Friday, 28 November 2008

In the Woods

No apologies for some more about our woods! Walking in our local woods, or on the hillsides, has to be one of the great privileges of living in such a beautiful area of Britain as this is. And being able to do so without having to get in a car to get there just adds to the experience.

The way the woods are managed for wildlife means that there is always uncleared timber and wild areas; decaying stumps covered in mosses and lichens; ferns and fungi pushing up among the old leaves.

The little river at Pwll y Wrach makes a constantly damp environment, keeping the woods lush and overgrown, in contrast to Park Wood on the other side of the hill. Park Wood is drier and crisp to walk through in the Autumn when all the leaves have fallen.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

To Dye or Not to Dye

I work with organic wool. It is produced with minimal environmental impact and many must think that to add another process, such as dyeing, can only be detrimental. We have become very used to having colour applied to anything and everything, in whatever shade or tone we care to dictate. We want it to last forever even though we may discard the item immediately. Our textiles mustn't fade, but we change our interiors and wardrobes at will and send unwanted items to landfill.

I am not a chemist; I am a craft dyer, hopefully in the full sense of the word. These are my thoughts and ponderings from that perspective and I do not claim to have a full working knowledge of all the dyeing processes. But I am fascinated by the stories of colour and its development and use by the human race. As I look around this room, everything - from paper to ceramics, chairs, plastic, walls, everything - is coloured artificially.

In history, colour was precious. The best, fastest and brightest were the preserve of the Church and the rich. It wasn't all good news with these colours - arsenic, lead and mercury were just some of the natural ingredients used, with inevitable consequences for the dyers and sometimes the customer.

Humans love to be awash with colour. A walk down any High Street will show that. But do we really see it in such a cacophony? Many years ago I spent a couple of months in Romania, before the overthrow of the Communist government. The first thing to strike me on our return to Heathrow was the colourfulness - adverts, signage, clothing, cars - everything. It shouted! And it was quite overwhelming. It took me very much by surprise as I really hadn't noticed any lack of colour during our stay in a rural Romanian town.

But to get that amount of colour into everything we use demands additional and, quite often, toxic processes. Apparently, European dye manufacturers are having to move their production from Europe to countries where Health and Safety and environmental regulation isn't so expensive to apply - maybe because it is not so strict? It can be extremely difficult for the average consumer to find out what goes into the production of their textiles - but do many actually care enough? Have we ever thought about it enough?

Low impact, water based synthetic dyes are now available. Easy to apply and they leave the dye-vat exhausted (the fibre takes up all the colour). But still derived from oil? Do they still need to be tested on animals?

We decided to use plant based dyes. We enjoy the challenge of working with them, developing the skills, and the links with the past as much as the colours we obtain. But they need a mordant - a metal salt - to affix the colour to fibre. Organic standards allow Alum and a small percent of iron. And what about the land taken up by growing crops for dyeing? Shouldn't it be used for food? The demands on land now are for fuel crops and fibre producing plants too; dye plants are just one more. But the waste from the plants can be composted. And some plants grow on land unsuitable for food. The colours may not be quite as fast as synthetic dyes but they do not disappear at the first hint of a wash or a sunbeam. And they always attract attention for their subtlety, their gentleness and depth.

There is a place for both types of dye according to the end use of the product it is applied to. Maybe what we should be doing is minimising our use of colour, using small touches with all the undyed and natural shades wherever possible.

As far as textiles go - I aim to do just that. Wool and other protein (animal) fibres are available in many natural shades from white and cream through to almost black. Small details in dyed colours, carefully placed, can really shine out. I heard of someone who decorated her house very plainly but lit it by occasional brightly coloured textiles and painting, causing them to have a maximum impact.

Colour is special. Good colour is expensive and precious.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Not the Blues

I'm sometimes asked if I have any blue wool - not often, people don't seem to notice, or they don't say. A friend of mine breeds Wensleydale sheep and I dye the yarn for her; she is a 'blue' person so I set up an indigo vat to explain. The photo below is the surface of the fermentation vat, which I think is so pretty - much prettier than the blue wool!
Anyway, by using indigo (or woad) you get a completely different set of colours to the other mordant dyes. And they just don't go together - well, I don't think so, and my friend agreed. Overdye using indigo on weld for greens for example, and you get emeralds and spring grass colours - quite bright - instead of olives and bronzy greens. So she is going to have to learn to do her own blues! And as I am not a 'blue' person, it was easy to make a decision not to include the blues. Some of the greys you can obtain have a bue-ish tint, especially when next to certain other colours.

All the other colours seem to reflect the environment we live in - obvious really I suppose!
Hay on Wye is twinned withTimbuktu and earlier this year some Mali - an leaders were in town and they were just so stunning in their Indigo robes and white headress with such dark skin - amazing!
That's where indigo belongs.