Cotton sheeting dyed with oak galls and iron.

A lot of the projects I’ve worked on over the past few years connect back to my childhood and the activities that occupied me then. Making cords by plying together strands of knitting wool was something I’d tried before but until recently I’d never used found materials. Reading Alice Fox’s book ‘Natural Processes in Textile Art’ gave me the idea of experimenting with grass as well as strips of old fabric, and a reference to the website of an artist called Joanne B. Kaar led me to a short film showing the making of a replica grass garment inspired by the work of a man called Angus MacPhee.

Angus MacPhee

Angus MacPhee was born in 1916 and grew up on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. In 1939, at the age of 24, he joined the Lovat Scouts and rode away to war on horseback. In  May 1940 he was one of a group of Scouts who were posted to Torshavn in the Faroe Islands. No one knows for sure what happened to him there but seven months later he was found unfit for duty due to a state described as ‘catatonia’ and shipped back to Leith. His story is beautifully told in Roger Hutchinson’s book ‘The Silent Weaver’ and I thoroughly recommend getting hold of a copy. You can also learn more about Angus’s life and his work with grass here and here.

Preliminary ‘rope’ experiment using Yorkshire Fog grass

In June 2017 I had a chance to begin putting some of my research ideas into practice while visiting Fingle Woods on Dartmoor. You can see the results in the short video below. I’m not the best at following instructions and my learning style involves a lot of failures and set-backs before I either acquire some degree of competence or become too discouraged to proceed any further.

Video made by Tom Williams at Dartmoor U A V Services

The finished grass wreath a few days later

My rudimentary ‘rope’ started falling apart before I’d even got it home so I coiled it into a wreath and hung it on my garden wall. It was a few days before it dawned on me that allowing Yorkshire Fog grass seeds to scatter themselves over the flowerbeds wasn’t the best idea – after that it got dispatched to the compost bin.

A second attempt

Experimenting with finer grasses was somewhat more successful, especially as this time I worked with Alice Fox’s book open beside me and paid close attention to her instructions.

Crocosmia cordage on cloth dyed and printed with oak galls and iron 

Summer came and went, with fabric dyeing and direct contact botanical printing taking priority over other projects. By the time I got around to experimenting with nettles the stems were too old and brittle to work with, but I collected some crocosmia leaves instead and was pleased to discover that once dampened they worked really well.

Daffodil leaf cordage

Withered daffodil leaves aren’t easy to find – a lot of people cut them down or tie them up for the sake of tidiness – but I managed to collect enough in late spring this year to make a short length of cord of varying thicknesses. Looking back over the past twelve months it’s clear that practice and perseverance have paid off but a couple of issues remain unresolved. There’s no getting away from the fact that finger-twisting material into a two-ply cord quickly becomes challenging for anyone who suffers from pain in their muscles and/or joints. I tried to deal with this by spreading the work over several days but even so I wasn’t able to make long lengths with any of the materials I experimented with. The other problem which I’m sure is solvable is that the plant materials seemed to shrink a lot as they dried, with gaps opening in the initially tight and professional-looking twist. The crocosmia wasn’t too bad but the daffodil leaves were disappointing in this respect.

It’s not yet too late in the year to harvest some nettles if I can get around to it over the next few weeks, but whether that will actually happen remains to be seen . . .


Text and images © Angela Williams 2018

Video © Tom Williams, Dartmoor UAV Services 2017

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