Thanks to the Hands on History Travelling Foundation, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Gudvangen Viking market 2017. Here follows a short summary of my trip as well as some personal reflections.
Travelling to Gudvangen was done by car on a sunny summers day, the weather was absolutely amazing. This made the trip very beautiful but also made the lack of AC in the car very noticeable. The compensation for us being boiled in our own sweat was amazing scenery, a fair trade to say the least.
For you who don’t know about Gudvangen, it’s located in the western region of Norway in the municipality of Aurland in Sogn og Fjordane county.
We arrived to Gudvangen at midday but waited until evening to put up the tent in order to avoid the busiest, as well as the hottest, hours. This unfortunately gives us no pictures from the first day with its sunshine so the majority of these pictures were taken on other days when it was cloudy (all pictures except one but you’d have to figure out which one that is by yourself).
It’s a scenic place, to say the least.
The fjord water was cold and had an amazing aquamarine colour, which was difficult to capture without the equipment of a professional photographer.
On the second day we ventured out along the fjord to go swimming in the cold fjord water. Despite it being at least 20°C during the cloudiest day it was no more than 10°C in the water due to mountain water and the ocean being close at hand. Nevertheless, going for a swim was refreshing and appreciated but also fascinating because you see the mountains at all time but you tend to forget that the fjords are the opposite of mountains. That is, when you go swimming you can see how the mountain disappears down into the deep, clear fjordwater. Beautiful, cold and awe inspiring.
Gudvangen being in a fjord makes it perpetually surrounded by the green mountains. It sound reasonable enough but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t breathtaking when you see it.
Turned out that green was an exceptional nice colour that worked very well with the surroundings. The particular green as seen in the picture above was made using yellow onion skin and indigo.
Above is one of the dinners; beer, salmon, cabbage, bread and butter. Tasted amazing, 10/10 would eat again.
The Nærøyelva flows through the bigger part of Gudvangen, even though it’s difficult to see it from these picture Nærøyelva continues quite a bit in.
It’s difficult to not be impressed by Gudvangens scenic nature but not only does it look unique, it smells and sounds in a particular way as well. I remember waking up one night wondering why there was such heavy traffic in the middle of the night. Took me a while before I understood that the low murmur that my modern brain translated as traffic was in fact the sound of the many waterfalls that surrounds Gudvangen.
It was an amazing trip and one of the many thoughts that I will take with me from this trip is that environment is not purely there for the aesthetics. There is a roughness to nature which I think is a part of its beauty and partially responsible for the fascination we have for it. But the roughness also bring demands; demands about how we dress and how we work to survive in it. Or at least it did.
There is an ingenuity with mankind that is rare, an ingenuity that gives us unique tools and skills based on the region and the time we happen to live in. Based upon these tools we develop a society surrounding them, cultivating and developing them for new possibilities. In order to understand more about a culture, understanding tools are crucial. To understand tools, we must use it and evaluate its products. For this purpose, I try to put my reenactment close to what available sources there are from each century. There is a reason to such a life, a feeling and a way to value workmanship and knowledge that is hard to come by without experiencing it.
There is, of course, different ways to approach reenactment and history but this is my approach which has been reinforced by my experience in Gudvangen. I want to understand, work and learn new skills in my reenactment and I want these skills to be based of what we actual know about a certain time and place. By working to learn these skills I will see what they saw and feel what they felt; curiosity, frustration and (hopefully) success. Hopefully I’ll learn something; if not about history then maybe about myself.
I was going to wait a while before doing this kind of post but I was struck with sudden inspiration when I stumbled upon a Facebook group that focuses on plant and mushroom dyes. What is plant dyeing? Or, as it sometimes is referred to, natural dyeing?
Wikipedia is generally considered as an unreliable source but it somehow reflects society and the general public, and as such they say the following: “Natural dyes are dyes or colorants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources—roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood—and other biological sources such as fungi and lichens.”
The alternative to plant dyes is synthetic dyes which are dyestuff that is not naturally occurring. The first synthetic dye was Mauveine in that was synthesised in 1856 and subsequently launched on the market in 1857. Even though picric acid was prepared as a dye as early as 1771, the foundation of the synthetic dye industry is generally attributed to the Mauveine synthesis and commercialisation (Christie, 2001). Before that point, all dyes were derived from natural sources.
But today plant dyeing seems to have a unique meaning only known to the user themselves. The general consensus is that fibres are being dyed but the means of doing it varies. For some, it means using plants for dyeing; for others, it means only using natural sources they can harvest out in the nature by themselves to dye with; and for a few it means to dye only using things with trivial names (incorrectly but commonly referred to as a “chemical free” process). I will try to avoid going into semantics about what is and is not a chemical by posting a link to this blog post about “What is – And What Isn’t A Chemical?“. As much as I’d like to tell you everything, I don’t have the time (and besides, who says you’re going to believe me?). But if you DO believe me, let me sum things up by saying that every material is a chemical, even if it exists in your home and has a trivial name.
To use a plant dye example; the chemical Ca(OH)2 is commonly referred to as slaked lime, which is constantly presented as an alternative to the chemical ammonia, NH3, in indigo vats. Unfortunately, they are both chemicals so if your aim is to do a dye without chemicals you have failed to understand the fundamentals of dyeing (and chemicals). Although, there are other reasons to use Ca(OH)2 instead of NH3 and vice versa but replacing one with another in the hope of becoming chemical free is futile work. Even that handmade natural oak-spirit-soap you bought at the last Carpe Diem-fair is made out of chemicals; even though the individual who sold it to you guaranteed it was not. There is no way around it. Minerals are also naturally occurring (Richardson, 1997), which makes copper sulfate, Cu(SO)4, legit as a plant dyeing material if we go by the the definition of plant dyeing (plants, minerals, invertebrates; derived from nature; naturally occurring etc.). And as such, we have the conspiracy unfolded right here, similar to when Frank Thorn realises the plot twist of the movie Soylent Green;
Nature is chemicals! They’re making chemicals out of nature. Next thing they’ll be synthesising organic molecules themselves. You’ve gotta tell them. Chemicals are naturally occurring!
But really though, I don’t think this comes as surprise for anyone (neither did the soylent green revelation!). I mean, where else would chemicals come from, the highly unnatural space? And, now that we think about it, are we sure that space isn’t natural as well? Anyhow, I do feel the need to mention that there exists a general idea of what is and what is not chemicals even in the field of chemistry; because we are also, believe it or not, a part of society and its norms. It is considered childish and unnecessary to refer to everything as chemicals all the time because it’s a basic fact which tells us nothing new. But on the other hand, in communication you have to specify what you’re talking about and herein lies the difference; you can’t just say chemicals if you want other people to understand you! You should explain what chemical you’re referring to, which isn’t that much of a stretch really since you probably have one in mind already.
I don’t believe you! If everything is chemicals then how do I know what is toxic and what is not?
In case you didn’t know, table salt can be toxic to humans. Apple seeds contains cyanide and cyanide is also toxic to humans (Holzbecher et al., 1984). All in all, there is stuff like this everywhere and about everything can be toxic, it’s only a matter of concentration and dosage. The thing is, you don’t digest or wash your eyes with washing powder, hairspray, rubber, deodorant, hair dye, thinner, oil, nail polish or shampoo because you know that it might not be good for you. You seldom use these things outside of its intended purpose because you also know that it might become weird. And don’t get me started on people who smoke and drink but are afraid of chemicals eventually being hazardous… Nevertheless you don’t hesitate to use it in your everyday life. But for some, reason, this kind of thinking completely disappears as soon as the word chemical is involved. Which is weird, because it’s basically the same things going on there. There ARE information and literature on how to plant dye and what to use and how. Follow those instructions and you’d be fine. Another source of information is to check out the (Material) Safety Data Sheet (M(SDS)) for a certain chemical. Here is a MSDS for table salt.
A short, but very unsatisfying, summary would be to implore you to use your common sense and you’ll be fine. If you still want more I’d recommend to study toxicology.
But there is too much information, I can never remember any of this!
You don’t have to, most people use books to write down the most important things and there is always the internet to enlighten us.
Why did you have to make everything difficult, my way of thinking and evaluation is much easier!
I didn’t make anything (except this pesky blog), nature did.
But I am sure that people used only onion skins before the first synthetic dye, none of these mordants and acids! Those are all 20th century ideas!
I am not so sure. Unfortunately, as we often do in historical reenactment, we lack a lot of sources. Though one source that we do have is from a handwritten manuscript from around 1860; that is only a few years after the first synthetic dye was created and the processes described in manuscript involves no synthetic dyes. In fact, all these recipes described would soon be abandoned for the much more efficient and less costly synthetic dyes (Sisefsky and Sandberg, 1979). The manuscript has one example for dyeing blue wool yarn and it involves potassium cyanide (KCN), hydrochloric acid (HCl), disulfuric acid (H2S2O7), potassium aluminium sulfate (alum, KAl(SO4)2) and potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar, KC4H5O6). How’s that for a cocktail? Kind of put our modern concern about using a 20wt% alum mordant at a shame. Of course this doesn’t mean that this is what was used in the earlier centuries but we can at least say that these chemicals are not exclusive to the 20th century and their use in plant dyeing processes precedes the 19th century development of the synthetic dye industry .
I dye only using onion skin! I am chemical free.
Pelargonidin is what is in the dyestuff of onion skin (Uddin, 2014). If you’re not using a mordant, it would be sufficient to just say that you’re dyeing without using a mordant.
Surely I use less hazardous material than in the industry? My environmental impact has to be less than if I’d buy the industrially dyed material?
The current industry has had several iterations, process optimisations and experience which generally makes the industry a lot more efficient than a single individual with little to no technical equipment and experience. Most developed countries also have a lot of regulations that is to be followed regarding the process and its emissions, no one will measure your own amount of trace metals in your plant dyes (Griffiths, 1984). As I previously mentioned, synthetic dyes are far more efficient than plant dyeing which means you’d generally consume less resources using synthetic dyes compared to plant dyes (Sisefsky and Sandberg, 1979). The difference here is to how to view the emissions; if you compare emissions and resource consumption per kilogram of dyed material, the industrial dye would probably be using less resources. A common theme is that there is a lot of transport involved in production, which is not good thing for the environment but also makes calculations more difficult. Even so, there are ways that these are accounted for (an example would be the Life Cycle Assessment) but you will always have to limit the analyse. I’ll try to explain this with an example; if you’d dye yarn that was made at the farm next door you’d be responsible for less emissions than if you’d buy imported yarn. But then again, if the sheep that made the wool at the farm next door lacks food in the pasture and needs to support feed and then that food needs to be transported there, should that transport be included in the emissions for the yarn? And where was that food grown and using what fertiliser? As you probably understand, this thinking can derail pretty quickly but I hope you see the problem with deciding a number for any of these emissions and impacts which is also why you should be critical to anyone producing such numbers, what is included and what is not? Often the numbers are in favour of whoever is presenting them so my advice is to be critical.
A summary of this would be to say that it’s impossible to know but an individuals plant dyeing process is probably more inefficient than the industry and has an unknown quantity of residuary chemicals in it (unless you analyse every batch, which would be cool but very expensive but at least you’d know what you’ve got). The industry can, of course, also have an unwanted quantity of residuary chemical but this is why we invest in quality and try to only buy fabrics and clothes from countries with regulations and decent working conditions, right?
My dyes DO become resistant to both light and water if I do it using only the dyestuff like blueberries/lupins/beetrot and no mordants!
No, they don’t. What happens is that you get a dyed material that WILL be drained of colour when exposed to water or sunlight (Burkinshaw and Kumar, 2009; Dumitrescu et al., 2008; Waheed and Alam, 2004). If you keep the dyed material away from water and sunlight things then you’d be fine but you’d also be living in a very dry and dark place. If you aim to be eco friendly, natural, climate considerate, environmental friendly or whatever buzzwords you use in justification then consider both the time, energy and work that you put into this. If you’re using any kind of heating in the dyeing process you are literally wasting energy and time; not to mention if you use wood as a fuel for heating the bath which has a LOT of exhaust gases that are harmful and currently not very popular (Bari et al., 2010;van Lith et al., 2006; Tissari et al.,2007).
I only use plant dyes in a cold bath and using sunlight so I am the most environmental friendly dyer there is and I am always pleased with my dyes and colour hues!
Good for you, get back to me when you can dye 2 kilograms of heavy wool evenly with a deep colour intensity while also getting water and light fastness in a cold water bath at pH7 using only dyestuff. Snark aside, if you HAVE achieved something like what I just said in a reproducible and controlled manner, please do share it with the world (that shit would be Nobel prize worthy)! That would be an amazing feat and of great benefit to the whole planet.
The question to ask in these cases is, if all kind of processing and chemicals are to be avoided at all costs then why dye it in the first place? The most natural way to avoid any kind of dye process is to NOT dye. Personally, I think that the natural colour and hues of wool is superior to many other hues, this is why a large part of my reenactment kit is non dyed wool. If you completely want to avoid any kind of chemistry happening then plant dyeing, or any kind of dyeing, is not for you. And before you even think it, there is nothing like good or bad chemistry; nature doesn’t work that way. Endless energy consumption is something to be avoided as well as pollution. Water is a resource and electricity doesn’t spawn spontaneously at the energy company, globally it is often a result of combustion (often coal) and somewhere there is a exhaust coming from that energy production. Is it worth the time and energy if the result will fade within a month?
On the other hand, there are several other things you can do if you want a more sustainable lifestyle. Some examples would be to eat less meat, promote local farms and production, don’t throw away food, travel less (unless by foot, bike or sailing), recycle, repair, invest in quality and so on. And my primary advice is to consume less. Simply put, buy less shit. Remember, it’s not a bargain if you don’t need it.
In the end, however, everyone does as they please but be aware of what you’re doing and the reasons for doing it. It is totally ok to plant dye for your own sake, and peace of mind; I encourage that since that is what a hobby is about! But don’t do it for the wrong reason or try to claim the moral high grounds by saying that it’s more natural (what even is natural? Infant deaths, scurvy, polio, venomous snakes, anaphylactic chocks, cyanide, dental cavities, space?) or without chemicals (IT’S NEVER WITHOUT CHEMICALS!). Instead, to specify what you’re avoiding and for what reason would be a better way of communication if you want to show some sort of situational awareness and at the same time be understood by other people.
Griffiths, J. 1984, Developments in the chemistry and technology of organic dyes, Blackwell Scientific, Oxford.
Holzbecher, M. D., Moss, M. A. & Ellenberger, H. A. (1984), ‘The cyanide content of laetrile preparations, apricot, peach and apple seeds’, Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology 22 (4), 341–347. PMID: 6098693.
van Lith, S. C., Alonso-Ramírez, V., Jensen, P. A., Frandsen, F. J. & Glarborg, P. (2006), ‘Release to the gas phase of inorganic elements during wood combustion. part 1: development and evaluation of quantification methods’, Energy & Fuels 20 (3), 964–978.
Sisefsky, Jan & Sandberg, Gösta (1979). Receptsamling från Schwartzska färgeriet i Borås efter handskrivet original från 1860-talet på Borås museum. Borås: Borås museum
Richardson, H. W. (1997), Handbook of copper compounds and applications, CRC Press Tissari, J., Hytönen, K., Lyyränen, J. & Jokiniemi, J. (2007), ‘A novel field measurement method for determining fine particle and gas emissions from residential wood combustion’, Atmospheric Environment 41 (37), 8330 – 8344.
Uddin, M.G. 2014, “Effects of Different Mordants on Silk Fabric Dyed with Onion Outer Skin Extracts”, Journal of Textiles, vol. 2014, pp. 1-8.
Waheed, S., & Alam, A. (2004), Studies of some natural dyes, JOURNAL-CHEMICAL SOCIETY OF PAKISTAN, 26, 255-263.