It has been much rainier than I’d hoped so far this Easter, leading to lots of indoor time – so what better time to have a go at dyeing some handspun wool with the birch bark I’d gathered on my Spring Equinox walk.
Once I’d got that on the simmer, I had a nose through my Wild Colour book to see if there was anything else I could have a bash at. Ivy was listed, and we have copious amounts in the garden, so into a pot and on the stove it went.
The first thing that I noticed was the smells – utterly unfamiliar. It struck me that while I’ve often smelled a flower, I’ve never really smelled a tree before. I’ve been aware, of course, of tree smell in a generalised way – the sharp resinous sinus-clearer of a conifer stand, or the earthy, damp, busily-decomposing aroma of deciduous woodland. But I’ve never got to know the smells of invidual species, and the ones I am familiar with are the exotics used in essential oils – sandalwood, vertiver, frankincense.
I lean over each pot in turn, steam my face, take a deep breath and let the plants infuse me (I’ve checked that they’re safe to do so). My brews leave me almost without words to describe them. The ones I will use here are frustrating approximations. They smell like something. They smell like no thing. They smell like themselves.
The birch is both sweet, and fresh but a bit dusty – rather like a very light and airy lemon drizzle cake, but without the lemon. It’s name is ancient – recognisably from the Old English birce from around 500AD, and slightly less so from the Proto-Indo-European root bherHgn, which means that this tree, symbolising new beginnings for many Pagans, was named by ancient Neolithic ancestors – a silver thread spun from silver bark across the generations. It means ‘to shine’ – like it’s white trunk, like a beacon.
The ivy smells wild, abandoned, sensual, a bit dangerous. Dirty, even. It’s lighter than I expected – I’m so used to encountering it as a dark, winter, evergreen being and here I feel I’m being granted a glimpse of it’s summer-y, Bacchanalian late light night glory. It turns out that actual proper clinical trials have been done into Hedera Helix’s medicinal properties, which is heartening, and it seems to have an astounding range of properties. Antibacterial, antinflamatory, full of antispasmodic saponins, making it particularly good for asthma and anti-tumoural – yes, this vine that grows everywhere, invasively and uncontrollably has the ability to inhibit out-of-control cell growth. I pause in my reading to let that sink in.
And so back to the dye pots. It’s been over an hour, and the ivy is looking good – my wool has turned a fresh, delicate yellow-green with an interesting grey that seems sensed rather than seen. The birch – well. I am a bit disappointed. The book promised a deep pink. I have… beige. With a slight roseate hue, if I’m being really generous. I go back to the book, and I realise that yet again, being at heart an extremely impatient woman, I’ve interpreted ‘soak bark in cool water for several days, if not weeks’ as ‘Soak for seven days. DYE IT NOW FOR PINK GOODNESS’ SAKE!!!’ One day I will properly learn that there are some crafts that you can be a bit gonzo with, and some, mostly those involving some kind of chemistry, that you can’t, and that Jenny Dean has literally written the book when it comes to natural dyeing and I should pay heed.
Still, not all is lost – I have two batches of wool that are a pleasingly different shade to how they started, that will be potent for using in ritual and weaving for their associations, and the prosaic satisfaction of a project completed.
I’ve got my birch bark back in soaking, maybe next time the pink will be mine. And the chips have gone gorgeously curly, all ready to be threaded and strung.