Dance the orange

The world seems to be divided into people who like the colour orange, and those who don’t. For some people orange is cheap and tacky; for others it’s joyous and lively. Rilke, who was responsible for  that ‘dance the orange’, evidently felt the latter was true (oh, all right, I know he meant the fruit, but hey), and so do I.

Orange, it has been said, gets attention without screaming; I’m not too sure about that, but it probably depends on the precise orange. It’s easily seen against a variety of backgrounds, which is why it’s often used as a warning colour – think hunters’ vests in the US, or danger signs on machinery. It’s the complementary colour to blue, so it stands out against the sea and sky in most conditions; RNLI lifeboats use it, of course.

(And it works against turquoise equally well, though I feel that somebody chose the blanket because it was soft and newly washed rather than because it contrasted nicely with his fur…)

(Lifeboat, courtesy of the RNLI; Louey, courtesy of himself and his ‘owners’)

Once you start looking for orange you find it everywhere. It’s interesting, and I guess unsurprising, how often it’s against a blueish background. Try it, and you’ll see what I mean.

So I’m a fan.

I’ve been trying to work out why, and I think it may have something to do with the 1970s. Deep burnt orange is such a classic 70s colour, and the curtains in my childhood bedroom were – wait for this – in lines of circles randomly coloured in olive green, off brown and burnt orange on a white background.

 They must have had a subconscious effect (they certainly had a conscious one) and could be a reason why I swooped on some discounted Debbie Bliss Cashmerino and knitted Rowan’s Salina, which worked well.

The pattern did, that is – the yarn didn’t: it began pilling almost before I’d put it on, and now looks as though I’ve lived in it for years despite the fact it’s been worn twice.

Emboldened, I then decided I needed a summer orange, and knitted Rowan’s  Iris cardigan in one of my favourite yarns, the gorgeous Cotton Glace. I enjoyed knitting it; the stitch definition was good, the colour was lovely and the pattern was interesting. But either the colour didn’t suit the pattern, or the colour didn’t suit me. Oh – and it was too big, too.

A lot depends on the tone, and one person’s orange is another person’s brown and someone else’s red or yellow. The first recorded use of ‘orange’ to describe the colour was in 1512; of course it had existed before that, but it was generally called ‘yellow-red’, which was how you made it when you were painting or illuminating. The word orange derives from the Arabic, coming to it via Persian and Sanskrit, so now you know.

Sometimes it’s mysterious. No one knows, for instance, exactly how Antonio Stradivari made the orange varnish for his famous violins. It’s even been credited with being that essential factor that makes a Strad what it is: different from all other fiddles, every one unique and nearing perfection. All down to orange (though I suspect there’s rather more to it than that, ho ho).

This one belonged to Yehudi Menuhin. I never heard him play live, unfortunately…

Orange – or rather, ‘deep saffron’ – is one of the sacred colours of the East, important in Hinduism and its, er, offshoots (and if you haven’t read the late Tim Guest’s memoir of growing up in Bhagwan communities, My Life in Orange, it’s well worth the time) as well as in Buddhism. Monks’ robes are often dyed with synthetic colours now, but some still use turmeric, and they come in every shade of orange.

On the other side of the world, orange is also important spiritually. It’s one of the essential colours in the Mexican celebration of Todos Santos, the Day of the Dead. Cempasuchil flowers – a marigold, Tagetes erecta mostly – are vital.

(photo, BBC)

It’s so significant that it’s often simply called ‘la flor de muerto’, the flower of the dead. It’s specifically grown for use on Todos Santos, both domestically and commercially, and has been associated with festivals connected with the dead since pre-Hispanic times. ‘Cempasuchil flowers are like the sun,’ said one participant in a fabulous London exhibition a while ago. ‘They guide the souls of the dead back to earth.’ They’re used in all sorts of circumstances, but they often guide the souls to specific places: paths of flower heads are laid between the houses and the cemetery. Yes, the souls have to find their way to their families for Todos Santos, but they also have to find their way back again, and the colour and scent of the cempasuchil flowers are important. After all, ‘…should they lose their way, they might remain in this world to trouble the living’.

I’ve not been able to establish exactly how orange came to be associated with Halloween, but the Mexican Day of the Dead probably had something to do with it. And it’s the classic autumn colour, too.

So why did I decide to do a post all about orange now, rather than in October?

Bizarrely, it’s down to the New Scientist, and a recent Last Word discussion on how orang-utans can possibly be camouflaged in the rain forest when they are such a wonderfully outstanding colour. (I can be gripped by anything when I’m on a deadline – I’ve even been known to do housework, shock, horror – but I really like orang-utans, so was even more speedily distracted than usual.) Orang-utans actually merge beautifully with the rainforest’s shifting patterns of light and shade; they just look startling when they’re out of their native habitat.

It would be obvious to end with a shot of one of the people of the woods (to translate ‘orang-utan’; it’s often given as ‘man’ but hrrumpf). However, just to prove that orange isn’t always jolly, and to show that it can sometimes be even more ominous than an approaching Bhagwan devotee, here’s a recent sunset.

I’m hoping the weather – and Icelandic volcanoes – behave better than this at the weekend. I’m off to Shetland on Saturday with a couple of woolly friends (no, not sheep) – so fingers crossed!


8 thoughts on “Dance the orange

  1. fleegle

    What a lovely essay! In Japan, orange is a winter color–and joyous. More brilliant than your Rowan yarn, but not quite traffic-cone orange. I love your sweater–and may it make you joyous to wear it!

    Thanks so much for your kind words about my Crocus, too!

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – and how interesting… I’m glad orange has such positive associations – I’ll bear it in mind when I wear the sweater!

  2. arianwen

    Hi thanks for coming and commenting on my blog! I like orange, but I can’t wear it as it makes me look really ill. Your pictures are lovely and I was very interested to see your comments on the cashmerino as I have found the same thing. Not that it has stopped me buying more!

    1. kate Post author

      I found that it depends on the orange — that cardigan, for instance, makes me look as though I should be following a trail of cempasuchil flowers back to the cemetery. When I wear the burnt orange sweater everyone says how well I look…

      (Nothing has ever stopped me buying yarn…)

  3. Knitsister

    As always, thank you for a great story and beautiful photos. Have a fab time on your travels this weekend…I am very jealous and you must tell me all about it on the 11 June in llangollen x

    1. kate Post author

      It was wonderful… all knitters should go to Shetland! See you on Saturday, though, because all knitters in North Wales should definitely go to Llangollen fro KIP day!

  4. Ruth

    Lovely post Kate, I didn’t know about the association with Mexico and the day of the dead, very interesting. Max is over and we were reading your blog together…there’s Louey, he yelled…but it really was. We are honoured x
    I hope you are having a splendid time in the Shetlands. It’s wild here in North Wales…wear lots of wool and peg things down!

    1. kate Post author

      Fab time indeed – watch this space! I feel I should have asked Louey’s permission first, but hey – he’s a cat. He’ll probably demand royalties next time I see him, mind…


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