One of my all-time favourite independent yarn supplies is Shilasdair Yarns. The company is runby husband and wife team, Eva and TonyLambert on the beautiful Isle of Skye, Scotland.Shilasdair Yarns specialise in natural dyed yarns, I was very lucky this week to have Eva agree to talk about the process of natural dyeing and here's what she had to say...
Natural dyeing is not the oldest profession, but it comes close! There is something about the vibrancy and depth of the colours, the sense of unpredictability when dyeing, that can become addictive. Say you go out and pick a large bundle of meadowsweet, boil it and get a lovely soft yellow. You do the same in a fortnight, and the colour is lovely, but paler. There are so many variables: the season when the dyestuff was collected, whether you use it fresh, or dry it for later use, if dry, how long has it been dry, the quality of the water – soft or hard – and, finally, your mood!
Locally the plants you use will give yellows; there are berries that give reddish or blue-ish tones, but they fade. I use meadowsweet for the softer yellows, tansy for a brighter yellow and ling heather for a slightly brown-ish yellow. With those three yellows, by combining them with indigo (imported from Africa or India primarily) or woad (which can be grown locally but does not give as an intense blue as indigo), you can get a variety of greens.
The disputed origins of indigo are various, but my favourite is of an African woman, a baby, swaddled in white on her back, went to rest by a stream. She took her swaddled baby and laid it down on some green plants, closed her eyes and slept. She was woken by her baby crying, picked him up and noticed he had pee'd , and the swaddling cloths had turned blue!
Noting that urine (now we use ammonia) had been used in getting indigo blue, a pub on the Outer Hebrides, some years back, had men urinate in a vat, and used the urine with indigo – but failed to get blue. Too much alcohol in the urine!
All other colours come from imported dyes: logwood from Central America gives a variety of purples, and madder from Turkey or beyond gives deep orange/browns. To get red you have to use one of the following dried insects: Cochineal from primarily South America, kermes from the Middle East or lac from the East.
And with those dyestuffs, and the use of mordants (alum is the most common and does not affect the colour; tin brightens colours, iron 'saddens' and copper tends to green or brown colours) an infinite variety of shades can be obtained.
If you are interested in finding out more about natural dyeing then you might like to read The Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing by Eva Lambert and Tracy Kendall which is available on Amazon. It covers techniques and recipes for dyeing fabrics and yarns.
Next week in the blog we'll take a closer look at Shilasdair Yarns and the delve into the patterns available so stay tuned!