Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

red yellow blue

  • Our Grandmother’s Ghosts

    Recently I saw a picture on the Facebook page of artist Danielle Barlow called We Carry Our Grandmothers’ Ghosts, and it really struck home with me. I’m working on a poem, possibly one of a series about it. I only ever knew one of my grandmothers, because my father’s mother died of TB in 1938, when he was twelve. I have seen photographs, and we gathered scraps of information about her from her sister – though we don’t know how reliable it was! We didn’t even get her name right – we thought of her as Marian – my middle name, but it seems that the name on her certificate was Mary Ann, and she appears in her sister’s diaries as Marie.

    But I do have this.

    which we believe she made. I have seen a school report, in which she is described as ‘very tidy’ and ‘exceptionally good at needlework’, and we believe that she was working in a drapers shop when she met my grandfather.

    I have been making a replica of this for my sister. The fabric I used is brighter and more intense, but very close to the same shade – I think that’s the quality of modern dyes, not just because the original has faded. The stranded cottons, however, are exactly the same shades as Marian used. 

    You can see at a glance that my needlework is not exceptional. The differences are more obvious when you see them together:

    My design is more squished than Marian’s, and I am not good at judging distances – it was discovered only last year that I have a very slight squint so things are not always where I think they are, and I’m going to have to be very much more mathematical and careful with marking and copying when I transfer designs in future.

    But the fascinating thing is that both of those designs have the same feel. The deviations from the straight come in the same places, the small aberrations from the ideal are almost exactly the same, as if I carried it in my genes. I feel a bit haunted now.

  • Dyeing with Woad

    cotton, faintly blue
    Full marks if you can see any blue at all. There is enough to encourage me to have another go next year, but not much at all. Woad is very exciting, but complicated, and I think I did everything wrong. The leaves didn’t reach their full potential and were heavily depleted by slugs and caterpillars. I didn’t prep properly, didn’t activate the vat enough, and I don’t think I added enough metabisulphate – plus too many other rookie mistakes to mention. You have to be quite pernickety with woad, precise with temperatures and quantities, and not cut corners – and, unusually, it is more sympathetic to vegetable fibres than wool.
    three skeins of wool, pale pink, paler pink and yellow
    I did try wool, though, and these are the pleasant but not exactly vibrant results. From left to right, the first go at the vat, the second go – there seemed to be plenty of colour in the dye – it just didn’t transfer to the wool — and then a second simmer of the leaves the next day.

    I have plans to do a few more dyes this autumn, with roots and berries, and some madder root I bought online, and then I will have to evaluate how much I’ve learned. There’s an awful lot of beige in the yarns I’ve dyed, but I’ve learned a lot. I’m going to try using them in a sampler, and then create a bird-themed design. Already my thinking about the poetry of the project has moved on – there are threads and weaving and stories and tradition – and also Marian – the grandmother I never knew, because she died when my father was a child. We know very little about her, but her school report said she was exceptionally good at needlework, and I have a handkerchief sachet she embroidered with marigolds which has become very special to me. I hope that lots of these poems will get written over the winter.

    And then, next year. I’m going for the holy grail  – green. It seems ridiculous that with so many green leaves about, it should be hard to get a good green, but so it seems. I might try to do things properly next year too.

  • Summer Dyes

    The Red, Yellow, Blue project is about collecting the colours of the territory of rain, and I have compiled a long list of plants found in the garden, or the roadsides, that I’d like to dye. This week it was this one:

    I am not making friends with this weed. For all the yards and yards of sticky, bristly stems, it took me all day, and some very scratched-up arms (turns out I’m slightly allergic to the b*** thing) to collect enough roots. But when they were washed, they looked like this:

    Talk about spinning straw into gold! And after an hour simmering and straining, I got this:

    and added a skein of wool, and a square of old cotton sheet, and simmered again. This is the result:

    The other pot on the stove in the first picture is full of birch leaves. They were a lot easier to get, and I had a lot more, so there was a bigger square and two skeins of wool:

    The long one was was modified with vinegar which made it a bit brighter and lighter than the other one.

    It’s obvious by now that I have a lot to learn, not only about the dyes and the techniques (that would be a lifetime study!), but also the kind of skills that you’d think I would have learned by now – proper planning and preparation, having the kit ready (and organising your work space and storage afterwards), taking the time a good job takes, rather than just jumping in. But I’m slowly amassing a range of threads:

    and some interesting fabric in rather pale faded shades:

    Come the winter, I will see what I can make with them. I’m still thinking of some evocations of the birds of the territory, and maybe some of our weather. And the dialogue between hands and eyes is coming out in new writing. I have just written an outline of a new mixed genre project, and I’m so excited that I can hardly bear to get into it, in case it comes apart in my hands.

  • Birch catkins, dandelion nettle and rhubarb leaf

    In the recent good weather (which seems to have deserted us today) I finally started dyeing again. Here are the pots I was running yesterday, with rhubarb leaf and birch catkinsI was moving on to cotton, which is notoriously more difficult than the wool I’d had so much fun with in the autumn. I cut up an old fitted sheet – which I couldn’t get to fit our bed – and scoured it according to instructions, or at least I thought I did. I followed it up with a tanning process, which I learned about here, and mordanting, and finally simmered the cloth in the strained dyepot. The smell was a bit off-putting, but the weather was warm and sunny and I did a bit of useful weeding.

    I don’t think I did the preparation very well, because the results were a bit uneven.

    This is the birch catkin cloth, which is a lovely old gold colour, but rather streaky and uneven. The rhubarb leaf didn’t take at all, but I added some skeins of wooland they came up beautifully. The darker one had a slug of iron water added, and the lighter one was as it came.

    I’ve also tried some solar dyeing in the greenhouse. I filled up jars with dandelion heads and nettles with some water, and added prepared skeins of wool. They were left there for a week, until I decided they weren’t getting any darker. Here are the results:They are paler than I expected, but the nettle one is a lovely woody colour, just a bit darker than maple. The dandelion is a very pale primrose shade. There’s a jar of red onion skins in the greenhouse cooking now. They have had added iron, and so far it looks as if the wool is going to be a dark grey.

    I wasn’t going to get so involved in dyeing. I was going to write some colour poems, and wanted the experience of creating colours from my territory, and to understand how the process worked. But then I started to think about using the colours to make different kinds of art, and record the territory in new ways – and then I got distracted by the thought of textile art, and particularly women’s work at large. Now I think I’m hooked. There will be many more dye posts, I think. But I hope they’ll lead me into new ways of writing, some new poems, and new thoughts about the place where I live and how I live there.

  • Slow Stitch by Claire Wellesley-Smith

    I was attracted to this book when I saw it in the V&A shop last summer by the low-key illustrations – the subtle colours, simple stitches, the neatness and regularity of her technique, and the care represented by the samples of sewing – there’s a gentle observant rhythm to them which is modest but not miserly, simple but not puritanical.

    Then as I got into it, other values engaged me: the small scale of the projects envisaged – no long training, no expensive materials or kit – was a serious consideration as I was thinking of ‘mindful and contemplative’ sewing as a springboard to new poems, and not wanting to get over-committed. Creative mending and repurposing fabrics I might have sent to recycling had a certain green cachet. But where I really got on board was in a chapter called Stitching, Walking, Mapping, where Claire Wellesley-Smith talks about creating something with plants from a particular area, slow-dyeing threads or eco-printing, and stitching a design that records a connection.

    Further in, she talks about the connections to the historical industries of the area where she lives, and makes cross-cultural links with other women using different traditions of textile art. Slow Stitch is an inspiring read, but if you would like to see more of Claire Wellesley-Smith’s work you can visit her website, and in particular, look at the beautiful short film Provenance.

    It was in response to this book that I started Red Yellow Blue, and I have showed the first dyes here. But I’ve also been sewing, learning how to slow down, and make use of some of the fabric I’ve been saving, and some of the pictures that I took during the Half a Hundred Years project.

    The next project is to connect with family history. My father’s mother died when he was a child, so we know very little about her, apart from the fact that, according to her school report, she was exceptionally good at needlework. But I do own this:

    which she made. The hand stitching is exquisite. I am going to try and make a copy of it for my sister – I can’t do the drawn thread work, but those lovely Clarice Cliffe type marigolds look as if they are within my measure. It will have to wait a while, until after my trip next week to Lochmaddy, but it’s a project I am looking forward to.


  • The First Colours

    Here they are, my first dyed yarns. It’s been an exciting time. I was lucky enough to find dyestuffs locally – acorns, a branch off a cherry tree, which I stripped to make bark chippings,

    and, most unexpected of all, some privet berries. Most privet bushes are clipped within a inch of their lives, don’t flower, and therefore don’t get to produce berries, but we were a bit less vigilant this year because of nesting birds and so I got a jar full of a murky inky liquid that looked like this

    Following instructions from Helen Melvin in a craft book by Kirsty Alsopp (because she works on the small amateur scale which is all I can cope with, I set up a dye bath

    and eventually got this bunch of beautiful colours:

    Left to right, they are privet berry on an alum mordant, which is a very pale duck egg blue, privet berry with an iron modifier, which is closer to a wedgewood colour, cherry bark on alum alone, a very pale apricot, cherry bark with added iron, a kind of oatmeal, and acorn , a surprisingly yellow straw, and acorns with iron, a greyer beige.

    They are quite pale, almost ghost colours, which is probably because I got too excited to simmer them for the length of time required, but I’m very excited by them. Fortunately every experiment yields something I can use, even if it isn’t what I wanted or expected. Trying to describe the colours has been interesting, as they don’t reproduce on the screen very clearly, and trying to thinks of designs to use them in is quite productive too. I’m thinking sparrows and blue tits, which is sparking ideas for poems as much as embroidery. And I’m fascinated by seeing what happens when you add the iron liquor to the dye pot. It doesn’t just change the colour of the bath, like washing out a paintbrush – the yarn changes almost instantly, like alchemy.

    I’m thinking about translations, as I often do, recklessly, because time is short, and I have too many ideas, but I had a conversation last summer with a friend who translates poems from German, which made me think about translations and transformations, and the gaps between, and what desn’t change. Only now, I have a whole cluster of new images to write about it. When you submit a manuscript you often have a fallow time after it where you don’t write and sometimes wonder if you’ll ever write again; it looks like this fallow time is going to be shorter than I imagined!

  • Colouring the Autumn

    Not quite so big on poetry this week, though the outlines of my ‘red yellow blue’ project are falling into place. The herb beds are getting cleared and rearranged so that plants have more room to spread themselves about. All the plants I have moved seem to be thriving and the violets have even thrown up a few blossoms in this unseasonably mild weather we have had.

    In the space to the right I have planted the first of the dye plants, a bog myrtle, which also has the merit of being an insect repellent, and there is plenty of room for a new rosa gallica officinalis

    as the old one – which was about twenty years old, so probably not going to last much longer – had a lot of problems with rust and throwing up suckers with vicious long thorns that were hell to get out. There will also be dyer’s greenweed and woad, I hope, and madder, which will have to go into pots, as it is seriously invasive in the ground.

    The greenhouse is clean and tidy – I don’t know when it ever looked so tidy –

    and the more tender plants are going in for the winter. There are still bulbs to plant, and then the indoor work will begin.

    There will be a serious amount of research going on; I have Wild Colour by Jenny Dean for the practical stuff, and The Colour Cauldron:The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland by Su Grierson for the historical references. Oddly, though it was written and published in Scotland, I’ve had to import it from the USA, but is a fascinating record of the many plants, both local and imported, used in Scotland. In a very satisfactory development, some of the worst weeds in my garden can be used this way – horsetail and nettle for yellow, and ivy for greys and dark olive greens. If I could find a use for ground elder, I’d be sorted! And I have scored a copy of the iconic The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker for a take on the place textile art has had in the lives of women through the ages.

    And this week, I’ll be trying the first dyes, using acorns, cherry bark and ivy all gathered from the territory, which has given me a new awareness of what is happening in the landscape around me, and some different ways of interacting and creating a homage to my home place.

Latest Posts

Blog Categories

Archives by Date


Tag Cloud

admin arts birds Burnedthumb charm of 9 herbs Charm of Nine Herbs Colin Will Cora Greenhill dark mountain Double Bill editing eurydice rising Expressing the Earth family fiction garden gardening Geopoetics Gillian Clarke haggards herbs home Interlitq Jim Carruth Kenneth White knot garden newsletter Norman Bissell Northwords Now photography poetry reading Red Squirrel Press review Sally Evans Scottish Poetry Library seeds Stanza the place of the fire The Territory of Rain The Well of the Moon walking the territory Wherever We Live Now William Bonar writing