COLOURFUL CAVERSHAM by Elstr Lee
Anyone who has completed the Caversham Arts Trail, or visited exhibitions put on by Caversham Artists, will have seen the stunning scarves designed and woven by textile designer Gloria Pitt.
As well as displaying her latest creations, Gloria is also frequently to be spotted demonstrating her skills at the spinning wheel, turning wool or silk into yarn. In addition to creating her own thread, Gloria makes makes her own natural dyes using plants from her Caversham garden or the surrounding countryside.
Gloria discovered the ancient crafts of spinning, dyeing and weaving whilst busy with a full-time teaching career in her native Belfast. “It was in the 1980s, in the middle of the Troubles – an ‘Alternative College’ was set up with lessons in yoga, weaving and so on. I enrolled for weaving, but it had a waiting list so I joined the spinning class instead – and I was hooked! I couldn’t wait to get my own spinning wheel!”
Gloria developed her interest whilst continuing to teach full time, and signed up for the Bradford Diploma for Handloom Weavers. Having completed the two-year course in one year, she started to teach weaving as part of the A-level art course at her Belfast Grammar School while selling her scarf designs at shows.
The offer of redundancy from teaching provided the springboard for Gloria to set up her own business and soon she had customers from around the world. Now based in Caversham, she sells her unique hand-dyed scarves at local shows, open studios and exhibitions.
The whole process still fascinates Gloria, who owns several looms, as well as four spinning wheels. To dye her yarns, she uses both common plants as well as slightly more unusual ones. “I was introduced to dyeing whilst undertaking the Bradford Diploma. I started out trying onion skins, which are the easiest to begin with. You can use lawn clippings, privet, raspberry leaves, and bark from trees as well as buddleia flowers to name just a few. I also find things in hedgerows like cow parsley and nettles,” she explains.
Most of these plants create shades of yellow or brown. Gloria grows Japanese indigo and woad to create shades of blue but madder root (for reds) is easier to obtain online. She experiments with hollyhocks, coreopsis, marigolds and even dead dahlia heads, creating quite unexpected shades. Once primary colours are sourced, the yarns can be over-dyed, so blue over yellow makes green.
Gloria dyes silk, various types of wool, cotton and linen. Plants are placed in an aluminium saucepan with some water plus alum crystals, which act as a mordant to fix the dye. Add the thread, then heat the water (the temperature and length of heating appropriate to the plant used). The result is always something of a pleasant surprise. “It really depends on when the plant was picked, the season, the soil it grows in and if the weather has been hot or cold,” Gloria says. “You never get the same shade twice!”