At last year’s Ellynyn ny Gael Exhibition of Traditional Arts (circa 1964) there stood upon one of the tables what looked like a large bowl of many coloured flowers.
In point of fact the bowl contained not the actual blooms, but the products of many native Manx plants and mosses used in the experimental dyeing of carded wool by Miss M G Fay, of Maughold, who is an expert in the home dyeing which used to be, not so long since, a familiar feature of Manx country life.
All those soft and glowing colours had been produced by various wild plants, alone or in combination; and although Miss Fay’s experiments have resulted in a wider range of tints than most of the old country dyers, she works on the same principles, and quite a number of her basic dyes were used by the Manx country folk of yesterday, as they are still used in the Irish Gaeltacht and the Hebrides.
Miss Fay herself is of Irish blood and has studied country craftsmanship, especially in respect to textiles, not only in Ireland but also in Scandanavia, which gives her a special aptitude for the Manx aspect of the craft, since Mann inherits both the Gaelic and the Norse traditions.
Some of the experimental plants she uses, besides those already used traditionally, are Burdock (Bollan-dhoa), Rhubarb leaves (Lus yn Arragh), Foxglove (Sliegan-slieau) and Wild Daffodil (Lus y Ghuiy) for yellows; Wild Sage (Meir Deiney-marroo) and Parsley (Lus y Phot) for greens, and for browns and rusty shades several forms of Rock Lichen (Scriss y Greg) and Stonecrop (Gob Gorrym). She gets beautiful mauve and violet shades from Blaeberries (Freoghane-gorrym), Blackberries (Sooghyn-dhoo) and Elderberries (Tramman).
These are only a few of her experimental colours but anyone interested should ask to see, at the Manx Museum, her sheet of dyed-wool samples, with notes on mordants, etc and Manx and English names of plants used.
Also in the Museum is some interesting information gleaned by the late Curator, William Cubbon, M.A., from the many country women of the older generation who were experts in traditional dyeing of wool and also of the linen spun and woven from the flax which used to be grown on most Manx farms. There were two kinds of dyes, those which dyed the material without any admixture of another substance, and those which required a mordant, in Manx Gaelic, a greimmeyder (meaning biter); and as most vegetable dyes are of the second type, in home dyeing the material first had to be treated with the mordant and then actually dyed.
The greimmeyder in most general use in Mann was alum. In dyeing the plant or plants used were boiled, or rather simmered, with the material, and the length of simmering affecting the shade obtained. It was accepted that only colours soluble in the sap were good for dyeing and various parts of the plants were used to produce different hues – leaves, berries, blooms, bark or roots.
Rain-water had to be used for steeping and boiling as it was said that hard water would not extract the proper colour. Lichen (Scriss-y-Greg) was especially valued and wool dyed red by means of this plant was generally used for women’s petticoats.
It was said to have special qualities which made it a protection against sickness and the “Oanrey-jiarg” (red petticoat) was an important item in every women’s equipment. These petticoats were often beautifully embroidered around and above the scalloped hemline in red or white wool and with the white linen skirt worn over them, which was also embroidered and edged with knitted lace, and the bright blue homespun overskirt in general use would look very attractive in traditional dancing, the red and white petticoats swinging and showing in glimpses as the wearer whirled around in a lively jig or reel.
Some of the plants listed by William Cubbon as traditionally used in dyeing are, for yellows: Teasel (Leadan), St John’s Wort (Lus ny Choilg), Bog-myrtle (Roddag), Willow (Shellagh), Gorse (Conney), Broom (Giucklagh), Ling (Freoagh), Bracken (Rhennagh) and Weld (Wullee Wus or Lus y Wee). Browns came from the Walnut-tree (Cro Rangagh), Alder (Farney) and Oak (Darragh) and also from fallen Scotch Fir Needles, called Juys Albinagh.
Purple came from Elder (Tramman), Blackberries (Freoaghyn-gorrym) and the roots of Dandelion (Lus y Minnag); blues from the roots of the Common Flag (Clioagagh) and the juice of the Sloeberry (Drine-arn). Besides lichen, Ladies’ Bedstraw (Lus-y-Volley) and Sorrel (Shughlaig) and Tormentil (Crammaltyn-beg), were all used for various reds and a beautiful wine-colour was produced from a combination of Lus-y-Volley and Drine-arn.
Leavs provided most of the green shades, Lily-of-the-Valley (Blaa Voaldyn) being a favourite source, while Pennywort (Wooishleyn), Elder (Tramman), Broom (Guicklagh) and Ling (Freoagh) were also used for various lighter shades, and Seaweed (Dullish) for dark green. Black was obtained from peat and the deepest black from Dockleaves (Cabbag) simmered in a thick mixture of peat and bog water.
Sundew (Lus ny graih) was used, as most of us know, in love charms, but it was also a very useful dye plant, giving a fine purple-violet.
These dye plants were gathered all the year round when each plant was at its prime. The actual time of gathering was said to be important too; some were best harvested in full sunlight, some at dawn or sunset and yet others by the light of the moon and when the moon was at a particular stage, usually, last quarter. The leaves, roots, bark, flowers, berries were then carefully dried in shade and tied up in bundles which were hung from the kitchen rafters ready for use. There was hardly a plant growing in the Island which was not used in some way, either for dyeing, for cookery, for medicine of man and beast, and for charms.
source: This is Ellan Vannin (1965) by Mona Douglas; photo)