Category: arts & crafts

The last glass-eye maker in Britain

Ocularist Jost Haas works only with glass, custom making artificial eyes in front of his patients. As the last maker of glass eyes in Britain, he reflects on a trade that combines intricate craftwork, medical knowledge and psychological support.

Photography by Carmel King and words by Helen Babbs. First published by Wellcome Collection.

The first thing Jost Haas notices when he meets someone new is their eyes. He’s not unusual in this but, where you or I might notice them in a general way, he is noticing finer details. At first glance my eyes are brown. Jost would see that they are also grey-blue and green. I suspect he’d clock the contact lenses, too. As an ocularist – someone who makes artificial eyes – he can tell if an eye is real or not but insists nobody else should be able to: “If it’s a good fit, it’s barely to be seen”.

Jost works exclusively with glass, which is less usual. In fact, he is the last person making glass eyes in the UK. While most people who lose an eye will wear a plastic prosthetic, some choose not to. They might have always worn glass and feel most comfortable with it as a material, or they might have a plastic allergy.

Now in his 80s, Jost became a glassblowing apprentice aged 15. Over the many decades that he’s been making glass eyes, he’s developed close relationships with his patients, who return to see him every three or four years. Their loyalty, and the distances they are willing to travel, are testament to his skill as an ocularist. He’s expecting a patient later, from the north of England, who will have driven for six hours down to London to see him.

The reasons people need artificial eyes have changed, Jost explains: “These days it is less likely to be accidents, because people wear seatbelts, and, because of health and safety, even if you are a decorator you wear safety glasses. At the moment, it’s mainly older people who lose an eye, through cancer, or some other ailment.”

Jost’s way of working seems pretty unique. A patient will sit with him over two or three hours while he custom makes and paints their prothesis in front of them. He will then fit the eye, so the patient can leave with it in place. Jost explains that colour and shape are key, and realism and comfort are his aims. Getting the fit right is the most challenging part of the process.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Jost Haas is where he works. After the six-hour drive, that patient he’s expecting won’t arrive at a hospital in the centre of town or at a smart private studio, but rather at the house where Jost has lived since he moved to the outer edge of London in 1968.

Tucked inside a well-kept but entirely ordinary-looking house, on a cherry tree-lined street in deepest suburbia, Jost’s workspace is a tiny front room, with blank white walls and carpet tiles on the floor. It has two desks in it – one for paperwork, the other littered with eye-making kit, including numerous glass rods and a gas Bunsen burner, which is hooked up to the mains. It’s here that Jost makes protheses while his patients watch and wait in a chair tucked to one side.

Jost explains that the protheses he makes are more than just cosmetic: they offer people protection, both physical and psychological, and he offers “an element of psychological support” as well as an eye-making service.

I ask Jost how he sees himself – as a craftsperson, a medic, something in between? He says medics heal, and so he couldn’t be called that, but he’s happy with craftsperson. He does have a caring role, though, as well as a practical one. For those few hours when they sit in Jost’s office, with the white noise of the gas burner blurring out any other background sound, Jost’s patients have a safe place to talk, or simply to rest. Jost says the burner’s gentle roar will often send people to sleep.

Jost is semi-retired with nobody lined up to succeed him. He seems comfortable with the idea that he’s the last glass-eye maker in Britain, pointing out that there are still plenty of people doing it in other parts of the world, particularly in Germany.

But Jost is keen to share his knowledge, and happily welcomes artists, photographers and writers into his space. He’s recently produced eyes for a sculptor who plans to fix them into his bronzes, as well as agreeing to let a poet watch him work for several hours. “It’s not often I meet a poet!” he says.

Jost seems invigorated by these experiences, ones that will introduce his craft to a wider public. He also points out that the photographs in this essay will give someone all the information they need to get started as a glass-eye maker: “He or she could actually see how the whole thing is done… Perhaps there will be somebody else coming along – you never know.”

The art of scientific glassblowing

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This article was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas SG Farnetti.

Meet Gayle Price, a glassblower whose work for chemists, physicists and medics shows that craft skills and creative thinking are essential to science.

Wearing a knee-length white lab coat and wraparound shades, her long hair clipped back, Gayle Price adjusts the amount of gas and oxygen flowing into her burner. It has the look of a blowtorch, but one fixed in place and with six different outlets. The wavering orange flame that’s shooting out of it becomes fierce blue and sharp as a pin, its dull roar now a hiss.

Holding a 1.5-metre-long glass rod in one hand – hollow, with a 7 mm diameter – and a much shorter, thicker solid metal rod in the other, she starts heating the glass in the flame. As it glows and softens, she begins coiling it evenly around the metal. Her movements are quick but rhythmic. She works by eye alone.

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Gayle hasn’t always worked with glass for a living, but she now can’t see herself doing anything else. She studied photography at school, then trained as a painter and decorator. After that she worked as a bouncer in Glasgow for a couple of years, but found night shifts increasingly tough.

Wondering what to do with her life one day, she saw an advert in the paper for an apprentice scientific glassblower, a scheme run jointly by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. She was intrigued, so applied and got the job, which was based in East Kilbride.

Under the direction of William McCormack – a glassblower who appreciated the importance of passing on his knowledge, nurturing five apprentices before he retired – Gayle cut her teeth making spiral taps for filtering gases, while also studying applied science on day release at college. The instruments she was making reminded her of the ones that often featured in the old horror films she loved watching with her dad.

During her training, Gayle realised that she’d always wanted to work with her hands like this, and that the promise of having her own workshop one day was compelling.

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Step into Gayle’s current workshop at the University of Leicester and the joy of having a room of one’s own in which to work is easy to see. Packed with glassware of all sorts, and the tools required to manipulate it into a multitude of shapes, she’s made this practical basement space immensely personal.

There are posters and postcards all over the walls, and stickers decorating the burners and lathes. Teardrops of glass have peacock feathers trapped inside, glitter-encrusted glass flasks have wings. It’s Gayle’s space, but she’s not in the least bit territorial. She’s more than happy for me to poke around.

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As Gayle works at the burner, a spiral forms in the heat, each twist and turn symmetrical. In her hands, something I think of as rigid and fixed becomes elastic, amorphous. The coil complete, she removes the entwined metal and glass from the flame and places them on a rack to cool. In a few minutes the metal will contract, allowing the glass to slip off easily.

Gayle takes another 1.5-metre length of hollow glass rod. Using a stubby knife with a tungsten carbide blade, she slices into it, leaving a deep scratch in the surface. She snaps the glass along this groove. Slowly spinning a now shorter length of glass between forefinger and thumb, she inserts one end into the burner’s 1,220°C heat.

Surrounded by flame, the end brightens, becomes liquid-looking, and eventually seals off. Despite being far from the flame, the other, still-open end of the rod glows. Instinct tells Gayle when to pull the glass out of the flame and press that orange, open tip to her lips.

I gasp, anticipating seared flesh. She blows, gently at first, then harder. A beautiful bubble grows at the rod’s opposite, softened tip. A perfect sphere, swelling out evenly under her steady breath. The end she blew into was in fact cool; glass is a good insulator and that orange glow just a fibre-optic trick of the light. She places the finished bubble alongside the spiral on the rack.

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Working mainly for the university’s chemistry department, but also for physics and medicine, Gayle makes a mixture of standard and bespoke glass instruments to order, as well as fixing broken glassware from the teaching labs. Glass is an excellent material for scientific equipment: it’s durable, transparent, non-reactive, and easy to sterilise in the oven.

Gayle also collaborates with artists, recently working with a ceramicist and a jewellery designer on two projects for British Science Week. One resulted in delicate fungi-like structures made from white porcelain and clear glass, the other a large sculpture of reindeer lichen, rendered in green and clear glass.

Gayle savoured the chance to work differently, although admits it did feel odd to deliberately introduce flaws. “I usually work to very exacting parameters,” she explains. “It was different to be asked to just explore, to not create something regular. And good to be reminded how beautiful and versatile glass can be.”

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Watching Gayle work, it’s clear that to be a scientific glassblower you need to be a problem-solver, and a logical but creative thinker. You need to be patient, dexterous and able to control your breath. Gayle’s scientific job involves much artistry.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, so when she invites me to have a go, I can’t resist. Putting on her spare set of wraparound shades – these have a special coating that allows you to see the glass more clearly in the flame – I ready myself in front of the burner.

Gayle sets me five tasks: cutting a glass rod, softening a sharp edge, creating a test-tube end, blowing a sphere, and making a bend. All of it is far, far harder than she makes it look, especially the blowing. Getting the glass to bubble out seems impossible at first. Gayle eggs me on – “Blow harder! Harder!” – and eventually I squeeze out a tiny, lopsided sphere. It’s pathetic, but I’m proud.

Watching – but most of all feeling – the glass transform in the flame is fascinating. I now understand more clearly what Gayle means about this everyday material’s elasticity, versatility and beauty.

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I ask Gayle about the places where art and science meet, and whether she would ever consider herself to be an artist or craftsperson. “The intersections between art and science are undeniable,” she says. “Both are about discovery, exploring the unknown, making something new. As a scientific glassblower, I like the freedom to be both a craftsperson and an engineer.”

 

 

 

Intimate and invasive: the art of ethical taxidermy

The Ethical Taxidermist

This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas Farnetti.

Jazmine Miles-Long kneels down to open up the small freezer that sits on her studio floor. Each drawer is filled with clear zip-locked bags, each bag is numbered, and each one has a body in it.

She selects a bag containing a juvenile greenfinch, takes out the skin, and begins washing it in a basin of warm soapy water. A few basins of fresh water later, she places the bird on a clean towel. It’s now sodden, and rather sad with it. Jazmine bends low over her work bench, her blue-gloved hands delicately working through wet feathers with a small brush and some long tweezers. She explains that, although the greenfinch looks like it has feathers sprouting all over its body, they actually grow from specific feather tracts. Large areas of the skin are in fact feather free. It’s this kind of detail that doing taxidermy brings to light.

Jazmine handles the greenfinch skin with the methodical patience of a craftsperson, the cool eye of a surgeon, the enquiring mind of a zoologist, and the reverence of an animal lover. As she works, I ask why contemporary taxidermists take such exception to the word ‘stuffed’? “Because it suggests there’s no process,” she replies.

Process is everything. It’s invasive – if you end up dead on Jazmine’s desk she will quite literally turn you inside out. And it’s intimate – she’ll spend hours poring over your every intricate detail, determined to make you look your best. “People don’t realise how delicate and slow you have to be,” she explains.

Every skin Jazmine works on teaches her more about how strong or light her hands can be. She describes her touch as “knowing”. The finch’s skin is strong when wet, but still delicate, “almost like wet cigarette paper, it’s so thin”. When it dries it will become very fragile. Jazmine admits she’s become desensitised to the blood and guts that are an inevitable part of her work, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by what goes on under the skin. “Wild animals are really lean, with fat in all the right places”, she says, clearly impressed by their efficiency.

The cleaning complete, Jazmine pulls out a hairdryer and begins blow drying the bird. It’s an odd moment: the jets of hot air temporarily animate the skin, bringing it to a strange kind of life. The feathers fluff up and ripple. As well as volume, they start to regain their olive brown-greens, their banana-bright yellows, their soft-soft greys. She lays the dry finch on a towel so I can take a closer look, tummy down, wings spread. It’s the closest I’ve ever been, or probably ever will be, to a greenfinch. The bird’s beak, legs and claws are a delicate shell pink, and its characteristic boxy profile somehow seems more distinct now it’s dry, despite being without flesh. It’s tiny, and very beautiful.

Her demonstration done, Jazmine places the finch in a fresh zip-lock bag, numbers it, then files it away in the freezer. She’s carved a balsa wood body for the bird, and explains how if she was working on a mammal the process of preparing the skin would be different. Rather than washing and cleaning, she would pickle and tan. The insides would be moulded from wood wool, rather than carved from balsa.

But, one of the very first steps, whether working on bird or beast, is always to make a detailed plan. Jazmine does this by drawing around and measuring the animal, positioning it on a sheet of paper how she wants it to look when it’s mounted. The plans she has pinned to her studio walls are stained with blood. She says that making a piece of taxidermy is, for her, about copying the individual in front of her. Every creature is different, and each teaches her new things.

Jazmine studied sculpture, and volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton after university. She fell into taxidermy there, loving it for its variety, and its craft. “It requires so many different skills, and types of making”, she explains. “You have to love animals. It’s a privilege to know more about them. I’ve learned so much from my making, seeing first-hand how a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head, between the skull and the skin, and how a rabbit’s whiskers grow right into its brain.”

It’s an unusual job, and people are generally fascinated when Jazmine tells them what she does for a living. The questions she’s most often asked are: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever worked on? (A cheetah, which died in captivity of cancer, in case you’re wondering. It was the most challenging thing she’s ever worked on, too); Are the eyes real? (No, never); Does the animal have to die in the pose it’s mounted in? (No, of course not). I ask about the smelliest thing she’s worked on, and she says a gannet. Seabirds stink because their stomachs are full of rotting fish.

Jazmine describes herself as an ‘ethical taxidermist’, which is also a conversation starter, because what does that mean? “Ethical is an annoying word”, she says, “but it’s the only way I can communicate about what I’m doing, because it makes people ask questions.” She only works with creatures that have died of natural causes, or by accident, never anything that has been purposely killed. How the finished work is presented, and where it ends up, is important, too. “I say no to a lot of things”, she says, “I’ll only do things that feel respectful. I don’t do trophy heads of any kind.”

Jazmine does do commissions, and her work for the artist Abbas Akhavan features in Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection. The final fox, badger and owl that are on display represent Akhavan’s vision, rather than Jazmine’s, and he was keen to provoke. There are no cases, and no interpretation telling you what you’re looking at, or what you should think. The animals are intended to look what they are: dead. The fact they’ve been placed on the gallery floor has been controversial for some, and proved that taxidermy has the potential to produce an emotional response.

Does Jazmine like the word ‘taxidermy’, which is derived from two Greek words, ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’, and ‘derma’ meaning skin? Together they mean ‘the arrangement of skin’. “I love that word”, she says, while also admitting it’s complicated. “It’s broad, and can include so many things. Through my work I try to make the word have a better meaning.”

Although she accepts that dead animals make some people feel weird, and some will always insist on calling what she does ‘macabre’, Jazmine argues that, in most instances, it must surely be better to interact with a mounted animal that has died naturally, or by accident, than to see a wild animal alive but shut in a cage. Getting up close to an animal helps create a bond, and can open us up to new ideas and experiences.

Jazmine recently mounted a swift for the Booth Museum. In life the swift will likely have arrived in the UK in spring, staying until late July or early August. It will then have migrated through France and Spain to spend its winter in Africa, following the rains, and the insects they bring. In its afterlife the swift and its story are being used to teach kids about refugees and dual identity, as well as bird migration. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger talks about the “universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world.” Jazmine’s swift seems an excellent example of that.

Taxidermy transforms once living things into something very different. The “biological death of the living beast is the birth of the specimen”, as Samuel Alberti says in The Afterlives of Animals. There is of course a difference between how we relate to an animal in its new form, and how we would have done when it was alive. Does arranging nature in this way bring us closer to it, in more than just a physical sense? And could ignoring the person in every piece of taxidermy actually be driving us further apart?

Jazmine points out that when we look at a piece of taxidermy we often just see the animal, rather than acknowledging what it is now, and the relationship between it and its maker. We might wonder what the animal’s life was like, and how it died, but we often ignore the fact so much work and care has gone into creating what it has become after death.

“The craft has developed over such a long time, but it doesn’t have the prestige that others have because we are working with dead animals, and also because of where the work ends up, often presented anonymously with no detail about the maker”, says Jazmine. “A piece of taxidermy is a craft object that’s been made by a person, it’s not just an animal. It’s a partnership with a maker. It’s an animal and an object.”

Making Nature: How we see animals was on at Wellcome Collection until 21 May. A museum of modern nature will open on 21 June. Find out more about Jazmine’s work at jazminemileslong.com.

Gardens Illustrated | nature’s palette

Katelyn Toth Fejel (c) Rachel Warne 01

This feature appears in the June issue of Gardens Illustrated
Photography by Rachel Warne

Dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel hails from America but currently lives in Hackney Wick. As well as acres of urban grit, this part of east London also has a river, the Lee, and a modest tangle of woodland called Wick Woods. In the summer it’s tempting to get a little bit lost in its lushness. Sadly, I meet Katelyn on a day that’s less than perfect.

How many people in the fashion industry aren’t a little bit allergic to rain? Katelyn has excellent couture credentials but constantly craves the outdoors. Persistent drizzle, and the subsequent waterproofs it requires, doesn’t put her off. A walk in Wick Woods with Katelyn, her local dye foraging spot, involves getting down on your hands on knees to peer at things in intimate close up, whatever the weather.

Inspired by permaculture, Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute, works for the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion and helps run an ethical boutique called Here Today, Here Tomorrow. She’s a nature lover and environmentalist as much as she is a designer, and these passions inform and shape her work. “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology, an ecosystem.”

She began experimenting with mail order natural dyes at art school and hasn’t looked back, quickly graduating to ones she makes herself. “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye yourself. With powders you get the same result each time.” She talks of the beauty of creating a dye palette that reflects her local environment, suggesting the blur of colour you might see through a car or train window is likely a similar spread of shades you would get from dye plants sourced in that area.

Katelyn champions species that are abundant but others may see as a nuisance. “I love plants that do many things like nettle – it can be used to make soup or tea, as a fabric and a dye.” A favourite last summer was a container of cut-and-come-again pot marigolds – the flowers are delicious in salads and can also be used as a dye. She has a huge bag of frozen petals in her freezer, ready for brewing into a dye bath when the right project comes along.

Making natural dyes from plants is a lot like cooking – there’s no one way to do it. Bark likes to be cooked long and hot, whereas something light and leafy needs much gentler treatment. To turn the concoction from colourful stew into dye you may need to add a mordant like alum, which helps fix the dye to the fabric. It’s gentle enough that leftover dye can be used to water acid loving plants like blueberry or rhododendron.

Katelyn’s experiments with plants have produced hues of ombre, chestnut, rust, gold, mustard, terracotta, pink, mink and cream. The colours compliment each other and have unusual depths. “Natural dyes, like a Seurat painting, change in different lights,” she says. “They shimmer. It’s almost like an optical illusion. They have a richness and depth that synthetic colours lack.”

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Dock
For Katelyn, dock root is “an unusual blessing”. It may need to be boiled for several hours to release the dye, but the resulting rusty pinks, shimmering golds and autumnal oranges are worth it. In a world dominated by yellows, natural dyers come to prize the reds. Dock works beautifully on silk or wool, and you can achieve many more shades by adding acid or alkali to the dye. A dash of baking soda will bring out a warm terracotta. Dock leaves can be used too – young foliage produces a bright green-yellow, older leaves create more of a mustard.

Cherry
As someone who loves a challenge and embraces the opportunity to experiment, cherry is a favourite of Katelyn. “It’s such a mystery, still. If I had any tree it would be this.” While some people hate the inconsistency of natural dying, she relishes the unknown. The bark from young, fallen branches can produce a dye that ranges from pinks and oranges to greens and golds. The colour achieved depends on the variety of tree and the environmental conditions where it is found, not to mention the fabric you are dying – wool and silk will turn different colours when dipped in the same dye bath.

Birch
The inner bark of the birch tree produces a pretty pink, while the outer bark achieves a paler, subtler shade. The leaves create yellow or olive green. Add iron to the dye bath – Katelyn nurtures rusty nails in jars of water especially for the task – to produce a creamy, purplish grey. A range of special effects are possible with natural dyes and specific techniques can be used to create unusual patterns. For example, Itajime – Japanese wood block clamping – leaves behind un-dyed shapes with haloes around the edge. You can use natural dyes to colour yarn and for screen-printing projects too.

Elder
The bark, leaves and berries of the elder tree can all be used as dyes. The bark creates a delicate metallic colour like the palest pink of the inside of a shell, while the leaves produce tans, greens and golds. The berries can be used to create a fugitive purple stain, which changes over time and eventually washes out. Katelyn welcomes the impermanence – “embrace unpredictably and accept change – dye a dress afresh every season.” Her foraging also embraces the edible and she advises you eat some elder berries too. The ideal plant will colour your cloth and make a meal.

Guardian | the woollen line

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This article was written for the Guardian

It has Prince Charles as its patron and a recent show at Somerset House celebrated its sense of style, but could wool have a future as a conservation textile too? Over the last three years, a band of artists and volunteers have been installing healing plasters of wool on the side of a Welsh mountain in a bid to control landscape erosion and protect a valuable swathe of peat.

Back in 1976 a fire on the side of Pen Trumau in the Black Mountains left a 70,000 metre square scar burned into the hillside. A huge section of peat was exposed and has been eroding ever since. It’s estimated that 6,125 tonnes of carbon have escaped so far. Over 30 years later, artist Pip Woolf first witnessed Pen Trumau’s “black hole” on Google Earth. She was shocked by its extent but inspired by its potential to be transformed.

“There’s a black space,” thought Woolf, “if we covered it in wool it would turn white, and the long term picture would be that it would turn green.” The reality was it would take an awful lot of wool to cover, so her original idea for an absorbent woollen patch turned into ‘The Woollen Line’, an artistic experiment that’s slowly attempting to heal the mountain’s great wound, stitch by stitch.

A bold white streak

Together with some volunteers and a bale of washed wool from the Wool Marketing Board, Woolf spent the cold February of 2010 making felt by hand. Heather seeds were embedded into the fabric. The felt was pegged onto Pen Trumau, leaving a bold white streak on the dark landscape. It’s now faded enough to miss on foot but is still very visible viewed from above – the area’s gliders have taken the most dramatic pictures.

So why put all that wool up there? “The whole reason the site won’t vegetate is because it’s completely mobile,” explains Woolf. “If it’s wet, the peat is washing off, if it’s dry it’s blowing off. Once peat loses its vegetative cover it oxidises and releases carbon in all sorts of ways. You’re losing carbon storage, water storage and grazing land.”

The hope is that the wool will slow things down, making the site more hospitable to plant life and less vulnerable to erosion. Ask Woolf if the experiment is working though and you’ll get short shrift. “The whole reason peat forms on the top of Welsh mountains is that it’s cold and wet, and everything happens very slowly up there,” she says. “Demanding a green result that quickly is foolish, it’s bad science.”

Sausages to save an SSSI

The project has evolved since the first Woollen Line was laid. Hand making felt was time consuming and none of the heather germinated. So the focus has moved onto wool ‘sausages’, first to pack erosion channels and more recently laid in a line along the top edge of the scar. Woolf now pays farmers to stuff nets with wool they can’t use for anything else. “It’s wool that’s absolutely worthless to the farmer but not worthless to this,” she explains. “They get a rid of their rubbish wool, I get my sausages – it’s brilliant.”

The Pen Trumau mountainside is an SSSI, so throughout Woolf has had to convince ecologists to support her experiments. “Nobody’s done anything on this site for 35 years, but as soon as the ecologist touched one of the wool sausages everything changed,” she explains. “The wool is the language people understand.”

Encouraging new growth is the project’s ultimate aim and where the heather failed, grass is proving more successful. Last year volunteers collected seed and cuttings from cotton-grass and wavy hair-grass and propagated them. Out of 600 plugs planted along the Woollen Line last year, 300 plants are now growing well.

Land art on a mountainous scale

As well as a piece of community conservation work, the line is land art that’s leaving a lasting impression. “It’s almost like leaving a dirty great footprint,” admits Woolf.  “I remember coming down early on and thinking I can’t take this back. I do struggle with plonk-it art in the landscape and would hate for it to be a Pip Woolf mark on the hill… but I have to stay there until I can find a really positive way for it to have its own life.”

The project continues and this spring the plan is to create a wool spiral on part of the scar that is yet to be touched. And until the end of the month, an artistic exploration of Woolf and her 750 volunteers’ labours so far is on show in a cold but atmospheric barn in Crickhowell.

Lost in London | to dye for

This feature was originally written for the summer issue of Lost in London

When dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel first moved to Hackney Wick she didn’t like it much.  She was craving something wild and this place didn’t seem to offer that.  Katelyn discovered the marshes alone one day when she ventured off her usual path.  Suddenly she was lost in the undergrowth, surrounded by a rich knot of plant life.  She had, at last, found herself a local patch.

I meet Katelyn at her warehouse home as she packs up kit for a foraging session.  We’re going to hunt for dye plants in a clump of woodland off the River Lee towpath.  She leads the way by bicycle, negotiating her trailer through messy road works and over bone-shaking cobbles, past the scars of the Olympics and beneath busy road bridges.  Her handmade white dress billows about her like a sail.

It’s not long before we disappear down a rough path, made into a romantic tunnel by trees that bend over to meet in the middle.  It’s the first day of sun after endless rain and the wood is deep green, lush and muddy.  It turns out that ten minutes from Hackney Wick station wilderness reigns.

“I like foraging locally because I can monitor my patch.  It’s about paying attention” says Katelyn.  “You have to be really responsible.  I was taught by a Native American basket weaver that you should never take more than a tenth of what you find.  And I would never take anything uncommon, like lichen or mushrooms, even though they make really great dyes.”

Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute and organises ‘Dinners To Dye For’, which involve natural dyeing workshops paired with shared meals using plants, nuts and berries foraged locally.  Many natural dyes are edible, which means you can use your pickings to both colour your cloth and make your meal.  The Institute was founded in America by Sasha Duerr and Katelyn has brought it to Britain.

“We’re inspired by permaculture” she explains.  “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology; an ecosystem. People are starting to think about food provenance more and more, but we don’t really think about fashion provenance yet.  We can use people’s connection with food as a way in.  Our workshops are a sensory experience and can turn something banal like an onion skin into something magical.”

Katelyn pulls on thick gloves and starts harvesting bundles of nettles and stuffing them into a huge cooking pot, where they will later be boiled in water to make a green/yellow dye.  “Nettle is a food, a fibre and a dye.  And there’s so much of it.  I’m thinking about overlooked local resources and encouraging eco-literacy.”  She grabs a trowel and heads into the bushes to find a dock root, returning with an enormous specimen.

“You can make lots of different pinks with dock root by adding an alkaline like baking soda to the dye.  If you added something acidic you’d get yellow.  There’s a huge variety to be had from one plant.  You also get drastically different colours depending on the natural conditions, like the soil.  In the same way there are distinctive wine regions, there are colour regions too.”

Preparation depends on what you’re dealing with – making dye is a lot like cooking.  Bark likes to be cooked hot for a long time, whereas something light and leafy would be dealt with in a much gentler way.  To turn the concoction from a colourful stew into a dye, you need to add a ‘mordant’ like alum.  It’s a safe mineral salt that fixes the dye to fabric.  It’s gentle enough that, when you’re finished, the dye bath can be used to water acid soil loving plants like rhododendron or blueberry.

“I did it first as a science project at art school, where I screen printed with mail order natural dyes” explains Katelyn.  “I used madder, which is red.  I painted vinegar on one print and baking soda on another – one turned plum purple and the other turned yellow.  It was like magic.  I haven’t used synthetic dye since.”

Katelyn quickly moved on from mail order.  “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye plants yourself.  With powders you get the same result each time.”  Some people hate the inconsistency of natural dyeing but Katelyn embraces the unknown.  She also appreciates being able to handle her freshly dyed wet work without gloves. “It is so beautiful that you can touch them.  With synthetic dyes you would never be able to do that.”

The woodland is a great source of both colour and inspiration but the humble kitchen cupboard has much to offer too.  Red cabbage can dye a piece of silk an elegant blue, while red onion skin can produce a shocking green and yellow.  It is indeed like magic and Katelyn is the wizard that can transform a veg box into a painter’s palette.

As well as running ‘Dinners To Dye For’, Katelyn is also part of a collective and shop on Balls Pond Road in Dalston called ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow’.  It was set up by four London College of Fashion graduates and is about showing that there isn’t just one way to be sustainable, but many.  One of those many ways is to use natural dyes, and Katelyn sells clothes in the shop.

We return to the warehouse, where Katelyn sets up her stove and gets some nettles bubbling.  She makes mugs of hot tea and offers slices of sour dough with fresh nettle pesto and sweet dandelion jam.  She talks about an upcoming event she’s running at Hackney City Farm as part of the new Chelsea Fringe festival of gardening.

“It was the idea of people creating ‘horticultural happenings’ that drew me to the festival.  I’m not a city person really.  I think the Fringe for me is about being a nature lover in the city.  People here are interested in nature, but that love comes out in interesting ways because we don’t take it for granted.”

Telegraph | London’s garden route

This feature was originally written for The Telegraph

Tom Turner and I choose one of London’s wettest afternoons to meet, and by the time I reach Victoria Tower Gardens my boots have sprung a leak.  We’re here to do the first part of his London Gardens Walking Tour, using an interactive Google map designed for a smart phone or tablet.  Tom’s map is a virtual part of the Chelsea Fringe, and promises an epic self-guided stroll through the capital’s gardening past, present and future.  We couldn’t have picked a better day for such time travels.

A confession.  Not only do I lack sensible shoes, I also have an extraordinarily old phone.  Someone recently called it ‘vintage’. Thankfully I have a friend trusting enough to lend me her more modern mobile.  I feel better when I discover that not only does Tom lack a smart phone of his own, he’s also turned up in sandals.   His feet will surely end up the wetter of the two.  The weather hasn’t dampened Tom’s irrepressible good spirits, and so we begin.

“All garden styles are represented in London – it’s the world capital of gardening” says Tom.  “People who travel here for the Chelsea Flower Show should be looking at our gardens too.  I’ve been thinking about this map for ages – the Chelsea Fringe has given me an excuse to do it.” For Tom, there’s more to gardens than mere pleasure – they offer a different way of thinking about the city.

“People don’t know about our garden heritage but it’s a really important part of London’s status as a cultural capital.  I moved here in 1973 and it’s taken me years to find everything out.  I’ve written books and websites – the map is another way of the telling the story. I want to give an overview, to show people what’s been done before and what’s possible in the future. My favourite section of the walk is the first part.  It’s the most scenically beautiful and historically interesting.”

So that, of course, is the part we will do.  Victoria Tower Gardens seems a good place to start a London landscape walk, framed as it is by the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames.  The big old plane trees are just coming into leaf and are slick with wet.  We cross Millbank and head down some steps to the Jewel Tower and a snatch of sunken lawn in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

Tom hands me a garden style spotters’ guide, which is a bit like a bird ID chart but for landscape design and you can find on the www.gardenvisit.com website.  It turns out we’re standing in an example of a castle garden dating back to the 1300s.  He explains that in medieval times this would have been home to flowers and food plants rather than close clipped grass.

We walk on, past queues of people waiting outside the Abbey, and head round the back.  It’s possible to get in for free if you’re just looking at the Cloisters.  This is point three on the map, although the phone struggles for a signal down here. The Small Cloister is a well kept secret.  It’s beautifully planted with delicate pale silvers and greens.

Close by is the College Garden, a bigger space with trees heavy with pink blossom.  The wind has whipped the blooms up and the paths are painted with slippery petals.  A medieval style herb garden has appeared here since his last visit and Tom’s delighted.  “It’s not quite right but much better than it was.”  I start to learn that Tom – a stickler for historical accuracy – is quite hard to please.  We pass the plain lawn of the Great Cloister on the way out.  “How boring”, he declares, “it should be a meadow.”

Next stop on the map is Whitehall and another dull patch of lawn with a fascinating past.  This stretch of road was once the site of Whitehall Palace and the grass outside the Ministry of Defence is a faint hint at a privy garden that belonged to Henry VIII.  We race ahead through history to Duck Island Cottage on the edge of St James’ Park.  It’s a storybook building surrounded by flowerbeds like brush strokes in the Arts and Crafts style.

Looking at the online map, I discover that Duck Island dates from the seventeenth century, when St James’ was the deer park for Whitehall Palace. The cottage was built in the 19th century in the style of a cottage ornée, and was given an Arts and Crafts cottage garden in the 20th – a symbol of England’s peasant culture in the heart of the government quarter.

“My grandfather used to buy fresh milk from a cow stationed in St James’ Park” says Tom, going on to dream of a day when the cows return during a future Chelsea Fringe.  So why does London need this new garden festival?

“The things that are outside the mainstream often become the most interesting and memorable. I’m originally from Edinburgh – I find the official festival rather dull but the Fringe is wonderful and far more fun. All sorts of surprises are possible.  I love the Chelsea Flower Show.  It’s a bit like a reunion, as lots of my students from the University of Greenwich have shown there.  But it’s always been a regret of mine that the gardens are destroyed.

“There could be a longer lasting, urban regeneration element to the Chelsea Fringe.  It’s a way of showing what London’s future could be. The Fringe should be many things, but part of it should be political and an argument for change – instead of creating pamphlets, we’ll create gardens!”

We discuss urban greening and Tom’s excitement about possibilities for the future, like living roofs and walls.  He believes the new landscape to add to his spotters’ guide will be called the ‘sustainable style’, and that gardens should help shape urban design. The conversation then turns to park management.  Tom believes things have improved massively since the 1990s, but that there’s a long way to go.

“Gardens are works of art, artefacts. In the 1950s there were very few garden historians, now there are quite a lot.  But park management hasn’t caught up.  There’s an avenue of sweet chestnuts in Greenwich Park that’s the oldest of its kind in Britain, but the Royal Parks have built a bin store that blocks it.  It displays an extraordinary level of artistic and historical ignorance putting it there.”

Defeated by time and weather we fast forward to the final dot on the 20 mile garden route – Trafalgar Square which, according to the map, is conceptually a terrace with the layout of a nineteenth century landscape garden. The map explains that it was designed by Charles Barry, who also designed Italianate terraces for several Victorian gardens.

Tom leaves me soggy but satiated with new knowledge, looking out over one of London’s biggest tourist traps.  It’s a place decidedly devoid of green that’s been given new life by the map. For Tom, understanding the past is an important way of coming up with ideas for the future and that’s what he hopes his walk through history will encourage people to do.

How it works

The London Gardens Walk is a free and interactive online map, which you can access on a computer or on a smart phone via www.gardenvisit.com.  It plots out the route from A to B, with info attached to each point on the map that you can read as you wander.  There are 40 points of interest, and the walk follows a long loop that finishes almost where it begins in central London.  A more comprehensive e-book guide will be on offer as a free download on the 19th and 20th May – the first weekend of the Chelsea Fringe.

 

 

Upcoming events

Books & bird feeders – 3rd Dec

I’ll have a sweet little stall at the Old Fire Station Winter Craft Fair in Holloway, where I’ll be selling signed copies of my book and showing people how to make bird feeders from old bruisey apples and sunflower seeds.  There’s going to a range of arts & crafts stalls and workshops, as well as food, music and general festive good cheer.  Saturday 3rd December from 11am til 5pm – just £1 to get in.

Urban nature tales & folk music – 4th Dec

Together with the lovely Robin Grey, I’ll be reading extracts from my book while he serenades us with folk songs, at the Centre for Wildlife Gardening’s annual Tree Day celebrations on Sunday 4th December.  Robin and I will be on at 2pm, the event runs from 11am til 4pm.  Free entry and signed books for sale.

PREVIEW Suspense Puppetry Festival 2011

This article was originally written for the Londonist

It’s back. From the 28 October, and for ten whole delicious days, London will once again be populated by puppets. Fans of anything that magics inanimate objects to life, we loved Suspense in 2009 and can’t wait for it to return.

Spread over eleven venues (including the V&A and Roundhouse) and featuring 30 different companies from around the world, don’t mistake this as being one for the youngsters. The festival is aimed squarely at adults and this year takes ‘puppetry and politics’ as its theme.

As well as offering an intriguing programme of performances, there are also workshops, talks and film screenings planned. We’re looking forward to a late night puppet cabaret at Wilton’s Music Hall, an exploration of old age at the Little Angel, Iranian Lorca at the New Diorama, folky puppetry at the Pleasance and an Edinburgh Fringe hit at Jackson’s Lane – look out for reviews of them all. Take a look at the full line-up on the Suspense website.

Suspense is the baby of the Little Angel Theatre, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Found down a narrow passageway in north London, it’s the pocket-sized home of British puppetry. As a festival preview treat, have a listen to an audio portrait of the playhouse in five acts, with music by Ben Glasstone and featuring an interview with festival director Peter Glanville and the man who once played Zippy and Sweep – Ronnie Le Drew.

An audio portrait in five acts

Found down a narrow passageway in north London, the Little Angel Theatre is the pocket-sized home of British puppetry. Helen Babbs presents a portrait of the playhouse in five acts, with music by Ben Glasstone. We visit during the theatre’s 50th anniversary year, and meet some of the people who make the magic happen.

In Praise of Puppets (c) Helen Babbs 2011

All muisc (c) Ben Glasstone / Little Angel Theatre