Indie dyer Helen Reed shares how she swapped careers to start The Wool Kitchen from her kitchen sink, filling her life with colour and lustworthy yarns…
Crafting friends are the best friends, and they’re even better when they persuade you to following your making dreams. Helen Reed was an avid knitter, but it was her yarn-loving friends who persuaded her to take the jump and become one of the growing bank of indie dyers creating their own colour palette of yarns for others to create with.
The Wool Kitchen started out at Helen’s kitchen table in September 2014, but soon upgraded to her She’d – that’s ‘she shed’ to you and I – as orders grew and grew.
We caught up with Helen in her East London home to find out the geeky way she gets her colourful inspiration, how she found her tribe of ‘woolheads’ and why it’s rude to ask about her yarn stash…
Hi Helen! When did you start dyeing yarns?
I created The Wool Kitchen in September 2014 from the need to fulfill a creative interest in colourful yarn, and to work around a family life that kept the cost of childcare low. When I became a dyer I was working as a part-time receptionist and although I had a great boss, I wanted to do more. I’d got lost when I became a mum and needed a bit of ‘me’ back. After plenty of talks with my husband, Kevin, and general threats about trying out hand-dyeing, my friends at a knit night convinced me to quit my job and start The Wool Kitchen! Looking back now I knew very little, as I’m self-taught, but it definitely fulfilled my creative need as well as satisfied my strong work ethic.
What’s the first thing you ever made?
I bought 50 skeins of raw yarn and dyed them all different colours – I really went for it. In this first run I played with the idea of what the colours would do when knitted and produced my first ever ZIP colours. I was delighted to knit them and see what they did in comparison with what I expected – it was like a door had opened wide and I was diving through it!
Can you explain the process that goes into your designs?
I knit a lot! I know a lot of knitters and I find that this gives me a whole understanding of what my hand-dyed colourful yarn repeat will do.
Where do you go to find inspiration?
Without trying to sound clichéd, I really do take inspiration from everyday life. I can find the most beautiful flower, or a section of graffiti, or a children’s book and it’ll set off an idea, as do the yarns I already dye. I often find myself thinking about a section of yarn I’ve knitted, as small as two or three stitches, and how I can make that a whole workable colour. One of my recent colourways – iridium – comes from looking at the periodic table. When the element iridium burns it turns light grey with flecks of bright colour, and I knew this was just crying out to be a hand-dyed yarn!
Where does your love of colour come from?
I like the way colour makes my eyes feel wide! I’m fascinated by the colour wheel and how the primary colours mix. Hand-dyeing yarn has given me a medium that allows me to push colour theory to its limits and share it with others.
Can you describe your current workspace?
It’s modest! I moved into my workshop in the garden as I was prepping for Edinburgh Yarn Festival back in March. It was snowing and it felt like a crazy thing to do, but we needed the kitchen back. I’d completely outgrown the space and had dyeing equipment everywhere. My She’d (she shed) has hot plates and pans, a tea urn, a double sink, my very important DAB radio – I listen to a lot of music while working – and a spin dryer I call Betty! My dad helped us build it, although there are still a few bits that need to be finished – don’t tell him that though!
What does your average working day look like?
I pre-soak the planned amount of yarns I’m going to dye the night before. In the morning I make up dye stock and work out the order to dye my colours, as I have them on rotation based on timing and what equipment they need. I listen to music or sometimes TED talks and off I go. I always try and stop for lunch and try not to work past the small people coming home from school, although as the business grows, I often find I’m doing more evening and weekends.
We have to ask… How big is your yarn stash?
That’s as bad as someone asking your age! It’s sizeable, as I often keep a lot of my own colours for reference as well as some lovelies I’ve picked up from my fellow yarnies!
Who are your favourite indie dyers?
There are so many of us doing incredible things with yarn! Larissa, the Travel Knitter, dyes colours like jewels from a treasure chest and has an incredible eye for colour depth. Woollen Flower dyes with natural dyes in a process that fascinates me, I just love the rich earthy tones and bases of her yarns. And I love how Old Maiden Aunt creates such rich variegated yarn, they’re like being lost at sea or in a rich woodland. I truly believe we all have a place and we all bring strength to this growing industry.
What’s been your proudest project so far?
I’m going to sit on the fence and say that I’m proud of them all. I’ve been so lucky to work with incredible designers such as Curious Handmade, Sarah Shepard, Maddie Harvey, The Weststrand Sisters and Emma Kylmala. However, if you asked what’s the most fun I’ve had on a project, I’d definitely say working with Anna Maltz. Working with Anna is always fun. I’ve been her yarn support, garment model and even make-up artist in the quest for amazing knitwear patterns!
What’s been your biggest craft fail?
My attempt to make my husband a pair of felted wool, hand-sewn slippers. I only finished one! This is also true of hand-knitted socks, I seem to only have one in each colour…
What’s the best creative advice you’ve been given?
In a previous life, the one before children, I worked in cosmetics as a make-up artist. My boss always used to say, “Never be afraid of colour.” I never really understood what she meant, but now I get it. You have to embrace it! Be daring and always make the most of the palette you have before you. I often think about these words and smile – perhaps she already knew my colour potential before I could see it for myself. I’ve also found that one of the keys to running your own business is self-care and downtime, which I’ve finally (after four years!) started to give myself.
Who would your dream collaboration be with?
It would be an absolute dream to work with one of our UK-based spinning mills to create my own blend of yarn. At the moment I’m always changing my mind about what it would have in it, but I know that Bluefaced Leicester would play a part as I just love that fibre so much!
Where are you happiest and why?
Sitting on a sandy beach knitting! I have fond childhood memories of going to the beach with my family. My mother has played a massive part in sharing all of her skills with woollens and imparting it to me too. I think she should write a book!
What does making mean to you?
Being a yarn dyer has given me a job I completely love – I want to get up and work. Mostly, my making has given me a fantastic community where I’ve found my tribe of woolheads! I don’t intend to swap it any time soon.