Flax 2018-Late June and Early July

This summer we had extremely pleasant weather in June. My flax was very happy.

It was a busy month. The school year was wrapping up, I had year-end reports to write, a sweet little fiber arts summer camp to teach, and we had some old friends visiting from Texas. I managed to water my flax during the dry spells, but that was about it. Unsurprisingly, this was the scene on June 30th. 

I knew that there were flax seedlings in there somewhere! Can you see them? They are the small feathery-looking plants in the center of the staked-out square below. This type is called Ariane:

June 30th also happened to be the beginning of a heat wave that lasted about 8 days. “Heat wave” around here means highs in the mid to upper 90s. I know that’s normal in a lot of places, but it’s hot for western MA. Or maybe it’s just hot for me!

Despite the heat, I undertook an epic weeding campaign that week. By working early in the morning, I managed to avoid the worst of the heat. It was also humid, with several thunderstorms and heavy rain. The wet soil made it easy to pull out the weeds (mostly just lamb’s quarters and grass this year, almost no campion). The down side was that a lot of soil clung to the roots, and I couldn’t avoid pulling up some of the flax plants as I weeded.

I worried that once the shade and support of the taller, leafier plants was removed, the comparatively small and fragile flax would suffer from shock, shrivel up, or flop over. Luckily that did not happen.

Here’s the Ariane after I weeded:

Ariane was the type that I had the least seed from, so it was in the smallest bed. I think I mentioned earlier that I arranged the beds from west to east, smallest to largest. So, this was the furthest to the west.

My calculations (well, OK, estimations) regarding the weight of seed I had and the size of beds I should make turned out not to be very accurate. The smallest beds grew in too sparsely and the largest beds came in too densely. You can see what that looked like in the early stages of growth in the images in this post.

Only a few types grew in the way I had expected, at the density I was imagining. The pair of images on the left below is the type nicknamed 1602 and the pair on the right is Rolin:

In contrast, the Cascade was tightly crammed:

It looks lush and beautiful at this point, but when the plants got bigger it became a problem.

Here’s the larger bed of Electra before I started to weed:

And here’s a close up proving that there really is flax underneath all that:

After a few days of weeding it was all looking much better. From left to right it’s the Ariane, 1602, Rolin, and Cascade beds on July 5th:

In early July there was some worrisome withering at the tips of a lot of the stalks. It seemed like possibly a tiny, brown, flying insect was sucking out the juice just below the tender tips, but I couldn’t get any good photos of the bugs.

Weeding the Electra took a while, but luckily it was on the easternmost side of the plot, which was in the shade until about 10:30am.

On July 5th I had to call it quits around 11 am even though I was so close to being done!

I finished up the next day, July 6th:

Of course, the weeds all grew back again later in July, but at least I gave the flax a fighting chance against the competition.

Bronze Fennel and Swallowtail Butterflies

About four or five years ago, I planted bronze fennel in the dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. I planted a small six pack, thinking that it would be a one-season plant, in the same way that one might buy marigolds or basil. But no!

As a dye plant, bronze fennel makes a light but bright yellow-green with alum mordant on wool, which can be shifted further toward green with a copper afterbath. Maybe it doesn’t sound that exciting, but if you like chartreuse, you might understand the appeal.

As a garden plant, it is utterly fantastic. It is a perennial, it grows really tall, and it changes color and texture in a lovely way over the season. It smells amazing, tastes amazing, and every part is edible. The flowers, though not showy, attract a lot of pollinators.

Early in the season, the foliage is dark and bronze-green (hence the name). It’s dense and feathery, and can tolerate a lot of neglect. For example, if you don’t get around to weeding until the beginning of June, it is undaunted and continues to make a statement:

After you get around to weeding and filling in the annuals, it makes a gorgeous color contrast with other shades of green or purple:

Alas, the purple basil didn’t thrive (i.e., survive) this year, but the eucalyptus is doing well.

One of the most amazing things about bronze fennel is that it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies. The downside is that the caterpillars eat the leaves. The upside is that there is so much plant material, you really don’t care. You just want the caterpillars to be happy and turn into butterflies.

Here are some photos from June 20 that show older caterpillars:

The first and the last image, I’m pretty sure, are the same caterpillar from different viewpoints. So, let’s say there were two caterpillars on the mature bronze fennel on June 20th. I had noticed them in past summers when they were about this size, but hadn’t thought much about what happened before or after this stage of growth. Honestly, I didn’t even look further into what type pf caterpillar it was. They came and went, no harm done.

At some point this summer, I decided I ought to hold a dye plant sale. So, rather than just weeding out the bronze fennel seedlings that had sprouted up around the parent plants, I dug a few of them up and put them into pots. For many days, the potted-up babies sat in the shade next to the garden, but eventually I got all the necessary factors lined up to put the plants in the back of the car and bring them home. Well, we didn’t go straight home from Bramble Hill Farm, because once you are out and about doing errands with the car, you may as well multi-task. So, they were still in the back of the car when I pulled into the parking lot of Stop and Shop. I looked in the rear-view mirror, and could clearly see that one of the plants had been chomped.

Well, it was obviously caterpillars. But these were plants I was hoping to sell, and I didn’t want them to be eaten! Who is eating my fennel? Here’s what I saw when I looked more closely:

This wasn’t the only one. There were three of these little creatures.

Even without knowing exactly what they were, I was sure this wasn’t your average “pest”. I decided to move them back to the mature fennel plants at the garden so they could keep growing. It is surprisingly hard to get my phone aka camera to focus on small insects, so all my photos of the resettlement project came out blurry except this one:

OK, this one is blurry too. But the point is that I moved the teensy caterpillars onto different plants, and hoped they would continued to grow and develop.

There are a lot of websites that have information about swallowtail butterflies’ lifecycles. I found the images by Bob Moul on this site very clear. This website from the University of Florida also has clear images and information. This Mass Audubon site has information specific to Massachusetts.

It turns out that there are a lot of different types of swallowtail, and even different types of black swallowtail. I think that the teensy caterpillars I noticed in the Stop and Shop parking lot are the first instar of eastern black swallowtail caterpillars. That’s as specific as I could get at this point.

Up here in the Northeast, from what I can gather, there is only time for two generations of butterflies to grow and mature in a summer season. After that, the next generation has to overwinter and emerge from its chrysalis in the spring. I may be oversimplifying this, so I intend to do more reading and observations on the topic. Some folks protect the chrysalises over winter, but I am hoping they will be OK in situ.

9/2/18 Edited to add: This blog post on Our Habitat Garden has very clear photos of the entire lifecycle of Eastern Black Swallowtails. Upon re-reading it, I think the caterpillars I found were an early instar, but not the first. The authors also explain how and why you might need to overwinter a chrysalis in the northeast.

As of August 30th, I haven’t seen any chrysalises yet. If I do see a chrysalis at Bramble Hill, I will let you know!

Flax 2018-What Happened in June

In June the flax was happily growing. By June 2nd seedlings were emerging. I was excited and took a lot of pictures. To identify the beds, I wrote my nickname for each type on a stake at the corner of the bed. The name is on the left and the photo of that type of flax is on the right of each pair of images:

From west to east along the strip of land, I organized the plots from smallest to largest. Sometimes I can’t remember why I made certain decisions when I look back on them. But that’s what I did.

The day after I planted it was 90 degrees. Overall in June it wasn’t too hot, but we had some spells of warm (mid 80s) and dry weather, so I watered every few days to make sure the seeds germinated. If I had planted back in April, watering might not have been necessary. That said, many times in the days immediately after I plant flax we seem to have a heat wave, even in April or early May.

Flax is often promoted as a crop that needs very few inputs. I’m sure that’s true compared to cotton, specifically cotton grown under conventional agricultural systems. However, in my experience, flax isn’t a hassle-free crop. For one thing, it really needs moist or damp soil to thrive. Note I said, “moist or damp” not “sodden or saturated”. Second spoiler/foreshadowing!

I took some photos that show the difference between watering and not watering in the early stages of flax growth. Granted, late May is sub-optimal as a planting window, so this is slightly quirky data. But here’s my data nonetheless:

Above you can see the Rolin bed and the Viking bed on June 10th. By this time I had watered these beds three times (May 30, June 2, and June 10). It had also rained on June 4, and overnight June 5-6).

In contrast, I did not water the Electra bed on May 30. I watered it on June 2nd with 20 gallons of water. Here’s how it looked before watering on June 10th:

See the difference? Now, maybe the Electra seed was older and slower to get going compared to the others, but I suspect that water was a major factor. Here’s a view of the whole strip on June 10 after I watered, with the Electra in the foreground:

You can clearly see a flush of green in the beds to the west, and a non-flush-of-green in the foreground where the Electra was planted. I watered again on the morning of June 14, while it was still cool and shady:

Drink up, Electra!

Flax 2018-What Happened in May

I usually aim to plant flax in mid-April. Sometimes it is snowy at that time, so I have to wait. Sometimes I just don’t get everything organized in time. This year was a case of the latter. Well, it did snow during my vacation week in April, but that wasn’t the main obstacle. It took me a long time to winnow all my seed and to figure out what I wanted to do this season. Long story short, I didn’t plant my flax until the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend, May 28th.

Here’s what the site looked like on May 28th:

I grew flax at Amethyst Farm again this year. I am more grateful than I can say to Bernard at Amethyst Farm for generously sharing his land and to Ryan at Many Hands Farm Corps for working me into his crop rotation and tilling the site this spring. I am also grateful for their encouragement and advice every time I have encountered difficulties.

This year I decided to grow out twelve types of fiber flax from the USDA that my flax and linen study group acquired in 2015. We originally got something like 30, but in 2015 half of the beds I planted were devoured by rodents with nothing to show for it. If you don’t recall the sad story, you can read about it in this post.

In 2016 I grew the six tallest types, but I didn’t get much seed from that crop either. I wrote a long series of posts about the devastation caused by chewing that year, too. Here you can read about the day I decided to pull up that whole experiment and give up.

In 2017 I only grew Electra and none of the USDA types.

So, this year I decided to grow the twelve types that had *not* been eaten by rodents, and to cover them with isolation tents once again.

Here are the beds all made and staked out on May 28th:

I also grew a bed of Electra again. I planted REALLY densely this time to compensate for the age of the seed and lower viability.

I had different quantities of each type of seed, so I decided to make each bed a different size, depending on how much seed I had. I planted all the seed I had from each type. In retrospect, this wasn’t a sensible way to approach it. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” seems to be a lesson I need to learn repeatedly. Spoiler alert. Or, foreshadowing? I guess I was feeling optimistic and confident, which are good things to feel, but when it comes to flax I should know better by now.

Swamp Milkweed Update

Ever since I planted my swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in 2014, it has suffered from yellow aphids. I thought I had mentioned this problem in an earlier post. However, when I went back to look for it, I found that comment was buried in a lot of other information about praying mantises and pesky garden bugs. So, here’s a post dedicated to my swamp milkweed and how it’s doing this summer.

There are many dimensions to the life of any plant, so I divided this up into sub-categories.

Yellow Aphids

I did a better job this year checking the plants for aphids. For most of the summer I didn’t notice any, and the plants seemed happy. I had been worried they wouldn’t come back because some of the plants were very badly affected by yellow aphids last summer. They had sad withered stalks and gave up the ghost early in the season. Last week, I noticed aphids for the first time, and promptly washed them off with water. I am used to squishing bugs, and tiny ones like aphids don’t gross me out too much. So, I employed a “rinse and squish” method of physical removal.

Here are yellow aphids on the base of the stalks, close to the ground:

The resolution isn’t that great, but you get the idea. That long swath of yellow stuff is tiny sap-sucking bugs.

Here are two images of yellow aphids on younger plants, up near the top of the plant on the tender growing tips:

The resolution on these is good enough to see their little black legs and “cornicles”. That’s a word I just learned. I found awesome information and graphics about what an aphid cornicle does on The Bug Chicks page. This page from The Natural History of Orange County, California has some interesting information about the oleander or yellow aphid lifecycle. This page from the Entomology and Nematology Dept. at the University of Florida is also informative.

I will check back for repeated rinses and squishings as we head into late summer and fall around here.

Monarch Food Source

When I was looking up ways to deal with aphids last summer, I found several websites that listed swamp milkweed as one of the food sources of monarch butterflies and one of the host plants for caterpillars. I hadn’t seen monarch butterflies visit my plants, nor any caterpillars eating them. So, I continued to categorize swamp milkweed as “awesome fiber-bearing plant”, and prioritized that potential over its “useful-to-monarchs” potential. I tend to be a “gotta see it to believe it” person; if something I read contradicts my own experience, I let it stew until I get more evidence. Please refer to this post to understand the picture I have in my mind when I think about swamp milkweed’s sparkling fiberous beauty.

This summer I have observed and documented: 1) monarch butterflies feeding on swamp milkweed flowers; 2) what looks like a monarch butterfly depositing eggs on a swamp milkweed leaf; *and* 3) monarch caterpillars eating the leaves!

Butterflies are a beautiful sight, so I took waaay too many photos (and videos, which I will spare you):

In this image, I believe the butterfly is depositing eggs on a swamp milkweed leaf. 

And here, on those younger plants I mentioned, are two monarch caterpillars:

They seem pretty plump, so I hope they are finding the food to their liking. Gotta see it to believe it!

Transplanting Swamp Milkweed Babies

Not only were the swamp milkweed plants happy this summer, they made babies! Babies are always exciting, but they also raise questions and concerns about the best ways to care for them and ensure that they survive and thrive. A couple small swamp milkweed plants popped up close to the parent plants, amidst the ambitiously spreading Amsonia tabernaemontana.

Another emerged on the opposite side of the garden amidst the ambitiously spreading madder. And yet another managed to be growing at the very edge of the lawn around the garden plot. What to do?

The amsonia next to the swamp milkweed has increased and multiplied very successfully. While I am happy for its success, it is cramping the style of the comparatively shorter Asclepias incarnata. The amsonia is the sprawling plant with tons of long seed pods (it blooms first thing in the spring):

So, I wanted to get those swamp milkweed babies out of there and into a more spacious environment.

I wasn’t sure if mid-summer transplant operation was wise. The Nasami folks advised against it. I also consulted this article on the Monarch Butterfly Garden website, which has some useful information about transplanting swamp milkweed.

Both sources recommended transplanting asclepias species when the upper parts are dormant, either in the fall or spring. In addition to my aforementioned “gotta see it to believe it” attitude, I figured would add “you never know until you try” and take my chances. I tried to move the babies, and it worked!

I dug up and moved a few of the young plants to a new spot with plenty of compost and water. The one with the twisted stalk had been managing to survive among the grasping madder. I figure it’s at least a year old, so it must be a very determined plant!

I think it worked to transplant these in July because they were still pretty small and the roots were not extensive. I had been prepared for the shock to cause them to go dormant, or at least to skip flowering this season. But no!

Not only did they thrive, these are the plants where the monarch caterpillars are currently living.

 

 

Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft 2018

On Memorial Day Weekend I did a dyeing demonstration at Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I’ve done demos there before, but this year was special. I was dyeing hand-spun yarns from a variety of sheep breeds, spun by Lisa Bertoldi of Weft Handwoven Linens, and supported by a grant from the Northeast Handspinners Association.

Here was the table with examples of my own naturally dyed handspun yarns, some of my favorite books, fliers for the Northeast Handspinners Association, and a 6-pack of marigolds:

Next to that I set up the portable electric burners and dye pots:

The jar on the left contains powdered madder roots that I weighed out and soaked in water the day before. The other dye plants I used that day were weld, marigolds, and black walnut hulls.

On a bench beside the pots I set out the tools, dried dye plants, tubs, measuring spoons, and other supplies, mordants and other additives that I would need:

I scoured and mordanted all the skeins ahead of time using aluminum sulfate. I transported them damp, and kept them in a tub of water to pull out and use as the day went along. In addition to Lisa’s skeins, which weighed about 13 ounces all together, I had prepped some mini-skeins from Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont (from their end-of-the-run stash) and some natural colored wool yarn from Bartlett Yarns in Maine (a very light gray-brown).

Since my demo ran all day this year, I had plenty of time to make the dyebaths as well as dye the yarns. In each case, the dye plants heated in the dye pots for approximately an hour, then I let them cool off a little before straining out the plant material and putting in the yarn. Usually I like to let the fiber cool and soak overnight, but in this case I wanted to keep the process moving along fairly quickly.

Once the crowds arrived I took no pictures whatsoever! It was a busy day with lots of curious visitors, great questions and conversations, and a couple unexpected but pleasant surprises regarding color.

Some of the skeins that Lisa had spun were naturally colored browns and grays. I felt a little bad dyeing them, since they were already very lovely. But, that’s what I had to work with, so I just went for it.

Some of the visitors came back multiple times during the day to check on the progress of the dyebaths, and I was able to get suggestions from them about which skeins to try in which pots. One young visitor was especially engaged and came back several times. At the end of the day, I let that young person pick the ones they liked the best. Hence, I do not have photos of those skeins (a madder skein and a weld skein).

Here are the details for each dyebath:

Madder

The day before the demo, I weighed 3 ounces of powdered madder root from Dharma Trading and soaked it in plain tap water overnight in a tall glass jar. The day of the demo, I poured the whole jar into a pot with some additional water, heated it to 150 degrees F, and maintained that temperature for an hour.

Because the powder was very fine, it was hard to strain. The remaining dyebath was still a little sludgy. I added 1/2 a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a glug of soda ash solution.The pH was 11, which is much higher than I was going for. So, I added more water and brought the pH down to 9. It also cooled off the bath a little.

In the first, strongest madder dyebath, I dyed a charcoal gray skein, at the suggestion of the young visitor I mentioned. The color turned out to be a very interesting shade of purple! I wish I had a photo of that one, and it’s an experiment worth repeating. The charcoal gray skein weighed about 2 ounces. That first bath heated for an hour, around 150 degrees.

Next, I put in two of the tiny Green Mountain Spinnery wind-offs (approx. 1 oz. each). The first exhaust bath heated for an hour. Alas, it got busy and I wasn’t watching the pots carefully. The first exhaust bath overheated and got up to a boil, but the color stayed pink nevertheless.

After the hour was up, I pulled those two out, and put in two more tiny Green Mountain skeins, plus a 4 oz. Bartlett skein. I heated them for 30 minutes.

At this point I added another of Lisa’s handspun skeins to the pot, a 1 oz. gray-brown skein.  All the skeins stayed in the pot together for another 30 minutes, then I turned the heat off and pulled it off the burner to cool.

Back at home the next day, I finished exhausting the madder dyebath using another 4. oz skein of Bartlett’s. Before adding the wool, I added a little more soda ash solution and a half teaspoon calcium carbonate to get the pH back up to 9. I heated the pot to 140 degrees, and maintained that for an hour.

Here are the exhaust skeins after they were all rinsed and dry (the one on the far right is walnut-dyed):

Weld

For the weld bath I used 7 ounces of dried weld (whole tops, including stalks, leaves and flowers). Normally I would soak this ahead of time, too, but for the demo I weighed out the plant material while people were watching, and only extracted it once. After the pot got up to about 150 degrees, it heated for hour. I only cooled it a little before straining. Then we added calcium carbonate and soda ash solution to get pH9, and I put in two of Lisa’s handspun skeins (total weight about 2 1/2 ounces). They heated for an hour. It was a very strong bath and we got vivid yellows!

One of Lisa’s white handspun skein weighing about 2 ounces went into the first weld exhaust bath. It was also bright but not quite so neon-electric as the first two. That skein also went home with the young person who was very excited and engaged with the whole process.

Back at home a couple days later, I exhausted the weld bath. It was pH 7, so I added half a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and some dissolved soda ash to get the bath to pH 9. Then I dyed a 6 oz. skein of my own handspun, mordanted with aluminum sulfate.

The top rack shows the weld-dyed skeins on the left hand side. The marigold skeins are on the right:

Marigold

I used 4 oz. of dried marigold flowers, all types of colors mixed together. People often ask me whether different colors of marigold give different shades of yellow or gold. I don’t actually know because I’ve never bothered to separate them. My hunch is that they all give basically the same color, but it might be worth it to test this out sometime.

The procedure for making the dyebath was the same as the weld, but I didn’t add any pH modifiers or other amendments. The first skein to go in the bath was a 6 oz. skein of Lisa’s. The skein heated about an hour, and turned a rich old gold color. In the marigold exhaust I put in two of the Green Mountain wind-offs, total weight just over 2 oz. They also yielded an old gold shade, but a little bit brighter. You can see the marigold-dyed skeins on the top right hand side of the drying rack above.

Black Walnut Hulls

I used 3 oz. of dried black walnut hulls for this demo. I usually use them fresh, and I wasn’t quite sure how dark of a bath this would give. The answer is, not very. I also only extracted them once: I brought the hulls and water up to about 150 degrees (could have been hotter, but that takes longer), held that for an hour, then strained out the hulls. In this short amount if time they probably didn’t have enough time to really soak and release their dye.

Nevertheless, the result was interesting. I used one of Lisa’s light brown skeins, about 2 oz., with a lot of gray. I didn’t think to take a “before” picture, but what happened was that the walnut shifted the grayer, cooler tone of the original skein to a warmer more yellow tone. You can see the skein in the image above, on the far right of the bottom rack with the madder dyed yarns. The pinkish-brown skein from madder exhaust is next to it.

Because color looks so different depending on the lighting, I also though it would be interesting to show how the skeins looked on the drying rack in the shade:

The weld exhaust looks so pale in this lighting, when in actuality it’s much brighter.

Grow Flax Everywhere

In 2015, my flax and linen study group got 29 types of different fiber flax seed from the USDA. I’ve been doing my best to keep them isolated as I grow them, though I’m down to 12 types now that I’ve been able to keep going. Many earlier blog posts document my successes and failures with this project thus far.

My “beer bottle” method for removing flax seeds has some draw-backs. Hunching over like Gollum while I work is one of them. I have specific goals when I’m working with these seeds, which lead to specific practices that have (hopefully) specific outcomes. Namely, I am trying to keep the different varieties of flax isolated so that I can grow them out and increase the quantity of seed that I have from each type. When I’m taking the seeds off, I make an effort to keep the types separate.

My strategy with the beer bottle method is to crush the bolls onto a piece of cloth like a sheet or pillowcase. Whatever seed I can definitively confirm came from a specific stalk of a specific type, I deem worthy of saving. If a seed falls onto the ground, it is lost to me. I can’t guarantee which plant it came from, so I don’t keep it. Between each type of flax I sweep the path and do a careful visual inspection to be sure that the surface of the next sheet of cloth is clear.

My method also has some unintended outcomes, it turns out. I didn’t really realize how many seeds I was losing by this method until early June. The lawn out in front of the apartment was getting nice and lush, and I noticed a familiar feathery-looking plant amidst the blades of grass:

There’s plantain, dandelion, gill-over-the-ground, and oh yes, flax!

Here’s our cat Sammy checking out the scene.

Flax even started to grow through the crack in the sidewalk!

There was a lot of flax in the lawn. I got a really good germination rate! It’s not a good place for flax to grow, since it was repeatedly mowed, and eventually it couldn’t survive. I was pretty impressed that is was able to compete with the other plants for as long as it did. But from a seed conservation perspective, I obviously need a new approach.

 

Rippling and Winnowing Flax Seed

Over the years that I’ve been growing flax, I have written several verses of a silly, imaginary song. Each verse tells you about something you shouldn’t do, inspired by my own trials and failures. One verse goes like this: “Don’t store your flax with the seeds on/For it will attract lots of mice./They’ll get fat on the seeds/And leave lots of debris/Don’t store your flax with the seeds on.” Yes, this is based on a true story.

Despite this good advice to myself, it often takes several months or even years before I get around to the next step in the process. On April 20th, in anticipation of my 2018 growing season, I finally finished removing the seeds from the flax I grew in 2016.

Here I am using the “wine bottle method” or in this case, the “beer bottle method” for crushing the seed bolls and removing the seeds. This sequence of photos made me laugh. At first I’m just doing my thing out on the front walkway. Matthew kindly thought to document the moment:

When I realized someone was behind me, I apparently turned into Gollum, jealously guarding “my precious” flax seeds:

Then when I realized I was acting suspiciously, I pretended to be a normal person, but I’m not very convicing:

Fast forward a few weeks to May 5th, when the optimal time for planting flax had already passed and I needed a faster way to clean the chaff from my seeds. In the background below you can see me engaged in my usual method for cleaning flax seed, which works OK for small quantities. I blow the lighter-weight plant material off the edge of a round metal lid. I tilt the lid as I turn and blow, so the heavier seeds stay in the center. In the foreground you can see our cat Sammy, herself acting a bit like Gollum jealously guarding a pot of catnip.

With spring moving along apace, I needed a faster method of winnowing. So, I brought a fan outside. With a little trial and error, I got it set up at a speed and distance that blew the chaff away but allowed the seeds to fall back into the lid:

Here’s a close-up that shows the pieces of seed boll, dried leaves, pedicels, and other bits of plant debris flying away on the breeze:

Paper Making

In my retrospective of the past 9 months, I somehow skipped over January. Oops! Here it is:

In January I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon learning how to make paper with May Babcock of Paperslurry. If you are interested in hand-made paper, especially paper from your own local plant material, then check out her website. She has lots of excellent, clear tutorials and links to fabulous resources and inspiring projects.

High quality linen paper is nothing new, though in the past it would have been made from linen rags. I don’t have a lot of old linen rags kicking around the apartment, but I do have a lot of tow!

Tow is the name for the shorter fibers in the flax process. The long fibers are called line. When you process flax, you end up with a lot of tow, and proportionately less line. Line is special, so small-scale growers such as myself reserve it for spinning a fine thread. Tow is good for spinning, too, but can also be used for many other things.

May had generously offered to help me make paper with my own flax tow. She walked me through all the steps, and in one afternoon we turned a handful of tow into several sturdy sheets of paper!

First, we weighed out 3 ounces of tow. We snipped up the fibers into short pieces, between a half and three quarters of an inch long. We dropped them into a 5 gallon bucket of water:

While we snipped, May explained that flax has several unique properties as a papermaking fiber. It expands more than other fibers when it’s wet, it’s stickier, and it shrinks more than other fibers when its drying, unless it’s constrained while it dries (i.e., is dried while attached to a physical backing and under a weight).

Then, May set up her adorable little Hollander beater.

The fibers go through a crushing, smooshing, beating process inside that gray cylinder in the center. Inside is a roller and a plate with teeth and grooves. The numbers taped up on the wall behind the beater are May’s guide for how many times she has to turn the mechanism that sets the plate and rollers at the height she wants. Raising and lowering the mechanism increases or decreases the pressure on the fibers.

In the beater, the fibers are compressed and squeezed, not chopped, so that they stretch out until they are very fine and create a lot of surface area. The fine strands are called fibrils.

Then she turned the Hollander beater on. It’s really loud!

Then we gradually added the wet, snipped-up pieces of tow.

Underneath the table is a bucket for catching drips.

The motor is powerful, but the fibers can get bunched up when they are first going through the beater. May monitored carefully and broke apart the clumps to keep things moving smoothly.

Here’s the beater running once we added all the tow.

Every 20 minutes or so, she scooped out some of the fibers, stirred them in a jar of water, and held it up to the light. This was to check how finely the fibers had been broken down. Then she adjusted the height of the plate. When things seemed right, we set the timer and let the beater run for an hour. Meanwhile we went to the back of her studio to look at some of her beautiful paper samples and talk about plants.

When the hour was up, May filled up a tub with water and wetted down the supplies we’d be using the make the sheets of paper. It being January, it was pretty cold, so we used warm water for comfort.

On the right of the tray are pieces of army blanket that we used as felts between the sheets of paper.

May added some of the flax pulp to the warm water.

Then she stirred it around until the ratio of water to pulp was right. This step is called hogging. Then our slurry was ready!

At this point I stopped taking photographs because my hands were wet. I got a chance to pull several sheets of paper using a beautifully crafted deckel and mold. I made two sheets with inclusions, which involves placing an item between two thin sheets of paper. I used a long strand of flax that May had grown, and some of my un-cut tow.

May explained that one of the properties of linen in papermaking is that it is “slow draining” so you don’t need to add anything to the slurry. Other fibers require a mucilaginous or viscous “forming agent” so that the water will drain through the screen at the right speed.

This is a stack of sheets of interfacing. I pressed the papers onto these, pre-dampened, as they came off the screen.

After I pulled a few sheets of paper, May put the stack of felts and interfacing into a small book-binding press and squeezed out a lot of the water.

After about 15 minutes, we took them out of the press. We peeled the strong, sticky sheets of paper off of the wet interfacing and placed them on dry sheets of interfacing and felt. We stacked them up between pieces of thick corrugated cardboard inside her drying rack. Then she put a heavy weight on top of the stack, turned on two fans behind the whole set-up, and left them to dry.

After the papers were dry, she mailed them to me. Here are three that were constrained while they dried so they are relatively flat and smooth:

Here’s a close up:

Here are the two sheets with inclusions:

This one was dried without constraints so it is more shrunken and wrinkly:

It reminds me of a motto that my Flax and Linen Study group considered at one point, “Wear your wrinkles with pride!” To make a linen textile smooth and shiny requires a lot of pressure and labor. To whit, starch and the mangle (an admittedly obscure but interesting and not straightforward topic in North America).

However, being smooth, supple, and shiny is only one of linen’s magical modes. The strength and beauty of linen reveals itself in so many other ways, including crinkly, shrunken, dry, and indestructible! Linen as crone.

There are tiny pieces of straw in my paper because I hadn’t carded and cleaned up the tow for spinning. More careful preparation of the fiber ahead of time would have led to a smoother texture, I think. That said, the papers are really strong!

It was an incredibly fun and inspiring day. I was excited to learn yet another way to use the amazing and versatile properties of flax, Linum usitatissimum: the most useful. Thank you, May Babcock!

FIBERuary 2018

Since it has been so many months since I last posted, I am trying to catch up in chronological order. My last series of posts was from December 2017. This one is from February 2018.

Thanks to the efforts of Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm, and Liz Sorenson of Sheep and Shawl, among others, we have a new local tradition here in Western MA called FIBERuary. During the month of February, Carole features local fiber farmers and fiber artists on the FIBERuary blog, and Liz hosts a speaker series at her shop in South Deerfield, MA. 

I have been a contributor to the FIBERuary blog on a couple occasions, and a speaker at their speaker series. In these hot and humid days of August, I decided to share an expanded version of the post I wrote this February. It’s about one of my favorite dye plants, weld:

Growing Weld

If you are a gardener who is interested in dyeing with plants, there are many interesting dye plants that you can grow in your garden. Weld (Reseda luteola) is one of them. It is originally a Eurasian plant, and its use dates back to antiquity. It has not naturalized here in New England, unlike so many other Eurasian plants. So, if you want to use it, you have to grow it yourself or buy it from a natural dye supply company. It is relatively expensive to buy, but it’s very easy to grow, so I encourage you to grow your own. Weld produces a very lightfast source of yellow, thanks to the luteolin that is present in all the above-ground parts of the plant.

Starting Seed

I find that it is difficult to direct-sow. The seeds are incredibly small, and need to be kept consistently moist while germinating. I usually start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they’re big enough. I am fairly certain that only the black seeds are viable, but it is hard to to separate the green, yellow, and tan seeds efficiently, so I just plant a pinch of mixed seed and thin the seedlings if necessary. The photos below show the results of a germination test I ran in 2011. You can see that none of the yellow or brown seeds germinated, but the black seeds did:

The plant has a taproot, so transplant carefully. Weld prefers alkaline soil, and you can add chalk or lime to your bed if your soil is acidic.  Wherever you put it in your garden, be sure to leave space for much larger plants in the second year.

Weld is a biennial, which means that its lifecycle takes two years. In the first year, the plant grows low to the ground in a round clump or rosette.

The leaves are long and thin with wavy edges. You can use the leaves in the first year by cutting them close to the center of the plant. The quantity of plant material that you can gather in the first year is relatively small, though, so I usually wait until the second year to harvest weld.

In its second year, weld sends up a tall woody stalk that can get as high as 5 feet.

It produces tons of tiny creamy-colored flowers that are attractive to bees and other insects.

It is easy to save your own seed, though cleaning it can be a chore. Some dyers find that letting the plants go to seed produces an unwanted abundance of volunteer weld seedlings. In my experience, I get at most one or two volunteers a year, which is manageable.

To harvest weld, cut down the entire stalk in full bloom.

If you are saving seed, wait until you can see dark colored seeds at the lowest part of the flowering stalk before harvesting. The flower stalks keep adding new flowers at the tip, while the seeds mature at the base.

You can use weld fresh, or dry it for future use. I hang it upside down from a laundry-drying rack to dry. In some years, I have noticed a strong smell as the weld dries. It is not to everyone’s liking, so be prepared to dry it with ventilation or move your drying set-up if the smell becomes objectionable.

Once it’s dry, chop up the plant material to reduce the bulk, and store it in a dry location until you are ready to use it. The dried stalks can be extremely hard and woody, so I use garden clippers. I store dried weld in a paper bag to absorb any condensation when there are temperature fluctuations, and seal that inside a plastic bag. It also keeps well in a cardboard box.

Weld is known for producing extremely clear, bright yellows. It combines beautifully with indigo, Japanese indigo, or woad to make greens, and with madder to make oranges.