Interview: Inside the Studio with Native Yarns
“The more I learn the more I realise there is still to explore…”
Today our Editorial Assistant Liam is chatting with Sue Gleave, the knitter and designer behind artisan yarn-dyeing business Native Yarns.
When did your passion for knitting first develop?
My grandmothers were accomplished craftswomen and I stayed with them often when I was growing up. They taught me to sew, knit and crochet and inspired a love for ‘slow fashion’ and a respect for good-quality materials. Since I’ve been designing I’ve learned more about knitting; the more I learn, the more I realise there is still to explore!
What does a typical day running a yarn-dyeing business look like?
There is no typical day! I don’t dye every day and one of the lovely things is that if I feel like going for a walk in the sunshine, I can. I enjoy the diversity of what I do. Natural dyeing can take a week to process a batch of yarn and there are no shortcuts. The yarn needs to be scoured (washed) before I start work, which needs to be done gently to avoid felting. I have been known to spend an entire morning washing wool. Once the yarn is washed, it’s mordanted – I use alum and cream of tartar, the most environmentally friendly mordants and I love the colours I get. Mordanting is important as it helps dye attach better and creates richer colours. There are days I don’t dye at all. If I’m working on new designs, that tends to be very absorbing. When I’m pattern writing, I lock myself away to concentrate on the maths. I’m also a keen gardener and grow some of my dye plants.
You dye 11 yarn bases. How did you decide upon these?
The short answer is I get carried away. I love yarn and want to cater to a range of interests. This means I have lace, 4-ply, DK, aran and chunky yarn. All my yarns are named after towns and villages in Suffolk to celebrate the great wool tradition that is woven into this area. One of the most important things is the handle of the yarn. Because of the time it takes to dye, I’ll never be able to offer cheap yarn, so focus on luxury yarn – the sort I’d work with and wear. I started with four bases, two lace and two 4-ply. Over time I found other yarns I couldn’t resist and added them. If I handle yarn and it makes me go ‘Ohhh!’ I know it’s one to try. When I decide to trial a yarn, I do a number of tests to check the colours I can produce and how it behaves. I then decide whether to dye some initial batches before it’s over to customers to decide which they like.
You use natural dye. What’s the difference between natural and synthetic dye?
Natural dye is made from plant or animal material. Most is plant based and has been used for centuries. Synthetic dye is made from chemicals. It’s used by most of the textile industry and has been the mainstay since the 19th century. I use plant material for my dye baths. I love it; it feels like an alchemical thing to do, like making bread and brewing beer. I enjoy the fact I’m involved in a craft that has developed over centuries. Natural dyeing is a slow, gentle process done in batches of no more than 1kg. The baths take time to develop, it can be days before a bath is ready to use. I get a number of batches from a single bath; the richest colours come from first use, then subtle colours later. Because skeins are dyed in large baths, the colours tend to be semi-solid, with parts slightly deeper than others. This is due to the bath being at different temperatures and proximity to the dye stuff. This gives a special depth of colour.
How do you go about choosing your colourways?
I experiment. The colours I achieve seem affected by the season; in spring they seem fresher and brighter whereas autumn is richer and mellow. Colours are determined by the dyestuffs I use and the yarn itself. Pure wool produces deeper, brighter colours than alpaca or wool/silk mixes which are softer in hue. I use madder for terracotta, soft red and apricot colours; weld, dyers’ chamomile, coreopsis and onion skins for yellows; indigo for blue and cochineal for pink. For greens and purples yarn gets dyed twice, once with a base dye and then it’s introduced to the indigo vat for its final transformation. I love overdyed yarn – there’s a great subtlety and slight variegation to them that’s very rewarding.
You’re also a talented knitwear designer, where do you find your inspiration?
I don’t know about talented, but I do enjoy it! Inspiration comes from many places – sometimes it’s patterns suggested by things I see when walking or in the garden. I get ideas suggested from books or films and sometimes it’s getting excited about a new texture or an interest in lace or cable designs. Other patterns are inspired by the yarn – I think of designs that would suit it when I’m dyeing.
Do you have any exciting news that you can share with us?
I’m working on a range of homeware designs that I hope to complete next year and I’m experimenting with new dye techniques to add new colours to our yarn. I’ve had a quieter year for shows this year, but am looking forward to doing some pop-up shops in 2019.
Find out more…