It just so happened that immediately before lockdown I temporarily moved from a town-centre flat to housesit for friends in the suburbs. There I was rattling around in a lovely house, with a garden all to myself and just a few minutes away from wonderful walks in the woods and on the Downs.
I’d been wanting to experiment with natural dyes for months, read online posts and books (on long-term lockdown loan from the library) – and felt thoroughly confused by the baffling range of options and instructions. Eventually I just decided to give it a go. At times the dye pots completely took over the hob, and I often ended up having dinner at midnight after the dyeing was done. I experimented with daffodils, nettles, avocado stones and skins, ivy, birch bark, staghorn sumac, hibiscus flowers and pomegranate skins. Oh, and some rhubarb leaves courtesy of my next-door neighbour’s sister! The results varied in intensity but were invariably exciting, yielding beautiful soft colours, especially on wool or mohair yarn. I’ve yet to decide what to do with the fruits of my labour: greetings cards, book covers, maybe glasses cases? They’ll keep me busy over winter, for sure.
Then an offer popped up on my Facebook feed – Foraging in Spring, a lovingly written and beautifully illustrated series of guides about edible plants by Robin Harford.
Wild garlic season was in full swing, and I found a huge patch just ten minutes’ walk from where I was staying. All of a sudden there was an extra purpose to my daily exercise, and off I went with a foraging bag to pick wild garlic leaves, buds, flowers and (a few weeks later) its tastebud-popping seeds. I made pesto, pickled buds, garlic leaf butter and had a go at fermenting as well.
Apart from the fermented stuff (too strong, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it), everything was delicious. I was so excited to discover other plants too, learning and tasting – trying plant ID apps but mostly relying on people’s knowledge and support on various Facebook groups. I discovered a community of foragers and creative cooks, all happy to share their knowledge and experience.
Speaking of community, I also joined the ‘Brighton Area Sewists’, a little gang who sew facemasks. We shared patterns, received mountains of donated fabrics and between us have sewn around 3,000 face coverings (as they now need to be called) for care workers and community volunteers and donated over £2,000 to charity.
Mask-making gets a bit monotonous, so I’ll be glad when I can move on to other things. I’m currently trying to decide what to make from the results of my favourite lockdown discovery, eco-printing. This involves laying out leaves and flowers, soaked in iron- or copper-infused water, on fabric wetted with diluted vinegar, then rolling the fabric around a stick, tying up with string and steaming it for an hour or so. The results are absolutely magical, producing delicate prints especially from tannin-rich leaves such as bramble, sycamore, maple and walnut. My first experiments were on muslin, calico and old cotton sheeting. I have bought some beautiful bamboo silk and wool gauze, which most likely will yield altogether more delicate pieces – once I pluck up the courage to throw caution to the wind and risk ‘ruining’ these more expensive fabrics. I’m thinking scarves, and maybe framing some pieces between two sheets of glass – they are so light and delicate, so would make wonderful wall hangings.
I also made natural skin care (body butter, face cleanser, moisturiser) and beeswax wraps; baked amazing sourdough bread from scratch; and – having promised my hosts that I would look after their garden – did endless weeding. I could say a word or two about green alkanet and bindweed! I sowed and planted vegetables that unfortunately I won’t get to taste – but enjoyed nurturing the seedlings and watching them grow.
I’ve recently moved back to town, and my little flat is full to the brim with all the accoutrements of my lockdown adventures. It’s been fun finding a place for everything, and yet I fear that being back in the old place – without a garden, much less space for making and experimenting and away from the beautiful countryside – it will be much harder to keep creating. Something has shifted and, being right back in buzz of the city, I feel I am losing a bit of myself that I so enjoyed reconnecting with.