The Sheep and Wool Centre spin and dye small samples of Galway, Connemara Blackface and Texel fleece on their premises in Leenane. All yarn is dyed using natural ingredients and set using salt or alum and heat. Natural dyes have been used for centuries in Ireland.Initially plants, lichens, berries and shellfish were commonly used before other dyes like indigo, logwood and brazilwood were readily imported. The yarn in my Sméara Dubha mittens came from a blend of Connemara Blackface and Texel fleece, dyed with blackberries and young gorse flowers.
Blackberries are abundant on the hedgerows of the highways and byways in the west of Ireland at this time of year. Na sméara dubha are identifiable with a childhood spent on the hills of County Mayo, picking the juicy purple berries, eating them mashed with sugar (bread, optional) or squishing them on your little brothers and sisters. I will leave it in the hands of the late, great bard, Seamus Heaney, who sadly passed on recently, before he could enjoy one last blackberry picking.
by Seamus Heaney
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.