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David Bowie And The Wool Kitchen

Fiona Brennan David Bowie hand-dyed interview knitting subscription box Travel Knitter Wild and Woolly Wool Kitchen Woollen Words yarn Ziggy

“I can never remember not knitting,” says Helen who is The Wool Kitchen, “I knit every day and while I used to be desperate to get to the end, I’ve learned to like the process more. I don’t know if it is because I knit my own yarn.”

The Wool Kitchen started two years ago when Helen found herself working at a job she didn’t love, which wasn’t meeting her needs as an artist or as a mother. Instead, she set up The Wool Kitchen, which is now well on its way to become a cult-yarn.

Helen is originally from Yorkshire but lives in Walthamstow, London, with her husband and two sons. The community of indie-dyers or ‘wool-heads’ as Helen calls them, has provided her with a support network to focus her work and boost each other’s businesses.

“What I’ve learned is that you can’t do everything alone,” says Helen, “what has become apparent to me is that it is good to have a network of people who are like-minded. There are a few of us who meet on a regular basis and will swap ideas or concerns because essentially you are working alone.

“I have Travel Knitter around the corner and I rely on Woollen Words. She tipped up in my garden when I was doing the Walthamstow Art Trail and at the end of the two days said she really felt she needed to help me because while what I was doing was amazing, I didn’t have clear direction. And she was absolutely right.

“Anna at Wild and Woolly has also been absolutely incredible. I tipped up in her shop and said: ‘would you stock my wool?’, she said she’d take 10 and see how it goes and now I replenish her every month. I’m incredibly lucky to have met some lovely people, it has been just great.”

Helen currently fits her work into the short school day. She will dye for 2-3 days a week, depending on whether or not she has a yarn show coming up. When we spoke, she was getting stock ready for Edinburgh. A day a week is set aside for administration but that “usually ends up knitting,” according to Helen.

“I do try and get out,” says Helen, “so I will try and meet a fellow wool head and have a coffee and a chat or a knit. Sometimes I go and hang out with Anna at Wild and Woolly, mess about with her skeins and move them around in the shop. Sometimes I’m busy doing nothing. I spend a lot of time walking back and forward thinking about what I need to do. I also dedicate two days a week to packing and getting things out to people, but that in my processing is my slowest operation. It takes a long time and I’m fiddly I like the packets to be just as they should be.”

But it isn’t from chance or luck that has seen the rise of The Wool Kitchen in the shoppers of the hand-dyed market. From Helen’s background in art and her willingness to put the work into getting all the factors right for her business has allowed The Wool Kitchen to firmly establish itself in this rapidly expanding market.

If you take one skein of mine and walk it around other people’s hand dyed yarn, they will all be so different because we are all different people. We all go to the pot differently, we all use different techniques and we all have different ideas about how it should look. It’s exciting.” Says Helen.

Given that most hand-dyers in the UK source their base products from a limited set of resources, it is quite astounding how unique these styles are.

I did have a point where I wobbled a bit and thought what I was doing was too crazy and maybe I should do something a bit calmer,” explains Helen, “I had a go at doing a bit calmer but I found it very difficult and it didn’t sell because I didn’t love it in the same way. It is interesting because if I dye colour and I don’t absolutely love it and I don’t absolutely love working with it then there is no point in putting it out there as a collection because it just won’t sell.”

Whether this is because there is a little bit of magic in the dyeing of yarn and people can sense the love which has gone into it or Helen’s innate knowledge of the market and producing something that her customers want to buy, is not something anyone could pin point down. But it is certainly powerful to know that the passion which goes into the wool is recognised by the customer. Although as Helen points out, there are very few people who stick to one brand when buying yarn, they will purchase for different purposes and projects so will buy from many different brands.

“If I wanted to knit a red jumper, I wouldn’t dye a red yarn,” explains Helen, “because red is not my dye palette. I very rarely use red in my dyes as it is not tonally where I sit. But if I wanted a red, I would go to someone who is very good at dying reds, like my yarny-in-crime Travel Knitter.”

It is perhaps this deep understanding of colour which makes The Wool Kitchen stand out. Helen was accepted a year early to study a HND in Set Design at Croydon College. When her classmates were all a year older having completed a Foundation year, Helen went straight in based on a half portfolio in Scenic Art. Helen’s Art Teacher had advised her against taking up the course because she felt she was destined for textiles, “and sure enough, 30 years later I’m in textiles,” says Helen, “so she was right.”

“It’s taken me years to understand colour as I do now. Since I was really young I remember being absolutely fascinated with the tone and hue of people’s skin colour. I would look at them and think they are slightly yellow, or is that person looking blue or slightly pink. I have always had this real obsession with colour. I don’t see grey, I see the colours within the grey.”

Helen has long been designing yarn inspired by David Bowie’s music but also taking her themes further into not just the music but interstellar colours. She explained where the Bowie yarns and her Starman shawl pattern came from:

“It made sense for that yarn to be called Ziggy. And then I got to thinking ‘what would Major Tom look like? What would Major Tom look like to me?’ And so I dyed the yarn how I perceived Major Tom to be in his spaceship within this space theme. It was all around life coming to an end and he was floating off.

“Then there was the concept of Ground Control being very calculated and quite dark so you get these flashes of colour when a spaceship takes off. This then split into the space theme of nebulas and the orion nebula. There are so many nebulas out there that I don’t necessarily think I am done on that.

“And then there was the Starman pattern, which was written to be launched for David Bowie’s birthday. That came and I posted a picture of it and tagged the David Bowie account in it. I know he doesn’t run the account but normally tags will get a like and I thought it strange that this didn’t. And then he died so we held off launching the pattern for a bit. There were lots of other yarns around that time as a tribute for Bowie and for me it was kind of done. I didn’t feel like I was doing the pattern as a tribute to him but to a part of my youth and thinking about those songs and what they meant to me. Then Heterochromia came along and I wanted something that was between Ground Control and Ziggy so it was all based on the that. I didn’t want to name it after his song because it didn’t feel right so I thought: ‘what can it be called and how can it be a tribute to him?’ and there you go: Heterochromia is my tribute to Bowie.”

You can check out The Wool Kitchen on Etsy here.

The Wool Kitchen Ziggy yarn was part of our Bowie box which can be purchased here.

If you liked this then you might like our interview with Karie Westermann here.

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