Yarrow, a traditional Sinixt dye.
In 2017 I received a grant from the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance to research the traditional dye and textile plants used by the First Nations of the Columbia Basin area. Please see previous post Oregon Grape, a traditional Sinixt dye for more details on this project.
Achillea Millefolium aka Common Yarrow is a traditional dye source for the Sinixt people. Yarrow grows in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and can be found in a variety of colours including white, yellow, and varying shades of pink/red. After my interview with Marilyn and Taress I started to notice this plant seemingly everywhere - rather like a weed! Despite the incredibly hot summer and drought we were experiencing, it seemed to be growing all over the ditches and fields in my local area. Somehow ( likely due to moving two houses over the course of the summer!) I didn’t manage to get any of that Yarrow into my dye pot or onto drying racks before the snow was flying. I was so frustrated with myself because I really wanted to experiment with every dye plant I had discovered through my research, and the deadline for that research is well before I’d be seeing any Yarrow out in the fields again.
Enter my lovely friends Sarah and Carl - great neighbours who cultivate a wide variety of local and exotic flowers on their farm Stone Meadow Gardens . Luckily for me they had a couple of dried Yarrow bouquets left from the season they were willing to part with…
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Yarrow for colour as I’d never used it before. Marilyn had described the traditional Sinixt colour palette to be quite muted save the vivid colours produced by the Oregon Grape roots and Wolf Lichen. The dried flowers I had were a combination of pinks and purplish-red flowers with yellow and white centres…I decided to blend the lot together instead of separating them as that seemed more like a wild harvest situation where you would be harvesting from several plants in multiple locations.
I snipped the mixed dried flower heads into my dye pot and covered them with water. Whenever I am experimenting with an unfamiliar plant dye, I always start with a slow heating and soaking process to preserve the colour. As the pot came up to a simmer the first thing I noticed was the smell - a lovely spicy aroma - a little astringent and reminiscent of clary sage. The colour extracted slowly, appearing a slightly maroon-ish brown. I let it simmer for about 1/2 hour and then sit overnight to get the deepest colour possible. Once strained, I put in a few yarn and fabric samples and returned the dye pot to the heat. Again I simmered for about 1/2 hour, occasionally stirring the samples, then removed the dye pot from the heat to let it steep overnight. Next day I removed and rinsed the samples…
The colour took well and turned out to be a delicate ochre…another beautiful example of a naturally plant dyed palette reflecting a unique territory. I love the idea of a colour palette solely based on the surrounding flora…a sense of terrior that we are so removed from in the ‘modern’ times of chemical dyes and fast fashion.
*Special thanks to storytellers and knowledge keepers Marilyn James and Taress Alexis for their generous sharing of traditional Sinixt knowledge. For information on the Sinixt People’s history, territory, and their ongoing fight with the Canadian government for existence, please check out these links.
*As always when wild harvesting dyes only take 10% of plants/berries/lichen/barks from one area. This allows what is left to multiply and generate more healthy plants for future collecting and continued biodiversity. It also leaves our woodland creatures adequate access to food and shelter sources.