Colour: ‘…that little tent of blue’

It was probably inevitable that my next colour post would feature blue. After all, I’ve done red and yellow, so blue – as the remaining primary colour – would logically be next. But I’m also, unusually for me, knitting in blue.

I was persuaded to buy some Summer Tweed – a silk/cotton mix – at a Rowan workshop on colour knitting, when everyone agreed it suited me despite the fact that blue, like yellow, is a colour I hardly ever wear. Of course there’s blue in the stash – there’s everything in the stash – and this did have to mature there for eighteen months before I could face it. But I like it now.

I’ve been thinking about why I was so reluctant, given that blue is supposedly calming, relaxing, harmonious and even represents intellectualism, according to one (possibly demented) symbolism dictionary. Perhaps it’s because it can also be cold, clinical and associated with authority? It can be a politically loaded colour too – just like red – except blue denotes conservatism in many countries, though liberalism in the US.

(As an idiom it’s just as varied – being blue is being sad in English-speaking countries, but drunk in German; if you are very afraid or angry in French, your fear or anger are blue.)

Of course, it’s the classic seaside colour.

Blue sky, blue sea, blue boats, blue shutters.

Want to suggest summer holidays? Stencil blue seashells everywhere, despite the fact that most aren’t actually blue. Some, of course, are:

and their colour can be surprisingly intense when isolated.

From Brittany to the Aegean, blue paintwork is a striking feature of seaside decor and imagery – and has been, for ages. It’s a very common colour, for example, in Minoan decoration on Crete and elsewhere, and the success of Minoan civilization was based on the sea and maritime trade.

These dolphins come from the amazing site of Akrotiri on Santorini, buried in the great volcanic eruption which caused enormous devastation to the eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age. Blue, blue, blue – it was everywhere in the Minoan world, and the colour of the sea was also used in clothing.

Away from the sky and the sea, there are plenty of blue flowers, from wild ones like bluebells, speedwells and alkanet to the more cultivated splendour of agapanthus:

But the most famous plants associated with the colour blue are not actually blue when they flower. Woad flowers are yellow, and indigo’s are bronze; the leaves are the source of the chemical which gives the colour. The same chemical – indican – is involved in both plants and has other sources too; indigo (with which I am planning to experiment this summer) isn’t the only one, despite the name given to the active agent.

As far as Europe is concerned, woad has historically been more significant. Woad seeds have been reported from Neolithic sites in France (c.3000 BCE) and it was probably woad which coloured the blue threads in the Iron Age twills found in the salt mines at Halstatt in Germany. It’s thought that woad probably originated in south-east Europe or Russia; the fact that it had spread to France as a cultivated plant by the Neolithic indicates that it must have been in regular use much earlier.

Woad, of course, was what the Romans said the Britons used to stain their bodies, making them look like ghosts and frightening off invaders.

(Personally, I am considering trying this look in the supermarket; I think it would work in terms of scaring people, and could well repel invasion.)

In the Middle Ages, blue from woad was referred to as ‘blue gold’ in France – weight for weight, it cost the same as the metal. A thriving trade grew up as other countries began exporting woad from the Toulouse area, shipping it through Bordeaux, and the trade’s importance lasted for centuries. But all this changed when mass-produced indigo became available, though woad was often used to aid fermentation in indigo dye baths. There was just a greater concentration of indican in indigo leaves, and woad rather faded from view.

Except, that is, in natural dyeing – oh, and in the role-playing and re-enactment industry. I am trying not to think about Mel Gibson in Braveheart – ergh…


8 thoughts on “Colour: ‘…that little tent of blue’

  1. arianwen

    Thanks for commenting on my blog! I also love Duttons though of course I visted York on Sunday so it was very shut which was a shame. I have also a bit of an aversion to blue well navy and royal but there are some really nice ones out there especially if they tip into the purple or the green and you seem to have found one. I love the pink trim. What are you making?

    1. kate Post author

      I’ve got a horror of navy blue too – school uniform, arrrghhhhh… This is nice and the pink trim picks up on a fleck. It’s Chamomile, (that’s a Rav link, so apologies if you can’t follow it) from Rowan’s Summer Tweed book, but I’m making it longer and not doing the leather thonging at the front. Keeping my fingers crossed that I have enough yarn!!

  2. Knitsister

    Funny isn’t it, I am always drawn to blues and greens. I remember you buying this yarn and glas to see it’s finally being used. Oh, and I see you couldn’t resist a little bit of pink 😉

    1. kate Post author

      I’m with you on the greens – when I look at my WIPs that I had to abandon when I hurt my hand, they’re all green. The pink wasn’t my idea, but I think it really helps liven up the blue…

    1. kate Post author

      It sort of creeps up on you, blue. Very odd… Thanks for the woad link, I shall give it a go – I’m a firm believer in growing my own (and have just been out collecting ivy berries for a dye pot)…

  3. del

    Hee hee, I know Braveheart was full of inaccuracies but I still love that movie. But then, I’m American, not Scottish so I can only imagine how a Scot must feel.

    I only look good in dark blues but for some strange reason, I have lots of blue in my stash.

    1. kate Post author

      I just have a deep and lasting aversion to Mel Gibson in almost anything – especially turquoise face paint… I had a similar thing with a greyish-blueish shade of lavender: loved it, bought lots of it, looked like death in it. Took me about five years to realise why I hated things I knitted in it (and then I gave what was left away)…

      (and I still love it. Sniff.)


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