Woolly and ragged

… or I could call this a right old Rag Bag. I remember we had a rag bag at home, in the 1960s. I think it was an old pillow case, but gigantic,  filled with bits of material, ripped sleeves and worn out clothes. It was a great big bundling thing that lived at the bottom of the airing cupboard and never really delivered anything useful. My mum dragged it out sometimes, no doubt with a task in mind, and the contents were all pulled out, sorted through, recognised and remembered again, and then stuffed back in. Great game.

So think of this post as a pillow case, a sort of eclectic blogging which is another way of saying – hey, anyone wanna look at my holiday pics?

First up – a quick visit to the Alhambra in Granada. Amidst all the splendours of palace and garden we stumbled upon what was probably the mop and bucket cupboard, a small space leading nowhere. The ordered blues and greens of the wall tiles have that beautiful random quality which gardeners and designers always strive for, but is actually really hard to achieve. The patched area in the middle is intriguing, done by an apprentice or a renegade labourer?

I love the regularity of these geometric patterns. And yet both surfaces, with their subtle blend of colours and soft textures, manage to transcend the colouring book mentality. There is order, but there is also an artisan’s personal selection, a decision maker who has stamped these places with his mark.

And then, as if imbued with Moorish magic, wondering about life in the 15th Century and wandering the cobbled streets of the Albaicin, we have indeed tumbled back in time, to a quasi medieval Europe where the men wear very warm woollen gear and sport large cosy hats – and the market doth sell quantities of vintage fabric and old tin baths. Only joking – it’s a scene from Game of Thrones

Next stop Oxford for a few days, lots of culture and colleges and celebrations – and cycling in the heat to the Tandem Festival

This was such a lovely festival and we were blessed by the wonderful hot weather, pints of local cider, wonderful vegan food, great music and an atmosphere that was utterly relaxing.

I have never experienced such a blissful night under canvas, snoozing in a wild flower meadow while the bands played on, my only challenge during the night being a couple of trips to the long-drop toilets.

There were lots of other people there too. And bikes of course.

Back in Oxford we headed out to Wolvercote Cemetery where our cousin Bridget Crampton is buried. What does one do at a cemetery – say hello, remember happy times, think of family? All of those of course, but it’s also helpful if one can recall where the burial took place. We meandered about for an hour and decided a return trip was in order preferably when the sexton was around, then waved goodbye and set off for the pub.

Enough of this gallivanting and back home the weld crop is taking over the garden. Coincidentally weld is a medieval plant – and has been used for centuries to obtain a yellow dye for fabric and cloth.

It’s all very well growing plants that have been around for hundreds of years but I am clueless here. Reading up about dyeing online has been intriguing but confusing.

What I want to make is this bodice as presented by the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex. The museum has a great film about dyeing with madder. And there is a link here with another excellent film made by the historic clothing project  which is all about researching and making historically accurate working clothes. Loads of sewing in this clip too! It’s so interesting to hear about working clothing of the poor rather than silken finery of the privileged few. The Weald and Downland is such a wonderful museum and is well worth a detour if you’re ever in the Sussex area.

Image result for weald and downland costume

Really I want to go back in time, to be this woman dressed in yards of linen and live hand to mouth from the garden. So after too much deliberation I decided to chop up some of the multitudinous plants and see what happened. It was a bit like making soup but without the appetising smell. I don’t think it is toxic.

I simmered tons of this stuff for a couple of hours then after it had cooled I dropped in two pieces of cloth, one cotton, one linen, and left it overnight. In the garden. I think the technical term might be ‘steeping’.

The result is definitely yellow.

Here are the pieces after drying and ironing. Indoor and outdoor shots. The outdoor one, on the right, is most accurate; the fabric is the colour of chamois leather.

Finally back to the sewing room with my trusty Friday group. They were very polite about the furniture rearrangement.

Right that’s it. Time to put these scraps back into the sack in the airing cupboard and publish this post. And I am reminded of a strange poem I wrote, when I was struggling with some writing, and felt it would be so much easier to be sewing instead.


Writing a Shirt

Shake out instead a length of linen

cut from a cumbersome roll


spread it smooth along the table,

the print arrows of tissue pattern


lying with the straight grain of fabric

and then stitch together order


planned like maths in a gingham apron.

That would surely be easier –


yet any garment sewn by these hands

betrays the mark of maker,


bespoke dropped shoulder, discrete

lengthening of body and sleeves;


even so, I would rather write a shirt

and stitch a hidden label tight into its nape.



Filed under Alhambra, costume, Dyeing with Weld, Granada, Historic Clothing Project, Poetry, Sewing at Damgate, Tandem Festival, Uncategorized, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

16 responses to “Woolly and ragged

  1. Margaret Faherty

    Loved it, beautiful description of the tiles, and your trip to Oxford

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you are a fan of the Weald & Downland. It is just up the road from us. The new Gateway project is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Found the section on weld dyeing particularly interesting …hope you try some more natural dyes at some point and tell us about it

    Liked by 1 person

  4. love your work with the natural dyes – I keep saying ‘must try that etc’ but have yet to – and I have so much white linen trousers from the charity shop (its like i am trying to corner the market)….. hope you do some more! (the colours from madder are gorgeous and love that name) I managed to offload some of my rag bag to a teen sewing camp where we made flower broaches…. I was happy to see the scraps being useful and the teens leaning to sew

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much. I too have said – must try that – for decades now. There is something mysterious about the secrets of plants, potions and old wisdom that you can’t quite get from a book. Definitely having a go has made the process feel better – onwards with madder! Yeah, great word.


  6. Richard

    Fab stuff – been on a journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Enjoyed the holiday snaps and chat, and love the look of the museum. You’re, and I’m sure you know, so lucky you had good weather for nights under the stars!!
    I enjoy reading about the experiments of natural dye processes, but it’s not something I’ve been tempted to try. I follow an instagramer @myrtlesweet if you want to look her up, and it’s fascinating to see what she produces and experiments with. What I love about these processes is Why? Why did someone think about trying it in the first place?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved this, a beautiful collection of thoughts and pictures sewn together!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My mother kept a rag bag too, and it sounds just like your family’s – scraps of any semi-useful fabric stuffed in an old pillowcase hanging from the inside of the hot water cupboard – I forgot all about it until you mentioned it! But I do save old sheets and towels for cleaning, nuggeting shoes, etc, so the influence is still there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great to think that rag bags are found the world over – also that they are kept in the hot water cupboard! And what a lovely word ‘nuggeting’ – I’ve never heard that before. But it sums up polishing brown shoes, which my mum used to describe as ‘conker bright’.


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