Handmade dyes for yarn

Dye your own yarn with natural dyes

By running craft courses in the Scottish Highlands, Rosie Hazleton is helping to keep ancient skills alive while enjoying the wilderness on her doorstep.


27th May 2016

The idea of gathering leaves, berries and roots to make natural dyes is quite intoxicating. Drawing on ancient traditions, Rosie Hazleton has put a background in archaeology to great use, creating courses that result in beautifully dyed yarns.

Dyeing yarns over fires

“At age 16 I met an archaeologist who worked in Panama,” she says. “He asked if I’d like to work for him after I left school and I jumped at the chance, then decided to study Archaeology at university.”

While at university, Rosie had the chance to learn about ancient arts and crafts, a topic she’d long had an interest in. “After graduating, I worked for various companies running tours and expeditions, and at the same time kept up my crafts,” she says. “When I moved to Scotland 11 years ago, I started learning more about plants and natural dyeing. In the end I combined my skills and set up my own business, Wild Rose Escapes, in the Highlands six years ago.”

The location is key to the success of the business, which she co-runs with husband Alex. “We first moved to a place called Leckmelm near Ullapool in the Northwest Highlands, a beautiful spot. We really wanted a bit of land to build on and run the business from.”

Natural beauty

While giving two hitchhikers a lift, Rosie and Alex discovered Crochail Wood near the village of Cannich. “The woods were for sale and we decided to go for it!” Rosie says.

Situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Cannich and the Affric, it felt like the perfect place to raise their family while developing Wild Rose Escapes. With such a wonderful natural setting, it was ideally suited to teaching historic pastimes ranging from felt-making to spinning.

Rosie and children

Finding the time for this can be difficult with two small children to take care of – Thora, aged four and Martha, aged two. “It isn’t always easy, but we share the childcare. We have great neighbours and our families often come up and stay to help with the juggling act.”

Spreading the word

The first year of running Wild Rose Escapes was full of challenges. “It was nerve-racking,” Rosie says. “Getting people on courses and spreading the word is hard – even with the internet you have to make a big effort to be found.”

Three key things helped Rosie persevere: “Having Alex’s support, knowing it was a good business idea and the positive feedback from guests who came on our courses all helped enormously.”

Sheep sheared by hand

To add to the difficulties, their rural location meant they had no internet access for the first six months in their new home. “I spent a lot of time in the library doing my research,” she says. “I carried on working as a tour leader for Explore and Charity Challenge, as well as cooking for Highland houses and shooting lodges to keep funds coming in while setting up the business. We were also running the courses in different places, moving around a lot, which made the logistics quite tricky. Now it all happens at Cannich, things are far easier.”

A place to relax 

Rosie is certain that the Scottish countryside is part of the appeal for participants. “The pleasure of being in a beautiful place while learning or improving on skills is really precious,” she says. “Generally people say they love the fact they don’t have to worry about a thing except the craft – we provide all the meals and transport, which helps people to relax and enjoy being creative.”

Drying dyed fleece

Rosie really appreciates the variety of people who attend the courses. “We’ve had guests from Australia, the USA, South America, all over Europe and Canada – mostly women but some men, with ages ranging from 18 up to 80. It’s a mix that always makes for interesting chats around the table.”

It’s very important to Rosie and Alex that the business is both economically and environmentally responsible, using local services wherever possible while reusing, recycling and composting. They’ve also started a long-term project to protect and encourage ecological diversity within Crochail Wood, where wildlife already includes red squirrels, pine martins, black grouse, Scottish wild cats, and various fungi and invertebrates.

Natural dyeing is at the heart of the business, with plenty of plants to forage and experiment with in the locality. “A friend gave me some old natural dyeing books and I went to visit a lady who had been natural dyeing for many years.” Rosie remembers. “It was invaluable to get tips from someone so experienced. Now I just have a go with anything I can find that might give a dye.”

Plant dyes for yarn

Her favourite ingredients for making her dyes include birch bark, bracken, gorse, heather tops, tree lichens and elderberries.

Being able to share her love of crafts with others through workshops is truly magical for Rosie. “I love having the chance to spend a whole week or weekend doing what I enjoy, and seeing how much people get out of spending time here, producing beautiful pieces of work and spending time with like‑minded people,” she says.

Adventures to look forward to in 2016 include a number of exciting new courses, including Dye to Spin, which will take place in July. “This is a week-long residential course, which starts with shearing, picking dye plants, making dyes and dyeing fleece, followed by two days of learning or improving spinning with the fleece that has been washed and dyed by hand.” 

What a lovely way to get closer to nature while producing some bespoke yarn ready for your next knitting project.

Written by Judy Darley

Find the full range of Rosie’s courses at www.wildrose-escapes.co.uk.

If you're inspired to dye your own yarn, you can read about Cecilia's experiments here, and find out how Juliet Bernard got on here.

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