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Educators – Fibreshed Melbourne
Sally Blake

Eucalyptus Leaf Dye Diary, 2016. Eucalyptus dyed wool, silk and linen. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.


“There was all this knowledge tucked away in drawers. I wanted to get it out.” Natural dyers are great experimenters. But there aren’t many ways for others to use their accumulated knowledge. Canberra based visual artist, Sally Blake wants to change that.

It was natural for Sally to explore natural dyes. She lives in a city full of gardens and surrounded by bushland after all. For Sally, natural dyes are the result of a lovely relationship between humans and nature. The pigments were always present, but dye colours wouldn’t exist without human intervention. Sally began experimenting with plants from her own garden, and from friends. Documenting the results in a diary encouraged more questions and bigger ideas.

Eucalyptus Leaf Drawing 4, 2016. Pressed leaves on paper. 106 x 60 cm. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.


In 2016, Sally set out to create a Eucalypt dye database. She partnered with the Australia council for the Arts. Rangers at the Australian National Botanic Garden (ANBG) provided access to the eucalypts in their collection. They helped Sally identify and responsibly harvest leaves and bark. It was important to Sally to use a method that presented meaningful comparisons. She used the same volumes and weights for all her dye experiments. She used different kinds of fabric (wool, silk and linen) and mordants (alum, iron and copper) systematically. The results are online, along with more detail on Sally’s process. The strong colours of Eucalyptus melliodora and Eucalyptus mannifera are Sally’s favourites. The Rangers at the ANBG liked seeing what colours their eucalypts produced. They look at these trees in a completely different way now.

Sally began to think of eucalypts as “holding the country together”. These trees have adapted to almost all the ecosystems in Australia. In many ways, Sally reflects, their roots hold the land together and their leaves shade us all. Mantles created with the dye database colours express this idea physically. Each mantle displays a design inspired from weaving patterns. Sally chose each design for its ability to look different from close up and far away.

Eucalyptus Mantle 3, 2017. Eucalyptus leaves and eucalyptus dyed wool, silk and linen on paper. 56 x 76 cm. Photo courtesy of Sally Blake.

Many people approach natural dyeing by looking to create a particular colour. Sally recommends a different tact. Start in your own garden with the colours that are there and then work out. This way you’ll get the palette of your, local area. Most of all, have a go. Sally teaches natural dyeing classes at the ANBG and the Canberra Environment Centre.

Sally’s next project will focus on the 46 eucalyptus varieties that are original to Canberra. The stories she gathers about these trees will highlight our relationship to them.




This site visit was generously supported by Fibreshed California and photographed by Andrew Lance.


Australia is the largest exporter of greasy wool for fine apparel in the world trading over 323 tonnes in 2013 (FAO, 2013.) Rachel Bucknall from Fibreshed Melbourne met with local wool growers Wendy Dennis and Tom from Tarndwarncoort who envision a much more local, connected future for their wool and the land.

I took my mother to a sheep farm for Mothers’ day. In fact, I convinced two of my aunts and my grandmother to come as well. I freely admit the selfish impulse behind this invitation (it meant I could do some more research for my Fibershed project). What gave me confidence to propose this audacious plan was that the sheep farm was putting on high tea. Tarndwarncoort is under two hours drive from Melbourne, only a short way off the Princes Highway between Colac and Winchelsea. It is a working sheep farm that is also working hard to welcome visitors. It offers boutique accommodation, a woolshop, a studio cafe, tours, and events. The beauty of the courtyard made us smile as we entered. Wendy came to greet us. We were early for tea, so she suggested we sit in the warmth of the wool shop. Tarndwarncoort wool is grown and processed locally, and while the majority is sent to New Zealand for fine spinning, a new local mill, The Great Ocean Road Woollen Mill has provided the opportunity to collaborate and begin production of a uniquely local product.

Tarndwarncoort's courtyard

Tarndwarncoort’s courtyard

Dennis comebacks

Tarndwarncoort is the home of the Polwarth sheep; Australia’s first sheep breed. Wendy and I sat down so she could show me how the Dennis family breed this sheep. It’s telling that as she went on, more of my family stopped browsing to join us and ask questions. It’s an interesting story, and Wendy tells it well. The Dennis family arrived in the 1840s with a breed of Saxon Merinos. They discovered their sheep weren’t well adapted to the wet and cold environment of this area so Richard Dennis tried cross breeding. He crossed his Merinos with Lincolns, a heavy breed of sheep famous for its long but coarse locks. This first cross results in a Corriedale, which is New Zealand’s first breed of sheep. However Corriedale fleece is coarser than Merino fleece, so Richard experimented further. He bred his Corriedale back with a Merino. It is this cross that was eventually refined into the Polwarth breed. Polwarths have the hardiness and long staple length of Lincolns, but retain a lot of the softness of Merinos as well. At each stage of the story, Wendy produced a sample of each breed’s fleece. Touching the fleece of a Merino, Lincoln, Corriedale and Polwarth helped me understand the differences in each breed’s wool.

How Polwarths were bred. Top left: a Lincoln sheep. Middle left to right: Corriedale, Merino, Richard Dennis. Bottom: a Polwarth sheep.

How Polwarths were bred.
Top left: a Lincoln sheep. Middle left to right: Corriedale, Merino, Richard Dennis. Bottom: a Polwarth sheep.

Colouring in

Traditionally sheep farmers would selectively breed for white sheep, because their fleece can be dyed a wider range of colours. Occasionally recessive genes would reappear in black, grey or brown lambs, so these would be culled. Wendy began wondering if these coloured lambs could be useful in the 1970s. She kept them and her husband David bred up a coloured flock. Hand spinners and knitters loved coloured fleece, because they like the natural colours and don’t need to dye. Coloured fleece now contributes to a big part of Tarndwarncoort’s income.

The Tarndwarncoort wool shop

The Tarndwarncoort wool shop

Back to back

Wendy organises an incredible challenge each year to promote wool and raise money for cancer research. Its called the International Back to Back Wool Challenge. Each team of eight is challenged to blade shear a sheep from their country of origin, process and knit the fleece into a jumper within 24 hours! Australia currently holds the record at 4 hours 51 minutes 14 seconds. Let me say that again. A team managed to hand cut a fleece, spin it, and then knit a jumper in less that FIVE HOURS. Wow.

Fine dining

We were eager to learn more, but it was time for tea. We were lucky to be seated in the gracious, well worn dining room. My family loved the antique porcelain display. I loved sharing a room with Angie Smales, who was playing zither to entertain us for the day. Angie played old songs like Greensleeves beautifully. She must have strong fingers, she played for over an hour! The food served was simple, home made and inventive. We’d never had savoury profiteroles before, but it’s definitely given us some ideas for our own creations! I thought the plates were beautifully arranged. They were decorated with trimmings from the gardens.

High tea sweets

High tea sweets

In-between courses, Wendy and David’s son, Tom, took us on a tour of the homestead and gardens. The Dennis family has lived in this area for 175 years. Tom knows so much of his family’s history and has a wonderfully entertaining way of telling the story. We started in the dining room, where photos of each generation of the family to have lived here hang. Tom can count back six generations and I could identify a lot with his story. My own family established a sheep run about 150km north of Tarndwarncoort a few years later.

Generations of the Dennis family

Generations of the Dennis family

Tom then took us out to the gardens, which have a lovely old English feel to them. There is a water well with the bell hanging above. This came from the ship the Dennis family sailed out to Australia in. There is also a stone chair built out of the remains of the first homestead’s hearth. A drawing of that old homestead has been made into a brass plaque to show what it looked like.

The first house at Tarndwarncoort

The first house at Tarndwarncoort

The family originated from Cornwall, and you can see the influence of their background on the homestead’s architecture. Tom pointed out where the house was added to as the family fortunes rose and fell over the years. Tom runs these tours to raise money for the maintenance of the house. So far he’s been able to modernise the wiring and gutters, a very important but expensive undertaking. My aunt quipped that Tom should consider having Country House Rescue to visit. Tom agreed, but said he was also a little scared of Ruth Watson!

Tom’s dreams for the Homestead are to build it’s offering to visitors to connect with fibre production. The historic site is uniquely placed to present an accessible experience of Australian wool in its production phase, and as a place to connect local artisans. Tom hopes that with a new regenerative farming and focusing on producing a unique product Dennis family can continue to produce 100% Polwarth wool well into the future.

I made my goodbyes to Wendy before we left and thanked them all for their hospitality. My family talked about the day all through the drive home – we had a wonderful time!

Fresh Field Alpacas

A field of alpacas

Chillin’ at Freshfield alpacas

I couldn’t have hoped for a warmer introduction to alpacas than Fresh field alpacas. MaryAnn took me out to see the alpacas first. She knew all their names, and could call over those who were likely to be up for a cuddle.

Meet the alpacas

I got to see up close their gorgeous eyes and little ways they’ll tease each other. It’s pretty easy to see why people with a bit of space might consider an alpaca as a pet. Fresh field offer agistment services for those who don’t have the space to keep their alpaca. A couple were visiting their animals and giving them some treats when I arrived.

Fresh field is an easy hour’s drive from Melbourne. The farm is friendly and set up for family visits. You can feed the alpacas for a small donation. They also have a fairly large shop with a range of different alpaca products.

Fresh field shear their alpacas once a year before the weather gets really hot. MaryAnn contracts a shearer and she said the most they’d done in one day was 86 fleeces!

MaryAnn can wash, dehair and card the fibre on site. Their own fleece goes to different countries depending on the end product. Peru manufactures clothes, New Zealand spins most of the yarn in their store. MaryAnn gets fleece donations from people who’ve bought alpacas from her. She hand spins these or prepares them for felting.

Did I hear you say felting?

Yup! Fresh field has a farm studio and offers felting workshops. While I was there, the teacher was overseeing a more experienced felter. The felter had booked time in the studio to make some nuno felt pieces. In the studio there are large tables and a felting machine with fabrics and dyes on hand. I can see the attraction of working in the studio compared to trying to work at home.

Inspecting fabric in the process of felting

Inspecting the fabric after the first felting

Judy is the teacher. She’s skilful and practical, with a cheeky sense of humour! She also runs classes where you can learn how to create a hat, bag or scarf. I’m planning on coming back for a felt hat workshop. Judy’s examples of felt hats in the store are lovely (sorry, I didn’t think to take a photo – silly me!).