Make your own spoons and plant-based dyes at these woodland workshops
- Credit: Richard Allenby-Pratt @thesuffolkproject
“It is so awe-inspiring to find out that so many plants have much more to them that what we see on the surface,” says Fay Jones.
“Stinging nettles are a great example of this. People often view them as a pernicious nuisance, something to be got rid of and yet they are not only a good source of yellow dye, they are highly nutritious food and good for making twine and paper with – aside from being the only larval food plant for some of our favourite garden butterflies like small tortoiseshells and peacocks.”
Fay is known as the Woodland Haberdasher. She has a workshop at Wakelyns organic agroforestry farm, just outside Fressingfield, where she explores the world through the variety of materials it provides – carving spoons out of scraps of waste wood and experimenting with plant dyes to create beautiful and functional objects.
“There are so many varied shapes, textures, colours and patterns,” says Fay.
“It’s very much a case of the more you look, the more you find that amazes you. It can be as small as a dead leaf curled in an unusual way or as large as the pattern of prehistoric trackways that crisscross a whole landscape.
“Influence doesn’t just come from a material point of view either. In an ever fast paced world, craft work offers a slowing down and more natural rhythm to a day.
"You can’t rush, and you can’t knock pieces out like a machine, because you aren’t one. I think you become more attuned to the pace of what is around you, more observant.
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"This year there is a tawny owl sleeping in a tree opposite my workshop, and I used to know it was finishing time in the winter when he used to wake up and do his first ‘twit-woo’ of the day. Now he gets up too late, but for about eight weeks I was running on owl time.
“If you can begin to cultivate a different way of seeing, the world opens up around you like a continually unfolding water lily. The world is truly full of wonder,” she says.
Fay, who grew up near Bury St Edmundsloved art at school and has a background in conservation. She studied at the agricultural Sparsholt College in Hampshire and went on to work for organisations including Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the National Trust.
As well as selling her work at markets, Fay also does creative workshops across Suffolk and Norfolk at venues and events, including Wakelyns, Bradfield Woods, Pakenham Water Mill and Strumpshaw Tree Fair.
Last year she held an exhibition, Anima, at designermakers21 in Diss, featuring works she created while living in Breckland during the coronavirus lockdowns. And one of her spoons has been selected to feature in this year’s Harewood Biennial at Harewood House in Leeds.
Fay describes the way she works as “embracing the wibbly wobbly”.
“I’ve still got spoon one, it’s dreadful,” she laughs. “But there are so many variables to it because of the wood, where the wood has come from. You might have a little log, but until you start splitting it, you don’t know whether the grain’s straight, what the knot holes are like, whether there’s any rot in it. And that’s what keeps it interesting.
“I think it is very heartening that, with a few simple tools and your own energy you can take a raw material and turn it into something splendid.
“Something so typically humdrum as a spoon suddenly becomes much more than just a utensil for moving food about, it becomes little useful work of art, practical and pretty, and all the more so because you made it yourself.
“It’s not a picture on a wall, just to be looked at, it needs to be used. Through wear and age, the wood acquires patina and even more character, enhancing the inherent features of the wood like the grain and knotholes. Wood carving is something that you just get better and better at the more you do it. I must be at around the 650 mark now and I feel I am still learning and improving with each one I make.”
Materials are foraged from Wakelyns, Bradfield Woods (“it’s like the M&S of wood,” she laughs) and sometimes people give her wood from trees that have been cut down in their gardens – and are given first choice from what she makes as a souvenir.
For most spoons Fay uses just a few tools – including a basic whittling knife for shaping the wood and a crook knife and a small curled knife, which is sharp just on one side which is used for carving out the bowl of the spoon.
“I try to just use hand tools as much as possible because I think it helps to give you a better feel for the material and makes the act of making an enjoyable experience in itself. I do tend to give in and use an electric drill though if I am making a lot of buttons,” she says.
“I’ve been lucky with some junk shop finds and have managed to get hold some nice older tools.
“[It’s] Good to know that they are back in use and doing their job again rather than sitting in a shed unloved somewhere.”
Around the same time as Fay started to get into wood carving, she also started experimenting with plant dyeing, at first trying bits of wool from an old unravelled jumper.
“To me they make a natural pairing of crafts,” she says.
“I try to save as much tree bark from my wood carving in the autumn and winter as I can to have for workshops and projects in the summer. It is wonderful to be able to use all parts of the tree for something, minimal waste and maximum appreciation, especially in a medium not obviously connected.
"Having this knowledge means you can do some really interesting projects like make a bag for the spoon and dye it with the bark from the same piece of wood or make a little wall hanging in different shades of a dyestuff and then incorporate wood and sometimes twine from that species as well, like a miniature showcase.”
Fay enjoys working with tree dyes as they contain a range of interesting acids and colourants, which creates a wide range of shades and tones.
“A lot of the non-woody species that are good for dyeing are plants that people often think of as weeds, although I don’t approve of this word, so they are both common and abundant, and easy to access,” says Fay.
“The hedgerow palette lacks the in-your-face brightness of synthetic colours, and even some of the stronger traditional natural dyes like madder and woad,” she continues.
“The colours are typically quite muted and subtle. They can be rich and deep but also cool and pale. Chocolatey and caramel browns comes from trees like walnut, more reddish brown tones from trees with a high tannin content like oak and chestnut, paler tans from hazel. All Prunus trees have some kind of orange hiding in their bark, warm corals and tangerine terracottas.
"For a more foxy orange, using alder is your best bet. Yellows are the biggest group of natural dyes. They all require a mordant, or fixing agent, to make them light and wash fast, and include plants like yarrow, stinging nettles, gorse, silver birch leaves and dandelions. Some more unlikely things also yield a useable colour, like ivy berries and reed heads - although both are purple, both make green.”
Another craft that Fay likes to experiment with is the ancient craft of cordage, or string making, again using fibres that are found in nature.
“Cordage must be one of the oldest crafts, probably somewhere in the timeline near flint knapping and basket making. A simple activity that takes you right back, deep into the Stone Age but that has uses in the here and now as well. It is good to know that I am one of the links in an unbroken chain of string splicers through the ages,” she says.
“It is a very absorbing and mindful activity that becomes quite meditative as you strive to marshal the fibres into a consistent thickness and make a decent continuous length.
"Again, being able to harvest the raw material and be involved with every stage of the process from tree to object is immensely rewarding. It needs no tools, is easy to carry around and can be picked up and put down indefinitely and undertaken anywhere.”
And taking time out to get away from the screens that dominate our lives and connect with nature through being creative is something that Fay recommends that we do regularly.
“Not everybody needs to live in la la craft land like I do, but people sometimes need once a month to go for a big walk and make a spoon or boil up some leaves and put some wool in it and make it go bright yellow.
"I feel very sad when I meet people and they say I’m not creative – of course you are, it just gets suppressed in a lot of people.”
For details of Fay’s workshops see her website thewoodlandhaberdasher.co.uk and wakelyns.co.uk and follow her on Instagram @thewoodlandhaberdasher