To the Outer Hebrides!
I recently enjoyed a brief spell in the outer limits of the British Isles...The Outer Hebrides...Barren, treeless lands, covered with soft heather, moor and lochs.
North Uist held us through stormy nights and days of fierce winds and horizontal rain...We were blasted clean of any Summer indulgences, purified with icy sea dips in white sand bays of crystalline turquoise waters, cleansed with seaweed baths..and bakes, nutrified. Calmed with warm fires, hot herbal tea, gentle cheer and cosying..
While many were enjoying the sunshine elsewhere, we were shifting straight into Autumn mode and exploring the natural resources and elements these faraway lands have to offer.
Much of the environment and identity of the Outer Hebrides has been shaped by a strong crofting tradition. Small-scale farming practises, seen all over the island of North Uist, and marked out by a series of ‘runrig’ lines, loosely containing sheep and cattle.
It's interesting looking into the history of natural textile dyeing in this part of the World.
Early Scots, had access to a variety of dyes, sourced directly from the land, which were used to create the impressive range of colours used for traditional tartans.
"The bark of the alder tree and the dock root produced Black. Tops of the currant bush with alum, bilberries (known in Scotland as blaeberries), dulse, and crotal were used for Browns. Dulse is a common shore seaweed, also used as food, and sold by the fishwives of our coast towns along with oysters and fresh herring. Crotal is the common name for several kinds of lichens that grow on the rocks. It is to them that real Harris tweeds chiefly owe their characteristic smell. Cup moss yielded Purple; dandelions. Magenta; blaeberries and alum with club moss produced Blue ; wild cress, Violet; whin or gorse bark, broom, and knapweed gave a Green; bracken - the coarse rough fern that covers many miles of our Highland hills and supplies bedding for the crofters' cattle - and heather supplied a Yellow; and white crotal was used for Red." (Extract from here.)
Harris Tweed, is a fascinating organization, utilising thoroughly traditional techniques for cloth production, sourcing its wool mostly from mainland Scotland's, along with some of the isles and employing only local artisans to make the cloth,
"The long, barren archipelago on the far north west tip of Europe is home to every dyer, blender, carder, spinner, warper, weaver, finisher and inspector of Harris Tweed. No part of the process takes place elsewhere." (Harris Tweed)
Once known for using local natural dyes by its dyers, has now replaced these with low VOC dyes. However, the only looms used by the weavers are treadle, meaning no electric powered looms are used whatsoever, and everything is done by hand.
Interestingly, something else which Harris Tweed do, which unlike many other cloth manufacturers, is dye their wool before being spun. They claim that this allows for a multitude of colours to be seen in the yarn.
"With each thread containing a myriad of different colours, a cloth of great depth and complexity is produced."
Read more about Harris Tweed here
"Knockando Woolmill designed and wove the tartan on the restored Victorian Dobcross shuttle loom with the naturally dyed yarns from Shilasdair. The tartan pattern incorporates aspects of the vibrant, natural landscape of both Skye and Strathspey. Blues and greens from the hills, sea and sky accentuated by the red of cresting sunsets and the bright yellow of the freely flowering tansy.
One of the characteristics of dyeing from natural materials can be tonal variation within the shade. Although this could be considered a fault in modern dyeing practices, it is a classic hallmark of naturally dyed yarn, adding to its authentic charm.
Traditionally woven on a shuttle loom this woolen spun cloth has the all important finished edged to form the hem of the kilt, and is also suitable for other apparel and soft furnishings.
The name 'Strathskye' was chosen following a competition, and incorporates both Strathspey and Skye - where the tartan was made, and where the yarn was created."
The dye plants used to create these vibrant hues include Tansy, gathered from the Shilasdair croft on Skye to create the yellow. Tony from Shilasdair explains,
"Yellow is very difficult as the crop is inconsistent from year to year, owing to variations in growing conditions dueespecially to the overall weather pattern for the year. The exact timing of the crop harvest is also important as as this takes place over a period of several weeks and can be affected by local weather conditions in force at the time. For this reason the tansy is supplemented or modified as required by small amounts ofnatural dye extracts or derivatives for exampleweld and marigold."
Madder root is used to create the orange/red coloured yarn, sometimes with a little madder extract to improve the consistency. Blue is achieved using indigo, and the green is indigo over-dyed with yellow from tansy, weld and marigold.
"Tonal variation happens with almost all the natural dyes used, because, in layman's terms, they are not engineered by man to have instant affinity for protein fibres, but rather have to be coaxed to donate their pigments. Variation can be controlled to an extent by the degree to which the yarns are packed in the dye cabinets, and the temperature of injection, but is always present to some degree or other. It is tonal variation however - along with the vibrancy of the hues produced - which is the signature of natural dyeing." (Tony, Shilasdair Yarns)
This naturally dyed Scottish wool tartan is available to buy online for £75 a metre, from here.
If you are as excited by this news of a locally dyed and woven cloth as me, you'll probably also be interested in the Bristol Cloth project (pictured below). A collaboration between Botanical Inks, Bristol Textile Quarter, Bristol Weaving Mill and Fernhill Farm, to produce a locally sourced and manufactured cloth here in the South West.
Find out more about the Bristol Cloth here and get in touch to register your interest and pre-order, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Warmly, Babs :) x