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Out and About: Design Secrets at Much Ado

Last week Kit Kemp kick started the Much Ado bookshop series of “happenings.” What a thrill to attend a live talk after what seems a lifetime of zooms, and to top it off it was at our favourite bookshop of all time.

East Sussex is a magnet for creatives: Lee Miller and Virginia Woolf to name a few. It’s a picturesque part of the world but something about Alfriston was especially twinkly on this night.

Kit Kemp read extracts from her new book Design Secrets to a captivated crowd (and one sleeping chicken). Nash Robbins who is the co-owner of Much Ado Books alongside Cate Olsen made an introduction that was eloquent and sassy, as always.

With Firmdale Hotels supplying the delicious canapés (including my favourite crunchy red apples and gooey gorgonzola wrapped in pancetta) the Champagne was flowing and items designed by Kit for Shop Kit Kemp and the charity Fine Cell Work were available to buy – we can’t imagine a better evening.

We highly recommend a visit to this not-so-sleepy Sussex village. Don’t forget to pop into Emmet and White antiques and vintage fashion, the owner William would give Captain Long John Silver a run for his money – he’s a treasure hunter to rival no other!

With one evening’s excitement behind us, we were up bright and early for the next instalment on the bill of Much Ado’s live “happenings”. We were treated to a natural dying workshop with the wonderful Deborah Barker, who brought us all to tears within the first five minutes of meeting her as she read a poem from “Walking the Block” by Jane Weir.

We started off simply experimenting by rubbing foraged wild plants such as sweet pea flowers, chamomile and blackberry onto Khadi handmade sketchbook paper (simply the best brand on earth – thick, juicy, paper dreams). It was amazing to see bright marmalade yellow hues coming from the petals of marigold flowers and juicy violet purples. I was shocked by the brightness and intensity of the shades – there really is no excuse for not using natural dyes when making textiles.

The next stage was an introduction to madder. This perennial plant is commonly used as a source of dye to yield pink and purple shades as well as red. The root must be harvested, dried, chopped and ground.

It was fascinating to learn that the dying properties of the madder root have been know from the earliest historical times – cloth dyed with madder has been found on ancient Egyptian mummies and madder was used for dying the cloaks of Libyan woman in the time of Herodotus (5th century BCE). The alizarin found in madder plants stains the bones of animals that feed upon it and it was this property that was used by 19th-century physiologists to trace bone development and to study those processes. So basically it’s a wonder plant!

In order to prepare the fibres for them to be able to accept the colour of the dye, proteins (wool, silk, alpaca) or cellulous (linen, cotton, hemp) must be washed with a mordent (a Latin word meaning bite). Proteins need aluminium potassium sulphate and cellulous fibres need aluminium acetate. To be honest it’s a lot to get your head around! The fibres must be weighed, washed and boiled – it’s pretty much magic – Deborah was very patient and we couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring guide.

All the wool was provided from her daughter’s biodynamic farm and trust me, it’s the best of the best. 20 grams of madder extract will dye two 100 gram balls of wool to a light brick and coral pink colour. Although what’s really interesting is the colour of madder is almost like a living breathing creature and it changes over time becoming more aubergine by the end of the day.

Here is a before, during and after!

We also played around with buckthorn and dock leaf – giving a gorgeous finish from mustard yellow to honeydew gold.

Hot dog and superstar Tess Newall joined us for the day with her brand new baby Alma – she was a natural! Check out our previous “Meet the Maker” post to get the lowdown on this talented lady and check out our Kit Kemp X Tess Newall stack lamp collaboration.

Thank you to Cate, Nash and Deborah for making this a truly memorable visit. Be sure to check out Much Ado’s upcoming ‘Events and Happenings’ to get yourself booked in for your own magical experience.

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