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Stoics and Snowflakes

This is a reworking of a post from a few years ago. Sometimes it’s good to revisit and re-do things…..

For over 2 decades November has been my darkest month. November is haunted by my past so when the inevitable gloom descends on me in late autumn I slip easily into my November melancholia. As the colours fade to grey outside I view my life through an achromatic filter for several weeks until the saturation levels are turned up again by mid December. But this year I have been determined to redefine my November mood and I’ve done it with a little help from the Stoic philosophers.

The 3rd Thursday in November is World Philosophy Day (yes I realise I’m a week late but stay with me on this one.) so what better excuse to start enjoying November again?

I LOVE a bit of philosophy. Rummaging around in other people’s heads is one of my favourite activities and whilst the past can never be re-written, perceptions can change. Past events can be accepted and acceptance can, with a little work, be moulded into amor fati; not just the acceptance of fate  – but the love of it.

As the Greek Goddess of Fate, Clotho, spins the thread of our own lives we can either complain that it’s not good enough or we can accept it and love it for all it’s flaws.

“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will – then your life will flow well.” Epictetus

So that’s basically; some things in life just can’t be changed and therefore, aren’t worth worrying about. So stop worrying.

21st Century Stoics are a tribe growing in numbers, particularly among millennials and the so called Snowflake Generation and I love that the generation labled as flaky, over sensitive and unable to cope with views other than their own are embracing this wisdom.

Winter comes every year. That never changes. The melancholia of early winter brings with it the promise of icy beauty, shimmering landscapes and the anticipation of those first, exquisitely formed snowflakes……

In a cloud, a water droplet freezes and takes on a six fold crystalline formation. It shoots out six radials and starts to travel through the cloud. As it travels it bumps into other particles, it moves through different temperatures and humidity’s continuously melting and reforming into complex asymmetrical shapes.

The radials, or arms, each form independently and most snowflakes are visibly irregular; it is estimated that less than 0.01% of snowflakes are perfectly symmetrical. In contrast, it is almost impossible to find an image of an asymmetrical snowflake. It seems that even a snowflake can’t escape our prejudice against perceived imperfection – regular ones look nicer in photos.

It is well documented that it is almost impossible to find two identical snowflakes. In the late 19th century Wilson Alwyn Bently  searched for two icy twins as he documented images of over 5000 snowflakes, captured under a microscope. Snowflakes Images from Snowflake

There is something very compelling about the imperfect uniqueness of a single snowflake that makes it the perfect motif for home-made Christmas decorations, and the starting point for a new crochet project. Paper cutting is perhaps, unlike bronze sculpture, abstract expressionism and landscape painting, not perceived to be a proper, grown up, artistic endeavour.

So here’s my advise, if you are on the receiving end of withering looks, patronising glances and quiet tutting when you pick up your paper scissors, consider what Henry Matisse, Rob Ryan or Tord Boontje might have to say, then snip away and watch the confetti fall. Paper Cut Art Image 1. Image 2. Image 3

How To Make a Paper Cut-Out Snow Flake.

I used large A3 sized sheets of paper, but A4 sized printer paper would be fine. First fold in half lengthwise and mark the central point on the folded edge with a small crease. With the folded edge at the bottom fold both edges in so that they are overlapping (see photos) and your paper is folded into 3 equal potions. paper cut snowflake Fold again bringing all the folded edges together. Crease well. Cut off the untidy bits at the top of your folded ‘dart’.

Now draw your design on the paper. This might take some planning. The most important thing is that your design touches both folded edges and also runs continuously from top to bottom. It might help to shade in the areas you are going to cut away. paper cut snowflake 2 Then snip with a sharp pair of scissors (I used nail scissors) and unfold. paper cut snowflake 3 Give it  a press – and your done! I have to admit to getting rather obsessed by the paper cutting. paper cut snowflakes paper cut out snowflakes  crochet snowflakes Oh – and if you prefer to crochet your Christmas decorations you’ll find a sweet little snowflake pattern in my latest newsletter – you can register here:  The Mercerie Post

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How to be a Creative Genius (yes – really!)

How to be a creative genius

“Are you coming out to play?”

When was the last time anyone asked you that? I’m guessing it was some time ago, when you were very young.

This question is usually delivered by someone with grubby hands and bruised legs. It isn’t a formal invitation or a loaded question. It isn’t a double entendre or open for interpretation. It’s only ever a direct, uncomplicated invitation to escape to another place. A place where you can poke things, play with things, try things on, try things out, observe, join in, succeed gloriously, fail abysmally  and discover things about yourself, other people, and the world.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of play rather a lot recently and I’m curious to  know if our own childhood play activities have something to teach us as adults.

Can you remember how you used to play as a child? And can you remember how it felt?

As a child my play often involved me role playing a fugitive staked out in the woods surviving on stinging nettles and acorns with a rifle made of sticks strapped to my hip. It was a shapeless narrative, punctuated by trips home for tea and episodes of Blue Peter, but it felt exciting, empowering and uninhibited.

Other times I’d be a gypsy living on my own in my small but exquisite caravan fashioned from a wobbly wooden clothes horse and the sheets I’d pulled off the washing line.

I always played an outsider, and I liked the way it felt.

Play is all about escapism. During play you can wander aimlessly into new, imaginative places in a parallel universe inhabited by alternative versions of yourself. But those imagined spaces  aren’t easy to access as an adult – a virtual reality headset won’t take you there, it requires a much more proactive approach and you need to leave behind all the people and things that keep you bound to convention.

Convention is that thing that monitors your thoughts and actions. It’s constantly editing and curating your life so that it fits a familiar and acceptable aesthetic.

In the land of imaginative play there are no conventions. The main stream diverges as we dig out new tributaries – just for the sheer pleasure of getting our hands dirty and watching how, and where, the water flows.

So when did you stop your childish play?

Probably, like me, by the time you became a teenager, when hyper self awareness kicked in and you learned a new set of rules designed to help you function in an adult world.  When you learned the value of ‘cool’

‘Coolness’  (replace with any alternative fashionable lexicon) is a currency much in demand when you’re a young adult. It grants you entry into a world where all the tributaries you dug as a child are judged and critiqued, then refined and re-routed to converge with other peoples to create the main stream along which you’re likely to be carried for the rest of your days.

It’s hard work not being cool. It’s hard work swimming against the stream that will become a tidal wave by the time you’re fully grown.

The artist Grayson Perry talks a lot about the importance of imaginative play and avoiding the mainstream. He says;

” Coolness is a form of orthodoxy, it’s a set of rules already coalesced around something. Being uncool is a powerful creative force”

So it’s no surprise that children, with their untamed imaginations and uninhibited play,  are the most powerful creative force. It’s a fact.

There’s a much discussed ‘creativity test’ that was carried out in the late 1960’s by the scientist George Land who, in 1965 had founded a research and consulting institute to study the enhancement of creative performance.

NASA had approached Land to develop a test that would help them select the most innovative engineers and scientists to work with them and the test proved to be very successful. Land decided to try the test out on children – with remarkable results. (frustratingly it’s impossible to find any examples of the test papers online…..)

The research study tested the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old. He later re-tested the same children at 10 years, and again at 15 years of age. These are the ‘creativity scores’ he collected with the results being the percentage of people scoring what Land called “Creative Genius Level”

  • At 5 years old: 98%
  • At 10 years old: 30%
  • At 15 years old: 12%
  • Same test given to 280,000 adults (average age of 31): 2%

So, let me get that right…..98% of 5 year olds are a creative genius – and only 2% of adults are?!

What’s going on here?

Isn’t a genius someone born with extraordinary  gifts? Strange and unusual ‘other’ people like Albert Einstein, with a head so full of big ideas there’s no room to remember where you put the house keys.

Land explained the notion of creative genius by describing 2 different types of thinking processes ;

  1.  Convergent Thinking. Where you judge ideas, criticise them, refine them, combine them and improve them, all of which happens in your conscious thought. That’s you re-routing your tributaries so they all meet up with the main stream. A neat and tidy ending.
  2.  Divergent Thinking: Where you imagine new ideas, original ones which are different from what has come before but which may be rough to start with, and which often happens subconsciously. And that’s you, as a child, playfully carving out tributaries and watching as they trickle away from the main stream, making a right old mess and happy as Larry. (as my mother would have said)

Children, it seems, are brilliant at divergent thinking. They are able to let their minds run free, imagine new things and be completely original with no notion of editing, evaluating or visualising of practical application or end result and it’s this ability for divergent thinking that fuels their creativity.

Adults, on the other hand, well we tend to fast track our thoughts to end products or practical solutions , imagining how our ideas might be received or rejected before we’ve given ourselves the chance to fully explore an idea.

We’re there with the buckets of cold water ready to put out the flames before we’ve even seen how beautifully they can burn.

At school we are generally taught to use both kinds of thinking at the same time but Land suggests that people need to split their thinking processes into these two different states in order to work more effectively.

Apparently the team at Facebook can be found playing with Lego during the day, an activity that helps spark creativity and divergent thinking. The result is that employees  can then focus more effectively on the tasks that requires more concentrated, convergent thinking.

So if, as adults, we’ve all forgotten how to be a creative genius, is it possible to relearn these skills?

Seth Godin (the brilliant entrepreneur, writer, thinker, blogger…) believes the answer is yes – and frankly if he thinks the answer is yes, I’ll go with that.

Godin says that it’s the emotional commitment, being prepared to get it wrong, make mistakes, put in the hours, try things out, doing the hard work, again and again and again that will set us on the right track for being a creative genius.

It’s not a genetic lottery, about having the right parents or going to the right school. It’s about separating out those 2 ways of thinking – oh, and a whole heap of tenacity.

If you find yourself looking at other people’s creative work and convincing yourself that you could never do anything like that , here’s what you can do.

  1. Ring the bell for playtime!

Keep your materials of choice at the ready – at all times. Not in a ‘special’ place, but just there – on the table, in a basket, arranged alarmingly all over the living room floor, anywhere so long as you can access them as soon as you get that creative urge.

And then just play – with abandon. Doodle, scribble, write whatever pops into your head, cut things out, stick things down, glue things together (small children spend 50% of their playtime constructing things ) and don’t judge, edit or refine. Try not to fast track to convergent thinking, it doesn’t have to look good – you’re not going to post it on Instagram, and no-one has to like it.

The important thing here is that you’re doing something.

(Creating a new Pinterest board doesn’t count as a creative activity)

  1. OK, settle down now.

When you feel ready you can pull out all that stuff you did, look at it, think about it, fiddle with it, tweak it and maybe start moulding some ideas. If it’s not working for you – go back to play mode, but don’t worry, some projects seem to present themselves fully formed, and others will require patience, discipline and persistence.

I’ve discovered that just the act of playing fuels our inner genius and the really important message is to not confuse convergent and divergent thought processes during playtime.

So are you coming out to play?

We could do some painting, play with some colours and let our inner genius shine.

If you think that sounds like fun, come and join me on my next Colour Workshop at Norfolk Yarn.

Playtime’s always better with friends.

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Making Sense of Colour

Can I ask you a personal question?

How’s your relationship with colour these days?

Does your heart sing, or skip a beat, when you catch a glimpse of an unexpected colour combination? If it does; Hooray! Congratulations….I’m so happy for you!

Or are you in a bit of a rut, indecisive, feeling a little anxious or wishing you could just spice things up a little? If this sounds like you I might just be able to help.

On the surface colour is straightforward enough. Small children don’t worry about such things; for them it’s black and white. You have your favourite colour/s, and the colours that make you go ‘yuk’. Then, like with most things in life, as we grow up things just seem to get more and more complicated.

At school we learn that colour is a scientific phenomena. We are taught about Sir Issac Newton’s Theory of Colour based on the observation of white light refracted through a prism and separating into its component colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

In physics we learn that our whole universe is pulsating with electromagnetic radiation with frequencies that range between thousands of kilometres to a fraction of the size of an atomic nucleus –  and we can only see the waves that are between 0.00038 and 0.00075mm.

That’s a miniscule section of the whole electromagnetic spectrum.

Picture credit.

In biology we learn that the eye is lined with a thin layer called the retina and this hosts the photoreceptors known as rods and cones. It’s the cones that perceive colour and we have around 6 million of them

In art we learn about the hue circle, primary and secondary colours – and how to mix them.

At break time we learn that some colours are ‘cool’ (black – OK, not strictly a colour) and some colours should have stayed in the nursery. (bright green, orange and baby pink mostly)

Then we leave school and as we grow up other forces creep in and begin to shape our perceptions of colour and then, somehow, it’s no longer black and white.

So let’s first consider our sensory perception – we see colour. Right?

Well….yes. But it’s soooooo much more complicated than that.

Until recently our five senses were described by scientists and philosophers in isolation from each other but now neuroscientists believe that this is misleading and that all our ‘real life’ experiences, including how we experience colour, involve multisensory interactions.

Oh, and we don’t have just 5 senses – we have as many as 33 and these include equilibrioception (a sense of balance) kinaesthesia (a sense of movement) nociception (a sense of pain) thermoception (sensing the temperature around us) proprioception (that’s knowing where bits of your body are without looking) and chronoception (a sense of passing time).

I don’t think it’s on the official list but I’d like to add comoedoception – that’s having a sense of humour and the ability to not take yourself too seriously (I made that one up)

Then there are other, non-sensory influences.

These can be explicit or  subliminal and include experiencing something as a social group, (rather than as an individual) and wanting to be ‘on trend’

The Pantone Colour Institute has an influential global reach and presents us annually with the Colour of the Year. If you work in the commercial design industry it’s essential that you are aware of these trends and timing is everything if you’re to be seen to have your finger on the pulse and ride the wave of a fashionable colour.

The creative industries are a powerful force and will use all means of manipulation and brainwashing to ensure you redecorate and replace your capsule wardrobe regularly. Ever wondered why you are suddenly drawn to a colour you’ve loathed in the past? That’s the colour institute doing their job.

Long spells in art school might also corrupt influence your approach to colour. Anyone familiar with the cannons of art academia may be scarred prejudiced by the subtext that colour is superficial/aesthetic/decorative – and not really a serious matter.

I’m guessing that for some of you reading this you are, like me, unconcerned by the fashion police, or this years ‘on trend’ colour – you simply want the freedom and confidence to enjoy working with colour. So for people like us there is really only one issue when it comes to colour, and that’s subjectivity.

Subjectivity is all about YOU – how you perceive colour, what you like, what this colour reminds you of and how it makes you feel.

For us the first rule of colour is: THERE ARE NO RULES!

OK – maybe just a few guidelines.

So – next time you are wrestling with colour – forget what the colour forecasters are saying, don’t worry about what other people might think, experiment with some new  colour combinations and don’t ask yourself “How does this make me look?” ask your inner self  “how does this make me feel?”

If you’d like to spend a day with me exploring colour and creating beautiful colour stories in a ‘hands on’ workshop you might like to join my Colour Workshop at Norfolk Yarn in June.

The day includes:

  • Hands on’ painting sessions enabling you to fully understand, and enjoy, the creation of a colour wheel.
  • Demystifying colour terminology and the relationship between hues.
  • How to generate exciting colour harmonies by following, and breaking, ‘the rules’
  • Creating yarn combinations and unique colour palettes for your textile projects.
  • Understanding the significance of proportion.
  • Insights into the psychology and symbolism surrounding colour.
  • A kick start into your own colour journaling.

I ran one recently and it was great fun, very productive and helped reignite everyone’s passion for colour.

If you can’t join me, but you feel like your relationship with colour needs a little attention, I have a rather fun little activity you might like to try. It’s designed to get you looking more closely, and thinking more subjectively, about colour – and it’s a great way to kick start your colour journaling.

So here we go……

For every colour in the spectrum create a colour story board. That simply means make a collage of pictures that are mainly that colour. Try to use as many different variation of that colour as you can – don’t over think it, or ask yourself whether you ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ the colours. just stick them down.

Next, for each colour, simply list everything you associate with that colour. It might be food, an emotion, a landscape, a smell, a piece of clothing, a favourite auntie…..that’s it.

OK – I’ll get the ball rolling.


Lipstick, blood, apples, tomatoes, anger, passion, bull fighters, nail varnish, Red Army, Red Cross, Red Tent, red shoes, red knickers, FIRE! STOP!

Phodophobia; is a fear of the colour red.


Sunshine, yellow ribbons, submarines, *smiley face, smiley face, sad face*, custard, egg yokes, baby chicks, scaredy cat…. jaundice…er, lets stop there.

Xanthophobia is a fear of the colour yellow.


GO! My favourite colour (as everyone under the age of 10 knows – you MUST have a favourite colour by which you will be judged) chlorophyll, new shoots, eco warriors, naive, green tea, jealousy, sea sick, green cross code, my favourite charity shop cardigan that I literally loved to pieces and couldn’t bear to get rid of, pool tables, the green green grass of home, Greensleeves, the dress they always put the red head in…..

Chlorophobia is a fear of the colour green


Steady now… loyalty, precaution, my horrible school uniform, any uniform, big sky, oceans, blue moon, blue movies, big blue eyes, forget-me-nots, the blues, baby blues, black and blue, flashing lights and sirens, another uniform….ello, ello, ello….what’s giong on here then??

Cyanophobia is a fear of the colour blue

The Colour Purple, velvet Jackets from the 1960’s and 70’s, purple hearts, parma violets, purple haze, purple rain, the Biba lipstick I bought in 1979, my childhood bedroom, royalty, Victoriana, mystics, lavender, residential homes for elderly people.
Porphyrophobia is a fear of the colour purple. (I think I may be borderline)


Sherbet, Brighton rock, fluffy mohair jumper (mine in 1982) ballerina’s, pink ribbons, in the pink…..OK. I’m bored with pink. And I can’t find a word for the fear of pink. Does that mean it’s the least scary colour??

By the end of this activity you may have rediscovered colours you’d forgotten about, found colours that make you happy, or simply reminded yourself that there’s a whole spectrum out there, pulsating with energy and waiting for you to dive in.


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Homage to the (Granny) Square

“Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir—something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

How many of us imagine a different, more creative life?

How  many people are so caught up in the ties of responsibility that the idea of creating something amazing will only ever be a daydream…..or  at best a ‘one day when…..’ scenario.

We all lead extremely busy lives. Lives that don’t lend themselves to spending even one day in a painting studio. (Oh – the luxury of even having a studio!) So if you find yourself justifying your creative inactivity with excuses about time, space, finances and a whole host of other stuff – keep this in mind;

“great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together”

Vincent Van Gogh.

OK – so I’m not suggesting we should all aspire to be a future ‘great master’ – (and actually even that description sounds very out dated and patriarchal these days)  but if you have that creative urge you really do have a duty to act on it – for your own wellbeing and metal health. In my own experience constantly feeling guilty for not acting on those creative urges results in Netflix binge watching, navel gazing and general self loathing.

I genuinely believe that however busy our lives are there are always some, barely visible, pockets of time that can be put to better use. The key is to locate those moments between the big things in your life. If you can spare 15 minutes a day to scroll through your social media feed, then you can find a few minutes to make one small, exquisitely perfect thing. Like a square. (and you’ll feel much happier afterwards)

Crochet is how I choose to manifest my ideas at this moment in my life. It allows me to make small beautiful colour interactions in those brief 15 minutes I catch in the mornings before the children wake, or as I wait for a pot of potatoes to boil. In 15 minutes I can make a 4 inch square of beauty and lose myself in it. That makes me happy.

And the next day I can make another.

Then another.

Until eventually I’ll have a collection of the most wonderful, colourful content for a bigger, even more beautiful, finished, work of art.

Homage to the (Granny) square blanket course

It’s as simple as that- and you can do it. There’s no big scary blank canvas. No declaration of intention or preparation of resources.

Just sit down, with a hook and some yarn and quietly begin working on the most amazing thing you’ve ever created.

Don’t even tell anyone what you’re doing, you don’t need anyone else’s approval, or permission. This is a conversation between you – and your creative soul.

My latest project; Homage to the (Granny) Square fits this model. It’s a way of working that’s playful, intuitive and achievable by anyone with an ounce of  curiosity, and it pays homage to the artist Joseph Albers and his lifetimes work on the interaction of colour.

Joseph Albers was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century who began his creative life as a crafts man, working with coloured glass; an early indication of his love of colour and optical effects. He saw the craft of stained glass as both a functional medium and as an art form.

Albers worked at the Bauhaus school where he taught glass work and furniture design and later after the closure of the Bauhaus moved to the United States where he became head of painting at  Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and later at Yale University. His students included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Eva Hesse and many other iconic 20th century artists.

In  1949, at the age of 62,  he began painting what was to become over 2000 works of art entitled Homage to the Square and he spent the rest of his life exploring the ‘relativity’ of colour.

These small compositions of squares within squares create unique colour interactions and  provoke different visual effects. He observed how the squares appeared to change according to the colours they were next to; they appeared sometimes brighter, bigger, smaller, static, moving or heavy and in his seminal thesis INTERACTION OF COLOUR he described how colours have their own inherent logic.

Joseph Albers Homage to the Square

Image Credit

When you really understand that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as about color.”

Joseph Albers.

The square was chosen by Albers as a motif for it’s mathematical simplicity and because it has no specific symbolism. It is the most extreme reduction of form, doesn’t feature in nature and therefore can’t be interpreted as representational on any level. (although he later conceded that actually some crystals do form as cubes)

Albers work was an exploration of colour and altered perceptions of colours, but it also highlights the precarious and inconsistent nature of human perception.

“In my color book there is no new theory of color. But, in it, there is a way to learn to see.”

Josef Albers

So….the square; chosen for its simplicity of execution and  absence of symbolism and unnecessary ornamentation.

As an artist, Albers sits in a precarious place. As one of the most important artists in the 2oth century he occupies similar territory to numerous other important modernist male painters. And all the other artists who followed with their educated opinions on aesthetics and the decorative.

His work, however, is rooted in his early years as a craftsman exploring the relationship between function and aesthetics and I am always interested to discover what leads an artist, or crafts person down a specific chosen path.

I like things to be functional. I like things to have a practical purpose in life and I believe in the principle that form follows function. I hate trinkets and unnecessary ornamentation but I love pattern and colour. I have a fear and loathing of the monumental in art preferring careful and respectful use of materials. That’s why I do what I do. I like to make beautiful things that also perform a function.

My Homage to the (Granny) Square project is not intended to be a parody of Albers work, or a commentary on ‘womens work’. It is simply an exploration of colour and colour interaction fuelled by curiosity and the impulse to make. The format is  flexible allowing anyone to use it as the point of departure for a uniquely beautiful, functional, work of art.

The blanket is made using 10 colours of Rowan Felted Tweed yarn; colours carefully chosen for their relationships with each other, and the squares are 3 different sizes, again, each having a relationship with the others.

Every square is different. Each one is carefully considered ( I decided against using random colour arrangements), and some I like more than others. But what’s important to me is that each square has its own unique characteristic and it is unlikely that this blanket will ever be reproduced in exactly the same way.

Beginning in April this year, I will be running a series of Homage to the Granny Square workshops facilitating others as they create their own unique ‘work of art’.  The course is aimed at anyone with basic crochet skills who would like a framework to create in, and the freedom to express themselves in colour.

Homage to the (Granny) Square crochet workshops

“The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust—and those elements are universally accessible.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

So why not invest in those hidden moments of time and join me this year to create your own Homage to the (Granny) Square?

Video by Boo Marshal Photography

At the time of writing this post, there are still some spaces available on this course….nip over here if you’d like to find out more. And if you can’t join me ‘in real life’ keep a look out for the online CAL which will be available later this year. (you can stay in the loop by signing up to my newsletter here).

You might also like these posts: The Real Life Daisy Wrap Crochet-Along and  Folklore Shawl Crochet Along. 

And you can see all the workshops I’m running this Spring/Summer here: Workshops and Events


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Natural Dyes, Collaboration and Story Telling

A natural dye project

Do you find the subject of natural dyeing fascinating – but also a little strange and mysterious?

Unlike the neat little sachets of Dylon they seem to hold a strange alchemy requiring  specialist knowledge that can only be gained through years of experimentation. Not for the likes of us dye dabblers.

I always imagined natural dyeing techniques would entail long walks in the country gathering baskets full of seasonal flowers, berries and other natural dye plants that I would have no means of identifying, followed by careful weighing and preparation of strange archaic substances, and perhaps even the wave of a mystic wand.

Why would anyone in the 21st century even want to boil up handfuls of grubby vegetables just to dye a few grams of wool a rather grubby shade of beige?

I guess the answer is- the magnetic and irresistible power of curiosity. It’s that voice in your head that begins every sentence with;

 “I wonder what would happen if….”

and ends it with;

” no, I can’t package it, sell it, affiliate market it or drop ship it. I just want to do it!”

So as someone prone to curiosity, and with a desire to explore new territory, in September I rather recklessly announced to one of my textile classes that we would be doing a natural dye project this term. And no, I’ve never done it before.

So in this blog post I’ll give you a little insight into how it is possible to create a palette of the most beautiful coloured yarns using simple ‘kitchen sink’ methods – and a class of curious minds.

We worked with plant materials that were easy to find. Some came from our gardens, and kitchens; some came from the supermarket, and the woad was bought online. But none of it was difficult to find.

We had no recipe book, just a vague idea of what we thought might happen.

I should probably also say that, for me, one of the joys of this project was the delight of discovery and the freedom of exploration.  The colours achieved are non repeatable, I can’t predict how colour fast they’ll be and I can’t really explain the chemistry involved.

I can, however, tell you that the process was intriguing, the colours are beautiful and the stories we uncovered about the history of natural dyes were surprising and compelling.

For me the subject of ‘textiles’ has always been the subject of ‘everything’; history, geography, science, art – textiles can be used as the vehicle for navigating a route through all of these things, and the history of natural dyes has much to tell us about….well, pretty much everything.

So this is what we did – and what we learnt along the way.


We started with around 500gms of undyed aran weight wool which we wound into small skeins of about 10gms each.

We washed the skeins in warm soapy water and rinsed them well.

We used Alum (which we bought online) and cream of tartar (which we bought in the supermarket)  to mordant the wool. Mordanting ensures the dye fixes to the fibres.

We allowed 1tsp of allum and 1tsp of cream of tartar for every 100gms of yarn.

Remember, this is my ‘suck it and see’ recipe!

Because we only had large kitchen saucepans to work with we decided to split up into 4 groups at this point. Each group dissolved 3-4 teaspoons of alum, and cream of tartar, in a cup of hot water then added this to a pan containing enough water to cover the skeins and stirred  well to make sure everything was completely dissolved.

Then we added the wet wool to the pan – each group added 12 or 13 skeins. We brought this to simmering and continued to simmer for about an hour. Then we turn off the heat and left it over night.

The next day we were ready to dye. We didn’t rinse the mordanted skeins……and what was left of the mordant bath was disposed of in the sink with lots of running water


The PH level of the dye bath affects the colour of the dye so we experimented with adjusting these levels using vinegar and citric acid to make the dyes more acidic, and washing soda to make the dyes more alkaline. We used litmus papers to test the PH levels and found that generally 1 or 2 teaspoons was enough to significantly change the levels – but also, too much of either additive had a detrimental effect on the handle of the wool.

For each plant material that we used, we made up a neutral dyebath, an acidic bath and an alkaline bath; aiming to achieve three different colour variations from one natural dye source.


We were very kindly donated a huge bag of yellow onion skins and we used these to make our first dyes as I had read that this is the easiest plant material to work with and usually give excellent results.

Working in 3 groups we each filled a pan about one third full of onion skins (no weighing or measuring for us!), filled it about two thirds full of cold water and heated it to boiling point.

We added citric acid to one pan and washing soda to another – the third remained neutral. We let it simmer for about an hour then took it off the heat and left it over night.

The next day the dye baths were strained/sieved to remove the plant material.

This is pretty much what we did to prepare all the natural dyebaths, – we just filled the pans one third full with plant material – chopped up if we thought it necessary.

Relying on kind donations by teachers and parents, and whatever  the students brought in with them that particular day we experimented with a good range of plant and vegetable dyes including……

Yellow onion skin, elderberry, blackberry, sloeberry, plum, red cabbage, horsetail, dahlia.


We added 2 or 3 skeins of wet mordanted wool to each dye bath and brought the temperature up to boiling then allowed the dyebath to simmer for around 40 minutes, gently stirring occasionally, then took it off the heat and left it overnight.

The next day the skeins were removed from the dyebath and rinsed thoroughly. (you could wash the wool at this stage -but we didn’t)

This was the most exciting bit; examining the final results. Did they measure up to our expectations? Were they disappointing? Were they surprising? Did we like the colour? How did the dye bath effect the handle of the wool?

We came to the conclusion that the more acidic dyebaths yielded  pinker/redder tones and the more alkaline the dyebath the more the colour inched towards green.

We also discovered that if you tip about 10 teaspoons of washing soda into a dye bath when instructed to add just one – the result is a nasty weak and scratchy yarn!

So that’s it really – we did this with all the plant materials we collected and achieved the most beautiful collection of colours. Some were surprising; the dahlia flowers produced the most vibrant shade of yellow – a lovely brilliant sunshiny colour. The red cabbage yielded a pretty pink, a lilac and a sage green and the berries all gave up subtle variations on beige and pinky brown


I decided to buy in the woad as I was keen for everyone to experience the magical oxidising process – where the materials change from murky yellow to brilliant blue as they make contact with the oxygen in the air – and I didn’t want to disappoint by using a less ‘tried and tested’ source of woad. I bought ours from here, it came with excellent instructions on how to use it and it didn’t disappoint!

It was easy to use and really did produce the most intense indigo blues that added a depth and richness to our natural dye colour palette.


Throughout the dye process we also learnt about how the history of natural dyes illuminates our history books with stories that date back to Greek legend and span the breadth of the globe.

We learnt why purple was such a coveted colour. None of our experiments produced  strong purple shades and historically this was the most difficult colour to achieve.

For centuries, until the discovery of the first synthetic dye the mucus of a particular Mediterranean sea snail yielded the best bright and colour fast purple dye. But it took 10 000 snails to yield just 1 gram of dyestuff and it was so expensive only the very rich and powerful could afford to wear it. We imagined Cleopatra’s ships with their brilliant purple sails billowing in the wind, and Julius Caesar returning to Rome wearing a vivid violet toga.

Throughout history purple has signified extreme wealth and power. It’s been such a provocative colour that wearing it could even be viewed as high treason with the penalty of death.

We learnt that in Britain, before the introduction of synthetic dyes, our 3 staple dyestuffs were Weld (yellow) Woad (blue) and Madder (red) and these three colours were mixed and overdyed to create a whole spectrum of colours.

Weld is said to produce the most brilliant yellow – and when over dyed with woad it creates the brightest forest green; the green apparently worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. This colour was known as Lincoln Green and it has been immortalised through hundreds of story books and films over the years.

We learnt about woad; our native ‘indigo’ dye which was used by Ancient Britons not only to dye textiles, but to dye whole bodies in preparation for war with the invading Romans. Imagining the fear and confusion ignited by an army of blue Celtic Iceni led by a woman with flaming red hair, we also discovered that the Celts knew a bit about medicine too as woad has natural astringent properties so it served two purposes as they marched in to battle.

Madder was the dye we didn’t get to try – so we are missing a good red from our colour palette. But we did lean that, strictly speaking, the colour yielded by madder is more orange than a true red but the concept – and consequently the word,  orange didn’t exist in Britain until the introduction of oranges  (the fruit). So it seems that a colour can’t exist in our consciousness  until it has been named.


So , after several days of dyeing, and story telling, we had a collection of unique, unrepeatable, extremely beautiful coloured yarns to work with and we started to make  our granny squares. I had already decided that a crochet afghan blanket would be the perfect way to use all those small skeins of coloured yarn.

I love collaborative projects. I love that everyone, whatever their skills or commitment level, is able to contribute what they can. Every small piece represents an individual and the finished work represents the group.

Some of the ‘squares’ were less than square – and required a little ‘help’ to straighten then up. Some were very large, some were a little holey, some were perfectly executed- but they were all inherently charming and I took them home over Christmas to finish piecing them together.

Crochet Blanket with Natural Dyed Wool

This is the finished blanket, it’s been trimmed, blocked and pressed – and I love it!

At first glance it looks like any other conventional crochet granny square blanket, but it is so much more than that. It is a window into the past and a brilliant reminder of the colours our ancestors experienced.

Crochet Blanket made with Plant Dyed Yarns

This blanket is a collection of stories about our past told in full Technicolour and a testament to the collective curious mind.


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On Freedom Fighters, Peace Keepers and Crochet Berets.

The Beret.

Yes, I know it’s a bit of a fashion cliché – but sometimes I rather like clichés. They have a certain old fashioned charm to them that can make a refreshing change to the politicised spin that’s constantly streamed into our lives.

My love of the beret stretches beyond the French stereotype and the image of the romantic artist.

I am fascinated with the beret’s seductive versatility as it’s become the headgear of choice for hundreds of international paramilitary groups. That such a small and innocuous accessory can take on so many different meanings and associations  shows how entrenched an object and it’s signals can become in our psyche.

Fashion is one big glorious mash up; looting from everywhere, stealing from anyone and then brazenly parading it’s booty.

The beret is one mashed up, mixed up accessory to the crime.

With a vague and blurry notion that there are some conventions, the beret plays with the rules; both mocking, and paying homage to freedom fighters, peace keepers,  the armed forces and other organised groups operating around the frayed edges of ‘civilised society’.

So, yes, it may be a cliché and elicit a bit of a giggle from some – but take a look at the organisations that the beret is looting from and you won’t see many of them laughing.

Clockwise from the top:

  • Beyoncé’s backing dancers pay homage to the Black Panthers.
  • Vincent Lappartient for Christian Dior.
  • Marxist revolutionary and international poster boy Che Guevara.

Clockwise from top left:

  • All female group of Guatemalan United Nations peace keepers.
  • Blue beret at Rodarte.
  • The elite Soviet VDV (Air Landing Forces)

Clockwise from top left.

  • An all female  group of Guardian Angels protects women from sexual assault on the New York subway.
  • Red beret at Gucci.
  • The Army of Brunei’s  Special Combat Squadron.

If you’re feeling empowered, inspired – or just fancy doing a spot of crochet – why not come and join us at Norfolk Yarn this Autumn for our Crochet Beret master class? You’ll be in good company.

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From Movie Star Planet Back Down to Earth

Craft Activities for Children

Help! I think my daughter has been abducted by aliens!

What 21st century parent isn’t wearily familiar with the addictive nature of online games for children?

Having finally come to terms with a family members minecraft addiction, another seems to be rearing it’s ugly head. It has huge purple hair, empty black eyes and appears to have an arrow impaled in its head.

This monstrous character is an alien from Movie Star Planet; a truely scary environment. Inhabitants of the planet appear to have had their brains sucked out and they wander about aimlessly spouting mindless banalities to anyone they come across.

Direct action is required.

“This is Earth calling. You are under threat of alien abduction. Please make your way to the dining area for your own safety…….NOW!!!”

I wait for the slap of the laptop closing and observe the entry of a young female with attitude. She rolls her eyes slowly, swishes her high pony tail and makes an exaggerated gesture. (which she hasn’t quite perfected so it looks alarmingly like a nervous twitch)

Let the battle commence.

Here are my 5 suggested activities designed specifically for combating and alleviating the negative effects of Movie Star Planet in preteen girls.

  1. Make a Dream Catcher.

Introduce this activity with an age appropriate conversation about cultural appropriation.

Making Dream Catchers

  1. Make Some Felties

Introduce this with an age appropriate conversation about animal welfare, conservation, and the infantilising effects of adults in onesies.

Making Felties

  1. Arrange a Collection of Rocks, Stones, Pebbles or Crystals

Introduce this activity with an age appropriate contextual conversation about the work of Andy Goldsworthy. (eg. Is it Art? Yes it bloody well is.)

arranging crystals

Goldsworthy image credit

  1. Make a Tent Outside.

Introduce this activity with an age appropriate conversation about temporary dwellings, refugee camps and homelessness. (try not to make her cry)

home made tent


Refugee image credit

5. Bake Some Gingerbread Men

Introduce this activity with an age appropriate argument about who’s going to tidy up the mess.

baking ginger bread men


Any of these activities should help re-ground and acclimatise your child. Normal speech patterns should return, eye rolling should cease and general intelligence and well- being should be restored.

She has returned to earth.

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Choosing Colours for the Trellis Poncho CAL: 4 Things You Can Do To Make the Right Decision.

If you’d like to join me for The Real Life or the Online Trellis Poncho CAL this Autumn your first challenge is deciding on colours!

We’ve all been there at the beginning of a new project. You’re so excited as you enter the yarn shop and feel like a child in a sweet shop salivating at the counter.

You know this is an enjoyable, yet important, decision and you love spending time picking up the wool, feeling its texture and putting groups of colours together.

At first you go with your instinct. Those are your favourite colours and you love them. Then somebody (usually me) pipes up “But what about these? – they’re gorgeous”. So you begin to look at alternatives.

Then a complete stranger joins in with -“Oh, I think you’d look lovely in these colours.”

That’s all it takes to send you into a spiral of confusion, indecision and fear.

  • What if you make the wrong decision and end up making a grotesque parody of the vision you had in mind?
  • What if you develop an irrational dislike of your favourite colour halfway through the project?
  • What if that particular colour throws a yellow cast over your complexion and makes you look like you’ve just had a spell in hospital?

Yes; we’ve all been there, and while it’s immensely pleasurable, it’s not easy choosing colours. So I’d like to help you out.

Here are 4 things you can do to make the decision making process easier:

1. Shop in a real wool shop whenever possible.

You simply can’t beat seeing the skeins of yarn in real life, holding them next to each other, and feeling them against your skin. Ask if you can see the yarn in daylight rather than in artificial lighting and don’t be afraid to take your time.

2. Pay attention to your physical responses to the colours.

Try to tune into your physical self as you handle and study the different colour combinations. How do they make you feel? Do they make you feel lighter and excited? Can you feel a glow inside you; do they make you want to touch them? Or do those colours together just feel safe, familiar and static? Decisions are made with the whole of our body, not just our minds, so listen to what your body is telling you. And remember that when excitment is the driving force, fear is always a passenger.

3. Consider the worst case scenario.

So what’s the worst thing that can happen? Well, yes, you could waste hours of your life making something that you’ll never wear or use – and neither will anyone else. But in reality you will probably see that it’s not working way before you finish the thing. Some (but not all) yarn shops may allow you to return any unused balls of wool so it’s a good idea to check this before purchasing. Or you could consider just buying enough of the wool to make up a sample first.

4. Don’t just imagine it – do it!

This means that you make an allowance in your budget for sampling and you work up one or two samples before you make a final decision. Personally, I would never begin a project without sampling first – how else could you possibly know how those colours are going to behave once they get together? A couple of hours actually trying things out before you make the big commitment is well worth the effort.

And if you still can’t decide………in my experience most people have a gut instinct for colour and usually those colours that you picked up before that stranger and I butted in are the right ones. So trust your instincts.

And if, after all of that you still can’t decide I’ve put together some colour combinations for the Trellis Poncho that are available from Norfolk Yarn. Each bundle contains 11 x 50 gram balls of Rowan Felted Tweed and if you sign up to my newsletter I’ll give you a 10% discount code.

HEATHER bundle will contain:

  • 4 x 50gm balls Celadon (green)
  • 5 x 50gm balls Peony (pink)
  • 1 x 50gm ball Mineral (yellow)
  • 1 x 50gm ball Seafarer (dark blue/grey)

CORNFLOWER bundle will contain:

  • 4 x 50gm balls Mineral (yellow)
  • 5 x 50gm balls Maritime (blue)
  • 1 x 50gm ball Clay (pale grey)
  • 1 x 50gm ball Seafarer (dark blue/grey)

BLACKBERRY bundle will contain:

  • 4 x 50gm balls Seafarer (dark blue/grey)
  • 5 x 50gm balls Tawney (dark red/pink)
  • 1 x 50gm ball Mineral (yellow)
  • 1 x 50gm ball Avocado (green)

Well I hope that helps a little – and I just can’t wait to see what colours you choose!

With Love





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A Crochet Poncho, UFO’s and the Zeigarnik Effect

The Crochet Trellis Poncho

I have this thing about endings.

I just can’t bear messy endings and unresolved issues. UFO’s, or Unfinished Objects, haunt me with their incomplete and unformed shapes, and loose ends have to be tied or I think about them incessantly.

For most of my life I just thought this was me, endlessly obsessing and worrying about unfinished business. But it turns out that this is a thing. An actual phenomenon.

It’s called the “Zeigarnik Effect”

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist who, in the 1920’s conducted a series of tests where subjects were asked to complete a sequence of tasks, some of which were interrupted and consequently left unfinished. When asked to recall the details of the tasks the subjects were able to remember twice as much information about the unfinished tasks than those they completed, concluding that completion leads to forgetting.

Subsequent tests have been carried out by other psychologists and the general opinion is that;

Your mind is more likely to remember, and keep returning to, an unfinished task.

So the unresolved preys on your mind – it’s a scientific fact which explains why I get so edgy and slightly neurotic when I have too many UFO’s cluttering up my house, and my brain.

There was one project in particular that nagged away at me for quite some time. A project that was slow to develop, in a kind of stop, start, rewind, unwind kind of a way. Some of you may have witnessed the development of this project and read my premature exclamations; “It’s nearly done!” and “it’s coming soon”  and then, like me, reached the conclusion that actually it’s not at all done and possibly might never be.

But I was sooooo close. I made two versions, did the photoshoot and  nearly finished the pattern. Something was just stopping me from shipping this one.

Then, just as it really was almost ready, disaster struck.

A nasty virus wiped out all my projects in development, and with it, hundreds of hours of work.

Potentially this was catastrophic and my slow rolling, ongoing, never ending project was the main casualty. I was devastated and just couldn’t stop thinking about what I had lost. Somehow to lose an unfinished project seems so much more tragic than losing something complete.

But, I listened to those recurring thoughts until they drove me nearly insane and I made a decision to either close the book or take direct action.

I decided to take action.

Sometimes in life you just need to wipe the slate clean, and start again. So I started again with a determination to follow through and make it even better than it was before – and it is, and I’m finally happy with it. But without the incessant nagging of the Zeigarnik Effect I could easily have left this end dangling.

Now it’s done I’d like to share the results with you in my Autumn online Crochet Along which you can join here.

Or you can join in the Real Life Crochet Along this Autumn at Norfolk Yarn, in Norwich, and I can help you create your own beautiful version in lovely Rowan Felted Tweed.

So what UFO’s are keeping you awake at night? And isn’t it time to make a decision and either close the book – or take action and follow through?

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Folklore Shawl Crochet-Along

“Creativity is contagious, pass it on.”

    Albert Einstein      


Earlier this year I was delighted to run another ‘real life’ crochet-along at Norfolk Yarn in the Lanes, Norwich.

Over the course of 3 months we met up to work on our own versions of The Folklore Shawl and the results were just beautiful. The design can be made using any brand of DK weight yarn but we chose to use Yarn Stories DK Merino because we all agreed that the colour range was perfect for this project.

As always, the first class was really exciting as we spent time selecting colours and working on our own, individual, colour palettes. It’s always such a pleasure helping people do this; the challenge is to gently poke someone out of their comfort zone and into their creative zone. Comfort gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling but being inspired, and  truely creative, gives you a buzz that makes your heart sing.

The investment of hours and hours of labour (even if it is a ‘labour of love’) does require a sprinkling of faith that the colours you have chosen are ‘right’ – but this is where the magic lies. You try to visualise the finished result but it’s not until the work begins to reveal itself that you see it’s ‘true colours’ and begin to know your creation.

It is a priviledge to work with people that have this faith; they trust their decisions and follow through.

Here are some glimpses of the amazing work produced by a group of  inspirational people.


The real Life Folklore Shawl CAL

If you love these as much as I do you might like to join me for my next real life CAL at Norfolk Yarn this Autumn. We will be making my latest design; the lovely Crochet Trellis Poncho using Rowan Felted Tweed.

But if you live too far away to join us why not join in the online Trellis Poncho CAL

And if you’d like to stay in the loop you can subscribe to my lovely little newsletter.

with love.

Sue x

Lifestyle photography by Boo Marshall Photography

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