We ran another of our weed walks — or plant safaris — last week. At these events we look at plant families, how plants grow, their habitats and the great variety and resilience of wild plants. After ambling about inspecting and wondering at the above, we then study the plants further by drawing them.
People get scared of drawing but drawing is the least of it. The looking is the most of it. And we want to encourage looking (and the wonder which comes from looking) at the intricacies and complexities of even the ‘simplest’ weed/wild flower. You should probably spend 60% of your time looking – more than drawing. If you do that, you are more likely to end up drawing what you actually see, rather than what you expect to see.
One tip Neela Basu, our tame artist, gave us for drawing is to examine the way and direction a plant grows and, rather than draw its face (or flower) first, start at the bottom near its roots and work our way up and try to express the way its energy propels it upwards or around.
Our group, with a wealth of knowledge about growing between them, had a head start with the looking as they were familiar with the habits and patterns of plants. They produced some fantastic drawings.
Thanks to Capital Growth for arranging it and to Steve Ellis for the photographs.
Our annual woad and indigo harvest and dye workshop was an evening of gentle delight. It involved curiosity, experiment and awe at that magical transformation of plant into colour. We also harvested our flax and ate amazing scones with home-made jams. Sometimes you can imagine that all is right with the world.
We did two pots – one of woad and one of Japanese indigo, which usually gives a stronger colour but we found the woad was just as potent this year. Thanks to Steve for taking the photos.
One of the things we hope and try to do at Cordwainers is to encourage and support other community growing spaces, so it was a pleasure to help in a small way a newly-revived garden down the road from us. A handful of young residents have been turning up every week to make the garden a welcoming as well as productive place for other people local to the Frampton Park Estate. We put up a few social media posts, provided sausages, seeds and plants and hoped somebody would turn up. Elsdale made amazing cakes, tea and a borrowed a barbecue from a cycling club – as well as supplying an eagerness and commitment to the cause: to get people growing together. Stephanie actually grabbed people off the street but others came voluntarily. What was so impressive in a small but powerful way was that these actions – not huge in themselves (baking, talking, posting, shopping, sowing) – did bring neighbours together, to eat, grow and talk. This is simply what community gardens do. I certainly left feeling better: I belonged somewhere, I’d talked to neighbours I hadn’t met before, I got my hands dirty, ate and drank nice things, sparked new ideas for new connections and projects and growing and tea-drinking.
And there should be more of this going on. So find a patch of ground, find your neighbours and grow.
Sometimes, when we’re setting up a stall for a community event my heart sinks a little. The sky is grey and the wind is whipping round the marquee. We have a long day ahead of us and we must be friendly and active and sometimes that seems too much. But these are the times when you really need that human activity. These are the times that will really lift you.
Some local organisations got together on Saturday at Mabley Green to coincide with a football competition at Hackney Wick FC. Our stall neighbours included Children With Voices, Hackney Quest ,Hackney Pirates and ecoACTIVE– all creative and inspiring outfits which encourage children to be active, curious and inventive – to give them alternatives to the other stuff out there like gangs and slumping on the sofa.
As our contribution we set up to make willow crowns with plants picked from the garden – including ceanothus, ivy, broccoli flowers, dandelions, shepherd’s purse, geraniums, yarrow and red valerian – and seeing the wonderful variety in both the people and their creations lifted our spirits.
And if this video of Michelle talking about the event doesn’t lift your heart, you may need to seek a doctor: Jumping Beans
The thing about natural dyeing is that it is unpredictable; you are using unstable materials. Plants yield colour according to many variables – light, water, soil, how you sow or harvest, whether it is fresh or dry, what the moon’s up to… The dyer herself might be unstable, too. Sometimes she’s careful to note weights and timings, sometimes she isn’t. Sometimes she improvises. Sometimes she’s patient and sometimes she just can’t bear to wait any longer. Anyway, I suppose I’m just saying that I’m not a very good dyer – but also that that unpredictability can produce good and interesting results as well as disappointing ones and that the dyer, too, has to yield to the variable and unpredictable outcome.
The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft has a great project, Dyeing Now, which is encouraging dyers (good and bad) to recreate some of Ethel Mairet’s recipes from her 1916 book of Vegetable Dyes. You sign up to follow her original recipes (I chose two madder ones, using roots from the garden)
or to use plants that she writes about (I chose oak galls and used Jenny Dean’s recipe)
and which yarn you want to try – linen, silk or wool.
I assiduously followed the recipes and assiduously got rather weak colours, especially with the oak galls.
If I hadn’t been doing the recipes to order, I think I would have been quite happy with the results (it’s not as if natural dyes ever produce an ugly colour; it’s not possible) but it’s more to do with expectation – in my head I expected reds that zinged and profound browny-grey-blacks that you could melt in. What I got were gentle, subtle hues.
When I went to pack the skeins up to send to the museum I had the tedious task of finding the page and recipe number in the online book . Well, not really that difficult actually. Useful in fact because I re-read Jenny Dean’s oak gall recipe which mentioned modifying oak galls with iron. So I did and got a rich dark black that I’m excited about on the linen and a soft grey on the wool.
Since we started the garden, we’ve been trying to find ways to connect with the London College of Fashion – as we are on their land, after all. We began with the dye beds then we made thread from flax and our latest venture is to collaborate with the college on several workshops introducing the garden activities to staff and students. Our first session was last night when we did a swift tour of the garden in the gathering gloom and collected plants and seeds to draw in the warmth of a beautiful studio overlooking Mare St. Neela gave us some ideas to free up our drawing – using sticks, crocosmia stalks and ink – as well as different ways of interpreting and investigating objects, like imagining we were ants crawling over the plants. An hour’s drawing was nowhere near enough. It was so absorbing. We got some fabulous inspiring drawings so we’re planning on running a regular drop-in session for botanical drawing using seasonal plants from the garden and using a variety of techniques to explore and ‘see’. Let me know if you’d like to come.