Posted in Knitting
June 25, 2007

I lichen tweed a lot!

After a weekend spent devouring Seasons on Harris: A Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, I was compelled to order some insanely beautiful tweed and matching knitting yarn from Harris Tweed and Knitwear, along with the biography of traditional weaver Marion Campbell, a member of the family who runs the site.

In Seasons on Harris, the author describes how the Campbells used lichen (more specifically members of the Parmelia genus, known as “crotal” by Scottish dyers and weavers) to achieve traditional wool colors. If you’ve got my book Spin to Knit, turn to page 90. See that orchid purple? That was dyed with a New England lichen that grow on granite. But the Scottish dyers have us beat: check out this Wikipedia entry on traditional dyes of the Scottish Highlands, this site on Scottish lichens or this page of Scottish plant bibliographical references, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. For example:

Clothing dyed with crottle lichen dyes (those that yield red-browns in boiling water) has some interesting traditions attached to it. It seems that, as the lichen is associated with the earth, it was considered a good idea to wear socks dyed with crottle if undertaking a long journey on foot. However, if crottle dyed garments were worn by sailors, it was thought that they might bring bad luck, or if the sailor / fisherman drowned, his body would never be recovered — anyone wearing crottle dyed garment sinks like a stone and “What comes from the rocks returns to the rocks.”

The quote above is from one D. MacIntyre’s 1999 University of Edinburgh master’s thesis, “The role of Scottish native plants in natural dyeing and textiles.” Wow.

When I was in Toronto last fall, Kim and I visited the Textile Museum of Canada, where I purchased a copy of Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet but now I am itching to run out into the forest and look for lichens, then follow Abby’s tweed directions for blending the resulting fiber colors.

And while we’re at it, when am I just going to break down and buy Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland? For those of you who didn’t know this, I was once a grad student who specialized in medieval history, so it’s very easy for me to geek out on this stuff. Once a grad student, always a grad student.

But on to the yarn! the glorious yarn! This is what I ordered — tweed at left, matching yarn at right — look at the yummy blue flecks!

I have serious fiber excitement going on here, making plans for a classic-yet-kicky tweed skirt and a heavily-cabled cardigan on top. I had to restrain myself on the handknit kilt hose. Seriously. Sitting on my coffee table right now is the catalog of another Scottish yarn-and-fabric manufacturer that puts chills down my spine, because I’ve got plans for kits. (Then you all can geek out tweedily with me and I won’t feel so alone).

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1 comment

  • Joanne

    I read this same book and wondered the same things! I satisfied my curiosity by ordering some Elann yarn that came from Harris. (rowan reject, me thinks) I am knitting it and knitting it into a sweater for my husband. Some day, it might be finished, too, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book!

    Reply to Joanne

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