Did I mention that my parents operate a yarn shop? Its name is Market Street Yarn and Craft and it is located in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Drop by when you are in the Mid-Atlantic? South? Midwest? whatever region of the nation West Virginia is in. I don’t crochet, knit, or weave, but I love going into the store anyway because there are so many colors of yarn! From floor to ceiling there are innumerable balls, skeins, spools, and coils of every sort of fiber in every conceivable color. There are exquisite colors which I have never seen before: greens the color of uncategorized tropical plants, pinks that resemble inconceivable candies from a mad confectioner, midnight violets out of formless dreams… I’m a painter, and I am used to the pigments of my trade: iron oxide, cadmium, cobalt, lead bicarbonate, phthalocyanine, and so forth. However, dyers have an entirely different palate made of weird organic compounds (well, there are synthetic dyes too, but a lot of them have the same industrial look as everything). It means that many of the colors have a unique glowing beauty and a strangeness which draws the eye.
There are many different animal fibers—llama, camel, goat, rabbit, muskox, and silk—but of course the vast majority of the yarns are wool, which is sheep hair. Dying wool is an ancient craft which predates writing or money! Maybe chemistry isn’t the only reason some of those colors are so unique. Some dyes naturally permeate wool fiber and then stain it permanently, but other dyes require a mordant in order to remain permanently colorfast.
Dyeing really is an ancient artisanal craft so, like cheesemaking, carpentry, pickling, or bellcasting, it has its own unique demands which are stated in a specialized language. There are dyeing words which descend directly from Old English and Latin. This is a stylish way of saying I am not going to be able to comprehensively write about dyeing wool. Instead I am going to present a crude little picture gallery of the colors produced by commonly used natural dyestuffs.
Woad is a flowering plant from the steppes of Central Asia which is also known (horrifically) as “Asp of Jerusalem.” Because it has been used for so long as a dyestuff it naturalized to Europe in classical and medieval times and now even lives in the Americas.
Queen Anne’s lace is a member of the carrot family. Native to Europe, it was naturalized to North America by European settlers for unknown reasons—maybe because it can be used to dye fabric off-white (?).
A bizarre hybrid organism consisting of algae and fungi living in complete symbiosis, lichen comes in many species and varieties. It can be used to make some of the most colorful and stunning dye colors.
Cochineal is a name for ground up insects which live parasitically on the carmine plant. They make a beautiful deep red dye which was once very expensive and denoted royalty or wealth (like murex dye).
Turmeric is a healthy yellow spice which also dyes animal fibers bright yellow. An Indian pathologist once confided in me that everyone he had dissected from the subcontinent had yellow viscera because of turmeric (a Ferrebeekeeper fun fact!).
Onionskin is, um, the skin of onions and produces the earth color seen above.
Elderberry is a childhood favorite because there was always a patch behind the garage…and next to the goathouse…and over the hill. The berries can be cooked to make a tasty syrup or jelly. They also produce a darkened color when used as a dye. Never confuse goodly elderberries with the next plant, poke, which is a toxic weed…
Pokeberries are inedible berries of an exquisite deep purple. They look so tantalizingly delicious and juicy, but beware, they are poisonous (and used to cause a fair number of deaths back in hungrier times). Get back at them by boiling them into a dye and making the surprisingly pretty hues above.
Nettles are stinging plants which are fascinating in their own right (and which humankind has put to sundry uses for a long time). When boiled and used as dye they produce a very pretty color of fabric.
Of course this is just a random list of interesting colors which I liked (although it does provide a rudimentary rainbow). Some of these materials are rare or expensive… and may not perform as advertised without substantial tinkering. However sheep week would not be complete without a cursory mention of the dyer’s art (which is so necessary for the aesthetic appreciation of wool). It’s strange to imagine that the most beautiful Persian rugs are really bits of wool carefully dyed with plants which have been woven together!