A group of strangers gathered outside the Princetown tourist information centre on a misty Sunday morning. They had one thing in common, a desire to know more about natural dyes and the history of the woollen industry on Dartmoor. Led by qualified Hill and Moorland Leader, Emma Cunis aka Dartmoor’s Daughter and Kristy Turner, Curator of the Dyeing on Dartmoor exhibition at the Museum of Dartmoor Life, the group set off appropriately on the Jobbers Way. This track was used by yarn jobbers who would lead their pack horses across the moor delivering wool to spinners, yarn to weavers and fabric to fullers and dyers.
On route we saw a Sheep Creep, an opening in a stone wall that allowed sheep to pass from area to area while keeping larger livestock enclosed.
The mist slowly lifted and the sun came through, blessing us with glorious views. Skylarks were singing, foals dozing and seeing some Scotch Black Face sheep gave an opportunity to talk about the history of sheep on the moor and the effect they have had on its industry and economy over the centuries.
The walk continued to Devonport Leat which was dug to channel Plymouth’s municipal water supply. Here a Sheep Leap was wonderfully demonstrated by Tobias. They were created so sheep could cross waterways without getting wet.
The walk continued to the old Whiteworks Tin Mine, one of Dartmoor’s largest, but now abandoned and reclaimed by nature. Here we stopped for refreshments while Kristy demonstrated the transfer of plant dyes by hammering with a stone, a method the Bronze Age locals may have used. She also talked us through the process of naturally dyeing wool and the necessity of Mordants to fix the colours to the yarn. She explained how tin from the mine was used as a mordant and mixed with a dye made from lichen to create the bright red shade used for soldiers’ coats. There was a strong message about how Fast Fashion and synthetic dyes are causing terrible harm to our planet and we should all champion Slow Style, make – do – and – mend and buying second hand. Dartmoor wool needs to become a valuable commodity once more.
On we continued with Emma pointing out places of interest such as the mire that inspired Conan Doyle to write the Hound of the Baskervilles. We discussed the importance of walking for our mental health and how lucky we were to have Dartmoor on our doorstep.
During the walk, Ruth of Woolly Nanas, a knitting group offering courses in Buckfastleigh, gathered fleece from gorse bushes and showed us how to simply spin it into yarn using her fingers and a stick.
We knew the walk was coming to an end when Dartmoor Prison came into sight and a cuckoo was heard. We had covered seven miles, learnt a few new things and shared many stories. The group of strangers were now firm friends.
Our thanks for the generous funding from the Royal Society’s #PlacesofScience project allowed us to offer this walk free of charge.
The next Wool Walk will be on Sunday 6th August. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for a place.