Lump indigo (blue)
Old recipe from Outer Hebrides
Boil wool with onion skins till clear yellow, then let wool dry. Have an old pail filled with urine at least two weeks old, or until skin forms on top… Put lump indigo in a muslin bag, heat the “bree” by placing a hot stone in it. Squeeze in the blue bag. Wet the wool and place in the liquid. Cover the vessel and place where it will keep warm… For navy blue, 11 to 21 days are required. Fix with boiled sorrel roots as rinsing water.
— Dye Plants and Dyeing, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record, 1964.
Books about natural dyeing have a lot of lore I hadn’t foreseen. So many smells! Boiling weird fungi, soaking fiber with onions (“It will take at least four washings to eliminate the odour”), fermenting urine. One book detailed an argument between the author and her editor about whether traditional Harris tweed, dyed with lichens, smelled “musty” or, less judgmentally, “earthy.” I had no idea that tweed used to have a smell. I am fascinated by this, and want to dye all my clothes with different plants to get to know the smells.
Why don’t I expect my clean clothes to have a smell? Not a laundry scent, but a part of their nature. I can remember talking about the smell of my clothes like a normal thing, all the time. Wool sweaters smell sheepy if I get wet in the rain. A couple of weeks ago I told someone (who?) that I liked the smell of raw silk, because I was knitting with a silk blend yarn. I can recall the scent of cotton in my mind’s nose: wet, dry, or hot. Why did I still think of clothes as odourless?
Heather wrote once (or maybe we spoke) about why people are so obsessed with genital odours. Do they smell right? Do they smell too strong? How to keep the smells in control? She suggested that this was partly because we have come to expect the entire rest of our bodies to have no odours at all. Healthy hair, feet, armpits, mouths, and skin in general all have smells, too, but between washing and deodorizing they’ve been redefined as ideally odourless. It’s total fantasy, bodies still smell, but we expect odourlessness. (Like my clothes!) Compared to that, genitals are almost getting smellier by contrast.
Thinking about the more familiar politics of body odours makes me even more interested in knowing what smells are required to make the colours in my clothes. These plant dyes seem like an opportunity to make experiential connections, to know things by observation. To have know what clothes smell like and why, instead of not knowing what shocking petrochemical smells are happening at distant textile factories. It feels grounding. Educating my mind’s nose. I have some pondering to do, regarding wood smoke and other smells that have been banished from modern, civilized, classy life.
I think I will start slow, though, with tea and lavender dyes. Fermenting a bucket of my own urine is going on the “someday I will peek behind this curtain” list along with attending a pig or goat slaughter. Someday.