Ovis What?

Julius is a cavernous minimalist restaurant that has the look of a place which other people eat at. But when I go in and take a seat there’s a comforting background hubub of indistinct voices that somehow disarms all the high ceilinged, mid-century blah blah. I’m in the Wedding district of Berlin, sitting at a large round table next to a picture window. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of an uncharming 1970s tower block. I can see older kids lazily gathering on a low graffitited wall on the other side of Nettelbeck Platz, with a not very energetic intent to move onto more happening night time adventures.

Meanwhile inside, a hand dyer, a toy maker, a designer and a wool seller, have joined me around the table. This warm evening in the serendipitously available, and unexpectedly elegant restaurant marks the end of 2 full days of the group members variously teaching, selling, trunk-showing, meeting and greeting at the Wedding Wool Weekend. There’s a mood amongst them of exhausted relief in it being over, at the same time as a slightly fizzy excitement about all that happened. And the special rareness of being together in the same place at the same time, is not lost on any of us. Instant cross-continental chat on Whatsapp is great, but being able to not talk as well as talk, listen, interrupt, read expressions, and share a bottle of wine, feels like nectar right now.

As for me, my work is not quite over, for I have one last task to complete before leaving Berlin – specifically with the hand dyer in my party who’s sitting on my left. Saskia Maas is the woman behind the Ovis Et Cetera yarn label. I’d discovered her yarn at the previous year’s Berlin Wool Weekend – and became completely smitten – So much so that I broke with my self-imposed rule of only trading in hand dyed yarn from producers local to the shop. Whether this makes Ovis the exception that proves the rule, or undoes it, I’m not sure, but it was without doubt, worth breaking it for. Consequently I’d made up my mind before leaving home, that this time I would return from Berlin with the story of how her yarn came to be.

Saskia is wearing a simple hand-knitted sleeveless sweater vest which would be completely un-noteworthy were it not for its flaxen shade of straw spun like gold, and the beautiful way it hangs on her. She carries a smiling reassuredness about her. Whatever complexity there is in her practice, she presents it with a simple and straight-forward groundedness. As we talk there’s a sense that no matter the alternative routes she’s chosen between, she takes paths with the deliberateness of someone who just sees them as obvious to her, each of her past lives.. art school student, photographer, cinema projectionist, florist, gardening advisor and now yarn dyer, made sense until it didn’t. For an agoniser like me, it makes Saskia’s work totally compelling.

Let’s start with the Latin,” I suggest. “Why Ovis?

Saskia explains that this is about the way that Latin names featured in the plants she worked with in her years as a florist, both in the Netherlands and the UK. Latin gave her a lexicon which transcended country and language. All the common names of flowers are different in Dutch (Saskia’s mother tongue) and English but Latin names are constant everywhere. As a label for her yarn, Ovis (meaning “sheep”), Et Cetera (meaning “and the rest”) worked as a descriptor and would work across borders too.

For me it was logical to use Latin so it would be universal
And her yarn base names followed suit:
Igneae (fiery), Dimidium (the half) and Herba (grass)

As she speaks, I can’t help but think the missing piece in her explanation is the simple and beautiful poetry of those names. But now it seems clearer to me that the names, just like her colours, fit into a whole which is somehow poetic just by virtue of being Saskia’s practice.

Her intention was to dye the kind of yarn she liked to knit with. She wanted to sell sock yarn that was free from the harmful environmental effects of standard acid dyes and superwash processing and that minimised the miles it travelled to reach her. She began with Igneae, a blend of wool, silk and ramie, a gloriously lustrous sock yarn that ingeniously uses ramie, a cousin of nettle, to take the yarn to a sock-worthy strength.

The GOTS certified acid dyes she found, gave her a starting pallette of just 9 colours.

“They are very basic crayola type colours so you have to create your own shades. With other acid dyes you can shop for exactly the shade you want and just buy it. But with these dyes, I have to mix them myself. So if I see this vase, for example, and think that’s a really pretty colour, I start trying to work out how to create it.”

I reflect again on the colours of the Igneae that we have in the shop.

When they first arrived I had the feeling that they shone when I opened the box. There was a complexity in the colours that combined with the lustre of the yarn to make them appear as though they were glowing. I tried to shoot the yarn in various different light spots in the shop with my phone camera – but each time I failed to capture the colours as I saw them. Eventually I gave up and moved onto hanging the skeins on pegs by colour. It wasn’t long before knitters came by and reached up to take a closer look. And I knew immediately that the yarn spoke for itself – my failure to catch it in digital pixels is part of what is so very beautiful about Saskia’s dyeing. This is yarn, that just like Saskia, has its own self-evident poetry.

I look around the table at the faces of my friends, now slightly rosy cheeked from the wine which is almost gone. There’s also a new animatedness amongst everyone as the conversation has moved onto a new project idea we can work on together. I realise that not only will I go home with my story from Saskia, but there’s an echo of that hubub from the unlikely restaurant in Berlin which will stay around in me for a lot longer to come.

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