the litmus paper.

Making the dye solution

Once you have a gentle alkaline ph, pop in your plant material. In my case, I used avocado pits and skins. I’d been saving these up for a while – each time we ate an avocado, I’d wash the stone and skins in cold water to get any remaining flesh off , leave them to dry, split the stone with a heavy sharp knife (keeping fingers and thumbs well out of way) and then pop it all in the freezer. Once I had the stones and skins of 6 or 7 avocados, and was ready to dye, I took the box out of the freezer to defrost. Once defrosted, I added the stones and skins to my water and gently heated it on the hob. Pretty quickly the stones began to exude the most gorgeous pink colouring. I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, then left it for a couple of hours to cool. Then I strained the dye solution, discarded the stone and pits and put the dye solution back in the pan.

Soaking the wool

Meanwhile I soaked my wool in some more water until it was thoroughly saturated. I also soaked some wool in some water with added bicarbonate of soda (remember my tap water isn’t very alkaline) and this did result in a slightly stronger uptake of colour.

The very great advantage with dyeing with avocados is that you don’t need to mordant your fibre before you dye. This is because are high in tannin. A mordant is just a chemical agent that helps the dye stick to the fibre.

Dyeing!

To dye, I simply placed the wool into the pan containing the dye solution (making sure there was enough liquid to cover the wool), gently heated again to simmering point, turn off the heat and leave to cool (leave over night for a deeper colour, if you have the patience), rinse the wool and Voilà!

More experimentation

After my avocado success, I repeated the process with dock leaves. These produce the most wonderful bright yellows through to golden browns depending on heat, pH and whether or not I’d mordanted the wool with alum or just soaked it in water.

I’d say a willingness to experiment and allowing in some serendipity – not having a shade or tone fixed in your mind – are key to successful natural dyeing. It’s better to love what you produce rather than feel dissatisfied when your results don’t match your expectations.

There is also a beautiful subtle quality to the colour of naturally dyed yarn. Because the tone is generally more muted than those produced from acid dyeing with synthetic dye (see my blog post here about starting to acid dye) they seem to naturally co-ordinate with each other. I can see that there will be lots more natural dyeing in my future.

I think I’ll try nettles next (but I need rubber gloves and some copper sulphate first), then coffee, rose, and onion skins, and lots, lots more!