Compassing Colour and Realizing Dreams - Collaboration


Compass: to contrive to accomplish

Colour. Something that is for many of us all around, all of the time. Something, sometimes so saturated that it’s almost as if you can taste it or feel it in your pores and at other times, so subtle that it seems like a hue simply whispering to another. All around us and yet somehow elusive. The perfect colour in a warp or a weft only achieved after many hours or even years of turning out samples or considering anothers colour card; that hue just right to paint the icy peaks on a northern lake. How do you get there? 

I’m a natural dyer, all the way, always. Forever pursuing colour, sampling all of the plants and many of the fungi that I come across. A small knife and stainless steel pail usually in hand. As a large part of my textile and art practice, I search for and sample colours just about every day, an endless (re)search. In this red-hot quest for colour I, naturally, dreamt of creating a plant dyed yarn line. No small feat, certainly, and I am a ‘one woman show’ who treasures her long walks in the boreal woodlands (a.k.a. leisure and inspiration time).  I’m not going to start a commercial scale dye house or wool mill, but the notion of producing naturally dyed Canadian wool has long been in my mind. Through the alchemy of good timing, fortune and like minds drawing together, I met the folks at Custom Woolen Mills near Carstairs, Alberta.   

Some of you reading may recall that I work on collaborative projects on a regular basis with Custom Woolen Mills. After a one month mill-stay (the mills' unique artist in residence program), we created a grow along, dye along and knit along subscription which we are continuing and building on this year with its own distinct theme. Following on the spirited coat-tails of the Natural Dye Club release, we decided to collaborate on a dyed-in-the-skein yarn line. Maddy, the second generation managing the day to day as well as the research and development projects at Custom Woolen Mills, grew all of the dyestuff for this line on site with the exception of a few foraged materials coming from a local bio-dynamic farm, a bow maker, as well as from the labour of a few community members during an invasive weeds harvest. These early and essential processes informed our name and logo for this new yarn line - Field & Forage, described by a leaf cutter bee. We’ll continue to dye and release this yarn line every year in the autumn as gardens dictate. Field & Forage will always be dyed with raw or dried plantstuff and will always be dyed in the hank. Between Maddy and I and the sharing of our knowledge, we did it.


Field and Forage, 2017


And yet… One dream begets another and we considered - ‘what about dyeing in the loose and creating a naturally dyed line with lots of heathered options?!’ We could do that. Maddy is a master of efficiency and production methods. Her hands know raw fleece. Beyond being an interesting and, for me, dreamy project, if we could start dyeing fleece in the loose we could reduce the environmental effects of production, improve water quality and potentially decrease the footprint of a textile mill with already strong social and environmental ethic. The textile industry as it is, isn’t good enough, in fact, it’s the second most pollutive industry in the world, right after agriculture. We could do some good work, locally. Aside from this, there is a certain appeal to heathered yarn and we wanted them naturally coloured!

A crucial, yet somewhat elusive, colour to a full palette - blue. Of course indigo. However, the alkalinity of an indigo vat damages protein fibre to an extent that the fibres can’t necessarily stand up to milling. I work with indigo frequently. I love the process, the smell, the cultivation of an environment and the marriage of chemistry and alchemy that are absolutely required to keep a vat ‘happy’ to apply blue to the surface of fibre. But it just wasn’t a viable option for wool, being a protein, or for dyeing in the loose. Repeatedly dipping fleece into vats would likely take days, weeks maybe, not to mention it might throw the health of an indigo vat off with just one submersion. Fortunately, there’s an old, not often utilized option for this situation - Saxon blue. An old technique first discovered in Germany in the 1740’s. In the process of making Saxon blue, natural indigo derived from Indigofera tinctoria (in our case, other natural sources of indigo can be used) is essentially converted to an acid dye. Fleece can then be dyed in a tank for the same process as any acid dye. Production methods didn’t really need to change for the achievement of blue; the labour involved was low; the resultant dyebath was acidic (recall, isn’t harmful to protein fibres). We were navigating our obstacles and achieving a practicable blue to round out our palette.

In the beginning, we sampled. We spent some time in Atlin, where my home is, dyeing roping, hand carding, blending and spinning sample batches of yarn. We created over 30 samples but ultimately decided on 16 colours for Custom Woolen Mills’ inaugural dyed-in-the-fleece colourway. The first step to moving all of the colour created on western fleece at this Canadian textile mill to a natural source.


Hand spun sample runs.


The magic in all of this is collaboration. The folks at Custom Woolen Mills had their doors and minds open, allowing me deep into the web of their small family business. Something not lost on me and for which I am extraordinarily grateful. It’s the willingness to bend and learn and teach and experiment and make mistakes as well as troubleshooting, correction and discussion and working hard and asking questions… That made this yarn line and movement possible. This is intimacy in a work usually considered industrial.

Colour, we all know it, is an intimate thing. We all have favourites, or at least preferences, on the other side of this we accept certain hues because they’re necessary for our work but our eyes track millions of colours in a single day. And yet, we’re moved and soothed by the colours we choose to engage with. Producing these colours used to be a craft, a trade closely protected. Indeed, the privilege of wearing particular colours was protected. We’ve fought over colour. Intellectualized colour. Quickly turned it into a commodity and even a currency at times. We’ve seen the colour poetry of a desert or jungle or ocean and been moved to recreate it. Needless to say, colour is a big deal.

Even now, or especially now, after working so closely with colour, I unquestionably think of colour as a privilege. One that I am deeply honoured to be granted to work with.