The dyeing process
Throughout the growing season, Paula and her assistant Anna spend two days a week making up the dye and dyeing the silk. It is a long process, which starts with gathering the raw materials. This can be as simple as picking berries from the garden, or as difficult as paddling the canoe to the flag irises, digging them out and cleaning them. “When we moved here, there was a single patch, but over the years, I’ve taken the fleshy green seedheads and spread them around the shallow areas of the pond, so we now have six or seven patches.” When making dye from the iris root, the soil is washed off outside before the root is chopped up and added to a large saucepan of water to boil for an hour. “To an extent, it doesn’t matter if there’s a bit of soil in the mix, as this won’t set when the silk has been dyed,” explains Paula. After an hour’s ‘cooking’, the mixture is strained through a colander and the liquid set aside to cool. Next, a square of silk, which has been cut on the bias from a roll, is lowered into the pan until it is covered. The pan is gently heated for a few minutes, then allowed to cool. Some dye and fabric combinations can require a mordant, a fixative that allows the dye molecules to bind to the fibre. A mordant can also brighten or darken the colour of a dye and make it colourfast. Once the pan has cooled, the silk is hung to dry on the old kitchen maid pulley airer. “It’s important not to dry it outdoors, as the sunlight affects the finish,” says Paula. “Flag iris root makes a wonderful creamy-coloured dye. It’s one of our most popular colours, although every time I use it, it’s different. No two batches can be guaranteed to be exactly the same. It takes a while to learn how to adjust the mix to get the colour you want. Iron, in the form of ferrous sulphate crystals, darkens colours; salt and bicarbonate of soda change the pH balance, which will have an effect on the colour.”
Making the ribbon
Paula and Anna iron the silk squares before cutting them into ribbons with a rotary blade and repeating the ironing process. They make three different widths of ribbon: 2cm, 5cm and 8cm, and each strip is wound onto Paula’s handmade dowel rods. These are made from sustainable Scottish woodland sources and hand-sanded by Paula. To attach the ribbon to the rods, the end is slightly moistened to make it stick to the wood. The ribbon is then wound by hand and secured by a label made of supplied handmade paper, which features petals from her flowers. “This is a popular month for weddings, and one of my busiest. The lupins are at their very best right now, and I enjoy seeing them every day. I can’t imagine having a job I could enjoy more than this one, but even more so at this time of year.”
Flag irises are dug out with their roots intact and wheeled back to the workshop. The roots are then chopped up and cleaned before boiling in a saucepan to release the dye.