In our effort to create a full range of ethical and environmentally sourced yarns, we have spent a long time searching for a company making yarn dyed with plants, or naturally dyed yarn. This is an inherently niche idea, so while there are people out there naturally dying yarn, it was difficult to find someone dying that could also handle the larger scales required to supply orders from yarn shops. We were so excited to meet Jule who came to visit the shop while she was in London attending Pomfest this summer and discover her yarn company, Hey Mama Wolf. Not only does Jule dye all of her yarns naturally, the yarns themselves are also sourced and processed locally to her in Germany, greatly reducing the carbon footprint of the yarn. We have started off with the Sockyarn #04 and kits to do your own natural dying at home.
With all this to consider, we were excited to ask Jule a few questions about Hey Mama Wolf and learn about what goes on behind the scenes.
How long have you been knitting?
When I was about 10 years old we visited my great aunt Agnes and she told me that I needed to learn how to knit. Without further ado she just taught me. I don’t think I had a choice but I enjoyed it very much. First things I knitted were teeny tiny things for my Barbies – scarfs, hats and even mittens. Aunt Agnes was also the one who taught me mending and gave me my first sewing machine.
What inspired you to get into dying and specifically natural dying?
Again I will start with my aunts and my grandma. Aunt Agnes was a garden architect, my grandma has a huge garden and another aunt is a herbalist. My mother often took me for long walks in the woods and the botanical gardens. They all planted the love for plants in me. I was always especially interested in healing plants. I became a textile and surface designer, and when I graduated from art school, I was a freelance knitwear designer. After having our first daughter I started looking for sustainable local yarns. I love natural wool colours very much but what would knitting be without colourful yarns? Two very good friends of mine asked me why don’t I do plant dyeing. I love to explore and I love plants. So these friends were absolutely right. I find great joy in dyeing with plants.
Where and how do you source the dyes that you work with? Can you tell us more about the plant origins?
I started with using only hand gathered plants from walks in Berlin and Brandenburg, leftovers from friends (flowers, onion skins, avocado pits…) and what I got from the local organic market – turmeric, carrot greens, whatever wasn’t suitable for selling anymore. But I knew that I wouldn’t get far with that if HMW wanted to grow. Right now I’m using plant dye extracts that are made by a company nearby in Magdeburg. I was so thrilled when I found out that there is actually a company in Germany who does that. They come as an easy to use powder. The difference between these and chemical dyes is that they are still a natural product and are much more influenced by other parameters – water, weather, mordants, the yarn itself. Every dyer will get different results.
Some colours I prefer to dye with plant matter itself. I try to buy them organically and preferably local grown. I still get stuff from the local market and of course I’m still exploring the colours that surround me, my local dye plants. We live in an old water mill surrounded by nature, so when a tree falls down in a storm I gather the bark and leaves. When tansy and St. John’s Wort are flowering in abundance I will go and gather. Right now I’m very interested in using mushrooms as a dye material. It is a whole different story to plants though, I’ll have to get acquainted to the fungi world.
Do you have a favourite plant to dye with?
Oh yes, many. The first that comes to my mind is birch bark. It smells so good when you cook it and most of the time it makes the most beautiful dusty pinks or golden browns. Then fresh St. John’s Wort flowers. You can dye at least four different colours with it, bright green, golden yellow, orange and maroon. I also find many oak galls on my walks and I love the greys that I can achieve with them.
The fibre for your yarns are all sourced locally to you in northern Germany, can you tell us more about where they come from and how they are made?
Yes, the wool comes from small organic farms in northern and eastern Germany. The farms sometimes only have some sheep to mow the lawn, while others have as many as 200- 300 sheep to produce cheese and meat. I don’t know many of the farmers personally. The wool mill gathers the wool. They sort and scour it (just with plant based soap) and it is then spun. The natural brown wool is from the Frisian milk sheep of my neighbour Anna. She has about 150 sheep and makes the best cheese. Anna is a very inspiring person. She makes everything from the wool of her sheep. Carpets, woven fabric, mattresses and pillows, wall hangings and of course she spins and knits. It is lovely to stand next to her watching the sheep. She can tell a story of every single one of them.
How do you develop a new colour way? Do you start with a specific combination in mind, or is it a happy accident?
In the beginning there was exploring and many happy accidents. Now I can predict the outcome much better. Still natural dyes are always surprising. Some weeks ago I dyed a colour that I often dye, a best seller, a golden yellow with St. John’s Wort. I made two batches at the same time, doing everything absolutely exact according to my recipe. One batch was golden yellow, and one was green. A beautiful green and I would love to dye it again, but I don’t have a clue what went wrong. I can’t even blame the stars, because I made them at the same time. As a textile designer I work pretty much according to the books when developing a shade card. I make a mood board, then think about which plant can give me which colour.
What’s currently on your needles?
Too much. I have the Whinfell sweater of Jenn Steingass from Woods on my needles with my own hand dyed and hand spun yarns. There are mittens for our children with my Rauwerk wool. I’m working on a striped pullover with my #02 yarn. A pair of socks with the Mistletoe pattern by Verena Cohrs. A vest from my #03 yarn. But my favourite project these days is not knitting related. We’re currently renovating our old house and I’m trying to make plant pigments to use in my own wall paint.