Monday, September 19, 2011

Thanks for your encouragement to precipitate myself down the primrose path. I’ll do it!

I have spent some time already this morning with Jimmy Bean’s madelinetosh DK list (which is brilliant) and got as far as putting in a request with them to let me know when they have any more “Byzantine” and asking my sister if she’d bring it when she and her husband come in November to celebrate a faux Thanksgiving with the Ogdens in London. It’s bulky and inconvenient stuff, yarn, and she’s not always keen.

I don't mind paying pretty well anything for yarn, but I hate having to pay extra on the doorstep for Customs and Excise, or VAT, or whatever the hell they call it, plus a hefty charge to the Post Office for the trouble they have taken in collecting the tax.

What is it about red? Something that utterly transcends culture – it is the colour of choice for Hindu brides and Chinese emperors. Transcends even species – the birds will strip our red current bush bare unless carefully netted, but leave us almost the entire white current crop of almost identical taste. At Hampton Elementary School in Detroit in the 40’s, whenever we did coloring, there were never enough red crayons. The few there were, were appropriated at once by the big fierce children.

I found by accident some years ago that knitting with red yarn was a cheering thing to do in the dark days around the winter solstice. At the rate I’m going, I don’t think Thomas’s sweater is going to last me all the way through:

That’s to let you know how far I’ve got on. I hate to have you see it with the colour dulled. The delicious slight variations at least show up somewhat.

Red is a difficult one to get with natural dyes. I learned in my natural-dye phase that the local lichens mostly produce brown and yellow. I did find ochrolechia tartarea on the hill behind the Croft of Cultalonie – it produces a sort of purple, and a gentle red if macerated in vinegar (or urine) for awhile. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I used the results in Helen’s MacDougall sweater. I think all the colours of that one are either natural sheep colours or Strathardle lichens:

There is a famous passage in Virgil’s 4th Eclogue in which he imagines a golden age in which sheep will run about their fields all red and purple and gold without the need for any dye. It is difficult not to giggle, reading the passage. I think it was not until I was passing through my own natural-dye phase – long after student days – that I grasped that he doesn’t use the normal colour-words in that passage, but instead the names of the expensive imported dyestuffs needed to produce those colours. Red is “sandyx” – either oxide of lead or red sandalwood, pterocarpus santalinus, according to the commentator.

I think I could be very happy, knitting the Effortless cardigan in madelinetosh DK “Byzantine” this winter. Failing that, “Blackcurrant” from Die Wollbox.


  1. JennyS9:37 AM

    As far as I can make out, Madeline Tosh colours are "seasonal" ie most are available for only a few months at a time, so if you see something you like I would recommend that you don;t delay but purchase promptly.

    Their own website has a good facility where you can choose a colour on the sidebar and it shows you all the shades of that colour which they are currently making. I'll try to add the link for Reds!

  2. It's probably illegal to say this, but when I bought yarn from Jimmy Beans, they undermarked the value on the customs declaration. They're very civilized human beings. I don't mind paying my VAT, but I do mind the large fine that Royal Mail add for doing their job.

  3. I love dyeing reds - pity that most local plants only end up giving yellows and greenish stuff:(( I try to get my dye plants locally - but with madder and brazilwood I have no choice (and with indigo, life would be rather dull without blues and reds?) but that wedding sweater is gorgeous - esp. with the added writing in the pattern:)) must be a true heirloom to the proud owner!
    enjoy your knitting! I read that working with certain colours can even cure aches and pains....

  4. The right red is really special. My father, now an invalid, is especially fond of red socks. I try to knit a pair every other year (alternating with a manly blue, gray or forest green). Finding the right red is always a joy. My two favorites ever are from Sundara Yarn. Deep, ever-so-slightly variegated blood reds. I'm working on a pair now and love them.

  5. Maureen in Fargo7:00 PM

    I love red too and am knitting two things in MadTosh yarns, both in the same red color way, Tart. One is a pair of socks for me in the sock yarn. The other is an Aran in DK for the expected baby of my dear goddaughter, who is also a knitter so I know the sweater will be properly cared for. Tart is a dark red color that has nice color variation but doesn't seem to be interfering with the cables.

    The colors seem to be sort of variable on line, Tart doesn't look anything like it does on the Jimmy Bean's site. I knit some socks in Black Current last year and that yarn was mostly black with pink, not red, in it.....

  6. =Tamar8:29 PM

    There are languages that have very few words for color. The ones that have only two mention black and white. In the languages that have three, the third color is red. The people's eyes are normal, they just don't bother to specify. Culture is amazing.

    I think it's wonderful that you have found a lichen red that seems to be fairly colorfast.
    I read that some of the Celts used to dye a red cloak for the king for court, and it would fade to mauve in a few hours. Most of the famous colorfast reds seem to come from insects; there is some northern insect that makes just as bright a red as cochineal.

  7. love reds, often work with them both in knitting and stitching but the downside is that most cameras seem incapable to capturing the right hue/tone/feel etc of the colour that you can see in front of you :-(

  8. I love the image from Virgil. I also believe that red socks are warmer. Is that why they made union suits red?

  9. the pink from Ochrolechia tartarea is indeed the result of soaking the lichen in ammonia or urine for weeks. In antiquity lichens in the genus Roccella were used, as an extra for the purple from the porphyr shells (probably cheaper that way). Those colours did not seem to be very light fast.
    Some mushroom species in the genus Dermocybe, yield beautiful reds but more to the orange and yellow side.
    With mordants those colours stick better to the yarn. And vinegar etc make the colours brighter.