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What is a well dressing? It’s not about being well dressed! It is about decorating a water well or a village tap as thanksgiving for fresh, clean water. People have left a ‘thank you’ near a water source for thousands of years all over the world. Why do you think they do this?
In Derbyshire we have a special way of saying thank you. We take some wet clay. Put it in a soaked wooden frame. Make it smooth. Draw on a picture. Fill in the picture using natural things such as: peppercorns, coffee beans, flower petals, leaves, moss, bark, stones. We cover all the clay; until there is no clay left to see. We put the well dressing next to a well or water source, or anywhere if we don’t have one of those.
We buy pottery clay, but you can dig clay out of the ground. If you get clay from the ground you need to make sure it has no stones, leaves or insects in it! Why do you think well dressers use clay? How does clay react to water? Where are the sorts of places you find clay?
Chop the clay into small pieces.
Put the pieces into a large bucket or old tin bath.
Mix the clay with water. The clay has to be soft but not wet. If the clay is dry it needs to be mixed with water. You can do this with your hands but traditionally it is done with the feet! It’s easier using your weight! Gravity helps here!
Cover the frame with polythene to keep it damp. If you look carefully can you see there are some screws or nails in the bottom of the frame. These act as a ‘key’ to stop the clay from slipping when the frame is stood up. We cover the back and sides of the frame with polythene; but remember to take this off when you have finished.
Put the clay into the frame. Push the clay into the frame be careful of the nails! You need to make sure there are no pockets of trapped air and no lumps and bumps by pressing down. The surface needs to be level and smooth.
Draw the picture on to the clay using a bar-b-q skewer or sharp stick. Make clear lines but try not too dig to deep. You can draw on to a piece of paper the same size as the frame, place the paper on to the clay and use a pin to prick along the lines. This takes longer.
Clay with the picture.
Outlining in pepper corns. Place peppercorns along the lines to outline the shapes. You need to leave a small gap between the peppercorns. Peppercorns are seeds and they will take in water and swell, this will push them out of line.
Adding the writing. We don’t outline the writing. We use coffee beans. They won’t swell so you can put them end to end. Well dressings usually say who they were made by and when.
Adding the colour… Aim to cover all of the clay! Here you can see small coloured stones. Where do you think they are usually used? Stones need to be put close together. They won’t swell. Petals and leaves need to over lap, starting from the bottom of the area you are covering. Like roof tiles. Cut pumpkin seeds make great dragon claws!
Seeing the picture as you are making it. You will have worked on the well dressing flat on a table. It’s not always easy to see the overall effect. To see it more clearly, either stand the frame up if you can or take a photo from above. Look at it through half-closed eyes. It’s all about perspective! Here is a different well dressing.
And the finished well dressing! Staple foliage around the frame. Just enough to cover the wood but not detract from the picture. It took approximately 80 students and 2 staff a whole day to fill in this picture! Groups of 6 students worked for 20 minutes each throughout the day.
Show your well dressing and celebrate! Find somewhere safe to stand your Well Dressing up. Choose a place where everyone can see it. Here the school choir stood on the ramp behind and sang for parents to celebrate the completion of the well dressing and to celebrate fresh water. We were lucky it didn’t rain!
Good luck with your Well Dressing!