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

First Impressions

Before arriving at the Icelandic Textile Center (Textílsetur Íslands) in Blönduós, I did some research and was elated at what I read and the images that I saw; not only was the location ideal for working with textiles and learning new skills but also for getting inspiration. My expectations were as high as my excitement. The image of Iceland as a country

“where the past meets the future in an elemental symphony of wind, stone, fire, and ice” (Parnell, Presser, & Bain, 2013, p.3)

lingered in my mind. Luckily, upon arriving to Reykjavík, I was greeted by a kaleidoscope of colors in both the sky and land. This was only the beginning of a journey of discovery and awakening. These initial images that I took as my journey from Reykjavík to Blönduós began were only the tip of the iceberg; what was yet to come was beyond my imagination.

Reykjavik. Photo: Maisa Mreiwed, 2018

While my first impression was a great one; the rest of the scenery that I began to see as my trip was unfolding was breathtaking. My view was not blocked by big buildings and polluted air. I was able to see mountains and blue skies with land that stretched beyond my immediate vision. As I took a breath, I felt the air fill my lungs and my eyes began to see more beautiful details at every turn. As an artist and researcher, this was the perfect location for inspiration.

Reykjavík. Photo: Maisa Mreiwed, 2018

As I began to get ideas from the different shapes and colors as well as the amazing natural vista, I took out my sketchbook and began to draw. The more I looked around, the more I wanted to meet people and learn about them, their culture and connection to the land. Our connection as human beings to the land and how we treat it has always been important to me and is a consistent theme in my artwork, and I felt that this connection is also present in Iceland as nature is clearly protected and preserved. I am looking forward to the rest of my experiences in this breathtaking country.

borgarbyggð. Photo: Maisa Mreiwed, 2018
Maisa Mreiwed. Untitled, 2018. Ink on paper.


Parnell, F., Presser, B., & Bain, C. (2013). Lonely Planet Iceland(8th Ed.). Lonely Planet Publications.