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.
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.
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.
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.