One-Skein-Wonders : A new batch of Art Yarns dyed yesterday.
I normally make just one small batch of these art yarns each year, but we’re only half way through this season and they’re almost all gone : so this is the second batch this year. They’re perfect for felting – and it’s likely that’s what most are destined for. It seems unlikely, I know, but these also work well used – sparingly – for colour accent on an otherwise plain garment (especially our Hebridean Aran yarn). Alternatively use in corsages or other small accessories.
Randomly coloured – every skein is unique.
Base yarn : white Aran Cheviot.
Price : £9 per 50g skein.
Available for purchase only at the Hebridean Woolshed’s garden shop.
Jonathan and I are on the verges of the causeway road – at the Eriskay end, bent over and searching for something amongst the long grasses and along the banks of the ditches. It’s mid-evening, and the summer sun is low in the sky – dazzling the eyes and, with the heat rising from the baked rocks beneath our feet, the heat of the day is still too fierce for comfort.
We’re searching for something we’d last seen about here, a year ago, but not for something we’d lost, but rather for something we’d found. And found again – and again – each year at the same place, around the same time of year and under the same circumstances.
Ladies’ Bedstraw (Galium Verumis it’s botanical name ; Lus Chù Chulainn in Gaelic) is a low shrubby plant that is most common amongst shorter vegetation on damp to dry soils with ph close to neutral. In the Outer Hebrides, the plant is most commonly found on roadside verges, machair fields and tracks, and even on the landward side of the Atlantic-coast sand dunes. Before flowering, the low creeping stems with dark green whorls of tiny and spindly leaves being easily overlooked amongst the many more assertive plants with bigger and fleshier leaves ; but the massed clusters of bright flowers tower up above surrounding vegetation, forming drifts of lemon-yellow, contrasting distinctively with the gold-yellow of buttercups that so often accompany them.
The causeway opened to traffic the year we moved to Uist – sixteen summers ago. Over that time, the verges and banks of thin soils and bare rock have become softened with wild grasses and flowers – assisted by sheep grazing free-range from late Autumn to late Spring. Despite its far from robust appearance, Ladies’ Bedstraw has increased in both number of patches and their extent each year, regardless of the weather.
We pick only enough for our needs, moving on from patch to patch, We pick the biggest clusters – fully open, dry, and freely casting pollen, either by pinching off just below the lowest flower, or by using two hands. When we have two shopping bags full, we have enough, and return home for supper with home-grown gooseberries and double cream.
It is said that GaliumVerum used to be known, in English, as Our Lady’s Bedstraw, after the tradition that it was one of the herbs included by the Virgin Mary in the hay used for Jesus’ cradle. That would have been before the Reformation, as Protestant theology rejected all traditions and beliefs outwith their own narrow interpretation of the Bible. But political correctness – or would that be religious correctness? – would be easily satisfied by impersonalization : the back-story would now be that the plant – when dry – was used in filling the mattresses for genteel ladies, and the name was simply and quietly curtailed to Ladies’ (or Lady’s) Bedstraw. There is an element of truth in both traditions : Dried, the plant has the soft scent of the organic compound Coumarin, which is mildly insect-repellant, and fleas in particular – by no means undesirable in a mattress!
The plant acquired other practical uses, which we know now to be more fact than fable, and some of which continue to this day :
Flavouring : The whole plant would be used as an infusion to flavour alcoholic spirits, rather in the way that Gin is made.
Curdling : The flowers were used to coagulate milk in making cheese (that is, acting as a rennet), also imparting a red colour to the curds and thereby the cheese ; and this is what makes traditionally-made Double Gloucester cheese the way it is. In Scottish Gaelic, the plant is known as Lus an Leasaich – The Rennet Plant.
Dyeing : The roots will produce various hues and shades of red, depending on the dyeing process ; The flowers yield yellows
The last of these applications has been proved many times in our own dyehouse : or rather the yellow dye has. Digging up of wild plants (in this case to harvest the roots) is a criminal offence in the UK (and throughout the EU), and it’s a difficult plant to cultivate in the garden, as it won’t thrive on its own – its preferred habitat is sparse grassland, where it creeps amongst the other species – a state of affairs that’s difficult to replicate! Besides, the reds can be obtained readily from madder, to which Ladies’ Bedstraw is closely related.
So this time, as before, we’ll be using the Ladies’ Bedstraw flowers we’ve gathered to produce a yellow dye ; but not necessarily to produce a yellow wool!
The yarn to be dyed is white cheviot wool, previously mordanted with alum – which doesn’t noticeably colour the yarn.
Having trimmed the flower clusters away they’re transferred to a dye bucket on the electric hob, and after bringing to the boil and simmering, the flowers are removed using a sieve. Next I add a dash of blue : a concoction of reclaimed copper brewed in vinegar for a long long time. Then in goes the mordanted wool with a swirl, the bucket goes back on the hob, and its covered with a lid.
A good while later, drained, washed and dried, this is the result.
Cheviot wool dyed with Ladies Bedstraw over Alum mordant, with a dash of copper blue.
The darker shade, brown-green, is from the first batch – which takes the full force of the dye. The paler, acid green, is from the second batch.
Availability : We have five 50g skeins of each colour in the Hebridean Woolshed, available initially online, then any remaining in the garden shop.
Price : £9.00 per 50g skein.
Delivery : Flate rate of £4.95 to anywhere in the UK. If you’re also ordering regular items from our online shop, then we’ll combine postage to cut down costs.
Payment :Contact us to tell us the colour and number of skeins that you want, and be sure to give us your name, plus your email and delivery addresses, and we’ll reply with an invoice (or, for delivery addresses outwith the UK, a quotation for your approval).
Complementary colours : These co-ordinate beautifully with the heather brown of our Hebridean wools.
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.