Friday, 18 September 2015

Dyed in the Wool

Lately, I've been spamming Facebook and Instagram with prettily arranged collages of differently coloured dyed-in-the-wool...wool. I bought it from The Mulberry Dyer at the market during this summer's big reenactment event, the Battle of Azincourt 1415-2015.
I'm not really a big event person - I turn into a shy, anti-social clam and usually end up with a migraine to boot - but I'm very happy I went to Azincourt this summer. I mean, a 600-year anniversary only happens once!
Why did the reenactor go to France?
To stand slouching forlornly in a muddy field. In the rain. Apparently.
Photo: Karolina
I also spoke more French at (yes, at...) bemused strangers than I've ever done before, which is very unlike me but in A Good Way. And I really enjoyed the market at the event.

As usual, some of the stuff being sold was mostly for the tourists, but a great many merchants were there for the reenactors, which was really nice. As more and more merchants arrived, those of us staying in the camp could actually say "Let's go down to the market and see what's new today!" Some of my fellow Swedes went shopping crazy, but I tried to stick to my (questionable? stupid? vain?) decision to stay away from All That Fancy Stuff. We don't do personas like they do in the SCA, but I'm quite sure "medieval me" wouldn't be anywhere near a high status lady. My reenactment group Albrechts Bössor portrays a company of mercenary gunners and I myself (obviously) have a strong leaning towards textile crafts like spinning and weaving on a more or less professional level. So no overly conspicuous consumption for me, as long as I hang around with mercenaries or do the work of a middle class artisan/craftsperson...
But I did spoil myself with a small, slightly 'out-of-chatacter' item, something I've wanted for a very long time: an ink pot.
The Azincourt Loot. Wool, a wooden mug, the ink pot, thread reels and spindle whorls

Well, back to the wool. I really like spinning dyed wool, it always puts a smile on my face to look up at the distaff and see a brightly coloured ball of fluff sitting there. The spinning of dyed wool is never shown in medieval artwork, though (not that I know of), but it was done. There are medieval finds of raw wool from Hull, England, that were dyed with an indigotine dye (most likely woad) (Armstrong & Ayers 1987) and according to John Munro, dyeing could take place during any stage of fabric production; as wool, as thread and as finished cloth (Munro 2003). The 15th century English translation of the 13th century manuscript De doctrina cordis - The Doctrine of the Hert  - says that cloth that was dyed in the wool never lost is colour, "but þe cloth þat is died in cloth, it wille oft tyme chaunge colour" (Woolgar 2006, 160). The Doctrine of the Hert is a devotional text for nuns, so the statement is probably used allegorically, but it's still an indication of the actual practice of dyeing in the wool and that it was considered to create a good and fast colour.
The wool turned into big rolags. IT'S SO FLUFFY!!!

The wool I bought from the Mulberry Dyer was dyed with madder (the red and pale pink), woad (the blue) and woad/weld (the green) on white Shetland wool. She didn't have very much dyed wool to sell at Azincourt, so I simply picked the shades that I could get more than 10 grams of. My first thought was to use the yarn as singles to add stripes to a fabric on the Big Loom, but I eventually decided to make the yarn two-ply instead and use it for tablet weaving.
Spindle and distaff collage. The colours, THE COLOURS!

Most of the green thread was spun at the 100 Jahre 14tes Jahrhundert event at Ronneburg at the end of August. My distaff was nicknamed The Muppet, for obvious reasons. Who knew muppets were such a joy to spin?! ;-)
The Muppet (much diminished) and me at Ronneburg. Photo:

The Muppet also forced me to stretch my meagre skills of speaking German to the limit as it generated quite a few questions from the visiting public: "Ich spinne. Handspindel. Rocken. Schafwolle. Gefärbt. Mit Reseda und Waid. Ich mache faden." I also did a bit of wool combing, but it was too frustrating not being able to quite explain what I was doing (one member of the public thought I was making a wig!), so I decided to stick to spinning after a while. The result of the combing will be the focus of a future blog post though, but for now I'll just post a few more gratuitous pictures of pretty wool.
Oh, and while I have your attention - check out this insightful blog post about historical threads, written by some friends of mine:
The Crucial Thread (text in both Swedish and English)

It's not easy being green. The Muppet: spun, wound onto reels for plying, and plied

And here's how I make the big rolags:

The commercially prepared and plant-dyed wool is much too sticky to spin as it is when using a distaff and the one-hand drafting technique seen in medieval depictions of spinners. It needs to run smoothly from the distaff into the thread, so the sticky fibres have to be separated. I do this by drafting the top into a much thinner one. From this top I then pull off shorter lengths of fibres and arrange them next to each other in a big fluffy pile before rolling them up and attaching them to the distaff. Now the fibres will be all mixed up when I draft and that's the way I want it. This particular type of Shetland wool has pretty short fibres and although it's perfectly possible to both comb it and spin it worsted style, it doesn't really make what I think of as a true worsted thread, not in medieval terms (for that I want longer and hairier wool). So I prefer to spin it as a woollen thread.


Armstrong, P. & Ayers, B. 1987. Excavations in High Street and Blackfriargate. Hull old town report series no. 5. East Riding Archaeologist vol. 8.

Munro, J. 2003. "Wool and Wool-Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c.800 - 1500: Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation". In Jenkins, David T. (ed.) 2003. The Cambridge history of western textiles. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Woolgar, C. M. 2006. The Senses in Late Medieval England



Cathy Raymond said...

I love the picture of you spinning. Your veil lies very attractively on your shoulders. Veils drive me nuts; no matter what kind of fabric I make it from or how I size and shape it, I always look like I have a piece of cloth draped on my head--all awkward corners in the wrong places, and no style or grace.

Harma said...

Did you know, Debby, from Mulberry dyers is very interested in twined knitting. I sent her the link to that Dutch book I told you about at the Forum. Next time you meet her you might talk her into an exchange. Wool for a twined knitting show and tell.