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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.

wool_colors

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-crewel-l2d

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 ramblinginthewoods.wordpress.com)

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from ramblinginthewoods.wordpress.com)

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

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (http://thirtyeightstitches.blogspot.com)

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (http://thirtyeightstitches.blogspot.com)

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 (grackleandsun.wordpress.com)

Wool dyed with poke (grackleandsun.wordpress.com)

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)

 

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).

A herd of sheep

A herd of sheep

Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.

Jesus!

Jesus

Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.

The Jacob sheep

The Jacob sheep

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The heidschnucke sheep

The heidschnucke sheep

Manx Loaghtan

Manx Loaghtan

Merino ram

Merino ram

 

There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).

Mutton leek soup

Mutton leek soup

Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.

Why are you not in bed?

Why are you not in bed?

Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!

sheepgraduating

 

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