The courses at Alt-y-bela take place in an old barn - old, uneven and dark with shuttered windows, burning candles and a wood burning stove. With the pots of dye material bubbling away it gave the whole an alchemical atmosphere.
The dyeing course was run by Debra Bamford, aka The Mulberry Dyer, and as she specialises in historically correct dyes, working with museums and historical re-enactment societies, it was exactly the right venue.
First we talked about all the preparation work that Debs had done before the course - the mordanting of our pieces of wool and silk - scrubbing them up and treating them with alum so that they were ready to take the dyes.
Then we moved onto the fun bit - the pots of simmering plants - dyer's broom; madder; walnut leaves; safflower and alkanet - and we learned how to dye, how to modify, how to overdye and what happens if you add stale piss to the dyebath.
We also learned how everyone's temperament had as much effect on the final result as did the individual dyes - the final colours were all quite different depending on how impatient we were with the dyebaths.
The thing that amazed me was quite how vibrant the colours were - particularly fleece dyed with dyer's broom which could have been used to make one of those high visibility jackets. Debs told us how yellow stockings were by men worn to indicate that they were young free and single - so there you go!
One of the joys of going on courses, completely aside from the learning of a new skill, is the people you meet. Somehow, when everyone is concentrating and sharing ideas it gels and there is no awkwardness. I am actually quite a shy person, I don't relish introducing myself to new people, yet here, where I knew no-one prior to the day, I felt welcome and relaxed and chatty. The photo shows Arne and Chris (who has a wholesale plant nursery and a fantastic knowledge of plants) deliberating over cloth!
Here is the washing line strung up with some of the threads and fleece that we dyed (all carefully labeled).
The whole of the day was held together and made joyous by Arne's assistant, Kristy, one of the most understatedly and sunnily capable people I have ever met.
It was also made memorable by the truly delicious lunch, cakes and coffee (someone who had been on a previous course at Alt-y-bela had claimed before I went that the lunch alone was worth the fee - they may have a point)
In conclusion - it was a fantastic day - I learned loads of useful stuff, I met great people, I saw an emerging garden, I ate a delicious lunch, I drank white wine in the sunshine. I came away feeling very privileged.
Definitely worth the 8 hour drive.
The Mulberry dyer is doing another course at Alt-y-bela just before Christmas - contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.