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Bigger Sheep to Dye

Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 16, Spring 2016

Anna Maltz talks lambs, natural colours, and the ethics of our crafty lifestyle.

Palettes can be found and palettes can be created in many different ways, naturally or chemically, with or without intervention. Though not quite as old as death itself, dyeing is an ancient tradition, practised in countless cultures throughout the ages. For the entertainment and beauty that colour brings, we have explored the boundaries of the organic environment and stretched the horizons of science.

Wool doesn’t need to be dyed: it comes straight off the beast in a range of delicious colours from full cream milk, through warm shades of caramel, to near black of the treacle variety. Not to mention an exhaustive palette of greys from mildly overcast, through the tones of delicate mould on cave-aged cheese, to highly faceted charcoal. These are all super close to my heart. Undyed yarn is spectacular and it’s about time we reinvigorated it seriously, from a style perspective as well as the ethical. All the patterns in this issue are knit in natural fleece colours, as are the majority of patterns in my brand new book Penguin: a Knit Collection. For a colour lover such as myself, this was a choice that surprised more than a few, but it makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I think I know exactly where it stems from.

When I was 5, my family went to the Lake District on a springtime holiday to visit friends. I remember snippets of that trip – catching a glimpse of a badger behind a caravan, proudly keeping pace with the adults on a 10-mile walk, and, cuddling a lamb. That cuddle was the highlight of the trip and remains a pivotal life experience. It happened when the friends we were visiting brought us to visit the neighbours’ farm. It was lambing season and the landscape was dotted with mother-and-child duos (and sometimes trios) of fluff. As part of our tour, we were shown where the orphaned and abandoned lambs were hand-reared.

For sheep, as for humans, the mother and child relationship isn’t always straightforward. After the good fortune of reaching a healthy full-term pregnancy, either mother or child can be lost in the process of birthing, even with experienced assistance. If both survive, it remains to be seen whether the mother takes to parenting her child. I remember the farmer explaining that occasionally lambs that had no mother could be paired with ewes that had lost their lambs, but still some unfortunate little’uns were left with humans as their primary carers.

On the day of the farm visit I was wearing the cardigan that my mother and Oma had teamed up to make for me. My mother had spun the wool and my Oma had done the knitting. This was the continuation of a creative relationship begun in my mother’s youth. She remembers spinning the wool to be woven into cloth and sewn together by her mother (who would later become my Oma). My cardigan had a long body and sleeves I had to roll up (a bit of a knitting signature of hers) and a funnel neck. It closed with a chunky zipper that made a satisfying clanking chug as the plastic teeth interlocked. The wool came from a brown sheep and still smelled richly of lanolin. I believe that is why the cuddle came about. As soon as I entered the enclosure, a small lamb whose fleece was a matching shade of dark chocolate made a beeline for me. I sat down and it crawled into my lap, nuzzling into my handspun cardigan. We blissed out. As desperate as I was to take it home with me and keep it as a pet, the adults knew better. But in an indelible way, this taught me about the beauty and worth of undyed wool.

And so to the question: to dye or not to dye? For the conscientious crafter this option is dually a simple pleasure and a great luxury. Colour is a wonderful thing. The more the merrier. They are mood-enhancing and magical to create and work with. They can also be fraught with turmoil. On the mass production scale of the fashion industry the environmental impact of dyeing is a major concern. However, even with serious delusions of grandeur, we handmakers are nowhere near that league. Rather than spend too much time worrying about a little dyestuff between crafting friends, there are much worse things we could direct our fretting energies towards. Some things we should take to the streets for. Cancer and access to healthcare, nukes, hatred, deforestation, violence, sweatshops, mass overconsumption, war, waste and enormous disparities of wealth all spring to mind.

On bad days, I’m apt to dwell on the interwoven-ness of everything. How we are on our way down a helter-skelter of hopelessness and should prepare for a rough landing in a post-apocalyptic future that may or may not involve zombies. To help myself claw out of that pit of despair I try to remember that, comparatively speaking, I’m engaged in the good stuff: small-scale, social, hands-on, creative and filled with positive curiosity. Wool, yarn, dyeing, knitting – these things we use and how we use them are not the problem.

By creating with our hands we are already postponing (or are we preparing for?) the inevitable demise of biodiversity, safe food and fresh air. I am not designing weapons of mass (or minor) destruction, developing seeds that grow for just one year, building walls to keep people out/in or other systems of control. For these reasons, I try not to get too hung up on the global environmental impact of buying or dyeing a few skeins of yarn. Yes, these are things to consider in a perfect world, but in our current situation, I think it’s OK to feel a little smug about making beautiful things. I tell myself there are bigger concerns to get caught up in and not to worry about whether to use Dylon in comparison to the toxicity of the mordant that fixes the colour derived from the onion skins I’ve been scrupulously saving. And I try to class passing commentary, or getting my knickers in a twist about how someone else chooses to engage their crafty side, as another form of entertainment, rather than a world-changing endeavour. It can be distracting at best and, at worst, depressing, divisive and elitist. For what? There are bigger fish to fry, or perhaps that should be bigger sheep to dye. Besides, at least when it comes to colouring yarn, it is possible to circumvent those dilemmas by leaving yarn undyed. It’s beautiful just the way it is.