Interview with Jule from
Hey Mama Wolf

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.

jule hmwHow 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.

kupfer mordantWhat 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.

farbkarte birkeWhere 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.

johannis etsyDo 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.

birkenrinde topfThe 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.

faerberknoeterichHow 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.

muehle herbst 1What’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.

What George Knits – Knitting with Nature

We have a lovely selection of natural dye products, books and yarn in store at Knit with Attitude and this has inspired some natural dying of my own.

I can’t recommend highly enough the two books we stock on natural dying. These make great go to resources on the magic of nature and the variety of colours at your fingertips. The two books we have are ‘The Modern Natural Dyer’ by Kristine Vejar and ‘Botanical Colour at your Fingertips’ by Rebecca Desnos. Not only are these books so stunningly beautiful, but they present themselves in a easy to follow way. Everyone should have a go!

My first attempt at dying was to dye yarn. I chose an un-dyed merino as my base, but any un-dyed yarn we have in store will work for you. Like the white Knit by Numbers KBN55 or the undyed Purl Alpaca Fine and Medium yarns. It does however help if the yarn is in a skein, as this allows the dye to move around the fibre more easily, resulting in a more even colour. Though turning a ball of yarn into a skein can be done by winding it around the back of a dining chair for example, then tying it in places so it doesn’t tangle, then sliding it off. Also to note as I found out later, different yarns can effect the colour, so I would try all sorts.

I dipped in and out of both books for my first attempt, choosing the scouring and mordanting techniques of Kristine Vejar, I prepared my yarn. With that done I flicked through the Rebecca Desnos book for plant inspiration. Botanical Colour at your Finger tips is more of a guide book, where as with the Modern Natural Dyer you learn through fun little projects. So
depending on the way you learn either could work for you.

03

02

For my first dye I decided on using stinging nettles, hoping for a wonderful grassy green. So off I went, armed with some thick gardening gloves and a large plastic bag. I popped to my local woods, where they grow plentifully along the sides of the pathways. I will say as Rebecca Desnos points out, be mindful when foraging, collect weeds and invasive species
first and not in the same area, to not destroy the habitats of the wildlife that live there. Walking around the woods like a madman I collected my nettles and with my bag full and only being stung once, I headed home. With an old pan bought from a charity shop specially for the job, I boiled up my leaves. One thing I will say, boiling nettles does smell very appetising. The whole flat smelt very strongly of nettle tea.

01

04

When strained of the plant matter, I was left with a pot of what looked like a pan of overly stewed brown watery tea. Not disheartened I carried on and in went my prepared yarn. The whole process is like alchemy or witchcraft and I left my yarn bubbling away in its nettle broth. When the allotted time was up I pulled it out and guess what it was green! All be it a very pale shade of green. But it was my green, my first naturally dyed yarn. Its a great feeling having created something that is unique to you and unique to your surroundings. Its from the earth, its nature.

05

As you could well imagine I was excited to knit it up straight away. I chose the Arvia Shawl from Amirisu 13 which champions natural colour and has some interesting articles worth a read.

Intrigued by the dying process and how it might react to different fibres I tried another dye. This time oak galls, which I read historically were used to create inks. So the potential for a dark moody colour really got me excited.

0706Back to the woods I head and like a pig rooting around for truffles, I scour the forest floor for the deformed acorns that are caused by the gall wasp. These boiled up with an intriguing woody smell and the dye pot looked as dark as can be. All good so far. I sieved out the galls and popped in un-dyed merino, a new wool and some mohair and waited for the
results. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting a dark brown but got an olive green with subtlety different shades over the different fibres. The Modern Natural Dyer has a project where you make a shawl out of dyed different fibres and you learn through the process. A pattern for me to try in the future I think.

08

My latest dying attempt and actually what hooked me into The Modern Natural Dyer book, wasn’t a project to dye yarn but to dye fabric. Kristine Vejar takes you through all the steps you need. I chose a natural piece of fabric and prepared it to her instructions. Then went rummaging around my garden for any brightly coloured flowers I could find, luckily I went a
bit overboard with the flower beds this year so there were plenty to choose from. If you don’t have a garden, try a brightly coloured bunch of flowers from the shop. Certain flowers work better than others but its worth a try. I may plant more dye heavy flowers next year as a result of this, like cosmos and marigolds.

09

Boiling up my flowery bundle and then unravelling my finished fabric was pure joy. Some flowers took and some didn’t but the result was beautiful. Like a watercolour painting or an ink blot test. Definitely one to try again.

11

10

If you fancy having a go at dying yourself we also have natural dying kits by Hey Mama Wolf. These have the materials you need to dye fabric or yarn with dried flowers and plants at home. If natural dying doesn’t appeal to you and you love the natural look of plant dyed fibres then try the Hey Mama Wolf sock yarn we stock. They are hand dyed with a dreamy
selection of natural materials. As a result they have a range of colours that are gentle and pleasing to the eye as the natural environment they came from.