Lincoln Sheep and Natural Dyes

Why Wool?

Expressing themes of rescue and protection calls for an art medium that speaks to healing, strength and especially non-violent commerce. Wool answers a human need for something closer to our source, to the earth, to corporeal strength.  Felting wool takes care to prevent the destruction of the beautiful primitive attributes natural to it. The long locks of Lincoln wool feel personal to use as a medium and sometimes take on suggestions of human hair and skin. Undoubtedly this is why successfully felted pieces are called “skins." Raw wool is rich with symbolism. The warm touch of wool makes it a great choice for viewer interaction, changing from a soft, flame resistant fluff into a substance hard enough to be one of the world's earliest forms of armor.  


Wool is a historical metaphor for deep transformation.  In his dissertation, The Word Became Flesh: An Exploratory Essay on Jesus’s Particularity and Nonhuman Animals, Andy Alexis-Baker points out that in Christian theology the Gospel of John states “The Word became flesh,” not “the Word became human.” Citing John 1:15 that all flesh, not just human flesh, was transformed with the birth of Jesus, is arguably a different and deeper incarnation in which all fleshy creatures emerge forever changed. This interpretation is heightened with the New Testament’s correspondence with Jesus as the “lamb of God” and his people as his “sheep” and “flock.”


 If we frail, aggressive, foolish and weak sheep are transformed by this passage into the fleshy, furry family of this celestial avatar, is it any wonder that the fleece of sheep have found their way into the world's great museums? The transformative power inherent in the Reiter Symbols to change viewers into activists and predators into prey finds expression through this powerful medium.


Sustainable and natural dyes used in this work are from logwood, iron, cochineal, indigo and onion skins. Natural dyeing is a complex science and much of what we know today comes from ancient Central and South American traditions. One can understand why the Inca chose to hide their textiles and not their gold from the Spanish Conquistadors. Studying the Paracas Textiles, still as vivid today as they were 2500 years ago, questions much of what we know about the fugitive colors of natural dyes. Clues may be found in their bonding agents (called mordants) which are different from what we use today. As museums and conservators study these artistic wonders our curatorial preservation of naturally dyed artworks will increase.


It is important to realize that “natural” does not mean “safe” when it comes to mordants.  While the natural dyes used today may not be toxic, the mordants often are. Alum, copper sulfate, cream of tartar, soda ash and iron are mordants carefully stored and used only with gloves and a mask.  Although mordants come from soil they are very costly, and there is little waste. An experienced natural dyer knows how to exhaust the dye bath with minimal disposal of mordants. If all dye is absorbed into the fabric, there is little to pour directly onto the earth and never down the drain.

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Copyright 2019, Chris Smith Evans

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