Archive for June, 2012

Summer Siege is one of my favourite local events. It is very low-key and there are many different activities. Rather than doing any of the organized activities, I spent some lovely time with my friend Kjarvala, talking about spinning. Kjarvala is an amazing spinner and weaver, and she happened to have both a set of Viking combs and a bag of lovely-coloured icelandic wool. I got some lessons in how to work with both, and a huge collection of websites to check out if I decide to purchase my own combs. The wool is local, sheared by a lady who is a spinner herself. I think I see some shopping in my future.

The rest of my afternoon was devoted to working on my fishing net. I taught three people the basics of netting, got in a row or two myself, and finally had a chance to clean up a few boo-boos. Now that I really have it going, I want to think how I I can work as the net gets longer. I can’t keep raising the top in order to work on the lower edge. From the images I have been able to find, it appears fishermen just muddle through – perhaps I can fling the excess over the fence and tie it in place.


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Horsehair fishing line

This project brings together my interest in working with horsehair and my experiments with fishing gear. I will be making a line to take with me to L’Anse aux Meadows this summer, and hope to make more while I’m there. It falls firmly into the speculation end of experimental archaeology, as fishing with a line has been practiced for thousands of years, according to Dr. Andrew N. Herd (http://www.flyfishinghistory.com/horshair.htm). However, the first known European reference of fishing with a rod is a reference to a 13th C abbess (http://www.regia.org/fishing.htm). The first reference to angling comes from the 15th C, in a book called Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle by Dame Juliana Berners. Given the early references to women fishing, I feel totally justified in this research! Fysshynge with an Angle gives instructions on how to twist a horsehair line, and a diagram of a machine to aid in the twisting.

Michael Hackney, in his article Horsehair Fly Line a pdf from PowerFibers Issue 36, available on his website (http://www.eclecticangler.com/pages/Newsletters.html), notes that the Treatyse Jig and most other twisting machines can produce only short (6 to 9 foot) lines. These lines do not appear to be tapered, so presumably the lines would need to be knotted together. However, Dr. Herd notes that knotted lines won’t shoot; I presume that means they won’t unwind out of a reel, which is not an issue for a Viking Age fishing line. Mr. Hackney adds that a braided line is also a historical method (no date given) that can create a knotless, tapered line. He then gives instuctions for making line using a twisting method that is similar to making a three ply rope, and can be 30 feet long. I decided to try this method, so spent part of last night carving three pine bobbins and fitting them with sections of snug-fitting goose quill.

My next step will to be to sort out some horse hairs and prepare them for use. According to both websites, the best horsehair for the purpose is flaxen hair from a young stallion that is regularly combed. Mare’s hair tends to be weaker due to urine. Flaxen or white is preferred as it is harder to see in the water. Since I don’t actually like fishing, I’m not too fussy about the hair I use. I will use hairs I have saved from combing my horses at the stables. There will be a mix of black, flaxen and white, with at least some of it coming from mares.

I will also try plaiting a line, and then I will see about practising my skills at tying the lines to eyeless hooks. Though hooks with eyes show up in the Viking period, generally eyeless hooks seem to have been more common. I have some of each, but think that tying to an eyeless hook will take more practise.

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While in l’Anse aux Meadows in July, our group (the Dark Ages Recreation Company) would like to do some dyeing as a demonstration activity. We need to get permission from the curator, as there is no evidence of dyeing on the site. If she agrees, then we need to figure out what to dye with, so I have been researching what local plants, that were not later European imports, might be used. Our group is still debating whether madder and alum would have been available to us. Madder and some sort of mordant that works like alum were certainly used in the Viking Age, but a work party travelling to Newfoundland in search of wood and other products probably would not have been doing a lot of textile work. However, we know there were women there, and some textile work was done, so bringing a bit of prized dyestuff is not entirely implausible, and testing the dyeing properties of local plants is reasonable. After all, if something brilliant were found, it could be as valuable as the timber they had come for. Here is a list of what I have found about native plants and the dyes they produce:

Alum – Carolyn Priest-Dorman says alum was almost certainly used in the Viking period. A history of alum use indicates that by the 8th-10thC it had been written about by Arabic scholars, and was probably known in Europe due to strong trade links. By 10th-12thC, sources included Sicily and Spain (Castile), though the Middle East was still the main source, through Byzantium, Provence, Italy and Spain (via the Jewish communities who had migrated there and dominated the textile industry). Clubfoot moss was also a source, as aluminium occurs naturally in it (Carolyn notes it appears in archaeological contexts in a way that suggests it was used in dyeing – it was found at York). Clubmoss is native throughout Canada – maybe we could collect some and experiment? Burnt seaweed or kelp was also used as a mordant, as were alder wood chips, stale urine and wood ash (all are supposed to contain potassium aluminum sulphate, though I stand to be corrected by Marcus). Madder was used for dyeing, and it requires alum to get the nice reds. It is native to Europe, was found at York and the earliest European find was in Queen Arnegunde’s grave at Saint Denis (around AD 489). There are many species of madder, some native to North America, but only a few produce dye materials (I don’t know if that includes any of the North American species, or whether any of them are native to Newfoundland).
Speckled alder – distribution all across Canada except for the Carolinian forest area (south-western Ontario) and the High arctic. Use leaves, bark or twigs, roots. You can also use alder twigs as a mordant (tannin) by adding them to the regular dyebath or cook the twigs and add the strained liquid to the dyebath. This was a traditional mordant in Ireland in the 1970s. Leaves give a yellow with alum, tan with iron, yellow-orange with tin. Bark and twigs give a dark Brown with iron. Roots give variations of a greyish-charcoal shade if processed with an iron mordant in an iron pot (strong dyebath). Excellent colour-fastness. Browns may darken with time.
Trembling Aspen – distribution all across Canada except the high arctic and Palliser Triangle. Use fresh leaves or twigs. Leaves give a clear yellow with alum, bright yellow-orange with tin. Excellent colour-fastness.
Aster (Michaelmas daisy or New York Aster) – distribution across Newfoundland and into southern Labrador. There are 11 species of aster in Newfoundland and this one appears to be native, despite the name. It is also found in Ontario, but may not be available here as early as July. They tend to grow wild along roadsides and ditches, so we may be able to get some there. Use fresh blooms.
Birch – use leaves, bark. Good yellows, golds and tans from the leaves with alum, tin. Inner bark gives orange with tine or purplish brown with iron. Excellent fastness with leaves, good for bark.
Cattail – use fresh leaves, roots, flower spikes. Leaves are used fresh, roots are dug and dried in a warm spot, and cooked out in salted water. Soak out the brown flower spikes in water to cover for several days. With both the root and flowers, a strong bath is necessary. With new shoots, you will get yellow (alum), and bright yellow (tin). Roots will give tan with vinegar, or yellow with alum and salt. Flower spikes will give beige (alum) or brown (iron). Leaves have excellent colourfastness, roots and flower spikes are good.
Chicory – though not in my wildflowers of Newfoundland book, it appears to be native (according to native plants.evergreen.ca). Use flowers, leaves, whole plant, roasted root. To process the roots, dig enough to make a medium bath, wash well and allow them to dry in the sun for a day or so. Then cook in a slow oven for half an hour, tuning the roots over occasionally. Increase the heat slightly and roast until the roots are brown and smell like coffee (this will take an hour or more, depending upon the type of heat used). When done, remove them from the oven, let them cool, then crush until fine. Four ounces of ground chicory root will dye 8 oz of fibre a medium brown. Whole plants will give yellow-tan with alum, green with iron. Roots will give light brown (alum), deep brown in iron. Excellent colourfastness. Note – taproots are hard to dig, so take a shovel.
Chokecherry – use leaves and bark. Fresh leaves give yellow-green with alum, grey with iron, light gold with tin. Excellent colourfastness. This may also work for pin cherry (wild cherry) leaves, as both kinds of cherry were listed as a single entry in “Craft of the Dyer” by Karen Leigh Casselman, though she gave dye results only for chokecherry. In addition, pin cherries are said to give a pinkish beige without mordent, accordint to a Parks Canada document about native plants. Having picked pin cherries before, I’m not convinced it’s worth the effort. They are mostly pit.

Balsam Fir – use tips of branches, cones. Tear up the branch tips (2-4 inches at the very end of the bough), then cover with water and soak for 24 to 48 hours, pushing the dyestuff down every once in a while. Cook out the branches and strain off the liquor. Process the cones by brushing off dirt and crushing with a mallet before soaking for a long time then boiling out. Be sure to keep water well below boiling point to avoid getting too much tannin. Tips will give gold (alum and vinegar), bright gold (tin). Cones will give tan to medium brown (alum).
Evening primrose – use blooms or the whole plant. Flowers will give yellow (alum) or brilliant yellow (tin). The whole plant will give yellow-green (alum), greyish-green (iron), or chartreuse (alum bloomed in tin). It has good colour fastness for the blooms, and excellent when the whole plant is used.

Horsetail – use green foliage. You get light green with alum, brilliant medium tallow with tin, and grey green with iron. Colours are strong and fast.
Joe-Pye-Weed – use fresh flower heads or whole plant. Flowers produce medium yellow (alum), sharp yellow (tin). Whole plant produces yellow-green (alum), grey (iron). Excellent colourfastness.
Larch (aka tamarack , hackmatack) – use fall needles (gold); fresh twigs, cones and bark. Soak out needles and cones as you would the bark. The cones give tan with vinegar and salt; the inner bark gives a warm grey with a distinctly purplish tone with an iron mordant.
Lichens – Caribou Moss is common, as is old man’s beard and xanthoria (orange wall lichen). Lichens ca be processed by shredding and crushing, then soaking in water for two or three days. Add 1 or 2 tsp of ammonia (stale urine?) to the dye pot. Then process in simmering water for several hours – or heat and cool the dyebath several times over two or three days. Then remove from heat and strain off the lichens. Soak overnight, then leave it to soak over night before processing. Non-umbilicate lichens can be fermented in ammonia to yield reds. Ferment lichens in an alkaline solution of water and ammonia (traditional agent was stale urine). Aerate daily to incorporate oxygen to get a better red dye.
Spruce – use needles, branch tips, cones, bark. Fresh needles produce yellow (alum), gold (tin). Branch tips give bright yellow (tannin?), green (iron). Cones give brown (iron). Bark gives yellow-tan (alum), taupe (iron). Excellent colourfastness.

Most of this info came from Craft of the Dyer, and the decisions on what plants were native was based on “Wildflowers of Newfoundland and Labrador” by Peter J. Scott and Dorothy Black, supplemented by various websites showing the ranges of tree species.

Hopefully we will get permission to test some dye plants, and will be able to find suitable materials nearby. We aren’t allowed to harvest anything at the site itself, but I recall seeing many of these plants along roadsides and near the cabins where we stayed at night. If that fails, I can always experiment when I get home, since I can find most of these items in this region too.

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Lace! Also lace made of human hair. I found documentation for a piece dating from the 17th C that uses both.: http://stalkingthebelleepoque.blogspot.ca/2011/06/unusual-artifacts-band-of-hair-lace.html

Alençon lace also uses horsehair, but that is even further out of period.

This book has a bit of history on lacemaking in Switzerland near Lake Constance, with examples of horsehair and straw lace: http://www.annatextiles.ch/book_rev/rev2003/r2016steck/r2016ste.htm.

I have decided that I am going to try this as my first horsehair challenge though: http://eclecticguy.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Horeshair_Fly_Lines_PowerFibers_Issue_36.pdf

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