Get Inspired | with Katharine Barber
Katharine, My very creative Neighbour and friend is as country as you can get, and in a good way! In her own words, Katherine would say she was an Amateur DIY-ist. So why and HOW did she end up building her own beautiful straw-bale house with a timber frame, and then go on to run her own indie fibre business from home.
It is here, in her handmade home that all things creative are done, alongside studying and running her own Indie dye business.
I’ve asked to chat with Katharine this month, asked her a few questions so that we can all be inspired to take on new and exciting projects that are bigger than us!
Katharine – Why I built my own house when I didn’t know how, yet!
My family moved to Mid Wales in the 1990s and my parents had always planned to put an extension on their cottage. I was in my teens and thought I’d be leaving home fairly soon, but life apparently had other ideas! So when we finally came to build, a decade later, my parents and I needed separate living spaces rather than just an extension. It was therefore necessary to redesign the project from scratch. By this time I’d become really interested in sustainable building design, Passivhaus and natural building materials. I planned to build myself a straw-bale studio in the garden for my creative work. Then the overenthusiastic leap of inspiration came – which some might call madness – the extension itself was re-designed as a timber-framed, straw-bale house.
Take an Idea and roll with it:
Obviously that kind of self-build was – and still is – pretty innovative which means you not only have to research and design it yourself but you also have to be prepared to be very hands-on in terms of the actual building. Most conventional builders look a bit horrified when you start mentioning traditional materials such as lime plasters, renders and the words ‘straw-bale house’. When literally “off-the-wall” building methods and materials get involved, you’re definitely on your own!
Fix it don’t bin it – creative nurture
I grew up in a family where as soon as I was able to grasp a crayon in my hands, I was encouraged to be creative. My brothers and I all share happy childhood memories of hanging around in our dad’s workshop amongst wood shavings and tools. We would help him with his projects or knock things up out of scrap timber. He took great pleasure in cherishing hand tools used by father and grandfather before him. I now use these tools and value that same connection with generations of makers in my family.
We spent every summer holiday in Anglesey at my Great Aunt’s cottage. She and her whimsical, handmade home by the sea were huge inspiration for us; that early influence more than anything probably defined the shape of my creativity. I was still quite young my brother(now an interior designer) taught me the rudiments of perspective and model making encouraging me to draw more to express ideas. My mother also got me hooked on textile crafts, which are now my business.
For me, being creative is an innate need, utterly essential to my physical and mental well-being. “Making” was also just a part of our lives; if you needed something, it was automatically accepted that, if possible, you’d make it rather than buy it. I really enjoy challenges and I try to learn new skills. I suppose it was a natural progression of all these things that when I needed my own home, I assumed I would make that myself!
Could you briefly run us through the process of your particular build, just incase any of us want to get started tomorrow!
- Concept and design formalised by a local architect
- Appeal (sustainable building concept helped for it to be accepted)
- Foundations put in.
- Find a frame builder. In my case this was Alan. (https://www.hewnwood.co.uk/courses)
- August: Erect timber frame over a 2 week period
- September: Neighbour ‘Martin’ (see portrait here) helped with design and build the interior structure which holds the bales in place
- We put on the reclaimed (from an old welsh church) slate roof.
- Finish building the straw-bale house walls.
- October: Render the house (using our hands) in lime. A 3 week process using up 9 tonnes of lime!
- Cladding goes over the outside and will be the exterior layer.
- January: Windows & doors fitted.
- First fix; Run conduit for electrical services and water within the bales/wall.
- Internal walls plastered with lime and hemp (by hand – rubbing it in to the straw)
- Internal walls & second fix.
What was the biggest challenge during the whole process of building a straw-bale house?
Weirdly, it was probably getting planning permission in the first place. After that, it’s down to yourself and your mental attitude – but unless you get past the first hurdle it’s not going to happen at all!
What was the most enjoyable part of building your own dream home?
It was most enjoyable when you could see it all coming together at the end and turning into a proper straw-bale house. By that point exhaustion was setting in, it was good to see the end result in sight. And the other really great part was just how it brought community together, working with others who wanted to be involved which meant a lot to me.
You run your own business as an independent dyer, from home. Can you tell us how this came about ?
I live on a smallholding so we’ve always had lots of animals, including my flock of Gotland sheep. I’d been selling the fleeces to hand-spinners like myself through a friend’s business and she encouraged me to set up my own Etsy shop to sell the dyed wool online. So in May 2014 I opened for the first time online selling first to people I already “knew” in the online textile community but it grew from there, buying in different types of fibre and learning new dyeing techniques and building up a global customer base. After a while I found a really inspiring wool station in South Island, New Zealand selling their unique strain of New Zealand Halfbred sheep’s wool and I imported that to sell around Europe and shortly after that I created my own website ‘Barberblacksheep’ to expand that aspect of it.
Do you enjoy working from home, and how does being surrounded by nature inspire your work?
Of course! There’s challenges in it but I love the freedom and flexibility. Plus I have one of the best views in Mid Wales at my desk!
I feel deeply connected to my environment because of living on the land. The changing seasons massively influence my colour sense throughout the year and this change is noticeable in the palettes I dye. I’m also really concerned about my impact on the environment so over time I’ve cut out non-biodegrable fibres from my wool blends (like nylon to reinforce sock yarn) and also look at sustainable methods of dyeing and creating products like using harvested rainwater for the bulk of my dyeing.
What does your typical day look like?
I don’t have one! But my dogs always insist on being walked before anything! If I’ve done an online shop update there will be parcels to pack and ship, there will be fibres to dye or label, photograph and list online and general admin to deal with. I’m halfway through studying for a Natural Sciences degree so a lot of my time is currently spent doing that. And there are always lots of jobs to be done outside depending on the season so I could be hedge laying, shearing sheep or growing vegetables. There really is no typical day.
Any tips for people wanting take a creative leap?
Don’t compare yourself to others. Being authentic is a bit of a cliché but if you don’t believe in what you’re trying to convey then no one else will either. Don’t be afraid of taking risks or making mistakes; it’s painful but often the best way to define what matters to you creatively.
Favourite thing to listen to whilst working?
Silence mostly. Otherwise, classical music.
Comfort reading for a rainy day?
I love Tove Jansson’s writing, particularly The Summer Book. I also love re-reading her Moomin series as an adult because of the deeper context and how dark her writing can be at times which was lost on me as a child.
You can follow Katharine on Instagram @Blacksheepfibre
and purchase wool from her website www.barber-blacksheep.co.uk
If you want to take a course and learn more about building a straw-bale house with Timber frames you can take a workshop with Alan who built Katharine’s timber frame. To Read more visit Hewnwood.co.uk
Thank you Katharine for your time and inspiration! I hope you enjoyed reading and do watch out for more ‘Get inspired’ articles at the end of each month in the ‘Easel Editorial’ which you can sign up to for free here.