When I met Alice and discovered her yarn brand A Pleines Mains at the Grande Mercerie festival in Paris last year, I really loved her creative universe, full of warm colors, beautiful natural palettes and yarns of special character.
I knitted her base Ariégeoise Fingering in a beautiful color dyed with catechu and lac, to create the Pieris Shawl for the Terroir collection. It was really important for me, in this idea of exploring local natural yarn, to also highlight the role of hand-dyers who, like Alice, try to look for these special yarns, to work with local producers to create beautiful hand-dyed local natural yarns!
For the release of Pieris Shawl, I interviewed Alice during a special podcast episode. We chat about local natural yarns, the different fibres and breeds, the initiatives that promote local yarn in France. She also tells us all about her natural dyeing process. I hope that you will enjoy it!
The interview is in French but fully subtitled in English. You can enable the subtitles and select the language via the setting button.
For Alice, the idea behind her brand A Pleines Mains is to provide knitters with the most natural yarns possible. She is very careful about selecting yarns to rediscover local yarns, and she is also careful about the dyeing process in itself. The idea is to be environment friendly, but also respectful to the farmers, the people who produce the yarn, and finally the knitters so they can knit things that will be beautiful and will last.
When selecting her yarn bases, she prefers French natural yarns, with a few exceptions like the Bluefaced Leicester from England, which is her favorite sheep, and the sock yarn which is superwash because she hasn’t found a better, local alternative yet.
She sources her Ariégeoise base, that I used to knit my Pieris shawl, at Laines Paysannes, a local initiative promoting natural yarn from the Pyrenees, with every step of production done locally.
“What I really enjoyed, apart from the fact that its completely locally produced, is the fact that at Laines Paysannes they have different colors of yarn. There’s a white, a beige and a grey yarn, and those nuances allow me to get deeper shades in my colors. It gives additional life to the natural colors which are pretty lively and very subtle already.”
What Alice loves about natural dyeing is experimentation.
“What’s hard with me is that I often do unique batches, it’s kind of the suprise of the dye pot! I always try to exhaust the color in a bath as to not waste any material because that’s the goal when you’re in a conscient process.”
The natural dyeing process starts with mordanting the skeins, to prepare the fibers to receive the dye by bathing them in water with usually alum and cream of tartar. It’s an additional step compared to chemical dyeing, using an additional bath of water, and so it requires more time and planning because Alice does her mordanting cold to save energy. After mordanting, the skeins are rinced for the first time.
Then, you have to prepare for the dyeing: “You have to do a decoction, like a giant herbal tea. You put the plants, the water, you heat to a certain temperature depending on the plant and then you can filter to get the color and put the plant aside. You can often get a second decocotion to get another bath that will be less intense but it’s a good way to use up all the color in the plants.”
The skeins are dyed in this filtered bath, then cooked, to different temperature depending on the plants. Then you wait for it to cool down to take them out, rinse them to stabilize the colors then rince once more to take out all the last plant fragments.
The whole fun of natural dyeing, for Alice, is to be able to soak the same skeins in several different bath to make a large palette of colors with only a few different baths and very few plants.
“Once you have a yellow, soak it in the blue, or when you make a rose, soak it in the yellow to get an orange. The idea is to have fun, play around and you can also do some nuancing afterwards with a bit of iron sulfate, bicarbonate of soda, or washing soda, and see what happens!”
She dyes most often in her parisian studio, but what she really likes is when she’s able to dye in nature, whether its in Brittany or in Aveyron at the house of a friend who taught her natural dyeing.
“Being in nature, it creates kind of a connexion with the environment around you. And what’s interesting, when you’re in the countryside, is that you can go and collect wild plants. That’s pretty amazing because you have that feeling of dyeing with the landscape and that’s really fun. It’s also a way of keeping a memory of a moment because you can remember that walk, that day where the weather was fine. There’s a memorial aspect which is very touching.”
Another thing that she finds amazing with natural dyeing is that colors have smell.
“Each color has a different smell because each plant, when we do the decocotion, has a different smell. And that’s quite fabulous, once you’ve noticed the smell of a plant, it’s as if the color in itself has a smell. You walk into the studio and say: Hey, it smells like madder, rhubarb or weld! There are good smells and bad smells. My favorite are madder and rhubarb, they smell really good. An indigo bath, when it’s working well, it also has a very peculiar smell, which is probably unpleasant for someone who doesn’t know the pretty blue that it will become, but for me, when I smell that smell, I’m like: Yes, it’s working!”
Compared to superwash yarns, natural yarns have very different qualities and they take the dyes quite differently. Carded yarns tend to have a pretty matt aspect, merino too, and on the contrary BFL has a lot of sheen for example.
“From one fiber to another, you will have sheen, elasticity, strength, so it’s really great. My goal is to keep on working with local productions as much as possible. I would really love to keep on doing collaborations with farmers who have cooperatives and to be able to work a different local fibre each time.”
The more she works with local natural yarns, the more Alice has this desire to invest into this work and support the renewal of the French yarn industry. Personally, I can’t wait to see the next natural yarns that she will make us discover, with her beautiful color palettes! In the meantime, I encourage you to try her Ariégeoise base which is really delicious to knit, with its dry and very light touch, to knit the Pieris shawl!