As Autumn shows its colours and the winds are from the cold north, our thoughts return to indoor work – of wheels and wools.
As the Hebridean Woolshed‘s Spinning Wheel Engineer in Residence, I love to find the time to feel my way around every piece of equipment, cleaning, adjusting, replacing, oiling. Bearings and bushes. Belts and bands. Cranks and connecting rods. Springs and screws. And of course there’s the wood – above all the wood.
Denise kept spinning full speed ahead, making good the empty pigeon-hole for Uist Landscapes – Atlantic, up the garden in the Hebridean Woolshed‘s garden shop. I got a spare wheel ready, and when she stopped for coffee and cake, I swapped wheels, transferring the work-in-progress bobbins, and adjusting the tensions of drive and brake bands to match those on the wheel I’d taken away.
Returning to work, Denise took great delight in detailing the many deficiencies of my tactical manoeuvres!
And now I must get back to work on my own line of ‘self-coloured’ (wool self-coloured by the sheep themselves!), handspun in marls and variegations. There’s customers for whom these colours sum up their life-long love of all things woolly.
Denise spinning Uist Landscapes – Atlantic.
Taking stock, taking care.
Economy cards – surplus to requirements. Sold on ebay.
Work in Progress – Uist Landscapes Atlantic.
Economy cards – surplus to requirements. Sold on ebay.
Walks with Tilly during the day – after breakfast and then again after lunch – are normally Denise’s department. But yesterday, after lunch, D was tied up with something important, so I said I’d go for a change.
I say ‘tied up with something important’, but it had been raining all morning, and it was forecast to continue right into the night. No matter! I donned waterproof jacket, over-trousers and wellington boots, pulled the storm hood over my head and leaned into the wind, Tilly bravely running ahead – though dressed only in the fur she was born with and a leather collar from us.
Up the lane to the hill gate, then turn right. There’s a track that skirts the foot of Coire Bheinn and peters out on the south-facing slope that runs down to Loch a’ Choire. This is an area that, though presenting numerous intriguing marks of former occupation, is now little visited other than by the few animals that are still put out on the common grazing.
In recent years, the track has become so infested with bracken that, in late summer – when the bracken is high and thick with midges, it becomes difficult to find, let alone follow. The peat banks, from which crofters in years past dug fuel for cooking and warmth, have fallen into disuse. The ground is too wet for the bracken : it is instead the realm of the Gale Milis, known in English as Sweet Gale, or (as we prefer it) Bog Myrtle.
Bog Myrtle: fresh growth after muirburn. Coire Bheinn
Bog Myrtle – Flowers. Coire Bheinn
Bog Myrtle is a shrubby plant that found its place in the human economy in ancient times, along with the likes of the olive and other oil-rich herbs used in food, drink or medicines. It has been used as an aromatic oil, as flavouring, disinfectant, preservative, insect repellent or insecticide, Recent centuries have brought more effective or economical alternatives for every application, such that it’s versatility as a herb had become consigned to the pages of books on historical uses for herbs. Even Wikipedia fails to do it justice.
In more recent times, some micro-brewers have been rediscovering the mediaeval practice of flavouring/preserving ale with a mixture known as Gruit (a word originating in the Low Countries?) the principal ingredient of which is Sweet Gale. Boots, the UK’s principal high street pharmacist (and cosmeticist) started using Sweet Gale as the active ingredient in a range of ‘natural’ cosmetics, including salves for minor skin cuts and sores, insect-repellents.
Bog Myrtle (Sweet Gale) on the tiled floor of the dyehouse
Bog Myrtle can quite easily – at least on first sight – be confused with a shrubby willow. But there’s nothing else (and certainly no willow!) that gives off an aroma quite like (or, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, anything like!) Bog Myrtle. I picked some to take home and show to Denise.
Now, this August has been unusually warm, wet – and windless : which is to say, midge-weather. We’re not on holiday, so inclement weather doesn’t condemn us to daytime TV : we have a backlog of indoor jobs to get on with. When it’s bright, sunny and dry, we’re out in the garden ; but when the midges come out – we go in!
There’s plenty of wonderful dye-stuffs already harvested and ready to use. These are the dyestuffs that are best used fresh, rather than being dried or frozen for use in winter, when we have more time for such things. So, as Denise was in the mind-frame for dyeing, that’s what came to her lips : “Can we use Bog Myrtle for dyeing?”. Me: “Don’t know. What has Jenny Dean got to say about it?”
In her book Wild Color, p108, Jenny Dean shows us indicative colours for Bog Myrtle, using the leaves alone, and – alternatively, the leaves still on the twigs. And she does this for different combinations of mordant and modifiers. With the small quantity of plant material I brought back with me, our trial would be more limited in scope : leaves only – alum mordant ; twigs and leaves – no mordant, rhubarb mordant, iron mordant.
[For those unfamiliar with the jargon : a mordant is a natural (or chemical) which which has the effect of (more or less) permanently fixing the colouring to the wool. A modifier is a natural (or chemical) substance which has the effect of altering the main colour – either by making it slightly lighter or (more usually) slightly darker, or altering colour entirely, for example by adding blue to yellow so as to get green (the result usually being somewhat darker.]
Bog Myrtle leaves, boiled and ready to strain off the dye-liquor.
It’s later in the day, and the results are very pleasing. The gorgeous yellow is from just the leaves, on Cheviot pre-mordanted with Alum. The dark brown is dyed with a liquor from twigs-and-leaves, with iron mordant. In Denise’s hand are the skeins mordanted with iron and copper: behind – for the sake of comparison – are the skeins died with New Zealand Flax.
A handful of Cheviot died with Bog Myrtle, held up against backdrop of Cheviot dyed with New Zealand Flax.
In a recent post we shared with you the awesome array of flower stems of the New Zealand Flax – Phormium Tenax. After last year’s no-show (too dry), the plants were rested : then, this summer, the weather and soil conditions (warm and damp) have proved to be perfect for these magnificent plants. For visitors to the walled garden, the magnificent display has become quite a conversation-starter!
Most visitors say they’ve never seen or heard of them (even those from Devon and Cornwall – where we know there’s plenty in private gardens). A family of Kiwis were struck dumb when faced with their own ignorance that these majestic plants are native to New Zealand!
A few visitors have shown off their horticultural knowledge of the species, quoting not only the botanical name, but also some named varieties, preferred conditions, and so-on. And a very, very few – understanding the significance of the ‘Flax’, have asked if we strip the long fibres from the leaves and spin them into a yarn : we answer – ‘The Maori’s had no easier alternative – but we do!’
Keeping the plants in good shape – removing dead or damaged leaves, flower stems leaning across paths – is heavy work. The long tough fibres that give the plant its extraordinary resilience also make it difficult to break up still-green leaves and flower-stems. We use a heavy-duty garden shredder – though even that often chokes on the toughest leaves. The job requires strength and technical know-how, and invariably seems to involve getting very dirty. Work that big J seems to love !!!
After a recent afternoon of NZF work, J showed me his hands (and lower arms) – stained a golden colour from handling the mash that remains after the shredding. ‘And that’s after soaking and scrubbing severeal times!’. That got us wondering …
Jonathan’s hands stained from handling seed pods of New Zealand Flax.
Denise harvesting flower stems from New Zealand Flax.
New Zealand Flax flower stems with ripe seed pods.
Bosch 2.4kW garden crusher.
Crushing seed pods from New Zealand Flax.
Yesterday, with a number of the heaviest flower stems flailing across the drive and near the washing line, we decided to put them through the big Bosch crusher. After a trial of one flower stem processed as-cut, we pressed crushed material from various parts of the flower stem, and soon found that the colour was strongest in the seed pods and the bracts that carry them. We then continued processing stems and fruit separately, the stems going to the compost heap, and the crushed fruit into a dye bucket.
Wetting skeins with four different mordants.
Crushed seed pods of New Zealand Flax in dye bucket.
In the dyehouse, I’d already put four half-skeins of Cheviot wool, previously mordanted with Rhubarb, Alum, Iron, and Copper, to soak in water.
After boiling the berries for an hour or so, J and I poured the hot contents of the bucket through a sieve, returned the mahogany-brown dye liquor to the heat, and then immersed the four pre-mordanted, hydrated skeins.
Later, having rinsed the skeins thoroughly, here they are drying on the line.
You’ll see there’s scarce any difference between the four skeins – even though the difference between the skeins before dyeing was so obvious and characteristic of the mordant used. The explanation for this is that the concentration of dye liquor was so strong, and its ability to fix to the mordant so good, that the resulting colour completely overwhelms all other factors. That in turn suggests that the same batch of dye liquor could be used for successive dye-lots, each a shade paler than the previous lot, and each more characteristic of the mordant, too. The proof of that particular pudding will, however, have to wait for a future experiment : for now, we’re so pleased with this striking new colour that we’re happy to make more of the same intensity.
If we ever had any doubt that the value of New Zealand Flax as wind-break and ‘architectural’ features of the garden was insufficient to justify the hard work in keeping them in order, then that’s now completely dispelled. So too any guilt about not spinning the fibres and weaving them, or whatever. The ripe fruit are an extremely potent dye-stuff, and can be fixed easily using the liquor from rhubarb leaves.