The chemists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasures amid smoke and vapor, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I were to change places with the Persian king. -- Johan Joachim BecherA couple of years ago, while browsing through a display at Olds Fibre Festival, I came upon this skein of yarn, and was so entranced by it that I just had to have it. I remember gushing to the lady who sold it to me, telling her how much I loved this rich, deep, lovely purple.
"Did you know that purple dye is what turned chemistry from a practice of magicians into a real science?" she said.
No, I didn't know that.
"Before anyone synthesized a chemical dye to make the colour purple, you had to collect thousands of snails and then process them for three days until you got purple," she said. "That's why it was only kings and queens that wore it. Once someone figured out how to make it in a lab, people really took chemistry seriously."
I took her word for it, but it was only a few days ago that I really did a little bit of research on it. From The Human Touch of Chemistry website, I learned:
In 1909, Paul Friedlander discovered the chemical structure of Tyrian Purple (now called 6,6-dibromoindigo). But by then, the nature of the dye industry had completely changed. New dyes were now being made from the by-products of coal extraction. The first of these was mauveine, synthesised by the British chemist William Henry Perkin from coal tar in 1856. As these dyes were cheaper and offered a wider range of colours, the need for natural dyes disappeared.While there's a movement in textiles to get back to natural dyes, I'm amazed at what a little colour did to advance the science of chemistry. I wonder what it was like for someone to make purple dye themselves after seeing it as a colour for the rich and privileged. I imagine it to have been like turning lead into gold...
Today, I am inspired by the spirit of chemistry: indeed, the spirit of science itself, where you have to be willing to be brave enough to try to prove an idea, even with a chance of failure. It's very much like being an artist: a painter, a song-writer, a knitter. You have to be happy enough to get elbow-deep in mistakes before you come up with a treasure that most people never believed possible. It takes a lot more courage than you think.
Imagine all the beautiful things you could come up with if you could put your ego away for a while and truly experiment.
I think I'll call myself a knit-chemist for a while. I might dig out my old lab coat and sit with my yarn, too. I might not make any huge discoveries, but it'll be a privilege to group myself with some real chemists, even if I'm only pretending.