Bree’s Blue: To Dye With Indigo
If you can only have one Outlander Adventure… make it dying with indigo.
Bree made herself a blue wool dress, using indigo to dye the wool. Which made me wonder.. what color was Bree’s dress?
That’s simple, indigo blue, right? Well.. not necessarily.
I’ve kept a flock of sheep for decades… and have never dyed with indigo. Which may seem odd when I tell you I love blue. I can’t emphasize enough how very much I love blue. At a show my booth is a sea of blue, from baby blue to deep azure to moon dark navy. It is the only color, in all the modern acid dyes at my disposal, which reliably produces a color I’m pleased with. Red is a consistent disaster, resulting not in the deep, rich, bold, red I’m going for, but a horrible bubblegum pink or frank purple. Yellow can vary from an absolute horror of a neon to a watery pointless wash of pale. Green… don’t get me started on greens. But blue, in a modern acid dye may not be consistent, in that each dye pot produces a slightly different shade of blue, but at least it produces blue as opposed to, say, purple or pink when I expected red.
How can that possibly be? The explanation lies not in the dye, which, as it is a manufactured synthetic dye is consistent, but in the wool I’m dying. The wools I’m working with come from a variety of animals: Icelandic sheep, merino sheep, angora rabbits, and mohair goats. Each material takes up dye differently, and each material has a different underlying color. “White” Icelandic wool tends to have an underlying hint of brown, “white” angora is a bright white, while “white” merino is a duller white. Each of these base colors adds a note to the color applied over them. So to know what color Bree’s blue dress was, we need to know what wool Bree used to make her blue dress.
To do this experiment I used six types of wool. White wools: A merino and angora blend, a merino and mohair blend, a straight Icelandic, an Icelandic and angora blend, and two naturally colored wools which I overdyed: a gray Icelandic/angora blend and a brown Icelandic.
Not until Napoleon Bonaparte invades Spain does the Spanish government lift the blockade on exporting Merinos. Until then the Merino flocks are tightly held and rigidly controlled. By the mid-18th century there are some flocks in Sweden, in France, and the genetic material from the French flocks has made its way into England where it is incorporated into the British Longwool breeds, but not until the beginning of the 19th century will Merino sheep be in the Americas. It is a Vermonter, William Jarvis, as Consul of Lisbon, who took advantage of Napoleon’s invasion, purchased flocks, and successfully introduced the Merino sheep to America in general, and Vermont in particular. The craze for merino will change the landscape, economy, and people, of Vermont during the early 19th century, displacing small farmers, decimating forest, and, briefly, bringing great wealth to farmers with the resources to capitalize on the craze before the market is flooded with merino wool.
So given that history, the merino wool I’m using in this adventure isn’t period. Bree’s dress would not be made of merino wool unless she purchased imported merino top (fleece). Instead the wool she had to work with would have likely been from a British Longwool breed or a dual coated breed like the Sheltland, from Scotland, or the Icelandic.
Because both the Shetland and the Icelandic are naturally colored sheep Bree would have had the option of overdying a colored wool. Overdying adds a dark tonal note to the finished color and I have a preference for dying with a gray wool because of that additional depth. So I’ve included a gray wool and a brown wool in the experiment.