Blóð + mare

Video still. Dyeing with sheep blood from the local slaughterhouse.

Blóð/ Blood itself is a creature, alive. It clots and sticks, foams, froths, and clings black in some spots on the wool and washes away to dirty bandage colour in other areas. Heating blood will quickly coagulate it into spongey chunks that ruin the wool and likely the dye pot as well. Washing blood dye out cold lets too much colour away. Letting blood soak on skeins overnight turns them black or very dark brown, but colour is only permanent if the blood is allowed to dry on the skeins.

Blood type is equally crucial to consider, as each has its own characteristics. I experimented with two types of blood, available to me locally: sheep and horse. September is the sheep réttir (roundup) and the horse réttir, both of which I attended, experienced for great duration, video recorded and used as components in my craft process video.

Following the roundups, first the sheep slaughter takes place – in fact, this took place all month at the slaughterhouse next door to the Icelandic Textile Centre, along with the smoking of lamb meat (using horse manure). My first dye experiments were with sheep blood, shown in video still above. Sheep blood from the slaughterhouse is sold frozen in buckets, which I purchased. It is thick, goopy and somewhat unwieldy. The blood must be dealt with quickly, as it begins to stink like death within a day. Working outside is recommended as blood in quantity tends to simply spread and spread and spread, without ever really going away.

Blood from the slaughterhouse is piped out into the sea, creating a red smear in the water that lasts all month (or longer).

Horse blood was acquired quite differently. In Iceland, mares are bled for hormones that are used by biotech companies to create medications, mainly for menopausal women. This does not harm the horses, much like donating blood does not harm humans. While foal are still slaughtered for food in Iceland (which I respect fully), Icelandic horses live the best of free lives, ranging the volcanic terrain and mountains all summer long. I acquired a 2L Coke bottle full of mare’s blood from a local farmer who bleeds his 90 mares weekly and did not mind parting with some, for the sake of art.

Skeins of Lopi wool saturated in horse blood.

Horses have significant personal meaning for this artist, heritage-wise. My grandfather was a horse breeder for much of his life, and I grew up around his Clydesdales and other horses. Icelandic horses won my heart quickly, with their gorgeous manes, wildly mixed colours and their soft, gentle personalities. Using horse blood therefore had much more meaning in my process. Also, horses are central to Icelandic life. Icelandic horses in particular are a pure breed dating back to the year 900AD, when they first arrived with the Vikings. They have evolved to efficiently negotiate the lumpy lava fields, steady on their feet and perfect for riding. What seems like a lost way of life in my grandfather’s world in eastern Canada, is alive and well in Iceland. My associate at the Iceland Academy for the Arts, Tinna Gunnarsdóttir, is studying the genetics of Icelandic horses, and I learned some valuable information from our conversations.

New best friends. They were not interested in the apple, just in nuzzling.

The process for creating something new (pigment on yarn) with the valuable horse blood needed to have an element of the sacred in it. I learned during my time in Iceland how sacred their animals are, simply in the serious and respectful attitude towards the act of killing animals (sheep and horse) for food. This was a striking difference from generally disengaged North American attitudes towards meat production and consumption. Icelanders live with their animals before they eat them and work together as a community to provide food each season.

As it happened, my Icelandic medicine man friend, Reynir, observed the process and contributed ritual elements to it. As I lay the wool in the grass of his yard, and carefully poured the horse blood over it, he drummed at my back with his frame drum, so strongly that the resonance was almost knocking me over, and echoed throughout the landscape. It seemed a natural and appropriate way to honour the gift from that horse, whose hoof beats I used to hear at night on the family farm, have always reminded me of drumming on the earth. The yarn turned out beautifully, a delicate and variegated pink, after I allowed the blood to dry over the course of two nights, before rinsing it out.


Reynir/ Rowan magic

The exhausted dye pot of rowan berries, along with some random forest berries.

Reynir is the Icelandic (Old Norse) name for the Rowan tree, thus my Icelandic friend Reynir Katrínar is, in English, named Rowan. The pot of reynir baer (rowan berries) above was picked for me and delivered by surprise one day, by Reynir himself. This tree, also called (confused with) Mountain Ash, has long been used for dyeing textiles. See more on uses on Wikipedia, here. Folklore also calls this tree, service-tree and the berries, service berries.  See more on rowan tree folklore on Wikipedia, here.

The wonderful Reynir (right), who contributed so much to my work.

According to Wikipedia, “The Old English name of the rowan is cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (also quicken, quicken-tree, and variants). This name by the 19th century was reinterpreted as connected to the word witch, from a dialectal variant wick for quick and names such as wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, wiggan-tree, giving rise to names such as witch-hazel and witch-tree.” I do know that the rowan tree is considered to be one of the most magical trees for use in ritual and spell-casting, likely due to its etymological roots, but also due to the fact that on its underside, it bears a 5-pointed star, connected to the symbol of the pentagram.

The rowan berries gave a pinky fleshy-colour on silk, and a warm, light-beige on the Lopi wool.

The reynir baer dyed silk is top left, above the black crowberry dyed silk. Next to it is silk dyed with moss, above a light pink silk dyed with a very small number of black crowberries. Some of the colours obtained from the Icelandic landscape in September.

Geothermal shibori

Cotton and silk fabric bundles prepared on found branches.

Part of the research within the idea of using the land as a studio laboratory, is making use of the natural heat sources present throughout Iceland–the geothermal hot spots–as a method to set dyes.

Embedded in this technique is the philosophy of ‘thing power’ (Jane Bennett) and material agency, of working with forces that already exist, and allowing them a voice of expression in the work that is produced. It is through this method that the actual materiality of Iceland is embedded within my work, meant as a bio-molecular self-portrait.

Video still. Burying the bundles near Grettislaug, a natural geothermal hotspot in Northwestern Iceland.

The results from this experimentation were not what was expected, but did yield fruitful results none the less, in terms of what new knowledge was gained. What I learned was that the mud in the geothermal stream/ pool did not take as a pigment on the silk and cotton fabrics I’d prepared. However, very interestingly, the heat did transfer pigment from the waxed linen I’d used to wrap the fabrics. Thus, the best use of this technique would be for eco-dyeing, currently all the rage in natural dye circles. My colleague at the textile centre, Kate Ruddle, had some success with this method at the same hot spot. Wrapping plant matter up into the core of the fabric bundle, and then allowing the geothermal heat to set it, yielded lovely colour on the fabric.

Dye transfer on silk (from the waxed linen binding threads).

Kvennaskólinn living history


The Icelandic Textile Centre is situated within the former Kvennaskólinn, a women’s college, where young women around the ages of 16 or 17 would traditionally attend for a summer, in order to learn textile arts such as weaving and embroidery, as well as cooking. The entire residence (for artists) is filled with year photos of all of the girls from past decades.

Nearly each day of the residency, I went to the Blönduós pool, typically in the morning, since they serve free coffee in the hot pots (the Icelandic term for a geothermal hot tub, whether a natural hole in the ground, or from geothermal water piped from the ground into a manmade pool). This pastime was not mine alone. In fact, a number of very classy senior and elderly ladies had the same idea in mind, and eventually I made friends with a number of them. The friendliest of them all was a woman named Sigurður Baldersdóttir (or Sigge for short). Sigge told me that she had attended Kvennaskólinn in 1963 or 1964, and that it was a shame that it closed down and young women no longer knew the traditional skills, nor were many of them interested. I found Sigge’s photo, in one of the other residents’ rooms (shown above).


It was humbling and incredibly fulfilling to make the acquaintance of these ladies.

My hot pot ladies: Sigge (far right) and Ragnheiður (centre). They attended the opening reception of our month-end exhibition at the Bilskúrs Gallerí. Shown here with me in front of my weaving produced using my Nordic genomic data as pattern.

A few photos of the former Kvennaskólinn, now Icelandic Textile Centre:

The Textile Museum.
The weaving studio.
View from my ancient loom.
Main studio.
Dye kitchen exterior – a series of rent-able garages.
Dye kitchen interior, where I spent most of my time. This is about half the space, which doubles as a white cube gallery.

Grey Underpants

Grabrok Vulcan (Vulcan Crater),which I was informed by a local is called, Grey Underpants Crater.

Much of Iceland’s lava fields and craters are completely covered in velvety moss, giving them a soft, flocked appearance. The above crater is no exception. Speaking of flocks, below this crater, is a massive lava field, which features two ancient sheep sorting pens built from lava rock.

One of the abandoned (ancient) sheep sorting pens at the base of the crater. Also heavily covered in green velvet moss.

Moss is magical in Iceland, keeping its green colour all winter, and being a place where elves and trolls live. By overlapping time, I imagined sheep wool in proximity with the moss, and so collected a large portion of it for dyestuff. The resulting colour would make for lovely beige underpants, versus grey ones.

Drying skeins of lupine-dyed (top left), mushroom-dyed (top right) and moss-dyed (bottom) Lopi wool. The moss was left in the pot when dyeing the wool, thus the mossy bits remained on the yarn. These came off once the yarn was dry and wound into balls.

The beige pigment from the moss was quite identical to what I got from rowan berries. I attribute this colour mainly to tannins. I did, however, pre-mordant all yarns in alum, which I might not do again given how much it harshens the wool and may not be necessary.

Plucking inky caps/ no night caps

Shaggy mane, lawyer’s wig, tippler’s bane… Coprinoids with inky spores, apparently useful for dyeing wool. An old, black horseshoe appeared, to try out for use as an iron mordant, in addition to the pre-mordanting with alum.

Video still. Plucking inky caps in Blönduós, Northern Iceland.
Inky caps found in abundance in Blönduós.

Reference for dyeing (not dying) with mushrooms.

Horse magic. The shoe used for iron mordanting, though it’s possible it’s not made of iron…
The mushroom dye pot. Had the yarns kept this colour, it would have been a lovely grey. However, they only retaining a light hint of the colour, despite being pre-mordanted with alum.

Mushrooms, yet another material associated with magic, due to the sometimes hallucinatory effects they cause. This particular mushroom is fascinating, biologically, in that it has a chemical compound which inhibits the enzymes that break down alcohol, causing prolonged and severe drunkenness if one imbibes and eats them in the same go, or within a close timespan (hence the name, ‘tippler’s bane’). This is referred to as “disulfiram syndrome”. Despite the fact that I picked the mushrooms while wearing mittens, to prevent from absorbing any of their compounds through my skin, and I did not eat any, I still avoided that g&t nightcap afterwards.

More information on Wikipedia, here.

Black Crowberry crush

Black Crowberries picked in Northern Iceland. One blueberry is included for comparison. The Icelandic name is krækiber, which sounds like ‘cranky-berry’. Crowberries are found in other northern ecosystems as well, such as in Canada.
A page from the book, Medicinal Plants of Iceland; Collection, Preparation and Uses by Arnbjörg Linda Jóhannsdóttir (2012).

Berjamór is the tradition of wild berry picking in Iceland. More info here.

Of all my dyeing experiments in Iceland in September, the berry dyes are the best, because the berries are all super ripe, in season right now. It strikes me that textile artists who visit the textile centre in the summer specifically because they are interested in natural dyeing, miss out on the gorgeous colours obtained only during berry picking season!

The sugar trick worked very well. I did not use flour, nor do I think it’s needed. A page from Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens of the Northeast by Karen Leigh Casselman.
Video still. Collecting black crowberries during the annual horse round-up.
My results, completely colour-fast. Delicious.

Wildcrafting the invaders

Video still. Collecting lupins.
A page from the best dye book I’ve ever seen: Reference Collection of Local Natural Dyes; #1 Blönduós – Iceland by Maaike Ebbinge (June 2014). A handmade artist book.

The results achieved with lupine dyeing in autumn were much softer than those shown above, which were achieved mid-summer. It seems that the plants are already on their way out, even though certainly many of them were still blooming. While the colour comes not from the flowers, but mainly, in the case of lupine, from the stalk, there was still only a very light dye result despite the huge quantity of plant used (no need to be economical with these plants). My magical friend and textile centre co-resident artist, Reynir, informed me that the lupine is not native to Iceland, but a Canadian import, now an invasive species. They were brought in to fill the land areas where nothing else wanted to grow.

The final (dry) colour was the same on wool, silk, and cotton – all were mordanted with alum, according to the recipe for pre-mordanting in the above resource book. I had the opportunity to meet one of the residents who was at the textile centre in August, as she stayed for a few days into September. The bulk of her project was lupine dyeing, and her results were the vibrant yellow one would expect, from only using one stalk of the plant.

The first square knit sample of natural dye results. All of the dye samples will be knit one after the other, to create a long, knit, colour legend of the Icelandic landscape. This is the most vibrant yellow one can hope to achieve when using the plant in September.

Lupine seems appropriate to include in the overall work, given my own nationality.


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Video stills. What I have in hand isn’t actually dulse but I thought I’d try it, too.
A page from Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens of the Northeast by Karen Leigh Casselman.

Following the advice to leave dulse soaking in a bucket for a number of days was not wise. The dulse rotted and foamed, possibly fermented, and no worthy colour came of it. It was eventually dumped out at the side of the dye studio and left to fertilize the grass. This is an experiment I’ll have to return to at a later date, and entirely possible to do on the east coast of Canada as well. Dulse is something I’ve grown up eating as a snack, picked fresh from the Fundy shoreline.

Urine fermentation


Urine ‘fermentation’1 in natural textile dye methods is an example of embodied craft process, where bodily materials (in this case, my own) are collected and utilized for their biochemical properties, in order to produce aesthetic results. The act of collecting one’s own piss in a jar, allowing it to ‘ferment’ in a corner for a period of weeks, and then both handle and make use of the reeking substance in order to produce objects of beauty and utility, is a process of scientific inquiry, as well as a methodology for self-knowledge and hands-on making (research-creation). For example, a more dehydrated body will deliver greater concentrations of ammonia in urine, enhancing the colour-producing properties of certain plants, such as lichen.

Video still.

In an era of alienation from self-sovereignty regarding bodily care and control, particularly of female bodily care and control, simple acts of engaging with ones own bodily substances (including using the body in ways contrary to professional medical advice) for both study and creativity, is a radical act.

Intimately linked with notions of witchcraft, in its emphasis on radical bodily materiality, informal knowledge production and even potion-making, (such as through stirring noxious fluids in a heated cauldron in order to extract the magicolour transformation inherent in rare herbs), natural dye methods such as those done via urine ‘fermentation’ fall within small-scale and thus ethical production and use of resources, also linked to feminist perspectives on labour.

  1. Casselman, Karen (Leigh) Diadick. Lichen Dyes and Dyeing: A Critical Bibliography of the European and North American Literature in a Culturally Marginalized Field. Halifax: Atlantic Canada Studies Masters Thesis, Saint Mary’s University. 1999. p. 3

    Karen Leigh Casselman has argued that the “ammonia fermentation method” of urine aging for curing and extracting plant dyes is not true fermentation, in that, “the alkaline nature of the… process disqualifies it as fermentation.” With respect to the traditional (folk) and craft references to this method of dye extraction as fermentation, I refer to it as such despite the chemical particularity that Casselman outlines.

Video still. Crushing the lichen before adding it to the urine.
Fermentation: crustaceous lichen in my own urine, day 2.


Excerpts from Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens of the Northeast by Karen Leigh Casselman.

Casselman has described natural dye processes as marginalized, “an overlooked aspect of human culture and technology”2, not only due to their association with women’s craft labour but also usage of natural dyes as culturally dismissed in favour of the (environmentally disastrous and male dominated) chemical dye industry. Both ancient and connected to the body/earth, the use of bacterial species and fermentation in natural dye processes is a subject worthy of deeper contemplation as a feminist act of resistance and symbiotic creative activity with nonhuman organisms.

2. Ibid, pp 1-2.

The colour after two weeks’ fermentation in urine. At this time, I added silk yarn. It reeks.
Final results of the urine fermented lichen. This was after approximately two and a half weeks of fermentation. The subtle warmth of this colour was extremely difficult to capture with a camera.

Arctic waves washing wool

Salt is often used in dye baths as a method for slowing down the colour take-up (a leveling agent), and ensuring a more even result. Normally what is used is Glauber’s Salt, but any salt can be used to some effect. In the interests of using the elements of the landscape both as material and as studio laboratory, washing wool in the sea is the wildish answer.

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Video still.
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Video still.

Because the Icelandic Textile Centre is situated next to the local slaughterhouse, many bits of sheep can be found along the shore, attached to rocks, laying in the sand or floating in the water. One such prize I acquired was a small sheep horn, which I cleaned off in the sea and dried out for a number of days, before filing and smoothing it. One textile centre resident, Kevin Lowenthal, found an entire sheep skin curing itself amongst the briny waves and took it home. I spied a thread of intestine on the ground, a large container of horns (a pair of which I later acquired by asking at the slaughterhouse), a wall sprayed with waste flesh under a disposal chute, as well as tufts of wool in random places, here and there, some with flesh still attached to them. The ocean washes clean all life that passes through it.

The quantity of wool I washed in the Arctic Ocean, was found alongside a country road, gnarled and knotted with excrement and thistle. Teasing it out in the waves was the only logical thing to do. In one of the resource books I have used thus far (unfortunately I don’t remember the exact reference this time), some dyers claim that dirty or urine-soaked wool takes up colour better than completely cleaned wool. Given the effectiveness of urine fermentation with extracting pigment, or simply of the use of ammonia for fixing dye, this seems reasonable.


Sheep hanging out on the seashore in the Westfjords.


The sunburst lichen, found growing prolifically all over the rocks along the shore.
Scraping lichen from rock. Video still.
The loot. One must be careful not to take too much from one location, as lichen takes a very long time to grow back.

To be continued.