It’s funny grey-ish day in London today. The sun keeps playing peek-a-boo and just can’t seem to decide if it’s going to stay out or not! No matter, we’ve got colour galore on the blog today thanks to Helen Reed of The Wool Kitchen. In what is possibly a HUGE occupational hazard, Helen is a local-to-me indie dyer here in London which makes it even harder to resist her wonderful yarns! Read on to learn more about Helen and her growing yarn-dyeing business.
What I really love about The Wool Kitchen and in fact the name of your business is the image it conjures in my mind of you stirring pots of wool at the stove or rinsing skeins in the sink in your kitchen as you dye your beautiful yarns. Is the image in my head really as romantic as that? Tell me about The Wool Kitchen and how you got started.
Yes, I DO dye my yarn in my kitchen! And I do find it romantic too, except maybe for the beginning and end of the process where I turn the kitchen into a studio and then back into a kitchen. It is getting a bit harder now as I’m starting to need access all the time.
Initially I started out as a fibre dyer. I’ve always been interested in spinning and fascinated by the way colours in fibre change as they’re spun up, and again when knit. In my background I’ve always been involved with colour – theatre design, make-up artist, and so on. Colour just fascinates me.
With the introduction of small people in my life I was working as a receptionist but just really bored and not all that fulfilled in my work. I was really missing doing something creative. Friends who saw me knitting said I should be doing dyeing. So I started dyeing fibre but realised very quickly that I wasn’t spinning fast enough to knit it! So from there I moved on to dyeing some yarn.
It was actually my son who inadvertently named the business. He asked me one day why I was always cooking wool in my kitchen! I did think about calling it The Yarn Kitchen but I’m a Northerner and we call yarn wool so it just stuck as The Wool Kitchen.
My business will be two years old this September.
Two years already! That must feel like it’s come about awfully quick!
It’s been a lot of growth, I think because I love to share. I love teaching people how to knit and and I love how free people are about chatting about my colours or asking about how I dye my colours. I suppose as I grow I should maybe be a little more cautious about not giving away any secrets but I’ve had the most incredible experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily had had if I wasn’t open to sharing and chatting about my process. I’ve had amazing contributions made to my yarn dyeing just from conversations I’ve had with people about how a colour is made, or if they’re wanting a custom colour and it leads me to try something new.
My first show was last year’s Pop-Up Marketplace that Yarn in the City put on at Chelsea Old Town Hall. I feel like that really made a difference, getting out there and meeting the people who were buying my yarns.
Speaking of process… there’s so many different styles and ways of dyeing yarn. How would you describe your yarns and your own hand-dyed style?
What I definitely know about my style is that even if it’s variegated, the yarn is all dyed exactly the same way – methodically. For me, the process starts with thinking about what the yarn is going to do when it’s knit. How is it going to change depending on the pattern? Some patterns work better than others for my yarns. This is what is fascinating to me.
I’m not afraid of colour, or of colour clash. I think it can be very important. I want knitting to be exciting and look forward to seeing what is coming up next. So I want yarn to be exciting! It can be especially boring if you’re knitting the same colour over and over again. I need colour stimulation!
There’s a growing market of indie dyers and everyone is different which means that everyone is dyeing differently. That’s really exciting. I think it widens the market instead of it being a competition.
Absolutely! In fact, as you’ve been growing your business you’ve also been collaborating with another indie dyer, Larissa from Travelknitter, as well as designers. Tell us how those partnerships have come about?
The thing with Larissa is that we both live in Walthamstow and are both part of E17 Designers. We’re part of their craft fairs and whatnot. One particular year the organisers were concerned that our stalls were near to each other. We both thought it was ridiculous as our colourways are completely different.
We also attend knitting nights together and are both stocked at Wild & Woolly in Hackney. Through all of that we’ve become closer and it’s been nice to have a colleague to chat with and bounce ideas off of. It’s nice to have encouragement and that we can check in with each other, get opinions, a wider view and so on. Because our styles are very different we don’t see ourselves in competition with each other and so that makes for a nice partnership.
Then applications came up for Edinburgh Yarn Fest last year. It’s quite expensive to get up there, stay over, take up our stock, etc. so we decided to apply together to share the costs. It worked so well and it was like having a yarn buddy! It also made things much calmer in that we could cover each other for lunch, running to the loo, and so on.
The design stuff I’ve been involved with has mostly come via Instagram, such as having my yarn in Simply Crochet magazine, and shows which are huge exposure. Shows are a great way to meet a huge number of people in a short space of time. It’s like gold, really!
There’s a lot of pride with The Wool Kitchen and that you come from Walthamstow, in London. Does that inspire your dyeing? How are you influenced by what is happening around you?
I would say that there are different aspects of my dyeing and sometimes it’s a colour that I see in places, like the edge of a brick or a bobble in someone’s hair and I decide I want to try and translate that colour to yarn. Others come from a name. Like Punch Drunk made me wonder what the colour for the feeling would look like. I’m very interested in how feelings look as colours. I know that sounds kind of surreal but it’s true.
Some of my other colours will come about as I’m experimenting from putting two colours together and then adding a third (or fourth or fifth!) colour to it. So I have a lot of ways of coming at colours.
Do you have a favourite colour or favourite base to dye on?
I don’t dye that many bases. Just three, really. BFL/bamboo 4ply, BFL DK and a merino/silk 4ply. I also have secret fantasties about merino/silk high twist but I’m just not sure yet.
My favourite base is the BFL/bamboo 4ply. I like the fact that it’s still a lofty yarn. I find that some yarns with nylon get kind of flattened but that doesn’t happen with the bamboo. And it has a shine like silk and great drape but then it’s also strong like the nylon. It’s very versatile. I’m obsessed with it.
Punch Drunk is one of my favourites to dye. Also Major Tom. These are faves to work with too. I also LOVE dyeing Ziggy Stardust. It’s my favourite process of dyeing.
Any other exciting things you care to share or that you have planned for the rest of the year?
Just recently in the last week Wild & Woolly started their Summer Solstice Cowl KAL for a cowl by Jane Lithgow and the work that I’ve done with Simply Crochet is due out in August. I’ve also been working on some new colours to launch this September for a new pattern by Anna Maltz that should be coming out at the end of August. And hopefully I’ll be at the Yarnporium in November later this year!
HUGE thanks for Helen for our amazing conversation about colour and The Wool Kitchen!