Colour and Power
Words and Graphics by Katie Weston
As handcrafters and spinners, colour is vitally important. The colour you choose to dye, spin, knit, or weave impacts your final work, your feelings about it, and others’ interpretations of it. This has long been true of colour, which has often been associated with power, as humans have used certain colours to signify position and status. Roman Emperors limited access to Murex Purple so only those in a position of power could wear that shade. In Medieval Europe, the Sumptuary Laws limited what people could wear according to their position in society. Peasants wore a dull earthy colour, whereas only nobles could wear a bright saturated colour such as scarlet.
Most modern colour rules would dictate that Elizabeth I, famously a redhead, really shouldn’t have worn a bright orange-red such as scarlet. However, the power of the colour was far more important to Elizabeth. During her time as a princess, she regularly wore scarlet, amplifying her message that she was the heir to her sister Mary I. Once she became Queen, however, she changed her message; scarlet was still a colour associated with promiscuity, and that was not the message the Virgin Queen wished to send. Instead, she dressed her ladies and retainers in scarlet to act as a symbolic backdrop to the paler colours she adopted in her own clothing.
Language of Colour
In addition to the colours themselves, the language we use to describe colour reveals a lot about the way a culture thinks about the world. Homer famously described the sea as being wine-dark. He uses the expression many times throughout his epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, to describe the colour of the Aegean sea. This sea is very much the same blue colour as all the other bodies of water across the planet. So why doesn’t Homer describe it as being blue?
Well, for starters, the Ancient Greeks didn’t have a single word to signify blue.
Homer gives the sky the non-blue descriptive treatment as well: big, starry, or of iron or bronze. The sea is also described as whitish (polios), blue-grey (glaukos), almost black (kuaneos), and on occasion it’s even described as being purple (porphureos). So given the dominance of blue in the Greek landscape, why is there no word for blue?
Describing the June sky above the Aegean as the same colour as that Aegean sea in December during a storm does seem a little limiting. Instead, the Greeks used far more descriptive language; when the sea is described as wine-dark, it doesn’t mean the sea was the colour of red wine. Wine-dark is used in Greek literature to describe darkened blood, a cloud, a tree, and the glint of metal. It’s not actually a colour description as we would recognise today. Wine-dark doesn’t mean red; it has more to do with the lustre or superficial effect than anything related to a spectrum of shades. It’s a very different way of thinking about colour than the one we presently use.
How the Greeks perceived colour as a continuum from light to dark.
The Colour Spectrum
The Greeks created their spectrum on a different basis than ours, where light or dark were far more important than the actual hue of a colour. Colours were arranged on a spectrum from white to black. Yellow was considered to be so light as to merge into white, with red and green being mid-tones and with blue being seen as a shade of black at the darkest end. This way of perceiving and describing colours is by no means unique to the Ancient Greeks, and blue is not the only colour missing from their vocabulary. Yellow is also absent, as it is in some Slavic languages, Ainu from Northern Japan, Daza from Nigeria, and the language used by the Mechopdo, in what is now California. Each uses the same word within their language to describe what Western languages call blue and yellow. The use of the same word for blue and green is even more common. The Celtic languages use the word glas to describe a shade the colour of a mountain lake; it covers every colour from a brown-ish green to blue. In Japanese, awo can mean blue, green, or even dark depending on the context.
This way of looking at colour is not something unique to the Greeks. In nearly all cultures, the linguistic distinction between light and dark happens first. After that, the word for red tends to be used, then yellow, then green, then blue. There are of course many exceptions to this, but broadly speaking, the distinction between light and dark is something most cultures develop long before any need to give specific hues a single name.
The modern colour wheel in which opposite colours are said to be complementary. However, when viewed in greyscale, some of the colours are revealed as lacking contrast, so they do not tend to stand out from one another.
In Western culture, our modern spectrum is a comparatively recent development. For example, a Medieval painter was unconcerned about portraying a colour accurately; the significance of the colours were far more important, especially when used to portray awe and respect. Pigments were costly, so the use of certain colours displayed the wealth of a patron. Vast expanses of ultramarine, vermillion, and gold were not important for colour accuracy – they were important for prestige and power. But those Medieval artists also understood colour theory and how to further enhance the brilliance of a particular shade. The Italian Leon Battista Alberti wrote De Pictura, a technical painting guide, in 1435 for any would-be artist. He offered this advice on the placement of colours: “If red stands between blue and green, it somehow enhances their beauty as well as its own. White lends gaiety, not only when placed between green and yellow, but almost to any colour. But dark colours acquire a certain dignity when between light colours, similarly light colours may be placed to good effect among dark.”
What’s amazing is how this nearly 600 year-old advice could actually come out of any book you might read today. When thinking about colourwork knitting, the interactions of colours in a warp and weft, or whether to ply 2 different hand-dyed colourways together, the impact of light next to dark is just as important as the hue of the chosen yarns.
Light and dark are crucial for colour combinations, and we are often advised to take a photograph and switch the colours to greyscale. To enhance one another, the colours should be different shades of grey. In a way, this idea reverts back to the Ancient Greek way of thinking about colour. Colours of a similar value will blend together, even if they are quite different hues. Colours that are different in value will stand out from one another.
Colour can often leave people running scared. They’ve been told long-ago, often in childhood, that 2 shades don’t go together or that a certain colour doesn’t suit them and they should never wear it. Our modern Newtonian method of describing colours and how they relate can lead to a very narrow way of looking at the materials we work with. The modern colour wheel theory says opposite shades will contrast with one another but fails to take into account the advice given by Alberti – sometimes it’s about more than opposites; you need to add some light or dark to give real power to your colours. Equally, don’t let colours have too much power over you. Channel your inner Elizabeth I, and go ahead and dye, spin, knit, weave, and wear the colour you love.
Colours are affected by the shades that surround them. The yellow box in the centre of all these colour swatches is the same shade.
 Hue describes the actual colour of any given shade. So in our modern lexicon, red, green, orange, purple, etc.
 Value describes how light or dark a colour is.
Katie Weston lives in the hills of Snowdonia, Wales. She spends her day dyeing spinning fibre in every colour of the rainbow, so it’s perhaps a little understandable that she’s obsessed with describing it, and the history of colour. She’s the author of the book A Guide to Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre.
If you were stranded and limited to only three small spinning tools, what would you choose?
What are the tools you can’t live without, at least this week?
I have never grown out of playing ‘what if’ games. It’s just fun and I always want to know what other people would choose.
I will add the caveat that you already have your favorite spinning wheel and all of the fiber you could want. And don’t choose books, we’ll do that one on a different day.
Here are mine:
- oil – to keep my wheel happy and humming along.
- a solar powered scale – for measuring weight and grist. I can measure inches and yards with parts of my body, so I don’t need a wpi measure or yardage counter.
- tags – to remember all the yarn and fiber details for me. I have to write everything down.
Your turn, if you were limited to just three small spinning tools what would you choose?
So, last week I was trying to spin on my Norm Hall Saxony wheel. I love the wheel but I’ve never really been able to spin fine on it. It’s been frustrating. I’m in the midst of trying to get the last bit of weft spun for the skirt project and weather changes and all kinds of other issues made me get out another wheel.
Anyway, I was struggling to get the yarn as fine as it needs to be. The Norm Hall wheels have pretty giant bobbins and big flyers that go along with the bobbins. The ratios are good though so I am able to get a lot of twist easily.
I know how to spin fine but sometimes I’m too stubborn to put my knowledge in play. I just want the wheel to do all the work. Sometimes that isn’t good enough and so I decided to put my money where my mouth is this time.
First, I changed to a finer drive band. That helped a bit but it wasn’t the solution I was after.
I oiled everything again. Still no luck.
So, I got out my secret weapon. Pipe insulation.
I’m humming right along now. Why did I make myself suffer for 4 days?
PlyAway registration is open and there are lots of people already registered. One of the classes I’ll be teaching there is how to spin fine yarns. I’m going to go right out on a limb here and tell you that my fine spinning class is a little different than the classes other spinning teachers’ and I happen to know that there are a few more spots still available.
If you sign up, I’ll teach you every one of my fine spinning tricks no matter what wheel you are working with.
The week before Christmas I went to Jillian’s house to spin with some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. We were all spinning along and soon Jillian stated to struggle with her wheel. I don’t remember exactly what was happening (something about noise I think) but I do remember saying to her, quietly, in my most respectful voice, “oil it”. She said back to me in that way that she does, “I just oiled it!” I smiled at her.
She struggled for a few more minutes and then got out the oil bottle and oiled the appropriate spots. I tried to look natural and not gloaty as her problem was fixed. just a few small drops of oil and 30 seconds.
I’m not saying that oil fixes everything but it is definitely my first step when things begin to go down hill.
This same scenario happens often in classes while I’m teaching. Some people didn’t even realize they needed to oil their spinning wheel at all ever. Then 3 or 4 drops later the whole experience changes for them.
This is where it can get tricky because it depends on your wheel but I will say this. Every bobbin shaft needs to be oiled. I just put a drop of oil at each end of the bobbin if the bobbin is already on. If I’m changing the bobbin, I wipe the shaft clean and add a thin line of oil along the shaft before I put the bobbin on.
Also a drop of oil where the orifice goes through the front maiden and a drop where the bobbin shaft fits into the rear maiden.
If you have a wheel with sealed bearings then the wheel hub doesn’t need oil. If it doesn’t then a bit of oil there periodically helps.
Also, once in a while I put a drop of oil where the footmen attach to the crank.
I oil 4 places on the mother of all on my wheel about once every hour to hour and a half of spinning and always right at the beginning of spinning even if the last time was only 15 minutes.
The rest of the places I oil about once per week or so. Sometimes more if I’m spinning a lot – like more than 20 hours in a week.
What to Use
I have two favorites. 30 weight motor oil which is what many wheel manufacturers recommend is the one that is most available. Gun oil is also great to use.
What not to use is sewing machine oil, or 3 in 1 oil. These are too thin, they break down faster resulting in having to oil more frequently. They also aren;t made for the amount of friction you get with a spinning wheel.
Also, I don’t recommend vaseline. It’s super thick and goopy and attracts dirt. The dirt that gets in there is gritty and will break down your spinning wheel parts more quickly.
Oil because it will help your wheel to last longer and wear better. You wouldn’t drive your car without oil. The oil in your car is there to lubricate all of the parts that are moving against each other. The same with oiling your wheel. There is a lot of friction and sometimes a little heat happens if it isn’t well lubricated.
If you aren’t sure about where to oil your particular wheel, most modern wheels wheels have a manual which you can probably find on line. If it is an older or antique wheel you can feel comfortable just putting oil anywhere there is a moving part.
I promise, you’ll thank me.
I’ve been judging fleeces on my own, for friends, and in classes for years! I know what I’m looking for, I understand the categories and I certainly know what makes a good fleece.
This year I was asked to judge the Fleece Competition at the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair in Asheville, NC. I immediately said yes! Judging fleeces for a fleece competition is something that I have been wanting to do and just hadn’t gotten around to applying for. I was super excited for about 15 minutes. And then all of my self confidence and everything I knew about fleeces seemed to be questionable. And I had about 5 months to question myself and worry.
At SAFF the fleece judging is a bit different than how they do it at Rhinebeck. At the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival the judges go in and judge the fleeces with no audience. At SAFF there is an audience and they are welcome to ask questions of the judge during the judging. That’s my favorite kind. I’ve been there at the Fleece judging at the Michigan Fiber Festival and I have learned so much watching those judges and asking questions.
But here’s what happened. I went to North Carolina. I walked into the place of judging. There were a lot of people in the chairs. My face was a little flushed, my hands shook a little and then they started spreading fleeces out in front of me and when I put my hands in the wool I began to talk and after a few minutes I wasn’t nervous anymore and I got to touch some fantastic fleece. (thanks to Jackie Ottino Graf for the photo.)
Check out my Madonna headset too!
The whole thing took about four hours. I judged 36 fleeces, if I’m remembering correctly, in four categories (more than that if you count the separation of white and colored fleeces into different groups).
Yuo know how ther ar things you want to do but they are scary but then you bravely do it and then you want to do it more? Well, that’s how I feel about the whole fleece judging experience. I want to do it every week. Anyone need a fleece judge? I can just come to your house…
Anyway, here is a picture of me and Joanne Maki (left) from Georgia Rustic Wool with her Grand Champion Gulf Coast Native. She was super excited and I was super excited to see that fleece. Not for sale though. boo hoo.
We’re delighted to have Rachel Anne MacGillivray back at the blog today! If you’ve been intimidated to try to spin a Bouclé yarn, you are not alone! In today’s post Rachel takes us through her beginner’s attempt at spinning this type of yarn.
I’d like to share with you all my deep, dark, spinning secret. *deep breath* Ok. Here goes… I’ve never spun bouclé. I’ve never even ATTEMPTED bouclé before and it’s not because I’m not into texture. I LOVE texture! I love playing with different thicknesses and tensions when plying; I LOVE using different fibers together, wild batts, and throwing in add-ins. I love spirals and coils and knopps and bibs and bobs and springs and things… but bouclés? Teeny tiny sweet little loops? I dunno, they were always overlooked by my pinch and draft.
Maybe I’m being deliberately misleading here… I implied I don’t know why I’ve never spun bouclé but I can tell you exactly why: It’s intimidating. It always seemed very technical, challenging, and time consuming. Then, the bouclé issue of PLY came out and, feeling inspired, I decided now is the time. I would attempt the most mythical (to me) of yarn structures: The Bouclé.
First thing I did was gather my resources (I’m a book hound and having new reasons to go leafing through books fills me with glee).
After some research, I started to understand how bouclé works:
Two plies: one high twist, one low twist and spun in opposite directions, then plied together in the same direction as the low twist yarn. Some fancy handwork to make loops from the high twist yarn, then ply it all again in the direction opposite the first plying to bind it up with a fine yarn. Uh… simple…. Right?
On to materials: Wensleydale top for the loops because it’s long stapled, lustrous, and gorgeous; a wild carded batt for the core; and a fine, commercial spun silk noil for the binder because, well, it was purple. Instead of the batt, I should have used something easier to draft consistently so I eventually switched to BFL top.
Books & research? Check. Materials? Check.
*inhales and holds breath for a minute*
I spun my first bouclé ply VERY high twist and fine, and did the core ply exaggeratedly slowly to add little twist to that ply. After awhile I started to doubt my definition of low twist and gave the second half of my core yarn a more medium twist. I didn’t dive in and fill bobbins with these because I wasn’t sure how they’d work out.
On to plying.
The first note I made? “Whoa. This is tough.” But you know, lots of things are tough, especially when you first start, so I gave my hands some time to settle into a groove and start to understand the new motions. I found I had to go rogue from what the books told me in terms of how to move my hands and got into this funny trick of passing the bouclé ply from one hand to the other and pinching it with the core. It worked for my hands and I just trusted my body and went with it. Refining technique can always come later.
Well, I tell you, I was starting to feel like bouclé was overrated when then, like a tiny, bright, shining star, my first bouclé appeared! My hands must have made the right motion and timing worked out and there it was: a perfect little circle sitting on top of my yarn. I was delighted! Also hooked. Definitely hooked. That tiny loop stole my heart.
Let me clear – it was not all sunshine, rainbows, and perfect little loops from there on in. My medium twist core really wasn’t loose enough, but the barely spun core worked quite a bit better. My bouclé ply was too fine and highly twisted so I tried thicker and looser. It worked better, but still not quite right.
As I practiced I got more loops and they are totally darling! I let out a little squeal with each one that appeared, but I wasn’t loving the yarn as a whole.
I set it down for awhile, busy with life and not convinced I’d done a good job. Finally, I decided to come back to it and plied it with the binder. Well, if I have any advice here, it’s don’t wait to add your third ply! All of a sudden I was totally in love with my yarn! Yes, it needs some work and I’ll learn more and make it better, BUT something completely magical happens when you do the final ply. Everything seemed to bloom and standout, and say “hey, here I am! I’m a bouclé!”
(Technical tip: I did a slight spiral ply here and loved the effect.)
So, I can finally say I’ve spun bouclé. Was it perfect? No way! Was my yarn even all that good? Probably not. But, that’s what learning is! Trying things, making mistakes, trying new things, and having thrilling moments that get you closer to what you want. It was fun, and challenging, and I’ll keep at it – letting those little loops shine their light into my life.
In love with all things Textiley, Rachel Ann MacGillivray teaches spinning & other things at the New Brunswick College of Craft & Design in Fredericton, Canada. A farm kid, spinning and wool are in her bones (well, not literally in her bones, that would be just a bit too wobbly). Oh yeah, and she loves drinking tea. Like, a lot.
I’m leaving for New York in less than a week. It’s the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. I’m excited to see the festival. I haven’t been able to see the festival on my own terms for years and I’ve written myself a little schedule. I did leave some open spaces in case somebody wants to meet up with me for a snack or something.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking for many months that my favorite sweaters are looking a little ratty. My two favorites have been repaired several times. The one called Hiro has ripped at the neck a coouple of times and I just do a bit of a crocheted edge and put her back together. The one that I made from a Jacob fleece has gotten several holes and so I have started embroidering flowers over the holes; a sort of visible mending.
Those repairs are working but for crying out loud I need a new sweater. Yes I have other sweaters…but another one of my favorites, Tappan Zee, also has a hole that I have yet to repair. Hiro is about 3 years old, the Jacob is probably 4 years old and Tappan Zee is maybe 5 or 6 years old. Even without the holes and things I would still need a new sweater. And it’s not like I haven;t been spinning! Lots! But that’s all for weaving the next skirt.
So, anyway, I was digging around in my stash and I came across a cotton project bg from Cooperative Press. When I looked inside there was a handspun sweater that was well under way! I totally forgot about it. I immediatley remembered why I had put it aside. I was looking for a sweater with certain attributes a couple of years ago and my friend, Amy King, offered to design a sweater just for me. And she did! And so I started knitting but then I was a bit confused about an instruction on the left front…and I stopped.
I called Amy! She found her electronic copy! She answered my question. Now I’m moving forward. The body of the sweater is finished and I’m working on the first sleeve. But I have another issue. The yarn is made from BFL/Silk that was specially dyed for me – also by Amy King (Spunky Eclectic) I have no more to spin and I think the sleeves are going to be tight and I still have edgings to do…
After all of that explanation, here’s the question, if I knit faster, will it make the yarn go further?