De Kat, the Cat: the windmill that produces colors

Wednesday was going to be a sunny day, the weather projections forecasted, and so we planned our trip to Zaanse Schwanz [sic]for that day. There, the brochure promised, we would find a village which had been an industrial center with over 1000 windmills. Nine were left. One of them, Der Kat, The Cat, still ground rock and wood, bark and roots for dyes and pigments. Is your heart racing? Then you will want to come along with us.

The banks of the river, lined with the nine windmills, evoked something between a possible history–travels along one’s DNA I call it–and a Miyazaki film, for where else would you find the stirring spectacle of working windmills?

To our regret, the mustard windmill was closed for repairs but we had out sights set on De Kat. Our host Todd told us that, when it is windy–they went in February–so much power is freighted, the windmill is almost frightening. Indeed we found choppers, pounders and grinders all on the main floor, whose levers clearly generated a great deal of force when operative.

Display cases–all of this set into the larger wooden structure–gave us a tour of their products, as well as a history. When tiles were ground, a red dye was generated which was used to color the canvas windmill sails with their “summer” colors. Nearby a windmill was dressed in its winter sails, a dark rich brown, perhaps burnt umber. Not surprisingly, De Kat produces fresh sails for other windmills.

The second floor was a marvel of gears, all of them at a distance from each other today, but clearly movable, to connect together to create motion in several directions. Yes, it is true: the miller is the only one permitted to run the windmill.

De Kat’s miller has worked five days a week for the past forty years. When I asked naively if there was going to be a demonstration, the step-in miller pointed out the obvious with a smile. No wind, no work.

The top floor, with a small galley around the workings, let out in three directions to a outside porch. Even with a desultory wind turning the sails, anyone standing on the far side would be decapitated. The downward rush of a blade casts a large shadow with a whoosh. An interval of sunlight and then the downward blade was forecast by shadow and sound.

The gift shop offered little bottles of pigment labeled “artificial” The display cases outside had a small sign saying that anyone interested in the pigments ground on site could ask at the desk. Within minutes of asking, we were conducted into the inner sanctum marked private. Here, in a pleasant room about the size of Rembrandt’s etching studio, a central table stood for workshops and negotiations, packages of both pigments and dyes stacked neatly along the walls, glass
vials affixed to each showing the color of the actual powder. Hanks of wool, silk, linen and cotton hung from the ceiling demonstrating the color each dye would produce.

Workshops are held regularly at De Kat. Paint samples drying on plywood were the products of students from the art department at a nearby university.

I bought several kinds of umber produced at De Kat for my friend, the painter Mollie Favour, and a small glass grinder for making the powder into pigment by mixing it with linseed oil. (I’m sure this instrument has a name.) I also bought indigo and sandalwood for my friend Judith Thomas and I. Wode, which I would also like to explore was too expensive to buy without immediate plans to use it. Cochineal which comes not only from Mexico, but also from Spain, seemed frivolous as I plan to go with Judith to Eric Mindling’s dyeing tour in the Oaxaca Highlands where they raise cochineal.