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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Plant dyes

Today on Graemsay we had....nope not a cookery class but a plant dye course! It was run by Daphne of Graemsay and co-hosted by Julian Branscombe of the Scapa Flow Partnership who funded the course. Several folk from Graemsay attended and about a dozen folk from the Orkney Mainland and further afield. Thankfully the forecast rain held off and we all had a lovely day, starting with a walk up from the pier.

Julian showed us various wild-flowers and described some of their uses such as herbal remedies, eating, or for use as plant dyes. Daphne provided the expertise on what parts of which plant to use for various colours in plant dyeing. We were also warned about not digging up roots/bulbs of rare plants to experiment with! Mostly we were looking at the common wild flowers that abound in the UK.

Slowly we wound our way along the road up to the Hall (watched by the neighbours!).

We found many wild flowers and plants just along the road verge. (below a blurred Grass of Parnasus

After a brief stop for lunch in the island community hall we got on with the business of dyeing. Daphne described how she had spun the wool (from a local fleece from a Shetland sheep), soaked it in a "mordant" which is used to help the dye stick, and then let us experiment with the different plant dyes. Various "mordants" are used - mostly natural (eg rhubarb juice) and some chemical.

This is Shetland wool that has been treated with a "mordant" prior to being dipped into the plant dye.

Voila! Looks like spaghetti but is in fact some of the wool above after being in one of the dyes.

It was fascinating to see the different colours coming through. Interstingly, a blue flower may produce a yellow dye, and plants will give different colours during the various seasons. My favourite was the crow-berry which dyed the wool a beautiful soft pinky-purple, the colour of heather. The heather dye came out more yellowy-green! Below is the finished product with the various "witches cauldrons" of dye behind.

I'm not a "craft" person but I was just fascinated to see the process and many of those attending had clearly experimented themselves and were keen to learn new things. I think all of us learned something and it was a fun day (and there were home-bakes too!).

It's easy to see how witches got a bad name - we were all standing over "cauldrons" with steaming liquid in them and making wool change it's colour! Hubble, bubble etc......

Some of the wild flowers on Graemsay

Wild Angelica


Um... forgotten! Pretty blue flower anyway!

Hmm need to refer to my plant book for this one too!


  1. I read about this day in Saturday's Scotsman magazine and wondered if you would be involved! It sounds fascinating. Not often that Graemsay attracts the attention of the national press!

  2. I didn't hear of that!! Are you sure it's US?? Tee Hee! Must try and get a copy just in case it is.....!

  3. Wait - I've just found the link! But it was Daphne that ran the course. I think Denise was there, I've not met her so wouldn't know her really.

  4. Our daughter, Kate, is a spinner/dyer/knitter/weaver. She's going to love your post for today - and just wish she could've been there with you.

  5. Hi Sian, would have liked to attend that day but couldn't make it. It sounded really interesting.

    Is the 2nd last picture devil's bit scabious? I found it everywhere in Shetland too and want to know the name for sure.

    I think the last one is bog asphodel.

  6. Just always so interesting! Love the Scottish People life over there in the far North! They are so active with fascinating things to create! Love: Blue bird :-)

  7. Hi Sian, just stumbled across your blog from Paula Walton's Locks Park Farm blog... i love it. i'll be back... Andrew