Sunday, May 30, 2010

Confessions of a Wool Dyer

When I was young, I hated my last name. I was the butt of many jokes and mean nicknames by the boys in school. In fact, one boy, William, was so mean to me in the fourth grade that my teacher stood us facing each other, and told me to slap him! (Can you imagine this happening today?) Being the mild-mannered (but obedient) girl that I was, I gently slapped him. The teasing never did stop until, perhaps, high school, but by then I was a confirmed last name hater.

My last name? Dyer.

This seemingly innocuous last name was transformed, by the imaginations of many young boys, into all kinds of interesting epithets. "Dyer-EE-ah" was very popular over the years, as was "Diaper Dyer", "Clothes Dryer", etc. These nicknames were all somehow figured out by the local boys, no matter what school I went to, and I went to many, while growing up. Over time I really came to hate my name and wished many times that it were a simple last name, like Anderson or Taylor. Or, better yet, a name that evoked the idea of Old Money, like Hastings or Windsor or Chamberlain. Anything but Dyer, please.

When I was in my 20's, I lived in Mexico for a year, and my last name was, legally, Dyer-Dupuis, according to the tradition in many countries of using the father's surname, followed by the mother's maiden name. I liked this, because at the time I identified more with my mother's side of the family, and I liked her pretty French name. And I also liked the fact that Dupuis (doo-pwee) was the last name of the two in this format, and was more often remembered than Dyer. So when I returned to the States, I kept the name. When I got married I took my husband's last name Sylvia, although I have missed my hyphenated last name over the years, especially when people accidently use 'Sylvia' as my first name.

The name Dyer is of English origin, and most likely the first 'Dyer' was literally a dyer in his community, and so would have become known as 'John the dyer' or, as time went on, simply, 'John Dyer'. And he was, most likely, a wool dyer, because in those parts wool would have been a mainstay in the wardrobe of most people. So the name is of entirely respectable origin, and it's a shame that a few mean boys would have ruined it for me.

My profession today? Dyer.

When I first began dyeing wool, the irony of my maiden name was lost on me, because it had been a long while, by that time, since I had been a Dyer. It wasn't until fairly recently that I realized that I had come full circle in the history of my own family name, and I have finally come to appreciate it in the end. My father has passed on now, which I regret because he always felt bad that I hated our family name, and it would be nice to tell him that I am now proud of the name his family passed down, and that I have returned to its roots, carrying out a craft that is almost as old as time, really (although I hear there is one profession that is older . . . ).

I enjoy the fact that what I do is, with a few modern changes, essentially the same craft that others have developed, perfected and carried out as a trade for generations, and I like it for the same reason that I love singing old hymns from the 16th century--there is a connection with generations before us which in many other ways has been lost in our modern society. With the whirlwind of our technological advances surrounding us everywhere, I find it comforting to walk into my kitchen, put a big pot on the stove and stir The Wool from white into a lovely grey-green, just as my very first ancestor did so long ago.


  1. I just found your blogs today through another blog and am really impressed. You put so much good information out there. Wonderful stuff. I had to laugh though when I read the part in this one about "they say there is one profession that is older" because not only am I a fellow dyer of wool but I'm also a hooker (and a stripper LOL). I'll be back to read more of your blogs in the next few days. Thanks for all of your sharing.

  2. Susan,
    I love your blog! And how did I find it? I bid on your knee brace on ebay! When I saw your return address label I thought, "Oh wow! She must be a wool junkie like me!" and one Google search later here I am. My last name isn't "Spinner" but that's what I do. Not well, mind you, but I love it! My maiden name is Stahlman -- "Iron man" in German, armorers. Of course in elementary school it became "Bathroom-stall-man", and "Did your car Stall-man?" I was so relieved in junior high when Katie Sexhour moved to the area and took the heat off! I guess like the old-fashioned crafts like dying and spinning wool, learning to love the heritage and name you get takes time and patience.

    Oh -- and my knee's feeling better!

  3. So nice to meet a fellow sufferer -- in name, wool and knee! The part about poor Katie cracked me up--I'll be she was glad to get married! Glad you found me -- visit anytime!