During my trip to Iceland in January 2020, I had the pleasure of meeting Guðrún Bjarnadottir at her dye studio in Borgarnes. My trip was in January, which is the off-season of tourism and the Hespa studio was only open by appointment. Guðrún was so kind to welcome us to her lovely studio and to share with us her story of naturally dyed Icelandic yarn. We are so excited to be able to carry Hespa yarn at Fillory Yarn and are so happy to have Guðrún teaching us live on Zoom!
HESPA BY GUÐRÚN BJARNADOTTIR
Hespa is plant dyed Icelandic wool according to the old Icelandic traditions. The name Hespa applies to the yarn but Hespuhúsið is the open plant dyeing studio. The studio is open on request at any time. Guests are welcome to look into the dyepots and get information about the plant dyeing tradition in Iceland. The studio has moved from Borgarfjörður to the south of Iceland. The new location is on the way from Reykjavík to Selfoss, very close to the Golden circle.
I started coloring with plants about 8 years ago when I was writing my masters thesis about Ethnobotany. I found old information about coloring with plants and became fascinated by the idea. I started experimenting and lost control of my hobby. Coloring with plants combines everything that I am interested in: Agriculture, Icelandic sheep, dye plants and plant identification, handcraft and old traditions. It all comes together in one dyepot. Coloring with plants is always a surprise, you can never get the same color twice while coloring with synthetic colors gives you the same colors again and again… It is the surprise part that keeps me going. If the colors stop surprising me I will probably lose interest.
Coloring with plants is seasonal. In Iceland we have a short summer, 3-4 months, and I have to collect plants in autumn so I can color in the winter and then I wait very excited for the first plants to start growing. When I was younger my grandmother taught me to identify the plants and told my about how they were used in the old days. My mother was a handcraft teacher so I did a lot of handcraft when I was young. I live in the countryside, not on a farm but very close to many sheep farms. I only have to walk outside of my house to get most of my coloring plants and meet the sheep from the next farm. Some plants I have to go further to collect like the lichens and Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). I teach botany and plant identification at the Acricultural University in the next village so plants and the nature are very important to me.
I am very lucky to live in the countryside in a beautiful house with my studio in the garage. Outside of my house is one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the area and the Troll peak (Skessuhorn) mountain that is symbolic for the West of Iceland is very close, there is also a Lake (Skorradalsvatn) and lots of beautiful nature and walking paths in the area. All this environment makes it perfect to work with nature and enjoy working in the area and at home in my studio.
I color according to the old coloring tradition in Iceland. Our problem with coloring is that we are only a small Island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and we have very few plant species. We have about 500. We came as settlers from Norway to Iceland in the 9th century and in Norway they have 1300 plants. We also came from the British Isles and they have 4000-5000 plants so they have much more options of getting colors from nature. We can not get blue and good red from our nature so we have for centuries imported indigo and Madder root for those colors so that is according to our tradition. I color with the same process as people did in the old days but I have electricity and better dyepots (Stainless steel) and I also use household cleaning ammonium instead of old cow urine as people did in the old days. Same methods, same chemistry but easier and cleaner process.
It is very important to me to respect nature, never take too much of the plants and be careful with the chemicals if I use chemicals that are bad for the environment. In the earlier centuries people used iron, chrome, tin and copper powder a lot for changing the colors. To day we know that these chemicals are bad for us and the environment. I only use copper in very little amount and I take the leftover water to the recycling company. As a mordant for all my yarn I use Alum and that is not bad for the environment and I reuse it constantly.
Coloring with plants and teaching provides a very happy and diverse lifestyle. In the winter I teach botany and in the summer plant identification for a few days. In the summer my studio is open for guests to look into the dyepots. I get to meet a lot of fun Icelandic students and people from all over the world that come to my studio in the summer and also in the winter. I go outside to pick plants, get to walk around in nature and working in my studio gives me great pleasure.