Interview: Thistle Dubh Ewe

I had the pleasure of going to Perth Festival of Yarn at the start of September, and I met a wonderful and inspiring bunch of people, including Louise from Thistle Dubh Ewe. Lou is a 45-year-old Scot, which are two facts that are very important to know about her. “It informs everything I am and everything I do, including my business. And my age? Well, I’ve reached that point in my life where I’m finally pretty comfortable in my own skin; happy with my choices and the person I’ve become. Not an easy place to get to.”

Something for Louise that is of the utmost importance, is that she has now been able to make time for the crafty side of her life. “I’ve been crafting in one form or another all of my life but lost touch with it a little as I got older. I think, particularly in the case of women, we often put our creativity aside as we immerse ourselves in studying, work, family etc. and only come back to it later. That’s certainly what happened to me and rediscovering my creative streak was actually born of my ongoing battle with mental health issues when I started knitting again for therapeutic reasons.”

What drew me to Louise’s stall was her felted soap bars and her project bags (which could double up as make up bags, wash bags and whatever else you can think of!) We got chatting and our mutual appreciation of the underrepresentation of crocheters everywhere we go kept us chatting for quite a while. I left with a card, and a promise to contact her soon. She’s inventive, and I love that about her.

When did Thistle Dubh Ewe come to life?
About 5 years ago, when it became clear that holding down a traditional 9-5 job wasn’t practical or realistic but that I needed to be doing something. I’d taken up felting and been introduced to the concept of eco friendly dryer balls by an American friend. Fortuitous timing and that, as they say, was that. I’m truly blessed to be able to do this as my full time job. It’s transformed my life in so many ways. I had some specific aims in building Thistle Dubh Ewe which included supporting other small business, using locally sourced materials and being as eco friendly as possible. On top of that, it was important to me that the items I make reflect their Scottish origins. Sometimes that’s achieved through the obvious, such as using fabric or fibre that’s grown/manufactured in Scotland and sometimes it’s more subtle, such as the inspiration behind colour choices. 

What first drew me to your stand at Perth was your felted soap – how did you come up with this idea?
The soaps are always a talking point and are still a new concept to many. People tend to be curious about them and attracted by the variety of colours. I came across the idea at a small wool festival in the Highlands several years ago. I was already felting at that time and got into a conversation with the stallholder about the how and why behind them. The soaps are tactile, colourful, smell wonderful and make perfect gifts. They usually sell out quickly. 

They’re really fun to make. I use Scottish wool, Shetland and Merino, to cover the soaps using the wet felting process but you can use any wool fibres. All you need is hot and cold water, soap, fibre to wrap around the soap, a piece of netting or some tights to hold the fibre securely during felting, some bubble wrap or a similar rough surface to rub against, and a lot of elbow grease. You can also add designs on top using needle felting if you wish. When I can, I prefer to use soaps that are handmade locally, but sourcing the right kind can be very hit and miss. Handmade soaps are often too soft and by the time you spend 15 minutes felting them, there’s hardly any actual soap left. That’s to do with the methods used to create the soap. It’s definitely worth the time and research to have natural rather than commercial products though. Not to mention the variety of scents is much wider. 

You also have other soap and skincare products, please tell me about these?
In terms of other skincare products, I have hand knitted cotton face cloths that I sell in sets with non-felted handmade soaps, and sets of crocheted face scrubbies, also cotton. Again, the emphasis is always on natural fibres and products. 

You also have some fab polymer clay-handled crochet hooks – I’ve never come across this before, and it seems like such a fun idea!
Thank you, I’m glad you like them. 🙂

This is a deceptively simple process. On the face of it, it seems like a simple matter of rolling out some polymer clay and wrapping it around a crochet hook. That’s certainly the basic concept but, as with most crafts, if you intend to do it professionally, there are a many tips and tricks you need to pick up along the way. I had a lot of trial and error when I first began making them and I stand in awe of the jewellers and other clay users who create really intricate pieces because, let me tell you, polymer clay is temperamental and contrary! It’s important to use a good quality clay and an equally good quality metal hook. Then you have to make sure the clay is at the right temperature and well prepared before you start mixing colours and rolling it out.

If you get that far, you then have to be careful with the thickness of the pieces you apply to the hook, ensure that that there are no air bubbles in the clay and finally, that you bake it for the correct amount of time. If you get any of these things wrong, your finished hook could look messy if it’s even usable. Once you get the hang of your own preferred materials it’s huge amount of fun and something that’s limited only by your own imagination. My own hook handles are fairly simple, mainly based on colourful patterns, because my primary concern is providing an attractive, ergonomic, practical hook to use. I’ve seen some very elaborate and amazing creations from other makers though. 

What other products that you make would you say you are most proud of? What about them do you love?
It’s very difficult to pinpoint a favourite. I’m usually most proud of whichever item I’ve just finished making. At the moment, it’s definitely my project bags. I get a huge amount of enjoyment from researching fabrics, most of which are limited edition runs, matching colours, and deciding on new projects. I can literally lose hours of time once I’m sitting at the sewing machine. The best feeling is watching someone’s face light up when they’ve spotted a bag and fall in love with it. When I can see one has found the perfect home, I know I’ve done my job right. 

What have you found that your customers like the most?
The biggest customer favourite over the past year has been my chicken bags. They literally flew off the shelves as soon as I posted about them or listed them on Etsy. Stitch markers are always popular too. We crafters do like our gadgets and tools.

You’re a crafter, too (crochet represent!), what crafts do you do?
Oh my goodness, let’s see. I knit, crochet, sew (not clothes), make cards and journals, do decorative planning, cross stitch, embroider, needle felt, wet felt, spin (barely – this is a new one!), make resin pendants and stitch markers, and love colouring in. I’d really like to try zentangling too but there are only so many hours in the day!  

Which did you learn first? 
It’s hard to be certain which craft came first because I was taught so many things from such a young age. My Mum and my Grandma were both very creative people and they passed that right along to me. I suspect it was probably cross stitch, which was also the one thing I continued doing even through the years when other crafts got rather sidelined. It’s a bit like painting by numbers only using thread and aida instead of paints and paper. 

Do you think it’s important that other people pick up these skills? 
I dabble in lots of crafts and really enjoy trying new ones. I think it’s extremely important that other people pick up these skills. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful way to keep our brains active by continually learning and discovering and is proving to be a great therapy for people suffering all kinds of illnesses. Platforms such as Craftsy and YouTube are invaluable in keeping these traditional skills alive and introducing new generations to them. There’s been quite a crafting renaissance in recent years and long may it continue.

What do you love about our crafty community the most?
I’d have to say the diversity and inclusiveness. It’s a global community and encompasses all kinds of colours, genders, ages, creeds, interests, skills, etc.. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but it’s certainly a group that, in my experience, works harder at improving on those two things than any other I’ve personally come across. I’ve never been to a crafting event yet where I didn’t find a warm welcome, enthusiastic offers of help when needed and just a general acceptance of me as I am. That’s a wonderful feeling that I haven’t found anywhere else to quite the same extent. Crafters are my tribe, particularly knitters and crocheters.

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