Thursday, 21 October 2010

I've been dyeing to tell you...

Yesterday was 20/10/2010, an appropriately momentous date for a hugely exciting couple of packages to arrive. 

Firstly, down at the bottom right of the photo collage, two skeins of superwash bluefaced Leicester yarn, creamy and naked and natural. I have never used bluefaced Leicester before; in the skein it feels crisper and possibly hardier than merino - I shall be curious to see what it's like to knit with.

Secondly, a selection of treats from DT Craft and Design: at the top left, sodium carbonate and alum, and at the bottom left, 10g of powdered cochineal.

I received the packages at lunchtime, and, without wishing to sound melodramatic, went straight home to dye. I was only slightly guilty about leaving the library: really this is not so much fun with fibre as a very serious and studious piece of research for my PhD, actually. I have been reading A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield, which is all about the quest for a vivid red dye in the early modern period, and the importing of cochineal by the Spanish conquistadors. Cochineal had been used in Mexico for centuries to dye all manner of things from cloth to food to prostitutes' teeth. It was eagerly received in Europe as an improvement on existing Old World dyestuffs: madder often yielded autumnal russets or oranges rather than true reds, and brazilwood and orchil gave impressive initial results that were disappointingly quick to fade. By the 1580s, the tiny black grains transported across the Atlantic by enterprising Spaniards had virtually eclipsed all these other options: as Butler Greenfield puts it,
The priest's red velvet chasuble, the dandy's red satin sleeves, the nobleman's red silken draperies and the countess's red brocade skirts - all were now coloured with cochineal.

In my kitchen, I felt like an apron-ed alchemist, mixing up potions, stirring in crystals, engaged in the mystical process of turning one thing into another thing. It was thrilling to feel practically connected to the early modern dyers I read about, and indeed the Aztecs, who used alum as a mordant and cochineal as a dye exactly as I did, though they did not order their supplies off of the internet, or use a microwave to practise their art. I followed the excellent leaflet included with dye, and have left my yarn to steep in the fabulously crimson dyebath. I'll be sure to update you on the progress of this first dyeing experiment of mine.


  1. Lovely stuff! I have a cream cardigan that may need to become green (haven't finished knitting it yet, mind, but it is currently natural sheep colour, and I won't wear it much as such...) Also, thanks for the link - I went and had a fall-down at a certain purveyor of books :)

  2. Haha, great title!
    It looks and sounds like you've turned your kitchen into something off Diagon Alley! Fun and games - lucky you to be doing all this with your academic hat on, although i have an idea in my head (which may admittedly be wrong, such ideas often are...) that cochineal is crushed up beetles, you are a braver woman than i!


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