A Chemists Guide to Making Fire

Growing up with an Industrial Chemist


I decided to email my Dad a couple of years ago to ask:

“which chemicals could start a fire?”

For example could glycerine and potassium permanganate work – an article I had read online suggested so?   This was his reply…

“Hi Di,

this is just a quick response to your email.
Potassium permanganate, glycerine and water . Add a few drops of glycerine to few crystals of potassium permanganate. accelerate the reaction by adding a couple of drops of water.
Or instant fire with potassium permanganate with antifreeze (that you might have in your car along with petrol to keep it going).
Acetone, sulphuric acid and potassium permanganate. Soak a tissue with acetone. Draw sulphuric acid into a glass pipette, dip the pipette into the permanganate to coat with a few crystals. Dispense the sulphuric acid on to the tissue. It should catch fire. (Where would you get sulphuric acid?)
Sodium Chlorate, sugar and sulphuric acid. Mix a small amount of sodium chlorate and sugar initiate the reaction by adding a few drops of acid. (Where would you get sulphuric acid?)
Ammonium Nitrate powder, finely ground zinc powder and hydrochloric acid. Mix together a small amount of ammonium nitrate and zinc powder initiate the reaction by adding a few drops of hydrochloric acid. (Where would you get the hydrochloric acid?)
9V battery – touch both poles to super fine steel wool it will catch fire and burn tinder, wool fibres and feathers etc. (Sounds good to me)
Boy scouts have tried sunshine and a magnifying glass but it might work for girls too. Ha ha!
Love dad.
PS please excuse my sense of humour”


 +   or=  


The above experiments should keep me going for quite a while!  Upon research I have found ammonium nitrate can be found as fertiliser and sodium chlorate is weedkiller but whether these products are pure enough to use in the above combinations or are mixed with other ingredients I will have to read more.  I will also try to create an info graph illustrating the above combinations at a glance.  Firstly though is my promise to myself this year –  I need to learn to make fire with a hand-drill (spinning a stick on a hearth).  I will post about this method next.  If anyone has tried the above methods do let us know how it turned out and any tips for successful fire-starting with chemicals?  Blue Skies, Di x

Rag-Rugging – An Easy and Cheap Winter ‘Hearth’ Craft with Beautiful Useable Results.

A Brief History of Rag Rugging.

Before wall-to-wall carpets the working class families of Britain would’ve blocked out the cold from the floor using home-made rugs assembled from rags of cloth that were torn from old clothes, bedding, coats and household items. I like rag-rugging because it is a no-sew textile craft and Im not that proficient or patient at sewing!

Each year the whole family would get involved in making the new hearth rug, with children cutting up bits of cloth, parents prodding and poking the rags through the backing material. The old hearth rug would then be relegated to the kitchen and the kitchen rug in turn to the back door. The back door rag-rug would then become the cover for the potato clamp or the compost heap. Given the fact that rag rugs were a craft of poorer families and the rugs were so well used that nothing remained, the history of rag rugging isn’t as well documented as that of say embroidery – it was a craft of necessity, not something one would spend much time creating and publishing and documenting elaborate designs so the history of rag rugs is fairly intangible… few real life examples left and no written/drawn history.

Rag Rugging is said to have originated in West Yorkshire Mill Girls innovation born out of need – when they asked to take home the hessian sacks that the wool came into the mills in and were allowed to take home any of the scraps of wool fabric that were under nine inches long. The settlers later took the home craft to America but because the cloth of the US was cotton the rag rugs developed differently over the Atlantic – with long strips of cotton fabric from old dresses and household fabrics usually in pale and flowery patterns, braided then coiled into circles. images.


Materials and Tools for Rag Rugging – Nothing Special Needed!

Aside from a couple of black bags of old fabrics – fleeces, t-shirts, sweathirts, felts, being the best, the tools needed for rag-rugging are minimal. You can get away with a piece of hessian and a pencil for the clippy method and for hooky method of rag hugging you can use a crochet hook rather than buy a special rag-rugging tool. A piece of chalk to draw on a rough design and a needle and thread or bondaweb to turn over the edges at the end can also be useful but in its bare bones a piece of hessian and a pencil would make a rug. Scissors too of course for the cutting.


A Family Activity with Useful Results – Could Rag Rugging be right for your family?

There still exists a few older folk who remember helping their grandparents rag-rug and they always smile when they recall their memories of it so one can only assume it was a cosy family time together, the kind of time we have replaced with individual technology time. We still end up with old clothes though and we still use rugs if the contents of the shops is anything to go by so if you are interested in crafting and can hold a pencil then you should consider this easy yet fulfilling craft. To produce something useful and beautiful out of old cast-offs is pragmatic art at its best. I personally don’t like to spend time making things that aren’t both useful and earth-friendly so rag-rugging ticks my conscientious crafting box.


Learning How to Rag-Rug



Wild Harvest is producing two videos showing you how to do two different rag-rugging techniques; clippy and hooky. Clippy, also known as Proddy or Proggy, is a technique so called because it involves prodding short clips of fabric through a hessian backing piece. Hooky involves threading a long strip of fabric over and under the weave of the hessian, forming little balls on the topside of the hessian with ‘hooks’ of fabric. Each method is different to do and gives distinct differences in appearance, each method can be used alone or combined with the other method. Clippy is the type that is usually associated with rag-rugging and is the shag pile scruffy looking tufty rug style usually with more abstract patterns whereas hooky is finer and can give rise to quite detailed designs, some rag rugs are almost works of art to be hung on the walls as hooky can allow shading and details of design that is more like a painting. Watch the videos and try both methods to see which you prefer but remember you can use both methods in one rug!


To attend a rag-rugging course contact Wild Harvest School www.wildharvest.org

Selecting and Preparing Willow to Begin Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

Basket-making really is a cradle-to-grave skill.  Baskets are used from birth as moses baskets to carry newborns and then throughout life to collect wild food, cook in, eat from, shop with, sit on, right up until our death, where we can even be buried in a woven casket!



In the UK our ancestors would have woven baskets from native plant materials such as: dried grass, bramble, willow and straw. The rule of thumb is that any long thin plant material you can wrap around your wrist once fully without snapping can be woven as a basket. Today we can also buy imported basket weaving materials such as cane (from a tropical palm) or raffia.


above: straw, cane, raffia.


At Wild Harvest School we teach willow basket weaving due to the easy availability and quick growing nature of willow in the wet UK. It is a plant you can readily find in the wild or that you can plant in your garden to raise a few willow whips yourself.  We don’t believe in importing tropical plants when nature provides us with native materials right here!


above: black maul willow, brown willow, buff willow (bark stripped)
The willow used mostly in commercial basket weaving in the UK is Black Maul a cultivar of Salix Triandra but most willow is ‘weavable’. The thin shoots of the willow tree are known as whips but once cut and dried we call them rods.

Choosing Willow for Basket Weaving

You can buy rods already cut and dried, either with the bark stripped off (buff) or with the bark left on (brown). The difference here is in both aesthetics and toughness to weave. If you are new to weaving and/or don’t have much hand strength then its best to start with buff willow as its much easier to work. Green willow refers to undried willow that in theory could sprout life again if stuck in the ground. If you weave a basket from willow straight off the tree (green) it will shrink as it dries so distorting your baskets shape, this is why we usually work with willow that has been dried and then re-soaked. It has then pre-shrunk.

Size – For basket weaving purposes rods can be bought in bundles known as ‘bolts’ sized from 3 feet long up to nine feet long and sold in Kg. A 5kg bolt of 3ft willow is approximately £12 and contains 500 rods. You will need about 70 rods to make a simple round basket.

To determine how long the rods should be for a particular basket weaving project use Pie – The only adult use of ‘pie’ (that abstract mathematical concept we learn at school) I have ever had is in basket weaving. To work out how long the willow rods should be for a particular basket diameter use the Pie formula of “circumference equals 3.14 times the diameter”. So for a one foot diameter basket you will need rods of slightly longer than 3 feet in length, for a three feet diameter basket you will need the nine foot rods. This is a rough guide but its better to have slightly longer rods than your desired circumference.

Disease – Any black marks on your willow rods indicate a disease the plant was suffering from when it was growing and these spots will be weak and prone to snapping as you weave. Discard rods with this on until you are confident enough to work with it.

Timing – If you are cutting the willow yourself – there is a season for cutting to be aware of. Traditionally this was between Michaelmas and Candlemas, basically over the winter months. The reason for this is because the sap is down then; it rises in the tree in Spring and when the sap is down the whips are not so rigid .

Preparation of Willow ready to Weave into a Basket.

Soaking – Assuming you have some dried willow rods from a supplier or have cut your own and left them to dry indoors somewhere or wrapped under a hedge for three weeks you are now ready to re-soak the willow ready to weave. The re-soaking of the dried willow makes it pliable; bendy enough again for weaving, you will not be able to weave a basket with dried willow it will simply snap. To soak the willow I use either my bath at home or a garden pond, a river will also be fine. If you are using a pond or a river I recommend tying the bolt with string and the other end of the string to a tree so it doesn’t float away. I weight the bolt down under the water by covering it in wet towels. The amount of soaking time depends on both the type and length of the willow. Buff willow, because there is no bark for the water to penetrate is soaked for a much shorter time, the rule of thumb is based on the length of the rods because he length of the rods determines the thickness at the butt ends that the water must penetrated. Three foot buff rods can be soaked for as little as one hour but six foot buff rods can take about 3 hours.

With the brown willow (ie. bark on) the soaking time is much longer and the saying goes – one day per foot. So, a four foot bolt will take four days in the pond.

Mellowing – This isn’t the end of the process however because after it’s bath the willow likes to mellow for a while – after you remove it from the bath/pond the willow works best if its wrapped in wet towels for a further amount of time proportionate to the soaking time ie. soak for an hour then mellow for an hour.

I always think of this part like the willow is lounging around in a dressing gown for a bit until its ready to work.

Cut – dry – soak – mellow – weave.

Anatomy of a rod – You will see that the rod is thicker at the base end, the end that was closest to the ground when it was growing, this is known as the butt, the topmost end, the thin end is known as the tip. Rods will have a natural curve to them, the inside curve is known as the belly, the outer curve is the back. It is useful when weaving to work with the natural shape of the rod and not bend it at an un-natural angle to itself or it can snap. Wild Harvest are producing a series of videos teaching each stage of basket weaving.  On the videos we will talk about butts and tips when teaching weaving.  To express an interest in watching the videos email [email protected] or to book on a course here at Wild Harvest School, York, visit our course calendar.  The next course is Sunday 30th April 2017.

The Yorkshire Post

Watching Felicity Kendall on The Good Life was bad for you after all, says garden guru Monty Don

By Lindsay Pantry  Friday 29 July 2016

IT was a vision of 70s suburbia that had viewers wishing they could give up the rat race, surround themselves with chickens and live off the land. But according to television gardener Monty Don, the self-sufficient lifestyle promoted by Felicity Kendall and Richard Briers in The Good Life is a “non-starter” and likely to lead those who pursue it into “13th-century malnutrition”.

Whilst acknowledging the benefits of growing some fruit, vegetables and herbs – which he says is one of the most life-enhancing things a person can do – he slammed Kendall and Briers’ Barbara and Tom as “creepily pathetic”.

Writing in Gardeners’ World magazine, he said: “No one seriously wanted to know how to separate curds from whey or render fat to make candles, but millions wanted the idea of self-sufficiency. “Self-sufficiency, I have to tell you, is a non-starter.

At best it consigns you to a life of dreary repetition and terrible food, at worst your teeth fall out, your breath stinks, you erupt in boils and you sink into 13th-century malnutrition – The Good Life indeed.”

But ShaunPermaculture Course with Wild Harvest McKenna, who in 2014 moved with his wife Wendy and family from the York suburbs to an eight-acre smallholding in Everingham, on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, disagrees.

Monty Don While complete self-sufficiency has taken a back seat in recent months as they opened a tea shop at their farm, they produce everything from potatoes, peas and beans to chili peppers, raspberries, figs and butternut squash in around a quarter of an acre of raised beds and greenhouses.

A local butcher and meat curer help them to produce pork, bacon and sausages from their pigs, and anything the family doesn’t need themselves is sold in the teashop.

Mr McKenna, who documents his journey in a column in The Yorkshire Post’s Country Week supplement, said: “There’s nothing like pulling a pea pod and tasting it straight away to make you sea what a difference there is in home-grown food. “I’m not saying it’s easy. We’re the first to admit we’ve made mistakes – last year we emptied our compost heap into the raised beds and had poppies and nettles springing up amongst the beetroot.

Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith in The Good Life “But to knock people who want to become more self-sufficient is a little harsh. You can be malnourished by feeding yourself off the supermarket shelf – the convenience world doesn’t provide you with everything you need.”

Di Hammill runs self-sufficiency courses on topics such as permaculture, hen keeping and wild food foraging at her farm in East Cottingwith, near Pocklington. She also disagrees with Mr Don and says reducing reliance on bought-in goods and services empowers people and strengthens communities. She prefers the term “self-reliance”.

“This can be done in an urban setting and can be as simple as using permaculture principles to grow half your food supply in your garden, attending some craft workshops so that you can knit some jumpers, learning to bake and cook from scratch and use herbs for medicine instead of rushing to the doctors,” said Miss Hammill. “The term self-sufficiency immediately conjures up images of needing a smallholding and land so stops people before they start.”

Heather Parry, deputy chief executive at Yorkshire Agricultural Society, said she agreed with Mr Don’s point of view about self-sufficiency, but also the benefits of growing some food yourself.She said the Society’s Harrogate farm shop, Fodder, had 350 local suppliers – something that would be impossible to replicate at home, so supplementing self-grown food with locally produced food is the way forward.“

In terms of the amount of space and facilities you need, being self-sufficient would be testing,” she said. “But the idea of growing some food depending on what you have got is great.“Look at you diet, what you spend your money on and what you would benefit from, and going from there. Start with easy things like potatoes and tomatoes and build it up.”


York Press-Wild Food Walk with Wild Harvest

Wild Foraging

Linda Harrison went for a forage with wild food expert Diana Hammill.
“You can eat this – have a taste,” urges wild food expert Diana Hammill, holding out a plant with a clutch of small bright yellow flowers.
Diana explains it’s a tansy plant that grows along the riverbank and pops some into her mouth.
I taste it tentatively. It’s got an odd tang and it’s quite sweet, although I’m assured it’s better cooked. Among its many uses are flavouring puddings and omelettes. The seeds can also be baked in biscuits – once a tradition at Yorkshire funerals, according to Diana.

I’m on an urban foraging walk near Skeldergate Bridge that promises “free greens for life”. Every few steps we stop at plants that I’d normally walk past, but which I’m learning can be added to all kinds of tasty dishes.
Diana points out a patch of green leaves that look like weeds. They’re actually edible and called Plantain.
“They’re a bit tough at this time of year, but eat them early in the season and they’re good raw in salads or in a creamy sauce with gammon,” says Diana.
“They’re rich in vitamin B and the seeds can be eaten like sesame seeds.”
Diana, started the walks to share her passion for the wild food that grows around us in York. An adult education teacher specialising in rural crafts, she became interested in wild food after thinking about the health and survival of her three young children.
She says: “Wild food is fantastic for three reasons: It’s free, it’s very very healthy and it’s sustainable.
“It’s also about ‘futureproofing’ your family for tomorrow. I wanted my children to know how to feed themselves.”
Next is a hawthorn hedge, near St George’s Field car park. I’m amazed at all the different parts of the hedge that can be eaten, including the leaf buds (delicious rolled in suet pastry with bacon), blossom (dried for a tea), and the bright red berries, which can be scoffed straight off the bush or made into jam.

There are also plenty of salad ingredients up for grabs, such as hawthorn leaves and dandelion leaves, as well as “wayside nibbles” like plump brambles.
It’s fascinating to learn that so much on a city riverside is edible.
Diana explains that knowledge of wild food was once very common in this country. She crouches down near some green leaves called Silverweed – our ancestors cooked and ate the root before the advent of potatoes.
Next we come to a row of nettles. I’m a fan of nettle tea and try to grab a handful, but I can’t help wondering about germs – how do I know they haven’t been polluted by dogs, or worse?
Diana recommends picking only the tips and at a safe height.
As we go our separate ways near the Millennium Bridge, my head’s buzzing with ideas.
The advice for newbie wild food explorers is to take it slowly and choose five foraging foods to try in a year. Then choose another five the next year, and so on.
I’m going to start with the nettle tips I squirreled away in my bag – and head home to make my first free brew.

For more information email [email protected]

Wild food foraging fundamentals

• Conservation: Remember to leave some for tomorrow – and for the other wildlife
• Pollution. Don’t pick plants next to roads, or fields that have recently been sprayed
• Avoid ID errors: If you’re not sure about a plant, first check it against a reliable guide book like Food For Free by Richard Mabey. If it looks and sounds similar, rub it on your arm or neck and wait up to 30 minutes for a reaction. Repeat the process on the inside of your lip. Then chew it and spit it out. And if still in doubt, consult an expert.

First appeared in the York Press 14/09/2012