31 August 2001

LONGLIFEINDYEING

Jill Goodwin can extract a dye

from the most unlikely plants

as Tessa Gates found when

she visited her Essex home

FOR anyone interested in natural dyes and spinning natural fibres, Jill Goodwins home is an Aladdins cave of coloured yarns. Balls and skeins of handspun wool and silk, Gurkha tweed and textiles made from nettles that grow 8ft tall in Nepal, rugs and knitwear in subtle and vibrant hues, catch the eye at Ashmans Farm, Kelvedon, Essex.

Most fascinating of all is the lady herself. She has spent a lifetime experimenting with plant dyes and at the age of 84 has lost none of the curiosity she had as a child when she first tried to extract a dye from damsons by stewing them in her fathers old tobacco tins.

"I have been dying experimentally for 75 years," says Jill, who was brought up on an isolated farm in West Sussex and taught at home by a governess until she was 10. "We wore drab coloured clothes but in a book – A Nursery History – we saw wonderful colours," she recalls. Inspired, from damsons she progressed to other berries and since then she has steadily worked her way through plants of every type – even obtaining eight or nine colours from Docks by using different mordants at different times during the growing season.

&#42 Always exciting

"You cant really tell what you are going to get – it depends on the soil, sun and rainfall which are different every year.

"Nature is niggardly, you get plenty of yellows and buffs, not many true greens and blues and reds are always exciting when you strike it lucky," she says. "I never thought you could get blue out of woad outside of the growing season but I have got it every month of the year."

Woad is the best plant for colour, producing a permanent beautiful blue. It was grown commercially in East Anglia until competition from cheaper synthetic dyes caused the closure of the last processing plant in 1932. However, woad is being grown again – Norfolk farmer Ian Howard is running commercial trials for the Anglian Industrial Crops Group – and university research is on-going into extraction of the dye and new uses for it. The prospect excites Jill, for she is a great advocate of renewables. Her son Robert grows 73ha (180acres) of willows and poplars "We planted them for biomas in 1992 and were one of the pioneer farms," she says.

Making use of what nature offers comes easily to her and she has spun everything from sisal to donkey hair. Of course she has dyed what she has spun and never content to stick to tried and tested dyes, she has continued to push the boundaries of colour with her experiments. Her masses of notes collected over 50 years were published in A Dyers Manual – now out of print – and her expertise has been called on by the conservators of the Bayeaux Tapestry for whom she made 560 samples of dyes.

Jill has amassed a huge knowledge of dyeing and done it while farming, raising seven children, and working for 20 years as a lecturer. She is truly remarkable, and she should write a book about her own life. Its not on her busy agenda – she is currently working on rugs using a locking hook method and is writing a book on her ancestors "three to four volumes of concise history to go with a longer version". There is about five years work to it.

"It is good to have several irons in the fire," she says.