Plant Dyeing: A workshop with Guðrún Bjarnadóttir

I have always been passionate about textiles and their connection to culture and nature. I have worked with silk and cotton before, and have used natural dyes (which is also a passion of mine), but I have never worked with yarn and wool. Hence, my excitement was at its peak. When I first read about the workshop, I knew that it will be both a learning experience and a fun one. Just the mere fact that we were going to learn about ancient dyeing techniques using local Icelandic plants and then dyeing wool was exciting. The instructor for the course is Guðrún Bjarnadóttir, a natural dyer, and author who teaches botany and runs a natural dye workshop Hespuhúsið in Borgarfjörður.

Guðrún Bjarnadóttir & Tryggur. Photo by Maisa Mreiwed

As a group, we went to her home and studio in Borgarfjörður, where she warmly greeted us with her dog Tryggur. The house was warm and beautiful. Guðrún had also generously prepared special homemade food for us. After lunch, we went to her studio located next to her home, where she talked to us about dye pots and told us the story behind the dyeing process and Icelandic traditions. The studio was amazing as it was also warm and full of color. It made the learning process more natural.

Guðrún Bjarnadóttir Studio. Photo by Maisa Mreiwed

It was interesting getting a brief historical background on how the first settlers who came from Norway and the British Isles to Iceland began using plants that they found for multiple uses including dyeing, and how indigo was imported to Iceland in the 18thcentury. After explaining what plant dyeing is and the process, she took us outside to her beautiful garden to show us how to pick the dye plants. She also explained to us what mordants are, how they were used in the old days and how they continue to be used today to set the colors on the fabric. Guðrún also mentioned her favorite plants including lupine, madder root, onion peels, birch, meadowsweet, common bearberry, indigo, cow parsley, cochineal, rhubarb root.

Prepared skeins for dyeing. Photo by Avianthy Zulkifli-Loftus

Since I also work with natural dyes, I loved the process and the new information that I gained.  I also was elated to receive a book from Guðrún that she had put together called the “The Colors of Iceland”. She also wrote an amazing book “Plants of Iceland: Traditional uses and Folklore” (2018) in Icelandic and English. Guðrún’s passion and talent make the workshop and a visit to her studio a must. It was great hearing her speak and watching her work. I would definitely visit again in the near future to learn more.

“The Colors of Iceland” by Guðrún Bjarnadóttir. Photo by Maisa Mreiwed
Sample of dyed skeins done by our group during the workshop. Photo by Maisa Mreiwed

Naps every day !

Solstice clouds
photo: Annik St-Arnaud, 2018.

Life in Blönduós is slow. It is such a different rythm to what I am used to; it is both marvellous and destabilizing. I have this urge to feel stressed, to be productive. But really, life is so simple here. My daily routine consist mostly of eating, sleeping, walking and going to the pool. There is a lack of stimulation; or rather a lack of over stimulation.


Here I reconnect with naps, with taking my time and breathing in this beautiful place. Bizarrely, I have not been very productive; I haven’t felt the need to create. My head is buzzing with ideas, with projects and how this residency could influence my work in the future. But, I don’t feel the need to make them all come true this instant; with haste before I leave. Like I said, life in Blönduós is slow and we always have time.

Solstice clouds photo: Annik St-Arnaud, 2018.
Solstice clouds photo: Annik St-Arnaud, 2018.








I want to bring this slowness back to Montreal and not be swept by a torrent of people and events and the pressure to produce and excel. I wonder if this slowness is a by product of endless days and a short fleeting night? Can this unhurriedness only exist in Iceland ? Time will tell …

For now, lets savour this time, where even when our exhibition and departure dates rapidly approaches, there is always time for a nap.

Or a swim!




The Trajectory of a Search for Icelandic Poetry

“like snow buntings
over a snowfield
on a snowbound winter
like snow buntings
over a snowbound winter
on a snowfield
like a snowfield
over snow buntings
on a snowbound winter
like a snowfield
over a snowbound winter
on snow buntings
like a snowbound winter
over snow buntings
on a snowfield
like a snowbound winter”

-Sjón, an icelandic economist in soho

Blönduόs Library (bόkasafn) and Archives (skjalasafn)

At the beginning of the past week I made my way to Blönduόs’ library and archives, located just across the Blanda river which runs next to the textile centre into the Húnafjörður bay, to seek out translated contemporary Icelandic poetry. The building itself is concrete, grey, rectangular, a single-storey with notably Icelandic-yellow trim: unassuming and with a lot of space to breath. As I entered the almost empty building I was greeted by the head librarian in Icelandic, to which I responded with a timid English “hello” betraying my foreigness. Unfortunately the library did not carry any Icelandic poetry translated to English (their English section being quite small, right next to an equally small German section). Despite this she gave me a recommendation of an Icelandic poet to look up who she said “tends to be popular with artists,” Sjón (a portion of whose poem opens this post). Though they did not have any of his poetry in Icelandic she showed me some of his novels  and brought me to an occupied office which contained the library’s poetry selection. I was more than welcomed to browse—and so I did enjoying the books as visual and tactile objects.

The Library’s Poetry Collection

The room was occupied by the library’s archivist who noticing my English told me I would have to learn Icelandic if I wanted to read any of the books I was looking at. He then proceeded to inform me that the library does not stock much in terms of recent contemporary poetry, even in Icelandic: as the library is funded municipally, and poetry readership is low, the incentive to keep the collection up to date is not high with respect to local demands. Switching conversation topics, I asked him how long the library had been around, and while the new building has only been there for about 18 years, the town has had a library for over 100 years. He then asked me where I am from. He asked if I was aware of the emigration of Icelanders to Manitoba which took place near the end of the 19th century – something which I had partially awareness of. Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, there was a copy of a book which listed all the Icelanders who moved to the Americas from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century next to him. Following this he mentioned how the Icelanders in Manitoba learned a lot about how to live in their settled environment from nearby First Nations Communities  and that these skills were also brought back to Iceland. (I will admit here that while I looked into this statement my research is very limited and that, while it seems as though there was exchange, the situation is more complicated than that, as is usually the case. As such I am including here some related links which by no means should be seen as authoritative or definitive but simply as potential preliminary paths through, or pointed towards, this history: CBC ‘It tears at the heart’ and  Icelandic Immigrants and First Nations People in Canada). He ended this line of conversation by showing me the emigration book I mentioned.

(Included in this post is a selection of verse from Sjón and Gerður Kristný, two contemporary Icelandic poets who have received acclaim. Sjón has collaborated with Björk on numerous occasions, his work being characterized at times as surreal or fantastic. Gerður Kristný has released two major books of poetry which draw heavily from Nordic mythology and poetic forms. Two other writers whose names I jotted down at the library solely on the basis of the look of the books were Gyrðir Elíasson and Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir)

“In midsummer
the path gets blocked between our houses

the streets buried in drifts
and neither of us wants to be first
to clear the snow away

I remember you were
not fond of exerting yourself

and for my part

I have always been fond of

-Gerður Kristný, Summer Poem

Þetta Reddast

Þetta Reddast – Everything will be okay, it will all work out. A common saying amongst Icelanders as their lives revolve around the very unpredictable weather and changes in environment. I can’t help but notice how carefree the Icelanders I’ve met are. They work around loose schedules, are extremely flexible and have this “no need to worry” attitude. I first heard the Icelandic motto Þetta Reddast at a knitting workshop. I was struggling with my first stitches and apparently came across as a little stressed. And trust me, I was. Jóhanna Erla Pálmadóttir — who lead the knitting workshop — assured me that there was no reason to fuss over my knitting project, and reminded that my brain and my hands were learning something new – and not to overthink it.

I didn’t consider myself a textile artist prior to arriving here in Blönduós. I have worked with many mediums — acrylics, watercolours, block printing, sculpture, mixed media. But never had textiles and I crossed paths. This would be a first. I took on this opportunity to work in the Icelandic Textile Centre as reason to explore a new medium – felting.

Flat needle felting is the process of pushing small fibres, such as wool, into fabric in order to create a new texture. I have learned that it is a wonderful technique to represent the Icelandic landscape that I am so grateful to be surrounded by. I have also discovered that felting, as well as all forms of textile art, take an incredible amount of time! After teaching myself how to felt from Youtube videos and taking advice from my textile artist friends, I produced my very first felted piece, 4×6 inches in an entire day. An ENTIRE day! Although I am incredibly pleased with the outcome of my piece, I couldn’t help but reflect on the amount of time it took me to create something so small.

We have been taking part in multiple textile workshops here in Blönduós: knitting, tapestry, spinning, and natural dyeing techniques. Like felting, all of these mediums have required an incredible amount of time. I began to reflect on my time spent them, the time it took for me to grasp the new techniques, and then of course the time to complete a piece. The process of creating something out of textiles was not what I expected it to be at all. Not only is it time consuming, but it is extremely manual, repetitive and addictive. I started my tapestry weaving piece and just had this feeling of “I need to finish this”. I began to knit, and again the same feeling, “I just want to finish this and make something useful”.  And so after every workshop, I found myself spending all my time concentrating on perfecting a new technique for two or three days, completely forgetting about my felting projects. Once I was satisfied, then I would move on to the felting, which again lead to the feeling of completing something. I don’t know why I feel this way with textiles, as I can leave a painting in progress for weeks, and a drawing unfinished for months. I know I can always come back to it. Perhaps because these techniques are so new, so fresh in my mind, I don’t want to forget them. Perhaps it’s because for the first time in a very long time I can focus solely on making art. I have no responsibilities here.

As the days quickly slip by me, I realize how little time I have left to enjoy this period of creating art with minimal distractions or daily responsibilities. My usual overthinking self is saying, what if I don’t have time to finish what I had planned?

And then it hits me. Þetta Reddast – Everything will be okay, it will all work out. I am in Iceland. I might as well embrace this notion of things just working out, letting things fall into place. Something I hope I can bring back to Canada with me, this sense of letting things just be.

Iceland Ties Argentina 1-1, Gains Soft Power

The first game of Iceland’s World Cup is in the books, a 1-1 tie against Lionel Messi and Argentina. I’m not usually a football fan, but I found myself bouncing, leaning, clapping, and cheering with the locals at the Blönduós community center, as Iceland held its own against a dominant Argentinian offense. The Icelandic goaltender, a 34-year-old filmmaker named Hannes Þór Halldórsson, made a few showstopping saves, including a penalty shot from Messi to prevent Argentina from taking the lead. When the clock finally ran down, you would have assumed Iceland won by the reaction of the crowd. The nation of 325,000 people, smaller than .01% of Canada’s population and .001% of the United States (both of whom didn’t qualify for the tournament) is the smallest ever to qualify for the World Cup, and they were heavily favored to lose.




I have written extensively in the past about the troubling aspects of professional sport and their relationship to identity and nationalism, and one need only look at the fallout of the Vancouver Canucks Stanley cup loss in 2010 or the Montreal Canadiens early playoff exit in 2014 to know what I mean, but these examples can be elaborated on another day. Today we witnessed the unexpected from a nation and a team that continue to pull off the unexpected. The coach doubles as a dentist, and another player delivers salt. With many of the players having “day jobs”, Iceland was never supposed to qualify let alone tie the top-rated team in their division. But who doesn’t want to see the underdog win? Especially a country so saturated in football, where one can’t walk anywhere without seeing children kicking a ball or more than five minutes without walking past a fully equipped amateur field. It really is a once in a lifetime (or maybe a once ever) experience to be in Iceland during this historic run. But as I, the visitor, take in the passions Icelanders have for football, I’m reminded of the other cultural feats Iceland excels at.

(The Overflow Seating at the Blönduós Community Centre, where locals gathered to watch the game. Image by me)

During the big bang of the mind roughly 50,000 years ago, humans began living in cities and developed religion, technology, and craft. Religion and art come out of this era, with professional sports later depicted in cave paintings around 15,000 BCE. I would like to remark on each because they are supplemental to human survival and are perpetuated on belief and faith. Artists gather in strange places to participate in obscure projects on the faith that someone will either care or the project will in some way have transcended the moment. Work that gets deemed exceptional gains followers who gather in concert halls or in galleries to be admired by the public. Followers of sports teams show faith in front of TV’s and stadiums, rooting for their team through wins and losses. Religious institutions are built on faith in a higher power, and many people I’ve met who participate in faith-based activities believe that all things done through the institution are in divine hands. With this faith, followers often raise extraordinary sums of money to build churches and conduct community work, with religious institutions playing key roles in historical cultural movements. In each instance people gather and experience something that transcends our individual lives, and as some believe, our own humanity. Based on what we know scientifically, each are equally superfluous and irrational, but each are integral to our constructions of culture. (Sorry to the devout reading this. Much respect to all of you <3)

Icelanders excel in each of these fields far beyond their population of 325,000 would suggest. Iceland is a cultural powerhouse, producing world-renowned musicians such as Sigur Ros and Bjork and visual artists like Olufar Eliasson (among many, many others). One in ten have published a book, and they have a rich literary history dating back to Iceland’s settlement by the Vikings in the 9th century. Their island attracts 4.4 million tourists a year, over ten times the total population. Icelanders have many iconic churches, including the Blönduóskirkja here in Blönduós, but also have rich folklore that tells stories of elves, dwarfs, and fairies. The unlikely World Cup appearance and incredible tie with Argentina, when considering the cultural context, is continuing a long tradition Icelanders have of excelling internationally in cultural endeavors.  

Image result for blonduos church


So what of Iceland’s larger-than-itself cultural impact? One thing to consider is Iceland’s accrued soft power, a term used to describe a nations international influence not through coercion or force through economics or military (Iceland doesn’t have a standing military), but through co-option (encouraging others to want to be like you). Take for instance Iceland’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis, where they bailed out the people rather than the banks and jailed many business leaders and bankers. This gets referenced when talking about alternatives to America’s response that saved the failing corporations while the people lost their savings and homes. Iceland has a long history of gender equality and is often rated among the most equal nations in the world. Most Icelandic energy needs are met through renewable sources, making Iceland a global leader in climate change. This is in addition to the envy by the many large nations on the outside of the world cup, the nations that have few notable artists, and have coopted spiritual practices. It remains to be seen how far Iceland will go in the World Cup tournament, but a 1-1 tie to Argentina is another in a long list of exceeded expectations.

Selling the Sublime: Iceland and the Tourist

From the moment you get on the purple WOW Air airbus A330-300 to Iceland, it’s apparent that the Reykjavik based company is selling you an experience.  The cabin lights shift from green, to blue, then yellow, mimicking the northern lights that are common in northern countries. The flight attendants are dressed in cardigans and skirts, intensely purple from top to bottom. The pocket in front of you has maps and magazines talking about different Icelandic excursions and destinations, listed with times, costs, and duration.

Image result for Wowair plane


The Blue Lagoon tour is among the most popular and is a geothermal spa on a lava bed. Its website invites us to “experience the wonder” of it’s beauty and vastness. On the golden circle tour, guests are reminded that Iceland is tectonically active, with geysers that erupt several times an hour, a volcano crater, and Thingvellir national park, a long rift where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet. On the Into the Glacier tour, one can go by snowmobile or ice vehicle to the ice caves that have been hollowed out at the centre of Icelandic glaciers.


Image result for Blue lagoon advertisement



On the Into the Volcano tour, guests are lowered into the centre of a volcano that erupted 4000 years ago. Both are considered “extremely family friendly”, with only the most basic winter gear required for full enjoyment (and a camera, for those “indescribable” moments!). The tour bus and the extreme looking all terrain vehicles are equipped with full WiFi and USB charging ports, with comfort being a top priority. Behind these experiences is a perceived danger, presenting the landscape as powerful, rugged, and awesome. Iceland has a reputation for being a beautiful place, but I believe that this description of Iceland is miscategorized, as the primary draw to the Icelandic landscape is sublime.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime. (1757) Burke argues that the sublime and the beautiful are often considered to be opposite ends of a spectrum but are in fact unalike. He defines both as stemming from passions. Beauty stems from our passion of love, as we find beautiful qualities in flowers, in human bodies, and in pleasing landscapes. Things that are beautiful are often smooth, delicate, and pleasant. The sublime stems from our passions of fear, dealing with the rugged, the unexplored, and the dangerous. Sublime characteristics are found in vastness, infinity, and magnificence. The sublime instils awe by reminding the viewer of an imminent danger and the finality of death, without an actual present danger.

Related image

(Wikimedia Corp)

             In Reykjavik, I made a friend who later added me to Facebook. She was a lawyer working in the United States and was kind enough to offer me drives to different places in the mornings. She had rented a four-wheeled vehicle to travel on Iceland’s most extreme roads, which allows one to see the most rugged parts of the land. Her posts come across my Facebook feed and present a slew of hashtags, such as #detox #bliss #serenity #bucketlist #wanderlust. The term wanderlust is seen in psychology as the desire for development by experiencing the unknown and confronting the unforeseen. The images presented with these hashtags include vast landscapes and pictures by roaring waterfalls and rocky cliffs. Google, Facebook, and Twitter searches present many more photographs like this, with various travellers presenting themselves near similar Icelandic staples. These sentiments are echoed in both online and print advertisements, such as the ones available in the seat pocket of the big, purple WOW Air Airbus 330-300.


Beauty seems to be only a small consideration of the tourist gaze on Iceland. It appears that those who travel here are far more concerned with an experience, something that transcends imaginations rather than pleases eyes. The concerns here are undoubtedly sublime, placing the visitor face to face with the awesome and harsh realities of natural forces.

Iceland Field School Day 15 | June 15, 2018

Jóhanna (standing at right) helps our newest knitters with Icelandic tricks and techniques. Photo: Katharina Schneider.

We had parallel knitting workshops at the Icelandic Textile Residency  for beginners — some of our crew had never before held knitting needles — and those who were a little more advanced. Such fun and BIG thanks to Jóhanna Erla Pálmadóttir and Gudrun Hannele Henttinen  for their knowledge, patience and good humour!

Hannele (above), from the luxurious Reykjavik knitting store, Storkurinn, offers more advanced techniques for knitters with some experience, and delights us with beautiful stitch samplers ( below). Photos: Kathleen Vaughan

Iceland Field School participant Dominique Turk sports her newly knit headband. Dom was one of our first time knitters, someone who really took to the practice! Photo: Kathleen Vaughan


PERSONAL REFLECTION: Fibre as a time-based labour.

It took a few days for me to settle in and realize that it was indeed a textile residency that I had signed up for. On one level I knew that this wonderful field school opportunity would mean a month of working with fibers… but I don’t think that my hands knew and understood what they were getting into. Three days in, after spinning wool and weaving tapestry in workshops, I found that I could not let myself sleep until I was finished the small tapestry I had started earlier that day. My hands just wouldn’t stop and not only that, but some nearly manic compulsion had awoken in me to Produce!

“Produce! One more row! Keep at it! One small step at a time!!” said my inner voice beating the drum in my ear.

Catching the weaving bug. Photo: Meghan Riley, 2018

The midnight sun did not help to calm this drive. Our studio at the Textílsetur has windows all along the western facing wall and we are so fortunate to be able to watch the sun setting over the sea as we craft. Those of us who caught the weaving bug worked into the night as the setting sun gradually filled the studio with an orange glow.

The view from our studio. Photo: Meghan Riley, 2018

It was then that I finally realized (and relaxed into it). At last, here in Blönduós for the month of June, I had time to craft. A passion for fibres that has literally been stuffed into closets and put away because there is simply not time for quilting and tailoring in the busy school year, finally taken off the back burner and set to boil.

Fibre art is a time-based labour. One stitch at a time amounts to many. The slow growth can be addictive. All it takes is time. Just give your time.


After one week in Blönduós, Spinning, weaving and knitting. Photo: Meghan Riley, 2018

Many days of labor are contained within one sweater, especially if we consider all of the steps required to transform wool off the back of a sheep into a fine yarn for knitting. There is an artist here in residence that is doing exactly that. Deborah Gray (deborah.gray7 on instagram) is cleaning, carting, dying and spinning the wool, everything short of shearing the sheep herself. And perhaps now this work is considered extraordinary, especially since a short walk to the grocery store would allow her to purchase all the yarn she needed, in whatever colour, in whatever thickness. What is now a unique and perhaps meditative hobby, used to be an essential skill. “It was for subsistence. If you wanted to be clothed, if you wanted rope or fabric for your sails, you needed to know how to work with fibres and you put in the time.” she says.

Industrialization has surely sped up the processing of fibres as well as removed the obligation of holding fibre skill and knowledge in our hands. But in our choosing, if we find a rhythm with wool and wheel, a spinning wheel can be a time machine. A warp and weft can arouse a body memory older than the bones in our hand and an age-old craft can be followed back on a thread many generations. But it takes time.

Spinning wind, water and wool. Photo: Meghan Riley, 2018