Flax Grids: “Variety Not Specified” at Small Ones Farm

Here are the photos of the “variety not specified” (v.n.s.) flax at Small Ones Farm in South Amherst on April 29th. They are posted in order from square 1 to square 16 in the grid. For an explanation of the grid numbering system, and what these flax grids are all about, see my last post, “Belated Photos of Flax Grids: Evelin at Small Ones Farm.”

vns at Small Ones 1vns at Small Ones 2vns at Small Ones 3vns at Small Ones 4vns at Small Ones 5vns at Small Ones 6vns at Small Ones 7vns at Small Ones 8vns at Small Ones 9vns at Small Ones 10vns at Small Ones 11vns at Small Ones 12vns at Small Ones 13vns at Small Ones 14vns at Small Ones 15vns at Small Ones 16vns at Small Ones height April 29Above is a photo showing the height of the vns seedlings on April 29th at Small Ones Farm.


Belated Photos of Flax Grids: Evelin at Small Ones Farm

Back on Sunday April 29th and Monday April 30th I set up one-foot-square grids in my flax beds. I used sticks to stake out the one-foot increments, and flagging tape to outline the edges. They are not perfectly square, but it’ll do. At each plot (Small Ones Farm, Amethyst Farm, and the community garden at Amethyst Brook) I used a different color flagging tape for each variety, but didn’t plan ahead enough to use the same color for each variety at each place. That would have been handy, but too late now. As you might suspect, it is hard to tell from a photo of little green plants just exactly which variety of seed or section of a plot I am looking at. So, I thought the color coding would help differentiate photos back at home when I’ve downloaded them onto the computer and am figuring out which is which. I also wrote labels on the flagging tape, but it twists around sometimes so they aren’t clear in every photo. Each grid is four feet square (the width of the bed, and four feet in length), divided into 16 sections. I took a photo of each section. I have a total of 7 beds, which multiplied by 16 is a lot of photos of little green plants. One hundred and twelve, to be exact. That is too many for one post. It actually has crossed my mind that perhaps not everyone will be interested in looking at 112 photos of flax. But in the interests of documenting this project, I’ve decided to post them all, divided between several posts.

I set up the grids because I wanted a more quantifiable way to measure the germination rates of the different seed varieties, and to count how many plants were growing in each square foot. Mostly what this exercise taught me is that my sowing technique is terrible. I have clumps and bare patches in an extremely uneven pattern. Sigh. Raking did not help at all, so I will omit that step in future. In fact I think many of the ridges where there is a density of plants were created by the edge of the rake. So, there is a lot more to learn about that step of the process. Honestly, I think this season was my worst broadcasting job ever, but then again I have never scrutinized every step of the process so closely.

This post features the variety Evelin (an untreated variety from Richters in Canada) planted at Small Ones Farm in South Amherst. The photos were taken April 29th, and are labeled with the variety, the location, and a number 1 to 16. The squares in the grid are numbered from left to right, starting in the row on the near side of the bed and moving to the back. That is,1 is in the bottom left hand corner, and 16 is in the top right corner. They are posted in order from 1 to 16.

Evelin at Small Ones 1Evelin at Small Ones 2Evelin at Small Ones 3Evelin at Small Ones 4Evelin at Small Ones 5Evelin at Small Ones 6Evelin at Small Ones 7Evelin at Small Ones 8Evelin at Small Ones 9Evelin at Small Ones 10Evelin at Small Ones 11Evelin at Small Ones 12Evelin at Small Ones 13Evelin at Small Ones 14Evelin at Small Ones 15Evelin at Small Ones 16

Evelin bed at Small OnesAbove is an overview of the bed of Evelin, and below is a photo showing the height of the plants on April 29th (14 days after planting).

Evelin at Small Ones height


Cat in the Flax

Last week I did a fiber and spinning lesson in my old classroom, as part of their study of Colonial New England. I brought along a wide variety of natural fibers in different stages of processing, including flax. Afterwards, when I went to put away the bundles of retted and broken flax, the cat immediately jumped into the container. She likes to jump into all kinds of baskets and boxes, especially newly opened ones or ones which aren’t usually there, which prompts the phrase, “Pippi in a basket!” Our cat is officially named Smitten, but a long time ago she got the nickname Pippi, which is what we usually call her, or sometimes the Pippi. Even though she’s the only one, Pippi is also a general category, as in “Pippies like meat pie.” We are the monkeys. Our household consists of Pippies and monkeys.

First the Pippi sat in the corner, surveying the scene.

Pippi in a basketNext she pawed the flax.

Pippi paws flaxThen she noticed the suspicious rope that I use to hold the box closed, which must be attacked.

Pippi prepares to attackPippi eyes the ropeMatthew obliged by animating the rope.

Pippi fights rope

rope battleThere was a battle. The Pippi won.

Pippi winsShe licked and chewed a few strands of flax, then settled in to rest after her victory.

Pippi settles inShe was annoyed by monkeys trying to sneak up on her with a camera to get a photo of her while she was asleep.

Pippi is annoyedJust doing my part to spread photos of cats via the internet.

Ahh, Wood Thrushes are Back

Yesterday morning, Thursday May 3rd, I went for a walk around 7:15, as I often do, but little did I know that it would turn out to be an exceptionally inspiring walk (despite the drizzle).

First, as I came out of the little boggy wooded area behind our apartment complex into the parking lot of the JCA, I heard and saw two crows cawing away vigorously. At first I thought, two crows having a debate, or maybe just exchanging insults. Then I heard a third crow, which made me think that something a bit more interesting was going on. What are all those crows yelling about? And then, I saw something slip into the brambles and small trees by the little sunken wetland area in the center of the parking lot. I walked closer slowly, and looked carefully, and it was a fox! A gray fox, I think: very small, delicate, mostly beige, with a black back and not-very-fluffy tail. The instant that I stopped walking, turned my body, and fixed my attention on the fox, the crows stopped cawing. It was an intense moment, since I realized they had probably been shouting about the fox, and had stopped now that I had noticed it, too. I wished I knew what they were thinking. “Fox! Fox! Fox! Fox! Oh, look, a monkey. Let’s be quiet and see what the monkey does.” I watched the fox as it picked its way around the edge of the wetland area, through the bleached masses of dead cattails, and short new green growth. Maybe it was looking for frogs or other little creatures to eat, but it didn’t seem to find anything and kept on going. Then it climbed out the other side of the wetland area, trotted toward the edge of the building, and went around the corner out of sight. We see quite a lot of wildlife around here, but it was still a special treat to get to watch a fox for several minutes. I continued on my walk, and there was more excitement to come.

When I got into the woods at Amherst College, there were lots of interesting maple seeds and fallen tree-flowers on the path, so I picked up a few especially striking ones to photograph when I got home. At the moment I am very interested in the combination of bright yellow-greens and various shades of pink and maroon that are happening all over the place in small emerging leaves, flowering trees, and maple seeds. How do such bright colors blend so harmoniously? Are there optimal ratios? Which combinations do I like the best? Could I weave something with the same colors and achieve anything like the same effect? Here are some photos. The ones in bright sun I took the other day. The yellow inflorescences are from some kind of oak.

maple seeds close upmaple seeds with a greater proportion of yellowoak inflorescenceoak inflorescence with tiny leafpink and lime green maple seedsmagenta maple seedsmaple seeds with yellow-green edgesyet more maple seedsAt one point I was noisily engaged in my own thoughts, making up a silly song that went like this: Don’t plant your flax in a hayfield/’cuz a hayfield is full of grass/no matter what you do/there are roots through and through/so don’t plant your flax in a hayfield. My songs are notoriously dumb, but I was mightily entertained by myself, and not paying much attention to the woods around me. But then I saw another maple seed bundle with a greater ratio of yellow to pink, and stopped to pick it up. At that moment, the noise in my head stopped, too, and my focus shifted back to the woods. And suddenly I heard a wood thrush! You can listen to lots of different recordings of wood thrush songs at the Macaulay Library archives.

The wood thrush has the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. It evokes intense longing and utter contentment at the same time. Bliss. I love wood thrush season, and am always happy when they come back and sad when they leave.

My wood thrush backstory goes like this. Several years ago I started hearing this beautiful flute-like bird at the garden in the evenings. I began to listen for it while I was there, and look forward to hearing it. It felt affirming, reassuring, companionable…. but I could never see the bird that was singing because the song always came from deep in the woods. There are good resources for birdsong identification on line, but you have to know what a bird looks like to narrow down your search. So, the identity of my bird remained a mystery for several years. I began hearing it other places, too, including right by our apartment complex, especially early in the morning and around sunset.

One spring day maybe three years ago, I was sitting outside at the school where I worked, supervising kids playing outdoors. Amazingly, I heard my bird! So I peered over at the edge of the playground, next to the woods at the Larch Hill conservation area. And lo and behold, there was my bird singing away on a branch right at the edge of the woods. I moved closer and got a good look at it. It was a rich reddish-brown, about the size of a robin, with a white-and-black spotted breast and big feet. I found photos, descriptions, and recordings of its song on the Cornell University ornithology website, and at last identified my mystery bird.

A few months ago, as I was trying to think of a name for my new little weaving business, I decided to name it after the wood thrush.

There are a few reasons that wood thrushes appeal to me as a personal symbol of the ethics and aesthetics of fiber. I am very invested in locally grown and harvested fibers and dyes. I work hard to learn as much as possible about growing and using locally available fiber and dye plants, and to incorporate them into my work. I aspire to expand the range of fibers and dyes that are available to folks around here. But only certain materials can be obtained or produced in Massachusetts. One very useful fiber in particular, cotton, needs a much hotter, longer growing season than we can offer. But there are good, sustainable cotton projects going on further south, including an organic cotton industry in Texas, and naturally colored cottons in Peru. These projects need to be supported. The evils of conventionally raised cotton would take a whole other post to enumerate, but a good place to start, if you want to read about it, is Stephen Yafa’s Cotton.

Despite my fibershed ideal, I decided I would need to include far-away fibers in my fiber-diet. Here’s where the wood thrush comes in. Wood thrushes migrate to Central America in the winter, and only come up to New England in the summertime. So, that span of distance, from Massachusetts to Panama at least (if not as far as Peru), is linked together by my bird. Wood thrushes go where the good stuff is, while it’s in season, and that’s one way to think about fibers, too.

Here are some other wood thrush lessons I have learned. Their song is very beautiful, but it’s pretty quiet and they stick to the woods. To hear it, you have to spend time outdoors and be attentive to the world around you. Understanding where fiber raw materials come from, and how inseparable their growth and processing are from every other element of our environment, requires similar attention and observation. The wood thrush is not a flashy bird. In fact it’s sort of subtle and even conservative, like much of my weaving tends to be. Wood thrush populations are in decline due to a variety of factors including habitat loss and acid rain. Sustainable land management and reducing pollution are crucial to their survival, and to the survival of us all.

So, I was ecstatic to hear that the wood thrushes are back.


New Huck Lace Bookmarks–Still Pink, Still Heart-y

Since my madder-dyed linen heart-motif Huck lace bookmarks have been selling pretty well, and since Mothers Day is coming up soon, I decided to weave some more of them. Also, I thought my loyal readers might like a little break from photos of small flax green plants (as there will be a lot more on the way). So, here’s a photo of a bookmark in progress, showing the edge of the two-inch spacer I use to separate each one.

book mark with spacerThere are a lot of steps involved in planning and weaving anything. There are more steps involved if you dye your own yarn and, like me, do not necessarily dye it for a specific project. For example, I had dyed three skeins of 40/2 linen with madder a while back, and had used two of them for my previous batch of bookmarks. Luckily, I keep copious records and I always “show my work,” since I was raised in that 1980s math-generation. So, I knew that I had used 2.16 ounces for the warp last time (with a little left over) and 1.56 ounces for the weft (with almost a full bobbin left over). With 3.72 ounces I wound a ten yard warp and wove 23 bookmarks, plus some weft to spare.

My third skein was 1.7 ounces, a very pale but pretty shade of bluish-pink (the others were more on the red/orange/salmon side of pink). That’s about half as much as I used in my last project, and the question was, how many bookmarks could that make? There are a few ways to find out. Here’s my way.

Yarn is usually sold with a certain amount of helpful information provided, e.g., its size and ply. Sometimes the vendor will also give you a measurement called “yards per pound” which tells you just what it sounds like: how many yards of that yarn it takes to weigh a pound (or an ounce, if you divide by 16). If you don’t know the yards per pound, you can figure it out (or get a good approximation) using a nifty tool called a McMorran yarn balance. You could use the yards per pound for the yarn, and the weight of your skein, to figure out how many yards your skein is.

However, when dealing with limited quantities of naturally dyed yarns (or handspun, naturally dyed yarn, even more so), I have found that the best way to be certain of what I have is to measure. Ideally I would have a niddy noddy that measured skeins by the yard or some other useful increment, but mine doesn’t. So, I often count out the length on a warping board, and that’s what I did this time. OK, done! I had 630 yards of pale pink. Since I had roughly half as much yarn as I used in the last batch, I estimated that I could wind a 5 yard warp and get about 11 bookmarks out of it. But how to be certain? (Certainty is important to me, to a point). Math to the rescue.

To calculate the amount of yarn I’d need for the warp, I first multiplied the width in the reed by the ends per inch (which really just tells you the number of ends in my project, which I actually knew already). My project has 75 ends (a bit more than 2 inches in the reed sett at 36 ends per inch, or epi). Then, I multiplied that by the number of yards in my desired warp, which means I’d need 375 yards for a 5 yard warp. To calculate the number of yards I’d need for the weft, I multiplied the length of each bookmark (12 inches) by the number of bookmarks I thought I could make (11), which meant I would need to weave 132 inches of warp. That’s the length part of the bookmark (two inches of each bookmark is just fringe, which doesn’t use any weft, so I figure this covers the take-up and then some…see below). Now for the width, 75 ends, which means I need a total of 9900 inches (75×132) or 275 yards of weft (divide 9900 by 36). Add that to the warp requirements, and you get 650 yards total. Well, I was 20 yards short, but luckily I had a bobbinful from last time that was definitely more than 20 yards.

My way is sort of a middle way. I could have gone with my initial estimate, which was accurate enough. Or, I could do a lot more fastidious calculations involving additional factors, including draw-in (how much the project pulls in as you weave compared to its width in the reed), take-up (how much it shortens in length due to the fact that the threads are traveling over and under one another; even though the distance taken up by each little bump is minute, it adds up over the length of the warp), and shrinkage (how much it shrinks when you wash it). I have notes about all these things from the last batch of bookmarks (“I have detailed files…“), but I glossed these considerations because eventually you just have to get started on the weaving before it actually IS Mothers Day.

So, I wound a 5 yard warp, dressed the loom, and began weaving away. The first two bookmarks were happy enough (the second was a little squat from beating too hard). Then near the end of the third, I got one broken end, and then immediately another. Grrr. Broken ends are when one, or more, of the yarns in the warp break. Then you have to stop and fix them, and it slows everything down. These bookmarks take me about an hour and a half *each* as it is (including winding the warp, dressing the loom, weaving, washing, ironing, trimming, but not including the dyeing because that labor is infinite and cannot even be quantified). So, I fixed them and then decided I needed to be more strategic about preventing any more broken ends.

A note here. I had problems with broken ends last time, too, and didn’t ever solve the problem. I blamed my yarn, and thought perhaps it was not high-quality. But then I had the good fortune to confer with another weaver who weaves with the same yarn, and he said he has no trouble with it and thinks it’s very good quality. He also hand-dyes his own yarns, but with synthetic dyes, so they are not subjected to the same high-temperature, high-alkaline treatment that mine are. The fault, we decided, was in my comparatively harsh treatment of the fibers in the scouring process (too much soda ash and boiling water is maybe a bad thing). Something to keep in mind as I perfect my cellulose techniques. In sum:

1. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the yarn.

2. I only had myself to blame for its weakness.

3. I will certainly need to continue to use soda ash and may run into this problem again.

Thus, I’d better find a way to solve the problem.

Much of the information I have read about weaving with linen insists that you have to size the warp (or apply “paste”). I have never sized a warp. I admit my total ignorance, and even prejudice, on this matter. Partly, I just can’t believe it actually helps rather than make everything worse, though I don’t want to offend the hundreds of weavers who say it does help. But mostly I cannot imagine having a lot of sticky-when-wet-dusty-when-dry starch smearing all over my lovely loom and getting everything gross. NO!

So, instead I cast about in my memory for other ideas I had read about…. Linen fibers are stronger when damp. Weave in the basement? Don’t have one. Run a humidifier by the loom? Our apartment is built on a concrete slab by a stream in the floodplain of the Fort River, more generally located in the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States of America. I can’t imagine voluntarily adding extra moisture to the air. We have to run a dehumidifier in the summer to keep the mildew at bay. So, NO! Then I recalled someone saying that it used to be her job to spray the warp to keep it damp as her mother worked. So, I acquired a clean spray bottle (ours always get filled up with fish emulsion or borax or vinegar or somesuch thing, don’t ask me why).

spray bottle with waterI put some water in it, and I sprayed the warp just at and above the fell line (where the beater presses the new rows, or picks, of weft into place). Bad idea. Everything got wobbly, the fibers swelled up, nobody could stay in their correct place and threads were pushing and pulling all over the place. It was a sad sight to see among my orderly little linen threads. So I let it dry. Then I decided to spray up where the beater rests when it’s upright (the white cloth in the photo is to absorb excess water and wipe off droplets from the shuttle race and reed).

spraying near the reed when the beater is uprightThen I pulled the beater forward and sprayed in amongst the heddles.

spraying among the heddlesThis was the zone of weakness, where the breakages occurred, where there must have been a bad combination of abrasion and stress. In addition to keeping that region of the warp damp, I also kept the fell line closer to the breast beam and advanced the warp more often so I was always weaving with the widest possible shed. These techniques are good practice anyway, but when I’m feeling pressed for time I try to push it a little. You can’t really push linen.  I re-sprayed each time I advanced the warp. And ta da!  Success! I wove 5 more bookmarks with narry a broken end!

Last but not least, if you read my earlier post about hemstitching and Chuang Tzu, you may remember my trouble with fraying in the hemstitching process. I tried adding twist as I worked, using a magnifying glass, and other tricks. But the one that really seems to work is wetting the thread. Don’t get it too wet, or it swells up, and then the water absorbs into the woven cloth and it also swells up, and then even with a magnifying glass you can’t see where the holes are or get your needle through…. Enough water to make it damp. Once in a workshop at Long Ridge Farm, when she was describing how wet you want your cloth when you apply soybean-milk as a binder, Michele Wipplinger described it as feeling damp, but only just damp, not wet, and primarily cold. You feel for the temperature. It’s a bit like that with the hemstitching thread (which is a piece of extra weft yarn reserved for the purpose of securing the edges of my bookmarks. Six times the width of the bookmark is optimal. Five times is enough, but it cuts it a little close and is stressful.) You want it cool, damp, but not dripping wet. And bingo.

You can go buy my new batch of bookmarks at the Shelburne Arts Co-op in Shelburne Falls or at Saw Mill River Arts in Montague.