I’ve been intending to do a ‘black’ post for some time; it wasn’t a deliberate choice that it should follow shortly after my comments on the death of Steve Jobs (who was almost inseparable from his signature black polo-necks) or directly after a shedload of moaning about my hands. But it’s a huge, huge subject, even when you confine yourself to black as a colour for clothing, or decoration. Whole books have been written about black in dress. And that’s before you even think about any other aspects of the colour.
And yet black isn’t – I suppose – strictly speaking, a colour. It’s an absence of colour. Black is what happens when all light is absorbed, when nothing is reflected back. Or is it?
‘Black is an abstraction; there is no black, only black things. But they are black in different ways, for there is the question of brilliance, whether they are matte or shiny, polished, rough, fine…’
Jean Dubuffet, 1973
Blacks – or more often very, very, very dark browns – are some of the earliest colours deliberately used by people. Charcoal gave a good black to some of the earliest artists, as did some selected minerals. And in the darkness of a cave, it didn’t matter that they would eventually fade over time if exposed to the sun,
because the only light they would be exposed to was intermittent and comparatively weak, coming from bundles of kindling and the paleolithic equivalent of rushlights.
Pigments are one thing, though even they can be difficult – in Medieval illumination blacks were pigs because they took ages to prepare and had a strong tendency to clump – but dyes are another. A true black is quite difficult to find in nature (even a raven reflects blues and steely greys) and was, until recently, also very difficult to achieve as a dye.
That’s probably the reason why a good ‘natural’ black – from very dark fleece – was so much appreciated by the Romans. Pliny said they searched widely for the deepest, the very darkest fleece, and apparently found the very best in Spain. But away from the other side of the Med, and much earlier, the other extreme was true: black fleeces had the lowest value of any colours in Sumer.
Black Welsh Mountain; Photo courtesy of British Wool Marketing Board
Black Welsh Mountain fleeces were valuable in the Middle Ages, and are becoming popular again – but they’re not really black black. In fact in Welsh they’re known as ‘cochddu‘ – red black – and many are much browner than this rather handsome specimen. My own quest for a really black fleece goes on, via Ouessants – nope – and a couple of crosses. Nope again.
Minerals have always been used to give a good approximation of black on fabric, and still are today. Dyers who produce mud cloths from Mali and Korhogo Cloths from Côte d’Ivoire use iron-rich earths and tannin from plants to give the wonderfully deep colours, as do Ghananian dyers.
In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa the combination of black and white is particularly associated with storytelling and proverbs, and with that to inspire me I’ll launch on a story of my own.
I’m a black-clothing addict, probably on the ‘once a bit of a Goth, always a bit of a Goth’ principle. I’ve given up the nineteenth-century-pulp-fiction-and-vampire fixation, and I never did like the music, but I still wear black a lot of the time. And even though it’s a nightmare to knit (appropriately), I am drawn towards the many variants of black. I can sniff out an interesting yarn involving black even though it may be hidden in a large cardboard box and covered entirely in pale blues. Which is what I did in Jamieson’s Mill in Shetland this summer. This is their ‘Mirrie Dancers’ colourway in chunky, and I’m in the very slow and painful process of knitting it up.
The ‘Merry Dancers’ – Mirrie Dancers in Shetland – are the Northern Lights; the name comes from their shimmying across the sky. When you look at the wool more closely or in certain lights, you can see why Jamieson’s settled on the name.
(apologies – I can’t track down a credit for the Northern Lights photo, or any information apart from the fact that it’s Scotland…)
I’ve seen them clearly once and once only, over the sea from the far north of Sutherland when I was a teenager, and I would dearly love to see them again.
It’s probably just as well that I haven’t seen the Dancers further south (though I suspect that has more to do with crappy weather conditions than location – after all, they’ve been seen relatively recently in places like Nottingham and I’m further north than that). They’re commonly supposed to presage disaster: war, bloodshed and death. Cheerful, huh? Well, it is Halloween, after all. But consider this: in early 1939 they were seen as far south as London, and just before Pearl Harbor there were brilliant and extensive displays over three nights – the southernmost place was Cleveland.
I digress – too much black and white encouraging storytelling, perhaps. And there’s so much more. Black dye was sold by retired pirates in the Caribbean, for instance. Really, it was; they diversified. Watch this space…