The Knitter's City: Glasgow with Julia Billings of Woollen Flower
Pack your bags for the next installment of the Knitter's City! This time we're exploring Glasgow with Julia Billings.
Under the moniker Woollenflower, you'll find Julia busy knitting, teaching, and creating her range of machine knit woollen accessories and sewing project bags made from worn-out Harris tweed jackets. She's also a keen horticulturist and natural dyer, and with the theme of our most recent Issue 18, it's the perfect occasion for a Knitter's City natural dye special! So grab your trug and let's see where Julia recommends...
With a flourishing and diverse creative community, combined with its close proximity to the Scottish Highlands and Borders and a sense of confidence to get stuck in and make with what is at hand, Glasgow has much to offer the natural dyer! Although winters are colder here than in my native Melbourne, it rarely dips below zero for long and so the climate supports a great variety of plant species and allows dyers to get out exploring and collecting material over most of the year.
The very first stop on a dyer’s trip to the city has to be the Glasgow Botanics. The gardens are an easy forty-minute walk or a ten-minute bus trip from downtown Glasgow, right at the top of Byres Road in the west end (a fun area to visit for its cafes and restaurants). Tucked away at the western end is the herb garden, an area dedicated to all kinds of herbaceous plants used for food, medicine, perfumery and dyeing and a great resource for learning to find and identify dye plants in the larger landscapes.
Many of the species found here are indigenous to Scotland and Europe or have a long history of use in Scotland; they’re grouped into beds by use but, wandering through the garden, you’ll find a lot of crossover between beds. Perhaps surprisingly to some, many compounds that lend scent or medicinal action to plants are also useful in dyeing and this is especially true of many members of the carrot and mint families, both of which are well represented here.
Dye bed (left)+ lupin (top right) + alchemilla (bottom right)
On the cusp of a good rejuvenation and replenishing of species, the dye bed currently holds a lovely, small collection of traditional dye plants, those species tried and true and widely used around the world. Anyone who’s even scratched the surface of dyeing with plants knows that there are an endless number of plants that give colour but that not all are reliable in their fastness on exposure to light and wear.
The garden’s planners have focused on traditional species that give colour known to last, such as woad (Britain’s only indigo-bearing species and a member of the cabbage family), lady’s bedstraw (coral-red), heather or ling (yellow-green), yellow flag iris (black), rue (red), gorse (gold) and weld, dyer’s greenweed, tansy, dyer’s chamomile, sawwort, meadowsweet and goldenrod (varying shades of yellow). It will be exciting to see how the new species fare in the Scottish weather and how far we can expand the rainbow of dyes available from the bed!
Gorse (top left) + yarrow (top right) + black elder (bottom left) + woad (bottom right)
The greater gardens hold a lot more dye plants. In areas like the arboretum and children’s garden, you can walk through and explore big collections of different species of oak, maple, alder, birch, ash, elms, rowan, willow and fruit trees, all genera (groups of related species) that yield colour, as well as a huge number of perennials and shrubs that are easy to grow and experiment with.
Importantly, most are labelled (though sometimes you need to have a scratch around to find one!) and currently in the works is a complete list of all species growing in the gardens, both of which help with improving identification skills. One of the main purposes of botanic gardens is educational, and both the dye bed and the gardens as a whole are used extensively for learning about dye plants.
The other formal dye garden in Glasgow is the Bellahouston Dye Garden, located by the House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park in southside Glasgow. The House was designed by Glasgow’s most famous architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and incorporates an art gallery and exhibition space, as well as artist's studios, a cafe and venue - a lovely place to spend a few hours! The dye garden itself was established in 2013 by textile designer Kathy Beckett during her time there as artist-in-residence, in part as the framework for a public engagement program ranging from gardening to natural dye techniques and knitting. The garden continues to change and develop, with the aim to provide a sustainable resource for exploring the possibilities for the production of environmentally friendly pigments and dyes.
Both of these gardens are used for education but are not places to gather material for your dyepots. Luckily Glasgow has a huge amount of public space! Although Scotland’s largest urban area, it is home to more than 90 parks and gardens - more green spaces per capita than any other European city - the Gaelic translation for Glasgow is ‘dear green place’. While probably an allusion to the city’s location within a larger area of great natural beauty, it does feel true of the city as a whole - you are never far from a patch of green, even in the more deprived areas of town. Because of its history of hard industry and the poverty and philanthropy connected with that, Glaswegians have long valued and fought fiercely for their green spaces.
There are sports parks (Bellahouston) and beautifully manicured gardens (Victoria Park and Glasgow Green) aplenty but it’s the leafier, wilder ones that yield the most for natural dyers, like Pollok Park, Queens Park, and, on a much smaller scale, the North Kelvin Meadow. At 360 acres, Pollok Park is the largest and incorporates a walled garden, stables, sawmill, wildlife garden, Highland cattle and an art gallery - but most importantly, extensive woodlands where many species of dye plants grow.
So can you collect plants from this kind of green space? Scotland’s right to roam legislation (which allows public access to most land and water) means that anything found growing wild can be picked, as long as it is for your own consumption - think of collecting brambles for a pie or nettles for a spring soup - the same goes for your dyepot. The general rule is to take only 10% of material so that you encourage the plant to thrive (unless you’re collecting weeds such as ragwort or buddleja, in which case, go ahead and dig the whole thing up!) and to check with a park's management before collecting if you’re unsure whether it’s ok.
Nettle + cleavers
If you time your visit to Glasgow carefully, you can take a walk around the beautiful Queens Park with Catriona Gibson, an herbalist who runs free foraging walks with a focus on food and medicine plants. Because of the crossover between these and dye plants, you’ll see plenty of dye species growing in the wilder parts of the park and in large enough quantities to do a bit of harvesting for your dyepot.
Foraging walk + meadowsweet + knapweed
Visiting community gardens and allotments like the Concrete Garden and North Kelvin Meadow will bring you into contact with both traditional dye plants and food scraps that can be used for direct printing onto fabric and compost dyeing. These community ventures help to build bridges between people using plants in a variety of different ways. You’ll also find numerous small neighbourhood guerrilla garden beds on your walks around Glasgow, the guardians of which may be very happy to share their waste with you!
And, of course, there are many other places where you’ll walk right past dye plants if you’re not watching… including derelict building sites, the pathways through the city formed by train lines, walking or bike routes, the canal system linking the east and west coasts, and municipal plantings. Among the other weeds or ornamental plants you can often find huge communities of nettles, elder, willow, buddleja, sticky willy, coreopsis, sumac, dahlia and many more.
One such path, the Kelvinbridge Walkway, actually links the Botanics to Milngavie, an outer suburb of Glasgow that forms the kick-off point for the West Highland Way, which takes the 30000-odd walkers who undertake it each year though 95 miles of incredibly colour-rich woodland, moors and mountains. And, if you’re not up for quite that big a walk, Milgavie also boasts the beautiful Mugdock Wood, an area of old woodlands, lochs and hills full of oak, gorse, birch, bracken, heather, berries and more!
Gorse landscape (left) + mugdock (top right) + drystone wall (bottom right)
A short train trip south of the city will take you to the gates of Chatelherault, along the seat of the Hamilton family and now a public country park with beautiful historic buildings and miles of walking tracks through woodlands, including the Cadzow oaks, a grove of ancient oaks. Standing beneath these twisted old beauties, you’re bound to find a few oak galls to put away in your pocket for a later dyeing session - with care and skill, they’ll create the wonderful shades that Britain was famed for for centuries - all achieved through the use of this particular type of oak.
And, lastly, if you’ve made the unlikely decision to visit Glasgow in the depths of winter and not much is actively growing, you can always find dried dyestuffs - the kinds of things you’d more expect to have in your kitchen cupboards- from green suppliers like Woodland Herbs, Locavore and Roots and Fruits.
In case you feel the need for yarn while you're here, Glasgow also has quite a bit to offer the knitter! My favourite LYS is Queen of Purls in the centre of town on Saltmarket, an interesting area with a chequered history and a great mix of traditional businesses and up-and-coming shops and design studios. Zoe carries a lovely range of commercial yarns, including some great British producers like Jamieson's of Shetland, Ardalanish of Mull and West Yorkshire Spinners, as well as Tukuwool from Finland and her own beautiful hand-dyed range on some really interesting base yarns. There is also a wall dedicated to fibres for spinners and felters and you're always guaranteed to see some incredible shop displays - this woman is seriously talented.
If you're in the west end, do pop into the Yarn Cake for a browse of their delicious teas and in-house baked goods (I always leave smelling like cinnamon!) and yarns, a small but lovely range including Baa Ram Ewe and New Lanark, our own local yarn produced less than an hour away.
And, if you have a few hours, it's well worth the effort to jump on a train out to West Kilbride (otherwise known as Craft Town) where you'll find many studios to visit, most importantly that of Lilith of Old Maiden Aunt! Lilith's dye skills are legend and the subtle richness of all her yarns will make you swoon. Do check the studio opening times before you head out as she's not open every day.
Do say hello if you’re visiting Glasgow and are interested in plant dyes - I’m quite new to the city so am still finding my way around, and I'm always up for a cup of tea and a chat!
Thank you to Julia for guiding us round her city. We hope you take a leaf out of her book and visit some of her recommendations one day!
All photos courtesy of Julia Billings, except Queen in Purls shop image from Queen of Purls, Old Maiden Aunt window by Dave Fraser - many thanks.