It was a few years ago that I discovered the fragile beauty of blush pink dyes that come from rose hips. Though dyeing with roses is a particularly slow process, taking days to extract the dye, there is nothing else that is as pleasurable in the making because the studio fills with the sweet sugary fragrance, triggering memories and expectations in the way scents are known to do.
Foraged rose hips
The first job as with all foraged dye stuff is to lay everything out in the open for a day or so to allow the little insects, ants and bugs to crawl away to safely. Then soak the rose hips in warm water for a number of days to begin the process of coaxing the dye out of them. Once the water turns a gentle pink, begin to simmer and cool the hips over a few days and leave it to settle. The aroma in the studio is heavenly and it may be due to this reason that I drag out the process, I could possibly be speedier, but why hurry when “now” is the best time to be in?
The dyeing process
Then, as for making rose hip jelly, I strain the sugar rich juicy nectar! There really is no other way to describe it. The solution is like honey when the wool, earlier mordented with alum, goes into the stainless steel pot. Once it has simmered for about one hour, I put the pot aside for a few days for the dye to truly become part of the fabric.
I use different pots to achieve different shades and have found that the copper or aluminium pots tend to dull the delicacy of the rose. Natural dyes are very difficult to describe and I find this particularly so with the rose- the colour is so delicate and changes with the light that sometimes it is a fragile conch pink and sometimes a golden wheat.
Scarf and skeins of wool dyed with rose hips
Balled up skeins of wool and then knitting up a blanket by the window
It is important to remember that dyeing with rose hips is basically dyeing with coloured sugar water and when sugar dries it becomes hard. To make sure that the yarn and woven lengths are lovely and soft it is necessary to thoroughly washed out the sugar crystals. This is another time consuming part of the process, but if not done correctly you will end up with a starched feel that will take a long time of use to soften properly. In the case of the yarn, you will feel the sugar in your fingers as you knit.
Hand knitted rose hip dyed Kind Blanket in the making
Due to the need to forage sustainably we are only able to gather a relatively small amount of rose hips. Consequently, we produce a limited number of pieces in this dye and take orders ahead of the foraging season for larger items like our hand knitted Kind Blankets. Pieces in this colour are rare and special; made to be handed down to become an heirlooms of the future.
Foraging Rose Hips Sustainably:
Beautiful rose hips. Sarah Cuttle Photography
As you can see, one of the complications of dyeing with roses is to find sufficient quantity of roses to harvest in a sustainable way. It is a thorny and painful business. Trampling on road-side verges and hedge rows is far from ideal, not only because this disturbs a complex biotope of diverse species that thrive in these places, but also because for the effort you are likely to come away with very little in your basket. So, for this reason I had not dyed with roses until I happened upon a forest of roses, the only source where I feel comfortable to forage as I know I am abiding by the rules of good practice.
A rose forest in autumn
Collecting rose hips. Sarah Cuttle Photography
It is important to be aware of the impact of foraging on the biotope. There are simple rules for wild harvesting which ensure that the other plants and the wildlife that depend on the trees and bushes continue to flourish unharmed. Always make sure that you are taking no more than 10% of the rose hips from the area.
The Birds & the Bees
Honeybees feeding on wild roses captured by the British Bee Keepers Association
Pollinators are in global decline and the British Beekeepers Association tells us that it is significant that the native bee larvae relies heavily on the pollen from native plants as do other insects and birds, all of whom flourish on the sugary nectar and protein rich pollen of roses. Buzzing honeybees, bumblebees, hover-flies and aphids on the roses attract ladybirds, lacewings and other natural predators, making the rose bush a hive of activity. It is then easy to understand conservationists' anxiety to protect native bees, birds and their habitat.
Foraged Delicacies for the Table
Roses belonging to the apple family share many of the same properties. Like the birds and the bees, we too cannot resist the temptation to savour the sweet-scented delicacies made form roses; Turkish delight being the best known. R. Canina, is reputed to have the best tasting of all rose hips, which are used for syrup, jelly and a fruity tea. There are many recipes in different culinary traditions which use roses and rose extracts in different ways.
Interestingly, as a source of vitamin C, weight for weight rose hips contain up to 20 times more vitamin C than oranges. During the Second World War, my mother recalls collecting wild dog rose hips for making syrup. Some rose hips also carry significant amounts of Iron, Calcium or Vitamin A.
In traditional Chinese medicine rose petals are used to regulate qi, or life energy, addressing fatigue and insomnia, Irritability and mood swings. Rose petals being high in phytonutrients, plant compounds with antioxidant properties, work as anti-anxiety agents and is good for skin health and hair growth.
Rose tea is often drunk as part of herbal tea detox protocol or simply as part of a healthy diet to destress and relax.
Detoxifying cup of rose tea and rose hip dyed vintage napkin
The Alchemy of Fragrance: Mixing Memory with Desire
For all its virtues and properties, we only come to understand our true fascination with roses when it comes to its fragrance. Scent is unquestionably the most powerful of our senses when it comes to triggering our emotions. The sweet smell of roses is said to evokes feelings of deep longing and nostalgia. Before the distillation of essential oils, Cleopatra [69-30BC] in preparation for her meeting with Marc Antony [83-30BC] is said to have covered the floor of her inner chambers with rose petals, 18” deep in order that in his mind the scent of roses henceforth, like a magic potion, would forever be entangled with the memory of her beauty and love.
By the time Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), hotly declared that his love was “like a red, red rose”, the genus Rosa had long been cultivated as an ornamental garden plant, possibly first in China and then in all parts of the world spanning 30,000 varieties. Fossil remains show that the rose is around 35 million years old. The dedication and lengths of human endeavour to cultivate the rose is attributed greatly to its fragrance.
In the Islamic Golden Age, the distillation of rose oil by the Arab polymath and physician Avicenna (980-1035) was a game changer. The popularity of this sent known as attar or rose oil in the Islamic world remains highly prised to this day, ounce per ounce commanding the same price as gold. From the point of view of the Nose, the rose is the most important flower of all.
Avicenna's KITAB AL-SHIFA ('THE BOOK OF HEALING') Sotheby's Catalogue.In most likelihood, Avicenna’s attar reached Europe around the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099) and by the 12th century, the Parisian fraternity of scented glove makers had cornered the market for rose oil. But it was not until the late13th Century when the Catalan physician, Arnaldo de Vilanove refined the art of mixing oil with alcohol to produce perfume, that the rose become a generally available fragrance. By the 1500s it was popularised in the British Isles by the Tudors.
Originally, the Damask and Rosa Centifolia, valued for their distinctive fragrance were used for perfumery. Today around 70% of the rose oil in the world comes from Bulgaria; other significant producers are Turkey, Iran, Morocco and India, and precious, limited quantities come from Grasse, France. The traditional method of hand picking the delicate petals before the sun evaporates the oil remains best practice to this day. It takes approximately 4 tonnes of hand-picked roses to make just 1kg of rose attar. Hence the name liquid gold. In order to avoid risking wilting the delicate flowers, some producers in Turkey and Bulgaria transport their own copper stills to the fields and heat them on the spot over wood fires to distil the precious Damask Rose oil. The oil separates from the water when heated in only the tiniest of quantities: 170 rose flowers are said to relinquish a single drop of oil.
Roses for Mystics & Emperors
The rose as metaphor for the fleeting nature of life and the passing of time in mystic Sufi poetry transformed it from the imagery the sensuality of Cleopatra’s bedchamber to a symbol of piety and metaphysical contemplation. The first in this line of poets was Omar Khayyam (1048-1131); later followed by Rumi (1207 – 1273) and Hafez (1315-1390) among others, who also placed the rose at the heart of the mystic experience as they sang of ecstasy and divine longing. In time the giants of the Islamic Empire began to use the rose as a political symbol, representing piety, faith and their own divinity. Countless portraits, miniatures and frescos depict sultans and emperors with a rose among other symbolic objects in their propaganda tool kit.
. Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan
Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481) Conqueror of Constantinople, savouring a rose in his portrait executed in 1480, the artist is believed to be Shiblizade Ahmed, a pupil of Sinan Bey. A miniature portrait of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-58) showing him holding a rose in one hand and the sward in another.
Formal gardens showcasing voluptuous perfumed roses, songbirds and splendid fountains came to be part of the show of strength and piety of the rulers throughout the Islamic world. These gardens became an utopian representation of their domain. In time, even though the power of the Orient faded, in these lands the rose continued to captivate the people and visitors alike.
Land of Roses and Nightingales
Many Nineteenth Century European travellers, romantics and orientalists observed the cultural position of the rose in the Middle East. The delights of the rose in Persia, it’s profusion and diffusion were noted in detail by Robert Kir Porter (1777-1842), the Scottish artists, diplomat and traveller. He observed, “I believe that in no country of the world does the rose grow in such perfection as in Persia; in no country is it so cultivated, and prized by the natives.”
Later, travelling to Persia, Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926), the British traveller, archaeologist and linguist, in 1892 observed in some detail the place of the rose and the nightingale in the work of the great Sufi poets. In 1926, Vita Sackville-West again visiting Persia, described in her memoirs Passenger to Teheran, the place of the rose in Persian life and wrote movingly about the inspirational gardens that merged seamlessly into the landscape beyond its parameters; secret walled gardens with fragrant roses and nightingales.
In Europe, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam became a real phenomenon with Edward FitzGerald’s (1809 –1883) translation or rather, by his transmogrification of it in 1859. FitzGerald made the Persian polymath hugely popular, and the Rubaiyat, the name of this particular form of quatrain, became greatly influential in late 19th Century Europe.
In 1893, the Omar Khayyam Club (established in 1892 and continues to this day to hold biannual dinners in London to celebrate the Rubaiyat) planted on Fitzgerald’s grave at St Michael’s Church in Boulge, Suffolk, a Damask rose grown from the seed of the tree on Omar Khayyam's tomb in Nishapur, Persia.
This rose is cultivated today as the 'Omar Khayyam' Damask, which produces fragrant, medium-sized, soft pink flowers, each with a distinct button eye and grey-green, downy foliage. It is fitting that of all places, it should have come from Omar Khayyam’s tomb, for in his work the rose is a much cherished metaphor for the passing of time and the setting of the sun.
Omar Khayyam sighed:
Damask rose Omar Khayyam
At 700 years, a Rosa Canina also named the Rose of Hildesheim, in Germany, is thought to be the oldest living rose in the world. As if to speak truth to Omar Khayyam theme of the transient nature of life, the rose of Hildesheim climbs up the stonewall of a church.
Rose of Hildesheim
That the fragile beauty of the rose dye, as with its perfume, should be so difficult to capture, that it should be so illusive seems entirely in keeping with its precious nature. We work hard and long only because we expect to be rewarded with something that is rare and precious.
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