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The Colourful Oddyssey of Icelandic Wool Dyeing

Words by
Mulan Rose

Photography by
Golli

Following the winding outskirts of Reykjavík, a gravel road jostles you toward a wooden hut. The strong scent of herbs emanates from the doorway. Before you can enter into the warm space, Tryggur, a charmingly fluffy Labrador-collie mix, sidles up to you in shy greeting. He leads you in and sits down patiently amongst a colourful collection of yarns, waiting for a pat while his owner talks over the sound of gently bubbling pots.

Words by Mulan Rose

Photography by Golli

The story behind Iceland’s vibrant wool traverses not just history, but that of national and personal identity. For Guðrún Bjarnadóttir, the tradition of obtaining colours from nature and the process of wool dyeing encompass not only her grandmother’s knowledge of plants and her mother’s love for sewing, but also Iceland’s journey from being a monochrome land, its palette of frosted snow against a charcoal earth, to a vivid kaleidoscope sewn into the fabric of what it means to be an Icelander.

A vivid discovery

The inception of the core ideas underlying Hespuhúsið, the studio where Guðrún presents the history of wool dyeing, began in her childhood. “My grandmother was the one who taught me to identify plants at a young age,” she recalls. “When I started working as a nature warden, I was asked to take people along on educational walks. I could recite the Latin name of all the plants, but I knew that would just bore visitors to death. I wanted to talk about something interesting, like folklore, or how the plants were used, to increase interest and to help people remember the plants.”

Her work with plants and their history set the stage for Guðrún’s master’s thesis, which compared plant use in Iceland to that of Norway and the British Isles. “I wanted to find out if we brought our knowledge with us from previous settlements, or whether we figured it out in our new home in Iceland,” she explains.

While writing her thesis, Guðrún came across information on traditional dyeing processes and began experimenting with plants as a part of her research. “I thought it was very interesting and I completely lost control of my experiments,” she laughs as seven different cauldrons of various shapes and sizes, stained with prismatic colours, gently simmer around her. One of her pots, filled with pinecones from her neighbour’s yard, fills the room with a balmy Christmas scent. A delicate spinning wheel sits in the corner, to be used on occasions when Guðrún has ample time to show her visitors how to spin the yarn.

Yellow, green and brown

The secret behind dyeing wool using plants lies in the chemistry. “To this day, we use the same chemistry, the same plants, and mostly the same methods, except that I have some modern help with the use of electricity. You want something acidic to hold the colour, and you want something alkaline to change the colour. In the old days, we worked with acidic plants that gave us strong, long-lasting colours. For something alkaline, we used urine – any urine we could get. I stay away from the urine and use cleaning ammonia instead. It’s easy to get, cheap, and doesn’t smell as bad.” If you use urine to dye wool, the smell does not go away until the colour itself fades.

“Yellow, green, and brown are easily obtainable from nature,” Guðrún goes on to illustrate by revealing the contents of four boiling pots filled with green autumn herbs clinging to the metallic sides. “Lichen (Parmelia) was used in Norway before we came to Iceland; the first settlers recognised this plant and could use it in the same way. We can read about it in the Icelandic sagas, where it was called ‘brown grass’ due to the brown colour that it gives.”

Colour codes

The story behind the Icelandic wool dyeing tradition reaches back to centuries of history involving trade and politics. “Norway has over 1,300 plant species while the British Isles have more than 6,000,” Guðrún reveals. “In Iceland, we only have around 500 species.” This scarcity of plants thereby defined social echelons and class divisions, depending on who had access to certain colours.

“We had trouble getting red and blue. Traditionally, we had imported plants from Norway and the British Isles to achieve blue and red dyes, and as such, they became associated with noble colours.” Red, a tough colour to obtain from nature, became an identifier of the wealthy and royalty. Blue, on the other hand, was not only the colour of kings but also the Vikings. “Vikings loved blue. In fact, if you read the Icelandic sagas, you will notice that Vikings wore blue because it was a sign of wealth, power, and travel. The Vikings also had access to Norway and bought clothes from there.” Norway has a plant called woad (Isatis tinctoria) that does not grow in Iceland, from which rich blue dye can be obtained.

As temperatures drastically cooled during the 13th century, trade routes froze over or became treacherous. Icelanders suddenly found themselves stuck, no longer able to reach Norway. This was the Middle Ages, a dark time in Icelandic history, punctuated by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and the outbreak of disease. “It was a dramatic age of no colour. We had little access to the outside world so we had to stay home and use what we had to survive. We discovered that bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) also gives us a consistent, deep black colouration. People from abroad said that Icelanders at this time looked like they were constantly going to a funeral, always in mourning. In reality, these were just dark times.”

Emerging from the cocoon of the Dark Ages, Iceland fiercely regained its vibrancy once its trade routes and connections with the world were re-established. “We became colourful again in the 18th century when we started importing a lot of plants and, as a result, colours and chemistry. Blue became a widespread colour when we began importing indigo powder from India, which is the best source of blue from nature. To this day, indigo is our traditional Icelandic blue colour.”

Making history her story

Looking from above, Iceland is a divided land; dark and light, frozen ice set against the ashen mountains. Yet as you get closer to the earth, the land of fire and ice unfolds with an extraordinary array of colours that present the symbiotic relationship between nature and the history of its people. It is this thread between Guðrún’s story and the tale of wool dyeing that neatly tie the story of Iceland as a nation with the history of an individual; the struggle for Iceland to regain its palette and the consequent explosion of colour following the Dark Ages.

Although it is an isolated nation, what surprised Guðrún the most on her discovery were the shared similarities in wool dyeing traditions between Iceland and other countries across the globe. “It has been done for the same way for thousands of years all around the world,” she discloses. “Though the stories we tell ourselves differ, the underlying chemistry remains the same.”

Guðrún’s studio Hespishúsið will be moving this fall to Lindarbær farm, near Selfoss.

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.

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This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.