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A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

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.

Well, this certainly looks fun...

Well, this certainly looks fun…

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.

Wool dyed with Queen Anne's Lace

Wool dyed with Queen Anne’s Lace

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 (?).

Wools dyed with lichens

Wools dyed with lichens

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.

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

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).

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

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!).

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from

Onionskin is, um, the skin of onions and produces the earth color seen above.

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (

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…

Wool dyed with poke (

Wool dyed with poke (

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.

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

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!

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890's (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890’s (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)


Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Here is a painting of the Greco-Roman underworld which was painted sometime around 1600 AD by Jan Brueghel the Elder. It is presumed that the painting shows Aeneas and the Cumaean sibyl, although a handful of scholars have argued—unsuccessfully, to my mind– that these are actually Hades and Persephone (whom I never imagine as harrowed pedestrians). Admittedly the sibyl looks quite winsome (these being her pre-jar days). Jan Brueghel does not have the same cachet as his famous father Pieter Bruegel (whose busy landscapes of 16th century Flanders do so much to enliven our understanding of the era), but the son was certainly a master artist in his own right. In this amazing vista the damned souls writhe, scream, and quiver amongst legions of demons and monsters. Along the foreground great heaps of bones and masses of snakes remind us we are in the land of the dead. Yet the painting’s greatest strength is the magnificent dark landscape itself. Honeycombed cliffs rise like a diseased columbarium while volcanoes belch magma onto the spirits. In the distance lies a brooding city of the dead where all is forever night. Strange ghost gardens march along the shores of the Acheron and shrieking…things fly overhead. It is a horrible—and beautiful—vision of a subject which had already obsessed artists for millennia when Jan Brughel painted it (and he wound up painting the underworld again and again through his career).

The Feast of Herod (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533. Oil on limewood)

Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life.  Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight.  Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim.  To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images.  These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work.  When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other.  It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515, oil on canvas)

My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise.  Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre.  Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530, Oil on wood)

Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).

It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much.  Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism.  Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar).   A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.

Salome (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Oil on Wood)

But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads.  Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1530s)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes and a Servant (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530)

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1520-1537, oil on wood)

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art.  Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier,  I wanted to address his work further.  Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths.  The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums.  Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day.  Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!

Could a bat become a god in Chinese mythology?  You need to read the story of the immortal Zhang Guo Lao!

The Chinese underworld illustrates how Chinese mythology portrays existence as a struggle through many different levels of enlightenment.  The damned souls of the “dark mansion” (aka hell) are at the bottom of karmic heap.  At the top of the pantheon are gods, spirit beings, bodhisattvas, and great magicians.  Zhang Guo Lao was one such entity.  This mythical figure was apparently based on a one-time real person, a hermit/mystic who lived on Mount Tiáo in Héngzhōu during the Tang dynasty.

One of the oldest of the eight Taoist immortals, Zhang Guo Lao was originally a fangshi (a sort of highly literate gentleman-alchemist).  It was this mastery of potions which enabled him to step free of mortality (and he reputedly continues to make magical wines and elixirs from various berries, shrubs, and mushrooms).   An eccentric among eccentrics, Zhang Guo Lao would frequently perform strange magic tricks to delight himself and was frequently found  sipping from poison flowers and toxic plants for fun.  Using his own “drunk kung fu”, he was capable of killing animals and people by pointing at them.  Sometimes he would lie around dead and festering for months before leaping up and skipping through the woods.

Zhang Guo Lao

Zhang Guo Lao is known by his long flowing white hair, his extreme age, and by his pet donkey which he is often pictured riding on (backwards of course).  This white donkey was no ordinary beast of burden:  when Zhang Guo Lao had reached his destination he would fold the wondrous quadruped up into a tiny slip as thin as a slip of paper.  He would then keep the donkey in his cap box.  When he needed to travel he would reconstitute the creature with a jet of water from his mouth.  The ancient immortal also carried a “fish drum. To quote Perceval Yetts’ article The Eight Immortals (published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society), “[Zhang Guo Lao] is easily recognized by his pao pei, a curious object which to Western eyes resembles a diminutive golfer’s bag containing two clubs. Actually it is a kind of musical instrument called a “fish-drum”, composed of a cylinder, often of bamboo, over one end of which is stretched a piece of prepared fish or snake skin. What look like two projecting golf clubs are the ends of long slips of bamboo used as castanets.”

Earlier, I wrote that Zhang Guo Lao started as a fangshi.  This is to ignore his long history of lives before he ascended to near-divinity.  Stories say that Zhang Guo Lao claimed to have been a court minister for Emperor Yao in a former life.  Additionally, elsewhere in the canon of Taoist literature, Yeh Fa-shan, a fabulist wonder-worker, told a story about how Zhang Guo Lao started out as a bat.  Indeed Zhang Guo Lao is frequently portrayed with auspicious bats (a symbol of good fortune) and is said to be able to transform himself into a bat.  The idea that a virtuous bat could rise up through the ranks of being–first into a man, then into an emperor’s minister, then into an alchemist/monk, and finally into an immortal quasi-god is a “rags-to-riches” story that Horatio Algiers could never conceive of.  Zhang Guo Lao’s path to godhood illustrates that America holds no monopoly on Cinderella dreams.

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April 2023