Yarnie Spotlight: Circus Tonic Handmade

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It has been a little while since we've met another of our amazing Shawl Society Season II yarn partners, so I'm particularly excited to bring you this in-depth interview with indie dyer and fellow Aussie Hannah, of Circus Tonic Handmade. I love the passion and energy that Hannah has shared with us in her answers. I know I find her creativity extremely inspiring. Also inspiring: the gorgeous rich colours of her yarn, which is heavily inspired by the brilliant colours of Australian flora and fauna. I am constantly blown away by the shading, subtlety and beauty of these skeins. I was lucky enough to meet Hannah in Sydney recently, when we did a joint trunk show at the lovely Skein Sisters Shop to celebrate the release of pattern #4: the Rune Shawl. For Rune, I chose two soft colurways of her wonderful Fiesta Fingering base: Cape Barren Goose and Laughing Turtle Dove. I'm happy to report that Hannah in person is every bit as lovely as her amazing hand-dyed yarn. I think you'll get a real sense of her sparkling personality and the the love that she puts into every skein as you read on.

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Have you always felt called to a creative job? Did you do a lot of making as a child?

My first ever money I earnt myself was making and selling ‘scrunchies’ when I was a tween in Dubai. Remember those?! I worked out the perfect amount of elastic and fabric bunch and waited until school holidays on trips to England to buy beautiful Liberty fabric for my business! I was taught to sew by making quilts but then left it all behind when I moved to Australia to study science. The next time I touched a sewing machine was when I was expecting my first baby at almost 30.

Can you think of a moment when your passion for yarn really ignited?

I learnt to knit in 2013-14 expecting my third baby who was going to be the first winter baby. I loved the whole process….but my first indie yarn was what really hooked me. Madelinetosh Sport in Betty Draper’s Blues. I have that baby cardigan right here at my desk as I type as a momento. I made the Autumn Leaves Cardigan by Nikki van der Car and from that point on I was completely obsessed with yarn and knitting!
 
How did you learn to do what you do?
 
As I was learning to become a yarn dyer, I watched a lot of podcasts or any You Tube videos I could find. I ordered the few books on the subject and then set to work experimenting with 20g skeins I wound over a book! I had quite a few email lessons from another Aussie dyer who went above and beyond to help me.

 

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When did you decide that becoming a yarn professional was the path you wanted to take?

Once I left my scientific career in 2015 and began learning to dye yarn, it wasn’t long before I really felt like I wanted to potentially start a small Etsy business. I needed a project to keep me from feeling at sea after such a big life change….and one thing led to another!
 
Are there particular inspirations you use when you’re choosing colours?

I look to the Australian natural environment first and foremost. Dyeing yarn inspired by Australian native birds first started as a sort of crutch as I wasn’t confident with colour theory but has developed into an endless world of colour nuance. As my techniques change with interest and fashions, the birds can be revisited and reinvented as there are some incredibly beautiful examples that are so pleasing to the eye and thus make beautiful garments and accessories. It also helps in one of the most challenging steps a lot of yarn dyers state which is the naming of colours!

 

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What’s a “day in the life” for you as a yarn dyer?

I live with my three children, husband and hound. The house stirs between 5 and 6am but I still can’t get out of the habit of staying in bed until the youngest comes in! He has just turned three, so I really need to get out of baby and toddler mode and get on with it! If I’m building up to an update or have custom orders in the folder I try to turn the pots on then so they are heating up as we have breakfast. On good days I will have 24 skeins dyed and setting before the school run, and then another 48 over the day. Rinsing, spinning and hanging out to dry usually happen after they have gone to bed. I then sit watching Greg and my Netflix series while I skein dry yarn! The four days before an update are reserved for photos, labelling and listing…and the two days after an update is shipping and post runs. Luckily my local post officer Shabiir allows me to drop and go and pay later….he doesn’t want me clogging up the queue with three kids pulling out all the greeting cards just as much as I don’t want to be there!! I’ve seen people start running up the street to get ahead of me when they see me coming with four IKEA bags over my arms!

In between those crazy weeks I like to do a lot of planning for clubs, trying to think up interesting themes and I’m always keeping an eye out for what and who are ‘hot right now’. I have made a concerted effort to keep yarn and consumable stocks at a level that I don’t get caught short….that works mostly but there are always stress times! After all of that, I made a pledge to knit more and usually put a few rows in for an hour or so after the time which I should have gone to bed!
 
Do you have favourite fibres or blends you love to work with most of all?

As I have discovered more about the yarn industry, my tastes have changed to include far more fibres and blends! Some plyed yarns such as superwash merino and nylon are fantastic for snazzy socks or bright modern shawls and give instant fun results in the dye pots and are easier to handle. There is certainly a huge market for those yarns and I still love them. There are incredible single origin ethical yarns becoming more available throughout Australia and I am very excited about those. They are a real education to dye and produce absolutely beautiful and precious results so I hope to carry a line of yarns such as those soon. Another recent new love is a merino bamboo blend fingering weight yarn that has a heavenly sheen and is lofty and drapes beautifully. I basically change my favourite all the time!

 

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What’s the most exciting part of your job?

I really love the moment of skeining up a new colour once it has dried. To finally see if what you imagined or hoped and planned will actually look attractive in the skein form is a big thrill. I still think that is my favourite point in the whole process!
 
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned since you began your business?

Probably that I am actually able to do this!! I didn’t go to art school, I can’t draw….but I seem to have a knack with applying dye to yarn and making fun stories to go along with it! I am an avid and committed knitter so I really do put a lot of effort in to making yarn for knitters. I try to add touches that I would like to see as an, ahem, online buyer of, ahem, a lot of yarn.
 
What would you tell someone who’s thinking about making the leap into a creative business?

I would say that it is a lot of fun, a lot of work both physically and mentally, a real thrill to join such a vibrant and encouraging community both online and in real life and GO FOR IT! There is a place for everyone…not everyone is going to end up as big and successful as Hedgehog Fibres but there are a lot of regular people with lovely rewarding businesses at a scale that is perfect for a spare room at home.
 
Do you ever feel tempted to hoard your own yarn?

I did think it would be amazing to have a peg board with all my colours…but I quickly realised I couldn’t really justify it. Some colours I really really struggle to list but I guess with all the formulas and recipes written down, I feel like I can hoard them that way….and unlock them on to a sweater quantity once I knit down all the other amazing yarn in my stash. I still love buying yarn from other indie dyers…and as my love for colourwork develops into a lifelong passion I am enjoying trying rustic workhorse yarns like Rauma Finnulgarn and many Shetland yarns. I adore my colours but there is always more yarn to try!

 

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When you’re knitting, what do you like to make?

My mood changes. I started with baby garments and toys then moved to shawls. I then went to portable hat projects, then on to socks and now garments. On the needles now, I have a shawl, a cowl, a mitred square blanket, four sock projects (club colours started as swatches) and one colourwork cardigan which will be my first steek! I have yarn sitting wound ready to go for another two sweaters and a line of 25 patterns printed and waiting!! As I meet more and more incredible designers I find it really hard to choose which to-die-for pattern to try next!
 
Besides yarn and knitting, do you have other creative pursuits?

I was once a ferocious reader and I think that actually is a creative life. Reading went by the way side when I was finishing my PhD (thankfully I hadn’t learnt to knit then as I may still be trying to write that damn thesis 10 years on…) and then having babies but I feel a real need to return to that. I was a huge quilter and enjoyed the gifting side of making so much for many years and again, will get back to it. Lately I have turned my attention to my home. We are fixing it up and removing the red permanent marker someone walked up and down the stairs with….the chaos years I hope are almost behind us….and I very much look forward to creating a Sydney nest at what we call Hacienda el Ginn. My house is full of thrifted, upcycled pieces and beaten up things so I hope with a bit of creativity it will all come together!

 

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How do you balance work projects and your own creative experiments?

I am so lucky that it all rolls in to one. I dye yarn I want to knit…knitting it is good for business. Instagram has been such an amazing and wonderful tool. If I didn’t knit and share that same meditation with everyone I don’t think people would buy my yarn. I love seeing the different sides of life to yarn dyers I admire or designers I am in awe of. I love seeing their projects, their work spaces and little glimpses of what they see beautiful or interesting enough to share with a lot of other people online! At the core of knitting, crafting and being creative though, time spent off line and returning to a simple and private way of being is what is healthy about our knitterly obsessions. I too made a commitment to charging my phone at night in the kitchen so that I couldn’t look at a screen before bed..or during the night. It’s so important to focus on real life and the real people around us so that we are energised and free to pursue our creative endeavours.


I'm so grateful to Hannah for her lovely yarn, for being such a special part of the second season of The Shawl Society, and especially for taking the time to open up her life and process to us. I hope this peek into the creative process at Circus Tonic Handmade has been as fascinating for you as it was for me. I just love looking behind the curtain now and then.

I highly recommend keeping up with Circus Tonic Handmade online...but fair warning...if you're on a yarn diet her Instagram and Etsy shop are ridiculously tempting.

Circus Tonic Instagram
Circus Tonic Etsy

Helen Stewart