Woollenflower is a small natural dye and textile studio, based in Glasgow's east end and run by Australian-born horticulturist and craftsperson, Julia Billings.
With a particular focus on producing yarn and threads for other craftspeople, I hope to facilitate the making of objects that are beautiful, comforting and long-lasting and to expand public perceptions on the range of shades that natural dyes yield.
I also produce periodic collections of knit accessories, made using a hand-operated vintage knitting machine, Scottish yarns in soft, rich and earthy colours and botanically-inspired colourwork motifs, and pouches from wool fabrics reclaimed from worn-out garments, upholsterer’s waste and vintage lengths.
Trained in horticulture and herbal medicine, plants are the guiding principle in my dye practice. There is a strong correlation between the plants used for dyeing and those for traditional medicines (and other human needs) and it is a joy to have the opportunity to view them from many different angles in this way; it only helps to build respect for those we rely on for so many things.
The quality of the shades achieved relies largely on the plants themselves and my knowledge of and relationship with them. Drawing out these complex and varied shades requires patience, ongoing study and joy.
I use traditional immersion techniques to dye; that is, steeping dye material in water in large steel pots, encouraging the slow release of dye compounds over hours and sometimes days. Yarn is then entered into the dyebath and left to absorb the dye overnight, sometimes being dyed in multiple baths to achieve complex shades. I reuse the dye material and dye bath many times; this allows me to achieve a wide range of colours and avoid wasting any precious dye, water and energy.
I’m committed to minimising the amount of resources going into my work, reusing dye and mordant baths until completely exhausted, working with organic indigo vats that are free of harsh chemicals, composting spent dyestuff, sourcing some of my yarns from breeds of sheep whose fleeces would otherwise be viewed as waste and, other than the packaging that raw materials arrive in, eliminating plastics and other synthetic materials from my production chain.
There are many plants that yield dyes and each dyer chooses those that we find around us or feel most affinity with. While acknowledging the place for exotic dyes such as indigo, I feel it is vital to balance the need for diverse and long-lasting colour with the environmental impact of my craft. I rely heavily on the fresh dye material that I collect around Glasgow and Scotland, supplementing with sustainably-sourced dry material from further afield and occasional extracts, such as indigo and logwood.
Dye plants that I like to work with include:
Roots: Madder and rhubarb
Bark and wood: Cutch, logwood and oak
Leaves: Alder, birch, bog myrtle, bramble, comfrey, goldenrod, heather, indigo, nettle, oak and woad
Flowers: Dyer’s coreopsis, goldenrod, tansy
Fruit: Alder, oak, pomegranate and walnut
Lichens: Oakmoss and old man’s beard
I use only non-superwash, minimally-processed wool yarns and currently work with three woolly bases: Shetland 1, a soft, organic laceweight from Welsh producers Garthenor, Polo and Co’s rustic Masgot Fine, a fingering-weight made from the fleeces of three French meat breeds, and Rauwerk, a bouncy, single-farm German Merino DK.
I also dye three more delicate yarns that pick up and display natural dyes quite differently: Whorl, a laceweight kid mohair/ silk blend that works beautifully on its own or carried together with another strand, Twig, a soft but structured light fingering-weight blend of baby alpaca, linen and silk, and Tendril, an incredibly soft and drapey fingering-weight blend of alpaca, silk and cashmere that is perfect warm accessories or fine, fluid garments.
All labels and packaging are biodegradable without plastic coating and orders are wrapped in recycled tissue paper and sent in sturdy, recyclable/ compostable paper mailers. I often reuse packaging that I receive supplies in to send large orders.