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Re-enactment reviving the historic art of dyeing

Re-enactment reviving the historic art of dyeing

We are so fortunate that the UK's original British Festival of Wool, known as Woolfest, takes place on our doorstep in the Lake District each summer. To encourage new craft businesses Woolfest hosts a 'Mini-stalls' section where I was delighted to meet Katarzyna who started creating natural dyes using historically accurate techniques for re-enactment costumes. Now Katarzyna has turned her passion into her living and established Medieval Colours.

Katarzyna at WoolfestOriginally from Poland, Katarzyna has a BA in Archaeology and is now doing an MA in Artefact Studies at University College London. Her studies are deeply connected to her passion for dyeing and have allowed her to develop it further, as she explains.

It all started from the love of the historic textile techniques. My first dying experiments were within the field of re-enactment but as I really wanted to develop this passion and share it with others, I founded Medieval Colours to allow me to explore the natural-dying methods and broaden the scope of the my passion. This passion has also lead me to carry on with my studies (I have finished BA in Archaeology in Poland where I am from, now I am doing MA in Artefact Studies in University College London.

Wools recently dyed air drying

I am currently writing my dissertation which is focused on changes in woad dyeing techniques through the centuries). I was always fascinated in the history of everyday life and was trying to find answers for my questions in books, but not always with success (as authors writing about the past have tendency to focus on the 'big' things like battles and kings' reigns).

When I first heard about historical re-enactment, I was delighted, as it was finally something that allowed me to explore everyday, domestic life. Since I joined re-enactment, I have thrown myself into different crafts, like candle-making, spinning, nalbinding. I finally discovered natural dyeing and it was my last and greatest love.

Ingredients for natural dying

We now have a wide range of naturally dyed threads and yarns. We dye them using plants and minerals with no chemicals added, in the same way as people did hundreds of years ago and how they still do in traditional cultures.

I started to grow these natural products only this year. Unfortunately I cannot cultivate them on any scale so I use plants I can buy or find from other natural dyers (those blessed with larger gardens than mine!).

I am also doing a lot of foraging - especially for gallnuts, tansy and alder bark. After pruning time there are usually a lot of small branches left lying around, which are a valuable dyestuff source! I love walking and during my walks I keep my eyes open for useful plants. I have several spots around Medway (where I live) where I go to pick up certain plants. I always follow basic eco rules - I never pick too many plants in one spot, I don't remove the roots, and I focus just on common species.

It goes without saying that natural dying is far more friendly to the environment than modern dying. We use limited amounts of water and heat and no harmful chemicals. Our plants are bought from gardeners or picked from nature with a great amount of care. So if you choose naturally dyed yarn you choose ecology.

We named our shop Medieval Colours because our main inspirations are heritage and history – especially medieval history. We receive colours from plants traditionally used in dyeing for centuries - Tansy, madder, woad, weld, gallnuts…and dozens of other plants.

So how do you go about researching historic dyeing techniques?

It is a bit tricky, but I absolutely love it! Due to my studies, I have experience in searching for and comparing different types of sources. Surprisingly, we have a lot of them: dyed textiles which can be examined for presence of certain dyeing substance, folklore studies, which give us information about dyestuffs being used typically in a certain region (if plant is native to the area and its dyeing properties are commonly known, there is chance that it was used for centuries).
We have also written sources - information about dyeing can be preserved even in a stories about something totally different.
My favourite one is a story of St. Ciaran's life (the story was written in 15th century, but probably dates many centuries further back) - we have there a picture from the saint's youth, when Ciaran's mother is preparing for woad dyeing. She asks the boy to leave the house (as only women were allowed to be present in the house when dyeing was commencing). Ciaran, not happy from his mother's order, spoils her dyeing twice until a woman asks him to stop and to give his blessing instead. There are a lot of lovely details in this story, and is really helpful when investigating early Medieval dying.
The difficult bit is that you need to be careful when analysing sources - you cannot rely on them entirely. For example, in Medieval chronicles sometimes you can see peasants dressed very colourfully - this however does not mean they really dressed that way! These colours are a combination of fantasy by chronicle's author, the wishes of nobleman who ordered the chronicles, and the colours achievable from pigment colorants at the time.
Even archaeological textiles can 'lie' - they usually show different shades of brown but it is not their real colour, it's just a result of the long-term influence of different substances in the soil."

Katarzyna has researched the historic techniques, however, she continues to experiment with the natural dye on different materials.

I love experiments with natural dyeing. My usual material for dyeing experiments is wool (from practical and historical reasons) but I have recently been testing on linen.

If you are an Early Medieval, Viking or Saxon re-enactor, or you are interested in the history of textiles, you will probably already know that the linen was not the popular fibre to dye. This is due to several reasons - it does not accept colour very well (the opposite to protein fibres, e.g. wool) and it is not very colourfast after dyeing. Also, linen was most likely used mostly for undergarment which means it was washed quite often and traditional ways of washing are quite harsh involving lye and a lot of beating and scrubbing - which would lead to further destruction of the colour.

That does not mean that linen was not dyed at all. There are some findings of linen garments with traces of indigotin - in Early Medieval Europe, which means that the dyestuff used was woad.

During my research, I have also found sources about dyeing cellulose fibres, which recommended to mordant them in tannins first, then use alum.

And after testing these two techniques, what does Katarzyna think of the end product?

I like the results but compared to wool they are relatively pale. The question is, what would the opinion be of people living 1000 years ago? And if not, how to improve the result?

And what is the future for Medieval Colours?

I have started from the basis of re-enactment as this is the environment I am familiar with. But now I have a lot of customers who are simply interested in old craft techniques, or are just looking for unique yarns for their crocheting or knitting. I am going to go in this direction and to try to show Medieval Colours to the wider audience, as I think natural dyeing is a really interesting and eco-friendly method and I believe it deserves to be known and understood by more people.

Also, it is thrilling to me that we can dye our fibres exactly like our ancestors did (with most crafts such replication is not so easy), and I think this fascinates a lot of people, not just re-enactors.

Whether you are an absolute beginner or more advanced dyer – the most important thing to have is passion!


Noreen hoenig

Do you have recipes for dyes ? And are the plants mentioned grown in the US?

Jill McIntyre

Absolutely fascinating and invaluable for me, as I’ve just commenced a Masters in Classical Studies and am hoping to base my dissertation on textiles/dyeing in the Roman border territory of Northumberland/Cumbria, so I’ll definitely be getting in touch with Katarzyna!!

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