Category Archives: research

Traveller/Gypsy/Roma Crafts

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I met and interviewed a lovely local Traveller who was happy to be referred to as someone I met, rather than by name, so I’ll just call her “Laura” (I’ve been watching Little House on the Prairie…) I enjoyed our chat very much, and while she originally thought she didn’t know much that could help me in my quest to find out about things made here, she remembered some lovely items once we started chatting!
Interviews with strangers can be a bit stilted. In most cases, on meeting people, one tends to chat about things in common and then move onto personal histories and other family details once you know each other better. In interviews, you need to go straight to the questions and in this case, ask about personal stuff, so I’m glad Laura was so lovely about it.


We had a good chat, including about how Travellers came to become a group – they, well, they travel! For work in particular. For example, Kent for the hops, Wales for the potatoes, the Fens for the strawberries. Being on the road, in their own houses (Wagons, Trailers, Bender Tents) they developed their own crafts to decorate, use or sell. There’s many immigrants to the Fens area, and the Travellers are often seen as a similar group as they’ve been coming (and going and coming back) for many years, as did others who came for the picking season, and some have chosen to settle here. I have met Londoners who used to come to pick fruit and then came to settle permanently, and of course we now have Eastern Europeans coming to do the work and settling. It is an ever changing environment in more ways than one.


One of the crafts that I was particularly interested in was the embroidery. There’s a style that Laura tried to describe, and which I will do some more research on to see if I can capture and repeat it. She explained that the women had black pinafores on which they embroidered flowers in outline and leaves in full. I showed her some books, but we couldn’t find quite the right picture, so hopefully I’ll be able to find out more.


Lacemaking was something that came up, and while Laura acknowledged she’d seen it, she couldn’t think of a particular pattern, so again, we’ll see if I can investigate further. I found other evidence of lacemaking in the area, so it’s not specifically a Traveller craft, but as it’s so portable, it makes sense that they did it as a way to decorate their homes (rather than in a commercial sense as it is better known in an historical context).



My family use wooden pegs, for washing, but also we make them into dolls and gnomes. The Traveller wooden pegs have metal around the top, presumably to make them last longer and be stronger. I thought this was an interesting adaptation.


Baskets and brooms were all made from the materials available (baskets are becoming a real theme of this project!) and also using wood, flowers were whittled for decorations.


(to be continued…)


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During the OWLP Conference, Dr Susan Oosthuizen’s talk described the wealth of the region. How local farmers paid taxes helped show what was being grown, farmed, and sold to make a living. It all linked back to the management of the water. As the water is controlled, the meadows are allowed to flood, but only or a short period of time, they are then drained to allow the fresh meadow grasses to grow for the cattle to feed on. This nutrient intense food gave the milk a quality that produced a rich cream and therefore a rich butter. The politics of farming and drainage are complicated, and well explained elsewhere, but I thought this point about high quality milk was important and such a specific link to the area that I wanted to feature it here.

I have made butter before, it’s a fascinating process, simple, but magical if you haven’t done it before! It’s something that anyone can do, and of course children in particular will enjoy it. Though it takes some effort by hand, it is possible and results in a tasty treat.

butter churner

On visiting the Cambridge Folk Museum, I was pleased to find a butter churner on display, and while I don’t have one of those to use, I have made butter with a jar and marbles before, so hopefully, if this is chosen to go forward to the workshop stage, I’ll be able to reproduce a useful skill representing the rich soil of the fens and the management of the water.









Dr Oosthuizen’s talk is now on youtube, do watch, she’s a great speaker. Click here.


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Woad – isatis tinctoria

Biennial herb, its leaves creating dye from dark blue to lighter blue and green


I found a great book in the library (March and Wisbech both have a copy, see below for reference) and also some photographs I think are related to Woad growing, in the Lilian Ream collection (no references available) as well as at The Wisbech and Fenland Museum, referred to in the book. They are of Woad farming in Parson Drove, on the edge of our Ouse Washes area. It is an interesting subject as it was a crop mainly grown in this region, north through Lincolnshire, but also Somerset, a similar landscape to the Ouse Washes fenland area. It was grown and sold to the rest of the country and abroad for centuries, losing out to indigo in later years, which was a stronger colour and cheaper to produce – and then was produced chemically negating the need for plants. However, as with many of the crafts, ideas and practises I have investigated, it still has a niche and I hope its use will continue with individuals and small growers.

new leaves of woad plant

I have a woad plant myself, and have given a couple away to friends, so we’ll see later in the year if I can indeed produce the dye. I will add photos to this section as I get permission from the owners (Wisbech and Fenland Museum, and the Lilian Ream Trust), here’s one of the plant I’m nurturing!






It is a labour intensive process, as much of farming was, with expertise in growing, picking, storing and then creating the dye balls.

First, the leaves were picked (down to 3″ of the ground – so regrowth could occur and be picked again) and carried to the farm buildings in willow baskets (skeps). There they were crushed using special milling equipment, then “balled” into 6″ diameter balls; dried, crushed again, couched (fermented), casked and carted off to the railways. For Parson Drove, the process ended there, the woad was sent by railway to other parts of the country to be used in various dying techniques – the colour would range from dark to light blue and green. Lincoln Green was created by adding Weld, and Madder created a deep purple with the addition of a little Woad. It became known as the universal dye as it was the base for all the colours produceable in its heyday. It was also used to fix Indigo, which later replaced it.
The people working in this industry ranged from small children to adult men. Mr T Stone in 1794, said, of seed drilling – “use can be made of the infant poor for hand-weeding” (Wills, N. 1970). The men had their skin dyed from the juice of the leaves dripping down their necks as they carried the balled woad on boards over their heads to the drying ranges.

(note: while I was viewing part of the Lilian Ream photographic collection I thought I spotted one where two men had made what I thought may be woad balls, but there was no reference. I couldn’t find the photo or a reference in the library or online version of the collection either. However, a website of a Woad supplier has the same photo, via the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, so I was pleased that I guessed right! I will not reproduce it here without permission, but will do when the Lilian Ream Trust respond).

Reference: “Woad in the Fens“, Wills, N T, 1975 (2nd ed) pub: Industrial Archaeology Sub-Committee of the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology

Available from Cambridgeshire Libraries


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woad inc.

Library visit

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As with all libraries, Wisbech has a section that is for study, with books that cannot be taken out. The books in this section are often old, and are always really interesting! I found a few that I made some notes on for this project, trying hard not to read the ones that looked interesting in general!


I found a great book just on woad. This is a natural dye, produced mainly in the Lincolnshire Fens, but also at Parson Drove which is technically in the Cambridgeshire Fens, at the northern end of the Ouse Washes. I’ll write a separate post about each craft I find, but woad is on the list of potential crafts to take forward to the workshop stage as it was an important part of the economic development of the area, and required skilled craftsmen as well as using field hands, often whole families, to produce the crop.

There was a few books on “crafts” – “East Anglian Crafts” was one – but not specific mention of the Fens, or towns in the Fens. We’re very much on the edge of other areas, which I think is significant.

I did find a reference to eel-catching baskets, and rag rugs, both of which I of course already had on my list, so I will research them further to get more specific information on place and design, perhaps particular to the area?


All in all, a useful few hours in the library, see the next blog post to find out more about woad.