Seeing the world in neon

Helen Reed has an eyesight condition that, as far as I know, has no name. She sees the world in neon. Even people’s skin tones have a neon glow about them. Dry leaves yield neon yellows with pink undertones.

Helen is the dyer behind The Wool Kitchen dye studio – a garden shed in Walthamstow, east London from where she’s been cooking fantastically cosmic coloured yarns for knitters for the last 8 years.

“When I get the idea for a new colour, it haunts me. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it. ” 

She shows me with her hands, “I’m thinking if I turn the yarn this way and put this section in that bit of colour I can do it.” 

“I know it’s obsessional” she confesses, “but I’m only obsessional in the elements of my life that I have control of, like consistency in batches and no horizontal dyeing. I can be very messy in the rest of my life.”

That’s another thing about Helen: She thinks about things really hard and really deeply and then speaks about those hard, deep thoughts in a disarmingly straight forward way.

I first encountered Helen’s wool, labelled Urban Hand Dyed Yarn, when she brought some skeins to the shop a few months after I’d opened. It was 2014 and the knitting world was awash with skinny, ruddy cheeked models, looking wistful amongst long grasses and woodland scenes. At the time the flouro pinks, blues and yellows felt like a high voltage jolt of electricity in my earthy wool cubbies.

“Although I have a Yorkshire accent, I live in east London, near an industrial estate. My world isn’t wistful and windswept. My children were born in Whipps Cross hospital. My life is surrounded by urban high rise.” Helen talks about taking her kids to play in the local run-down parks with graffitied walls. And then quickly moves onto constellations and the cosmos. “the dark sky with bright stars… nebulas. It’s about finding the elements of colour joy in a grey space”, she explains. This is not a thesis on beauty in urban decay or even an astronomy lesson. It’s a window on the colour palette of her world and the way that colours present themselves.

“So I dye a lot of greys with neon. There used to be a real thing against pooling when I started out.”  Pooling is what happens when the colours of a variagated yarn start swimming together in patches as the yarn is knitted into fabric. “The challenge was to create something that wouldn’t pool but that still captured the way that neons explode against the grey.”

The result was a range that Helen calls her Zip Yarns – on account of the Zip of colour  (a tiny prism like rainbow) that recurrs in each round of the skein. “My original idea was that you should be able to knit a sock and it wouldn’t pool’.

The irony is that Helen’s yarns are now one of the very few which are suitable for the innovative new wave of assigned pooling designs, where the zip of colour deliberately drives the stitch patterning into little pools.

It’s clear to me that Helen’s growth as a dyer also comes from how she has grown as a knitter. “Understanding the structure of knitting and how that looks in a 3D format has changed my dyeing.” She’s always held firm to an idea that the knitter should ‘enjoy every stitch’, that the yarn should entertain and pique your interest as you work your stitches. It’s an idea that really only makes sense when you’ve got Helen’s yarn running through your fingers. For me it’s like the wonder of seeing phosphoresence in the sea after dark. Another knitter recently remarked, “I’ve never enjoyed the act of knitting a yarn as much as I have with Wool Kitchen wool.”

 Urban, interstellar and full of life, Helen’s yarns are pretty much just like her.And it  is my enormous pleasure to let you know that 8 years on, Helen is still making her Urban hand dyed yarns, and we are still proudly selling them and enjoying every stitch that gets knit with them.

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