“From the Land to the Cloth” or how to discover The Colours of Scotland

How do you create something beauty with a couple of second hand battered pots, a few twigs, odd bits of wool, a little ammonia and a couple of days?

This is something the Scottish Felt makers have just taught me and its worth passing around like an old fashion secret which needs kept alive !

 Do you ever wonder where beautiful things of this world come from? I have always been fascinated by colours, the blue of a summer sky, the white of the snow, the purple of an hydrangea in Britany, the vibrant green of new grass in the spring, the delicate pink of the Christmas rose… but those can be explained. What about the “made”things around you? What makes the wool of your jumper speckled black? Why is Denim blue? Where does the colour comes from? Fair enough there are chemical dyes but I can’t believe the world was in many shades of grey before the chemical dyes were invented….

 Last week I joined a two days class with The Scottish Feltmakers association, part of their yearly summer school. It was in Dunblane north of Stirling, in a very traditional community centre, great big building with large windows just above the Cathedral. A lovely group of ladies much involved in Feltmaking are running it every year. The course was very exciting and the icing on the cake… they serve afternoon every afternoon. I mean the proper one with home made cakes. complete bliss !!!

It was very exciting to attend the class for once and not running it, turning up “hands in the pockets” taking in the information, asking the questions, meeting new people, discovering a new subject. All this was very exciting but really the fascinating thing was the title of the class…. “Colours of Scotland”  this is all about what makes Scotland so colourful, what you can find in nature to recreate this beauty. What gives the Tweed the colours it is, how to dye this very natural wool, how use nature to recreate the colours of the landscape.

I am completely hooked on, this was definitely the most fascinating thing ever. The tutor Ann Ross, a felt maker has been dabbing at this for over 30 years, she just stick things in the pot and gives it a twist…. and they come back out pink, purple, green, yellow and blue. All this feels quite magical. All the colours of the rainbow as long as you use natural material. Who said Tweed had to be brown or drab green?

A leaflet published by The Scottish Natural Heritage explains that “There is a long tradition in Scotland of using native plants for dying wool. Recipe were often guarded as secrets from generation to generation.” Unfortunately most of those have vanished out of being kept so secrets.

 Did you know that there are over 40 different kinds of lichens that were used by our elders to dye wool? That Urine was used to treat wool before it was dyed but also to extract the dye from the lichen? That Rhubarb root give the nicest possible pink ? that the sunlight would turn that pink fabric purple and eventually blue? That you need to treat the wool with a “Mordant” to make it keep the colour once applied? That a piece of wool dyed yellow with some twigs of mint will turn green if you add a bit of iron as a Modifier to the dye bath? That you could use an old nail left in water in an old jar as a Modifier?

Did you know that red onion peels turn anything in the most lovely dark yellow? Almost orange…

 One must be very careful to only pick plants and lichens where they grow in abundance… If you like natural beauty you want to preserve it.

I once visited the Outer Hebrides and found it fascinating that people were still working the wool with their small looms, in their own house/shed, only using manual labour and not a motor. That was the condition of making genuine “Harris Tweed”. I can just imagine  the yarn being dyed using natural dyes before being woven.

“From the Land to the cloth”was a great exhibition I saw in Harris when I last visited, it was organised by the Tweed authorities and it showed via beautiful photographs where the yarn came from, what inspired the makers, from the colour of the heather to the sea and how they used the beautiful world around them to produce a cloth which was warm, protecting and yet stunningly beautiful.

The beautiful little samples I made over the two days once dried were bagged individually with an indication of how I managed to produce them and I have a book lined up to receive the colour sheets so that I can at some point go back to them when I decide to have a proper go. I have this chair I want to recover and this old blanket which could do with a hot bath….

 Look around you, this world is full of secrets such as this one which could give so much pleasure to whoever unravel them.

There are many books on natural dyes but really it is the hands on which turns the dying process about complete magic. I would recommend you have a go. If you can be patient enough then wait and book yourself on a course of the “scottish Feltmakers” association course but if you are in a hurry to have a go… there is always online sources…

Keep your world colourful and have a lovely week end.

Betty xx

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