Helen Lockhart – Maker of Rainbows

22 Oct 2010 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

MANDY HAGGITH enjoys a good yarn with wool dyer Helen Lockhart

HELEN LOCKHART creates colour. She makes it in a small shed up a sandy track at the back of Clachtoll, in Assynt, in the northwest Highlands. To the north and west is the ocean, to the east and south are the Assynt mountains, and all around her are the inspirations for her work: heather flowers, bracken fronds, rippling lochens or just the sky. You can buy her colours on the internet (see link below). They each come with a free ball of yarn.

Helen is a dyer of wool. She has dozens of people so enraptured by her shades and tones that they join her yarn clubs. ‘Every month I send them a hank of yarn of colours I can see from my workshop,’ she says. These seasonally-inspired colours make their way from Assynt all over the world.

Hank of yarn individually hand-dyed by Helen Lockhart

Hank of yarn individually hand-dyed by Helen Lockhart

Helen reels off a list of countries, including Canada, Australia, Finland, Spain, Denmark, the USA, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. She has a lace club, a sock club and even a luxury club, for those who want their Assynt colours on a super-soft mix of merino wool and silk.

‘There are two aspects to colour’, she says. ‘Some colours are fashion driven, for example, if I am deliberately setting out to make colours for the next season, but fortunately many of the highly fashionable colours are in the landscape here, which is really where I take most of my inspiration.’

She pulls some hanks down from her shelves to illustrate. ‘This one is a mix of summer sky blues, this one is a winter fireside, this is the golden colour the bracken turns just before it goes brown.’ Their very names are suggestive: fancy some fat-free chocolate or Assynt brambles? How about heather and rock, lilac whispers or primrose?

Helen started coming to Assynt in the mid-1990s; by 1997 she and her husband Steven had bought a house here and they moved here full-time in 2008. Before then, she was working in a human resources department of a pharmaceutical company in the Scottish borders, and Stevan worked as head of IT in the same company.

Helen Lockhart hand-dyes all the yarn, gathering her inspiration from the colours, landscapes and traditions surrounding her home in the crofting community of Assynt

Helen Lockhart hand-dyes all the yarn, gathering her inspiration from the colours, landscapes and traditions surrounding her home in the crofting community of Assynt

‘It was a mad kind of life. We realised that if we’d been in our twenties and had the house we would just have gone and lived there, jobs or no jobs, so we just decided to do it in our 40s anyway. We love the life here. We’ve always felt very comfortable and everyone’s very welcoming. Everyone who lives in Assynt is important just by being here, and I really like that. It’s a way of life we wanted to have, away from hefty commercialisation and Tesco supermarkets.’

Their house is off grid, so all their electricity comes from solar panels and a small wind-power generator, and all the dyes Helen makes are cooked up on a little gas stove and the yarn dries naturally. ‘I use acid dyes, based on citric acid, the stuff used to make bath bombs, nothing at all fearsome.’

This low-footprint approach has a big effect on her colours. ‘A lot of dyers use microwaves, but I mostly use immersion dying. The yarns are in water for at least 20 minutes so the colours can get very intense. Alternatively, I soak the wool to open up the fibres and then use dry powders that spread in unpredictable ways, so the colours can be completely different for each hank.’

She began dyeing originally just to satisfy her own desire for interesting knitting yarn. She has been knitting all her life, since her early childhood near Bulawayo, in former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. ‘I don’t actually remember learning to knit’, she says, deducing that she was presumably taught by her mother.

She certainly learned before she went to school, where she remembers knitting from an early age. ‘The very first thing we learned to knit at school was socks on four needles, which is genius because adults think: four needles – that must be hard, whereas kids just think: that’s how you knit.’

She enjoys teaching knitting, running classes for all standards locally as well as going away to Edinburgh to teach, and she will shortly be introducing Lochinver’s primary school children to the art. ‘I’ll be teaching all classes, all ages, boys and girls. It’ll be interesting to see how they take to it.’

She does not knit garments for other people, however, so if you want to wear her colours you will have to knit them yourself, or find someone else to. ‘Knitting for others takes the pleasure out of it for me,’ she says. ‘I’ll happily teach anyone to knit, but I don’t enjoy knitting to someone else’s specification.’

Fortunately there are loads of people out there all too ready to enjoy making things with Helen’s yarn and trade is brisk. ‘I started dyeing just for myself, but I realised there was room in the market for me to move into it. I tested the market through my blog and people said my dyeing was really nice, so I thought if they like it maybe they’ll buy it. I sold some hanks at shows at first then started selling on the internet in 1998. When we moved to Assynt it became imperative that I’d sell some wool!’

Having a husband who is an IT expert is useful when it comes to setting up a shop on the internet, she admits. ‘It has definitely been a bonus being married to him, but there are lots of places you can get help to set up e-commerce sites.’

She finds her web presence is a vital marketing tool. ‘The website is my main route to market, that’s how retailers find me,’ she says. She has shops in England and around Scotland selling her wool, and her knitting kits for socks, shawls, or a hat and gloves, containing a pattern, needles and a hank of wool, are particularly popular.

Her site attracts wholesale business from as far afield as America, including a high fashion designer who is using her yarn for luxury sweaters, although she can’t tell us who it is because they don’t want their competitors to know where they got their wool!

As well as the shop site, Helen’s regular blogging attracts business. ‘People definitely find me through the blog,’ she says. It also enables her to have satisfying relationships with her customers, where distance is no barrier. ‘I get loads of feedback about what people do with the yarns via the blog and email and I have a gallery of photos on the blog. It is really exciting to see what people have done with it. One colour can look so different depending on how it is knitted.’

Her landscape-inspired work is even starting to attract people to Assynt to see the colours for themselves. ‘I had someone knock on the door to show me the socks she had made’, says Helen, ‘and one of the members of my yarn club now books a holiday home here for three weeks of year and comes to watch me dyeing!’

One of her dreams is to establish a way to get local sheep’s wool professionally spun, so that Assynt-grown fibres can be the carriers of her colours. Until then, the tones of this most beautiful place are rippling out into cyberspace and people all over the world have our bracken in their shawls, heather in their hats and even shades of the Assynt mountains in their socks.

© Mandy Haggith, 2010