The enchanting colors of Hespa
Guðrún Bjarnadóttir, known to many through her yarn brand Hespa, is an extraordinary craftswoman. She teaches botany at the Agricultural University of Iceland but uses all her spare time to dye Icelandic wool in colors she extracts from various plants and herbs, mostly from the beautiful nature surrounding her home in West Iceland. Actually she claims that she should probably lock up her pots for half a year or so to complete her masters thesis on ethnobotany and textiles – the methods our ancestors used to modify textiles with local herbs and plants. We think the thesis can wait… her yarn is just too lovely!
A tour with Knitting Iceland will often include a visit to Guðrún where she gives a lecture onher methods and shows us her magnificent yarn that literally covers up the furniture in her, not so small, living room.
We wanted to tell you a bit more about Guðrún so let’s throw a ball of (plant dyed luxury laceweight Icelandic) yarn her way:
I know for a fact that you come from a family of unusually crafty and artistic women, can you tell us a bit about your crafty background?
Yes that is right. My mother was a handcraft teacher so me and my sisters grew up knitting and doing all kinds of handcraft. My grandmother was always kitting or sewing and I spent a lot of time at her house in Akranes or in her summer house were she taught me the names of the plants in the area. That was probably where I got interested in botany. Today one of my sisters is a seamstress and the other is a textile artist.
How did you get interested in natural dyes?
I have always been interested in natural dyes. It connects together so much in my life and so many of my interests, like botany, wool, knitting and teaching. I am writing my masters thesis on etnobotany, and using natural colors to dye wool is part of the Icelandic etnobotany history.
Do you enjoy other fiber crafts too?
I spin a lot. I love going to the nearby farmers to get wool straight from the sheep. I like mixing colors and spinning bulky crazy yarn, or spinning it really fine and smooth. When I sell my handspun yarn I include the names from the farms the name of the sheep whenever possible. I also spin angora from imported angora rabbits that live nearby.
Are you using mainly old Icelandic methods of dyeing?
At first I used only Icelandic plants and mostly old methods but we can not get blue or pink from the Icelandic nature so I have used Cochenille and Indigo for those colors. I still mostly use the old methods, for example I sometimes use old cow urine to obtain red by first dyeing the yarn with the lichen Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) and then pouring the old cow urine over the yarn. In afew days/weeks it will turn red.
Are the Icelandic dyeing methods different to methods in other countries?
Not so much. We mostly use the boiling water method for both lichens and plants but less of the Ammonium method for lichens. There is little tradition in using funghi in natural dyeing in Iceland since we hardly have any forests. Using cow urine is probably some form of the Ammonium method though. In Iceland there is no tradition of using insects like Cochenille or snails like Murex. The usage of mordants is similar. Traditionally alun was in most cases used to fasten the color and iron and copper to obtain darker or stronger colors.
Do you always have something in your dye pots?
I always have something going on in my dyepots. Some dyepots take many days so it is good to have something simmering every day to use the time. I did manage to have nothing in my dyepots for eleven days once, since I was so busy teaching, but I think that will never happen again. It was too painful.
How much work goes into one skein of naturally dyed Hespa yarn?
It varies a lot how much work goes in to one skein of my yarn. First I have to collect the plants or lichens. Some plants I get abundantly just outside my house but others I have to travel to get, like the Parmelia saxatilis lichen for example. Sometimes I dry the plants to use in the winter but sometimes the freshly picked plant goes straight to the dyepot. I buy the yarn at the local spinning mill in big cones and start by winding them into 50g skeins and soak them in water for one night and then I soak them in alun for another night. First then I can prepair the dyebath. The simplest method is to boil the plant for one hour, filter them out and put the yarn in the dyebath for one hour. It is usually simple to rinse the yarn after this type of dyeing. After I dry the yarn I skein it up again and prepair it for the shop. I register every skein with a number and information about the plant used. When I use the ammonium method, prepairing the dyebath can take months of stirring and waiting. When using my favorit lihcen Parmelia saxatilis it can take days of reheating in the dyepot before the color is perfect. Rinsing the yarn after coloring can also take surprisingly much time, sometimes days.
Tell us about the Hespa house?
I am very excited about the Hespa house. Last summer I moved into a house in the rural area in Borgarfjörður in West Iceland and included was a garage that I am changing into a workshop for my yarn and a little shop. I will be able to recieve small groups for short classes or just offer people to look ito my dyepots and buy yarn. The Hespa house will be ready in beginning of June 2012.
Where can readers buy your yarn?
I am selling my yarn on Etsy and I also have a website where people can look at pictures from the coloring process and contact me about purchasing yarn. I will blog there about my coloring adventures and the Hespa house.
Portrait of Guðrún by Adam Benjamin