CETG Meeting on Monday 12th September 2022
Gilly Pusey – Hand Spinning and Natural Dyeing
It was “third time lucky” when we welcomed Gilly, whose talk had been postponed twice due to lockdowns. Gilly has been a hand spinner and natural dyer for 35-40 years, who earned a living from spinning knitting wool, with the help of her angora rabbits, and angora goats Rhubarb and Custard. She learned her craft at Adult Education classes in Great Missenden, but now she’s retired can just do it for fun! Gilly no longer keeps rabbits or goats and focuses on spinning the wool of English native sheep – of which there are 82 breeds. She buys the raw fleece from smallholders, and is very particular about the quality.
Not all fleece is the same. She handed round samples from different breeds for us to appreciate the varying softness, curliness and feel of the raw wool, and spoke about which breeds are good for spinning wool for clothing, and which parts of a sheep provide the best yarn. The transformation from fleece on a sheep’s back into yarn is a long process, involving sorting, washing, and carding, before it can be spun. Gilly demonstrated carding the washed fleece, before spinning the wool on her travelling spinning wheel, explaining the spinning and twisting which goes to make a skein of wool.
She gave us a quick history of spinning, from its probable inception in India in 500AD with the manual drop spindle, which is still used today in more remote areas, as it has the advantage that you can spin while walking around or doing other tasks. Early spinning wheels looked very different, before the invention of the treadle and flyer, but all yarn was spun by hand until mechanisation in the 1700’s. Until then, every scrap of cloth was made by hand, the yarn had to be spun before anything could be woven, and the final garment sewn together hand stitch by stitch.
Gilly mentioned some other fibres which can be spun: silk, camel, yak, alpaca, mohair (from goats), angora (from rabbits), bamboo and even milk protein, and handed round samples for us to touch and appreciate.
The second half of Gilly’s course was natural dyeing, a revelation to her when she discovered you can dye yarn using plants found in the countryside. This really appealed to her, and alongside her spinning she has been dyeing her yarn naturally, long before the term “eco-dyeing” became fashionable. She ran through the process of natural dyeing, touching on the mordants needed to fix the colour, common plants which can be used, which colours are easiest (yellow) and hardest (green). The table was covered with a selection of woollen yarns she had dyed in a rainbow of beautiful colours, which we were invited to come and admire.
Gilly was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker, and by the end of the evening we all had a greater appreciation of how much work it really takes to get from sheep to beautiful hand-knitted garment.
Words © Liz Wilmott/September 2022
Photos © Gilly Pusey, Liz Wilmott, Michaela Matza CETG/September 2022
Our Chair Pirkko has a go at the spinning wheel