How to dye happy

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the unexpected consequences of deciding to start blogging when we lived in France six years ago is the pleasure I have developed in taking pictures. I am not a very good photographer but I love wandering about snapping this and that and it’s amazing just how many of my posts start with a set of photos – or maybe even a single one – rather than an event or idea. For me, it’s an ongoing exploration of a new world of creativity, albeit at a very basic level; no doubt there are zillions of settings on the camera I haven’t discovered yet and don’t even get me started on Photoshop and the like. Like so many of the practical activities I enjoy, it’s simply about being in the moment and having fun. My current obsession is capturing skies.

With this in mind, having been granted permission to walk in the stunning Muniellos Nature Reserve once again last week, the camera was the first thing packed in my rucksack. As luck would have it, the battery ran out the day before so we could charge it fully in readiness for what I hoped would be some beautiful shots during our 20 kilometre walk. We can’t have been more than a couple of hundred metres along the path before the first photographic opportunity presented itself and . . . disaster! The camera wouldn’t work. There wasn’t so much as a spark of life. Nothing. Nada. Dead as a dodo. Not even all the jiggling and poking and manly checking of things mechanical by Roger could coax it back into life (it transpired the battery had somehow discharged itself overnight which theoretically it isn’t supposed to do.) Well, darn it. Needless to say, apart from hoping for some lovely photos to compare with our first walk here last June, there was an embryonic blog post taking shape in my hind brain and now it would have to be ditched.

Or would it? On reflection, I decided I would go ahead anyway for two reasons. The first is that I can recycle some old photos into the post; yes, the ones of the walk were taken in June rather than October but at least they give an idea of the scale of the landscape in which we were walking. In a nutshell, Muniellos Nature Reserve is an area of protected ancient deciduous woodland – some of the oldest in Europe – which covers almost 55 square kilometres and the circular walk rises to 1400 metres, making it higher than any peak in the UK. It is believed to be the best preserved oak forest in Spain and is home to a wealth of tree species and wildlife, including wolves and the Cantabrian brown bear. Access is by prior permission only, individuals can only apply to visit once in any twelve months and no more than twenty people are allowed access each day; astonishingly, it is completely free of charge.

For me, this place is about as close as it comes to paradise. Imagine standing on the side of a mountain, completely surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which sweeps right to the tops of the rocky peaks as far as the eye can see in every direction. Apart from possibly nineteen other people, there is absolutely nothing of mankind here: no roads or buildings, no fields or farms, no pipelines or pylons, no fences or gates, no machines, no man-made noise. These unspoilt forests are as they have been for millennia, wild and beautiful, pure unbridled nature in the raw; it is a rewilder’s greatest dream. I cannot begin to describe what an utter privilege it is to spend time walking, looking and thinking in this most precious of environments.

So, my second reason for writing this post is actually the very fact that the camera didn’t work; yes, it’s frustrating not to have the images but in reality, it meant spending the whole day totally focused and absorbed with what was going on around us. We would only have memories to take away and making them meant indulging in a masterclass in ‘mindfulness,’ being completely aware and present in each moment without the distraction of technology. To be honest, it was bliss.

The walk is a tough one and definitely not for wimps. First timers have a long and detailed briefing from the warden before setting off and fairly strict times have to be adhered to as the gates are locked at night. It’s no exaggeration to say there are a couple of sections that find me literally crawling on all fours across a rock face on the way up (and very much not looking down) and the first hour of descent is no stroll in the park either as it follows a steep,rocky and perilously slippery stream bed. It’s necessary to keep eyes on the path much of the time so regular stops are needed to drink in those stunning vistas; otherwise, it’s a great opportunity to focus on the small things. How beautiful the perfect symmetry of a fallen oak leaf, half yellow, half green and studded with pearly rain drops; what a treat for the fingertips the knotted fissures of oak bark, the smooth striations of papery birch, the lacy haze of lichen; what colour and texture and form in starbursts of fungi at every turn.

Although we chatted to each other now and then, much of our six hour hike was spent in companionable silence. This is partly because on walks like this, Roger leaps and hops confidently from boulder to boulder like the proverbial mountain goat while I flail along several metres behind like a nervous mountain giraffe (I’ll leave that image with you for a moment 🙂 ) but also because somehow talking here just seemed, well, rude – like making dirty footprints in a pristine carpet of snow or pulling the petals off a rare flower. Human voices felt like an unnecessary intrusion in nature’s symphony and being quiet and simply listening, I tuned in to far more nuances of sound: the rush and chatter of the river, bursts of birdsong, the gentle whisper of the breeze and the way it played different melodies through birch, oak and holly, the hollow clomp of my boots across rocky scree slopes and the softer thud on packed earth, the sounds of my breath and heart constant reminders of being alive in this wonderful, invigorating place. What a completely magical moment to stand in silent stillness together and watch a pair of ibex on the rocky slope above us, such elegant, statuesque creatures.

Although we were a little early for the full glory of the autumn colours (no surprise that the rest of October was fully booked!), there was a plentiful feast for the eyes and it wasn’t long before I realised that instead of looking at my surroundings through a viewfinder, I was using the lens of my dyer’s eye.

What word would I choose to describe that precise colour of beech leaves as they melt from their fresh summer greens into buttery yellow? How could I create the flaming russet fringe of feathery bracken or the pinker dusky rose of bilberry bushes or the flamboyant screaming scarlet of jewelled rowan berries? Would a light touch of palest grey, a fine detail of charcoal and a splash of the most delicate soft sage green do justice to a lichen-encrusted birch branch? As for the fungi, where to start . . ?

Six hours, two sore feet and a very happy heart later it was time to say goodbye to Muniellos once again, but with my head ringing with the earthy delights of bark and berry, leaf and lichen, moss and mushroom and everything else that creates the essence and spirit of all things sylvan, I was already planning an appointment with my dyepot . . .

My first thought was to finish spinning a current skein of Romney, then try to recreate a mix of some of the colours I had enjoyed as we wandered through that vast forest. However, on reflection, what I felt I had brought home with me from Muniellos was a deep awareness of unblemished nature and this should be my starting point rather than any specific ideas of colour and shade. Yes, the time had come to finally stop procrastinating and try some natural dyeing. For anyone who knows me, it may seem strange that so far my forays into Dyeing World have involved synthetic dyes rather than natural dyestuffs but there is a good (or at least, thought-provoking) reason for this. Most plant materials used for dyeing are adjective, which means the fibre needs to be treated with a mordant (from Latin mordere – to bite) in order to fix the pigment. The most commonly used mordants are alum, iron, copper and tin – all metal salts, none of which is particularly pleasant and some of which are downright poisonous. Every time I have teetered on the edge of having a go I’ve drawn back, wondering if this is really any better for the environment than the specialist acid dyes I’ve used so far.

Time for some research, then, and in particular into which tiny number of plant dyes are substantive and therefore not in need of a mordant . . . and how thrilled was I to find that top of the list was walnut, both hulls and leaves. Now walnut trees are not native to Spain, but they’ve been here a long time – since the Romans brought them, in fact – they grow like stink and we have a whole nuttery of them. How perfect for my ‘essence of woodland’ dyeing adventure.

To make the dyebath, I collected green walnut leaves straight from the tree, chopped them into small pieces to help yield more dye and simmered them in spring water on top of The Beast for an hour or so until the liquid was a rich caramel brown. What a lovely, spicy, herbal smell – definitely far better than those chemical dyes. Roger said it smelt like something good was cooking!

I usually prefer to dye skeins of spun yarn but as this was a huge learning experience I decided to opt for combed Merino top instead and, just out of interest (this felt like a day for being daring), I added a small amount of unbleached tussah silk as well. My plan was that if everything went pear- shaped at least with unspun fleece I had more rescue options than with spun yarn.

Normally, I soak the fibre in a commercial wool scourer before dyeing; I expect raw fleece to be dirty, smelly and greasy but it’s amazing just how grubby the commercially washed stuff is, too. However, in the spirit of all things natural, I used the tiniest amount of an eco washing-up liquid instead.

I strained the dyebath, returned it to the pot and cooled it a little, then in went the fibres. I simmered them gently for half an hour then removed them from the heat and left the whole lot to steep overnight.

The next morning revealed the final colour, which had deepened from a pale latte to a creamy coffee fudge in the wool and an even deeper shade of brown in the silk, which I found interesting. Obviously, the silk was a darker shade to start with but whenever I’ve coloured it with chemical dyes before, it has always come out several shades lighter than the wool.

I could see straight away what a different quality this natural dye had to a chemical one, softer and more alive somehow as if smudged and blended from a range of shades like a muted rainbow. Those harsh synthetic edges just weren’t there. What’s more, there was enough dyebath (which interestingly smelled of prunes!) left to keep and use again – and if I didn’t want to do that, the spent leaves and liquid could simply go on the compost heap without causing any environmental concerns. Well, how wonderful. Now I was on a roll. Why stop there? I mean, if you’re going to experiment with something new and interesting, you might as well do it properly: enter the world of modifiers. Basically, dyeing is chemistry and much of what unfolds is down to pH as much as anything else (also the quality of water – it’s no coincidence that dyeing workshops used to be located in soft water areas). By steeping the dyed fibre in an acid or alkaline modifier it is possible to change the shade and so create several colours from one dyestuff and so I decided this had to be done, at least with the wool. I made an acid bath from citric acid crystals and water and an alkaline one from washing soda and water; no need to heat again, just pop the fibre in . . . anything that’s going to happen apparently does so within half an hour. The change in the acid bath was so subtle as to be barely noticeable; I’m interested to see if there is a greater difference once the wool has dried. The alkaline bath couldn’t have been a more different story. Wow! What’s fascinating isn’t just the extreme change to a more yellow colour but the range of different shades that appeared, including a very deep brown and reddish rusty colour.

Hung out to dry in morning shade. From left to right: unbleached tussah silk without modifier, Merino with alkaline modifier, Merino without modifier, Merino with acid modifier. The actual colours are richer than the photo suggests.
In afternoon sunlight, starting to dry and fluff up again. These colours are truer: can’t wait to get spinning! 🙂

Well, I am just so very happy! This is exactly what I’ve wanted dyeing to be and I feel completely inspired to continue, albeit in the knowledge that at some point I am going to have to confront the issue of mordants once again. In the meantime, I have another substantive dye – madder root – to play with and a wealth of natural seasonal beauty on the doorstep to inspire and feed my colour habit. Not a bad way to dye, don’t you think? 🙂

2 thoughts on “How to dye happy

  1. What a great experiment! What are you going to use the wool for? Have you made plans for it yet? I’m sure Muniellos was amazing, even if not fully autumnal yet. Did you manage to get up to the lakes at the top this time round?

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    1. Yes, Roger went up to the first lake, I didn’t as I had a huge blister (haven’t worn walking boots for months) but I was very happy to sit and enjoy the peace instead. It was truly beautiful, interestingly it’s been very dry so the stream bed was empty which made the descent slightly easier than when we did it with you and Sam. I’m in love with natural dyeing now, I’ve started spinning the walnut-dyed stuff and it’s so fine I think it will be laceweight, not my favourite kind of knitting but I think probably a beautiful scarf. I now have various bits of madder-dyed sheep hanging about in yummy shades of red/orange and I’m all set for indigo next. Probably should be doing something useful with my time but it’s just too much fun! Very inspired by those gorgeous Norwegian colours . . . 🙂

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