Green Yarn

This has been an extremely prolific year for Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot or Daucus carota. It is absolutely everywhere!

Back in July I ran two dyebaths with fresh Queen Anne’s Lace flowers. Since it’s so abundant, I decided to just use the flowers this time, though you can use the whole plant. For the first dyebath, I had no trouble collecting 30 oz. of flowers from various spots around Amherst, including the sides of parking lots, the side of the road, and next to bus stops.

The flowers are incredibly fragrant and sticky, and consequently they host a huge range of insects. When you pick the flowers, all the insects come along, too. This fact gave rise to a new house-hold rule:

I weighed the plant material outdoors! I also made the first dyebath outside on the portable electric stove outdoors. We had some rainy weather after that, so I made the second dyebath indoors using 24 oz. of flowers that I picked in Hadley.

Here’s a pot full of flowers:

Here’s a close-up. It’s a really beautiful plant:

For the first dyebath, I filled the pot with water, heated it to 140 degrees, maintained that for an hour, and then let the plants soak in the pot overnight. The relatively low temperature was due to the fact that my portable electric burner has two rings. One of them can get very hot, but the other only has a “simmer” setting. The Queen Anne’s Lace was on the simmer side, while I mordanted yarn on the other burner.

Here are the strained flowers after they were heated, soaked, and cooled:

The dyebath looked reddish in the pot, but when I put some of the liquid in a jar, it was light gold. The little white dots are flower petals and maybe pollen that didn’t strain out.

For this project, I decided to over-dye some blue woad-dyed woolen yarn from last summer. I hadn’t bothered to mordant the yarn for the woad vat originally, so I had to mordant the skeins before overdyeing with Queen Anne’s Lace. I used aluminum sulfate at the ratios recommended in Rita Buchanan’s A Dyer’s Garden (1 tablespoon per 4 oz. of fiber). It looked pretty funny to put the blue yarns in a pot with clear water:

To mordant wool with aluminum sulfate, pre-soak the scoured yarn in water for at least an hour in a separate tub. Dissolve the mordant in a pot of hot water, then add the wetted out yarn. Bring the temperature up to 180 degrees, maintain that for an hour, then shut off the heat and let the fiber cool in the mordant bath as long as possible. In this case, it cooled overnight.

The next day, I put a 6 oz. skein into the first Queen Anne’s Lace dyebath, heated it to 160 degrees, and kept it between 160-180 degrees for an hour. I let it cool from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., then pulled it out to dry before rinsing it. I got a very nice shade of green!

Here’s the skein while it’s still in the dyepot, shown with another skein of the same, original shade of blue for comparison. Colors are always darker when they are wet:

Here’s the green skein dripping and drying outside, amidst all the other gorgeous greens of July:

I used the first dyebath again to over-dye a 3 oz. woad-blue skein of wool, and got more of a slate shade of green (less yellow, more blue). It’s in the center in the photo below. When you use the same dyebath again it’s called “exhausting” the bath, and usually results in a lighter color. After the exhaust bath, I poured out the liquid.

The second dyebath I made a couple days later wasn’t quite as strong, only 24 oz. I heated it to 200 degrees, maintained that for an hour, and cooled it overnight. Again, I got a beautiful shade of green on a woad-blue skein. Here are the three skeins once they were all rinsed and dried:

I used the exhaust bath from the second dye bath to over-dye 7 oz. of mohair. It was an extremely pale gray-blue from an exhausted woad vat last summer. I ended up with a sort of pale silvery gray. which was not what I was expecting. In the photo below, there’s a light-yellow lock on the top left corner that shows what the color would have been if the mohair wasn’t already gray-blue.

There is still plenty of Queen Anne’s Lace blooming now that it’s mid-August, but I may turn my sights to other plants next. Goldenrod, perhaps.

Past Speaking Engagements

Over the past year, I have had several opportunities to demonstrate flax processing and talk about natural dyeing. Here is a quick summary of four events that I didn’t get around to writing about when they happened. I just want to document and share them before too much more time passes.

Last August (2016) I did a flax processing demonstration at the Amherst History Museum, in conjunction with the art exhibit “Artifacts Inspire” by the Fiber Artists of Western Massachusetts. The museum asked the participating artists to create original works inspired by objects in the museum’s collection. Two of the pieces in the show were created by Martha Robinson, inspired by two antique hetchels, which are flax processing tools. There’s a good photo of one of her felted pieces here. It was great fun to show people how flax was processed in the past, and to let folks try their hand at using the tools.

Here’s a shot of crowd at the beginning of the demo:

Here I am by the brake and the scutching board:

And here’s Marianne, their consulting curator, getting a kick out of using a hetchel:

The next gig I wanted to mention was my presentation to the Weavers Guild of Springfield on March 4, 2017. I showed a slideshow about planting, growing, harvesting, and retting flax:

Then, I did a quick demonstration of how to use the tools:

It was lovely to meet a new group of weavers, and inspiring to see some old acquaintances there, too.

The third event I wanted to note was the FIBERuary panel I was part of on Feb. 19, 2017 at Sheep and Shawl in Deerfield. FIBERuary is a relatively new event here in Western MA celebrating our local fiber farmers and fiber artists. It’s spearheaded by Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm in Colrain, MA. In the past two years it has included a month-long blog and speaker series at Sheep and Shawl. On our panel, we addressed dyeing natural fibers from three perspectives: Linnie Dugas of Woollies of Shirkshire Farm talked about dyeing wool with natural dyes, and brought some luscious dyed batts and roving. I talked about natural dyeing skeins of linen. Scott Norris of Elam’s Widow talked about his process using Procion fiber reactive dyes to dye the linen yarns he uses in his spectacular handwoven kitchen towels.

Last but not least, I was a presenter on a panel at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Sustainability in Textiles Summer Institute in New York on June 7, 2017. Our panel was called “Local Fiber Connections” on the theme of “Farm to Fashion”. The other panelists were Jeffrey Silberman, Chair of the Textile Development and Marketing Department at FIT, Mimi Prober, designer, and Sara Healy of Buckwheat Bridge Angoras. My portion of the panel was a slideshow about retting and processing flax, and basic information about spinning and weaving linen. Sara has worked with Mimi to create custom blended batts for felted garments in Mimi’s collection.

Jeff, Mimi, some other folks at FIT, myself and other members of the New England Flax and Linen Study Group are working on a Farm to Fashion project in which we are collaborating to grow and process flax, spin and weave it, and produce garments for a runway show! At this point, the flax is still in the field, but it’s an exciting prospect.


Swamp Milkweed Sightings

I first learned to identify swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2012 after discovering some lovely fibers near my sister’s apartment in Maryland. In 2015 I acquired some plants from Nasami Farm in Whately, MA for the Common School‘s fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. For all this time, I have been keeping an eye out for it “in the wild” but haven’t seen it. Until now!

This month I have been spotting swamp milkweed all over the place. The first place I noticed it was in the bluebird field at Amherst College on July 6th. Admittedly, these photos are a bit like photos of Big Foot: blurry and indistinct. Trust me, though, it is swamp milkweed!

The next place I caught a sighting was in the Lawrence Swamp area of the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Amherst. It was right in the swamp, aptly. We could see several plants further out, but ran into the same blurry Big Foot photo problem. This one was close to the edge of the trail:

Next, I saw some plants at Bramble Hill Farm, on July 21st. These were growing in a wetland area, among the cattails:

Lastly, on July 23rd I saw a gorgeous plant right at the edge of Route 9 in Amherst, across the street from Amherst Tire:

I am thrilled to see so much swamp milkweed in so many different places nearby!

Apocynum cannabinum on the Hadley Dike

In my Fiber Fiber Everywhere post back in April, I noted that there are fiber plants all over the place where I live in Western Massachusetts. Recently I noticed a new one!

On June 26th, while walking along the dike in Hadley, I noticed a potential fiber plant that I had never noticed there before. I am pretty sure it’s Apocynum cannabinum, sometimes called common dogbane, hemp dogbane, or Indian hemp. The UMass Extension website has some helpful information for identification here. If I turn out to be wrong I will let you know. It is possible that some of the fibers I’ve seen on the trail by the river are from old dogbane stalks, and I just never realized it before.

Here’s a view of the whole plant in situ:

The flowers are white:

The stalks produce a sticky, milky latex-like sap:

The leaves are opposite and the stalks are pink:

I didn’t have a yard stick or measuring tape with me, but the tallest ones were about three feet tall. Here’s a leaf by itself:

I am pretty excited by this discovery. It is supposed to be an excellent fiber plant. As I understand it, the best time to collect the stalks is in the fall once the leaves have fallen off. I am a little worried that the edges of the dike will be mowed before the fall, so perhaps I won’t be harvesting from that spot. But now that I know what it looks like, I can look for it elsewhere.

Electra in Flower

My flax crop this year has been sorely neglected due to a pinched nerve in my upper back that had me out of commission for about 6 weeks in June and July. However, despite the weeds and lack of TLC, the flax started to bloom on the first of July. Here are some buds getting ready to flower:

Here’s the whole bed on July 1st. The main weeds are campion and lambsquarters, with lesser amounts of plantain and dock.

By July 10th the flax was in full bloom. Here are a couple photos of the flax flowers against the sky. It was a beautiful morning, and the flax flowers were gorgeous. The type I am growing this year is called Electra, and as you can see it is a blue-flowering type:

The flax plants are not really gigantically tall! I knelt down so I could frame them against the sky. Trying to photograph the flax flowers amidst all the other plants didn’t work very well. Looking at the flowers against the sky really captures their luminous beauty.

Here are two others views of the plot on July 10th. The campion is the white-flowering plant. Despite the fact that I wish there wasn’t so much of it, it is beautiful in its own right. The mix of lambsquarters and campion with the Electra blue is actually very pretty:



An interesting phenomenon that I observed in the plot is that there were fewer weeds on the eastern end, which is shaded by trees until late morning. I don’t know if this was due to something Ryan did with his cultivation last year, or if the additional shade discouraged the weeds. Without the other plants, you get a better sense of the low germination rate I got with the Electra. In the area where you can see bare ground, the only plants growing are the flax plants:

The low germination rate is due to the age of the seed. It’s from 2012. Jeff Silberman at FIT, who gave me this Electra, is growing from the same stock this year, and I gather he has had a similar rate of germination. I guess we now know the limit of viability for storing flax seed at ambient temperatures. In retrospect, when I replanted I should have put in more like thirty pounds. Live and learn!

Old Austerlitz

On Sunday July 30th I will be doing a flax processing demonstration at the Blueberry Festival at Old Austerlitz in Austerlitz, New York. I’ll be there from 9-4. Admission is $7 for adults, and children under 12 get in free. There will be lots of demonstrations and vendors, including an area dedicated to natural fibers with fiber farmers, weavers, feltmakers, etc.. Two fellow flax-enthusiasts will be there, Emily Gwynn from Hands to Work Textiles and Jill Horton-Lyons from Winterberry Farm. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!

I haven’t been to the Blueberry Festival before, but I have been to Old Austerlitz. On September 17, 2016 I did a similar flax processing demo for their event Intersection Austerlitz. It was very fun and I met a lot of interesting people.

Here are some photos of my set-up last fall. I will have a similar display this Sunday with the same set of tools, which I own collectively with the other members of the New England Flax and Linen Study Group.

Here’s one of my display tables. In the photo below, I’m pointing to two commercially produced sticks of flax, one of which was dew-retted and the other water-retted. Retting is the decomposition process that separates the fibers from the rest of the flax stalk. Dew-retting produces a silvery gray color. Water-retting produces a pale yellow or cream color. The u-shaped bundle of fiber in front of me is some of my own home-grown and hand-processed flax (also water-retted).

Here I am demonstrating how to use a flax brake. The brake smashes up the woody material in the stalks and loosens the fibers. We are both smiling because breaking flax is really fun!

One of the reasons I enjoy doing flax processing demonstrations is that people are always so thrilled and excited to watch all the steps and to have the opportunity to try the tools.

Below I am showing the scutching board and scutching knife. Scutching (or swingling) removes more of the woody pieces and opens up the fibers.

Here I am hetcheling (or hackling or hatcheling). This step separates the short fibers from the long fibers, and aligns all the fibers in the same direction. The short fibers are called tow and the long fibers are called line.

Below, I’m showing the difference between tow and line. I’m holding some tow (well, it’s pretty long for tow, but short for line), while the long line fibers are draped over the hetchel:

And here I am showing what the ideal growth habit of a fiber flax plant looks like: a tall, straight stalk with no branches until the very top.

See you on Sunday at Old Austerlitz!

Ten More Pounds of Electra

While I weeded the flax plot on May 6th, I was simultaneously glad for the opportunity to dig out the campion, and worried about weed pressure later in the summer, and worried that nothing had come up yet. So, I decided to spread another ten pounds of seed. There were a few reasons for this. First, I was worried that I hadn’t accounted enough for the possibility that I’d get a really low germination rate. Second, the more densely the flax is planted, the less the stalks ought to branch as they grow. Third, the more crowded the plants are, the finer the stalks will be and theoretically the finer the fiber will be. Fourth, a dense stand of flax might, hopefully, crowd out weeds. Continue reading “Ten More Pounds of Electra”

Weeding Out Campion

On May 6th, after the rain stopped, I stopped by the flax plot to see how things were going. There were no flax seedlings, but there was a lot of some other plant that I didn’t recognize.

They were big, robust, and had very deep and spreading roots. Since the flax hadn’t emerged yet, I decided to seize the opportunity to weed out as much of these deep-rooted plants as I could. So, I got a pitchfork and began digging. Continue reading “Weeding Out Campion”

Planting Electra

On Sunday April 30th I planted this year’s flax crop. Thanks to the generosity and support of Bernard Brennan at Amethyst Farm and Jeffrey Silberman in the Textile Development and Marketing Department at Fashion Institute of Technology, I am going big this year. Well, big for me. Up until now I have never grown much more than 225 square feet in a given season. This year I have planted approximately 1500 square feet! Continue reading “Planting Electra”