Farm School Dye Day

One of the fun things I got to do last week was to visit the Farm School in Athol, MA, and to lead a natural dyeing workshop for the participants in their adult farming program. The Farm School combines two of my favorite things: agriculture and education. I had never visited their farm before, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be there and to get a better understanding of their different programs. I was greeted by this cheery sign when I first arrived:

Well, actually, when I first pulled up I was greeted by large, white goats browsing the brambles along the side of the road. The goats were accompanied by some friendly humans with welcoming smiles, so I knew I was in the right place. But at that point I was keeping both hands on the wheel and was driving very cautiously. I did not try to snap photos, since goats can be unpredictable! In reality I took this photo on my way out, once the coast was clear.

After a helpful orientation, I was invited to a delicious lunch of spicy daal with the adult student farmers with whom I would be working that afternoon. The food was very yummy and much appreciated! And in case it wasn’t spicy enough, there was a bottle of Sriracha to squirt on top. That’s my kind of meal.

After lunch, we jumped right into the dyeing process. There were roughly 15 students, and the goal was to run a hands-on workshop in which everyone could directly participate. We ran five different dyebaths or vats, in order to offer a range of colors and techniques. We used dried weld to make a bright yellow, dried marigolds to make a golden yellow, an umbilicate lichen vat for a purplish-magenta shade, chopped madder roots for a brick-red, and natural indigo powder for blue.

Students divided into teams of three to make and monitor each dyebath.  We used the Farm School’s own wool for this workshop from their flock of primarily Border Leicester sheep, which were sheared earlier this season. The fleeces were spun into skeins at Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, VT, and were mordanted with aluminum sulfate by Stephanie Cook, who organized this whole lovely experience.

Here is a photo of some of the students testing the pH of a dyebath using pH test strips:

Students also mixed and tested a solution of soda ash that we used as a pH modifier. The pH of a dyebath (how acidic or alkaline the bath is) can make a big difference in the colors that are obtained. Weld and madder also benefit from the addition of calcium carbonate (chalk) to enrich the color, so we used it for both of those baths.

Indigo vats are particularly tricky. For making blue, I usually use fresh plant material during the summer and fall months. For many years I have used woad, and more recently, have used Japanese indigo a couple times. I am very confident with those methods, but I was a little anxious about the indigo vat. While I have certainly run indigo vats before, they can be fussy and we were on a limited time table. Luckily, it worked out fine.

The team that set up the indigo vat wore gloves to handle some of the ingredients. In the interest of time, we used a quickie chemical vat rather than a natural fermentation vat. We used lye and thiourea dioxide to make the stock solution. The indigo powder and Thiox were from Long Ridge Farm in Westmoreland, NH.

Here’s the indigo station. The deep blue skein in the tub on the right is what we dyed that afternoon:

Here is a happy dyer contemplating the prospect of brightly colored yarn:

Here is a shot of students watching the stove:

Each team was responsible for monitoring the temperature of their dyebath and timing how long the dyeplant or the yarn was in the pot. This photo reminds me of the proverb, “A watched pot never boils.” I actually think that this adage is meant to remind dyers that you have to watch your dyebaths to make sure they don’t get too hot. When you are dealing with natural dye materials that are temperature sensitive, such as madder and umbilicate lichen, it is important to make sure that your pot never boils.

Here is a shot of the stove in the kitchen where we were working. I have never run a workshop where we had access to an industrial gas stove, and it was quite a thrill! Six burners could run simultaneously:

I am a proponent of a long soak (overnight or more) and a delayed rinse (allowing the fiber to dry before rinsing) when using plant-based dyes. So, with the exception of the indigo-dyed skein, we transferred all the skeins and dyebaths to five gallon buckets at the end of the workshop so they could absorb more color before rinsing. The colors looked rich and promising by the end of the afternoon, and I hope the skeins turned out well. I certainly enjoyed my time there, and was grateful for the opportunity to meet this energetic and creative group of farmers!

Spinning Flax

Last week was April vacation, which meant I had more free time than usual to do fun things. Last Tuesday I was thrilled to spend about four hours with Lisa Bertoldi getting some instruction in spinning flax. You might think, with all the flaxy things I do, that I would already be good at spinning flax. Not yet. It has been a goal for me for many years, but recently it has made it to the top of my “urgent” list. Urgency plus vacation days equals actually devoting time to it! Thanks to Lisa, I am quite a bit better at spinning flax now.

Here is the strick of flax spread out on the table. I am getting the fiber ready to dress the distaff. You can see the distaff on the left:

A strick is a neat arrangement of long flax fibers known as “line”. The preparation usually comes in a neat twist, which looks like this:

When you first buy them, they are usually very neat and tidy, This one has come with me on a few flax processing demonstrations and educational programs. As a result, it has been handled quite a bit, and is not as tightly twisted as it once was.

This is not my own home-grown flax. This is some lovely dew-retted flax, which is why it has that soft greyish-silver color. I always water-ret my flax, which results in a light creamy-beige color. Sometimes it comes out quite bright, almost white. Here’s a photo of some of my own flax from 2012 and 2013:

Eventually I will spin up my own home-grown and hand-processed flax and weave it into something wearable. Meanwhile, I am using commercially bought flax to practice the techniques and hone my skills.

Here is the distaff with the flax distributed around it and tied in place. It is not expertly done, but I still think it looks very pretty:

I have always felt it was kind of odd that when you are processing the fiber, you put so much work into straightening up all the long fibers and getting them all nicely aligned. However, when you get ready to spin, you wrap the fibers around a distaff in a criss-crossing, jumbled sort of way. Conversations with flax spinners over the past several months have convinced me that it is, in fact, sensible. The reason to spread all the fibers around a distaff is that when you draw them down, you can more easily control exactly which fibers come into the drafting zone, and which fibers catch the twist and get drawn in as you spin.

Here are two views of me spinning:

You can see that with this style of distaff, we supported it by pushing it down into a belt around our waists. In the photo on the left, I am trying to figure out how to allow fewer fibers into my yarn. In the photo on the right, I have figured it out (somewhat!), and am trying to practice a rolling motion with my lower hand that allows moisture to reach across all the fibers and keeps the fibers continually grabbing onto each other. I would describe the sensation as attracting nearby fibers with a sort of twisty electricity, by briefly separating the fibers to increase the surface area of each strand of fiber so they can all wrap around one another securely with maximum contact.

The water bowl in the foreground is for wetting our fingers periodically. I was wetting my lower hand to moisten the fibers, and keeping the upper hand dry. Wet spinning allows for a smoother yarn. The towel on my lap is to catch drips.

While I managed to produce a consistent yarn after a couple hours, I also got a stiff neck using this set up. Lisa suggested tipping the distaff forward so it would be in front of me, but this felt awkward and insecure at the time. However, I think that having the fibers in the same line of sight as the orifice of the wheel would be much more comfortable and ergonomic.


Fiber Fiber Everywhere

When I’m describing the steps involved in extracting fiber from a fiber-plant such as flax, people often ask, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” I have thought about this question a lot. I have many ideas about it. Some can be backed up with references and citations, and some are just hunches based on my personal experience.

I believe that we humans come from a long line of brilliant thinkers and observers, experimenters and creators. The human use of flax fibers in Europe dates to at least 34,000 years ago. Humans and our human-like relatives and ancestors have been really smart and really creative for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, primates in general are really smart, so I am happily willing to accept any kind of habitat-modifying, tool-using, culture-teaching behaviors dating back 2 or 3 million years, at least. Which is all very deep. It is admittedly hard to have a clear mental picture of what life might have felt like for a hominid so long ago.

But lately I’ve been thinking that the answer to the question, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” isn’t mysterious or inaccessible at all. With regard to fiber, at least, I actually think the answer is really straightforward:

People look around and notice things.

There is fiber lying around all over the place. I catch glimpses of it whenever I go for a walk… laying on the ground, tangled in a bush, climbing up a tree, hanging out in someone’s yard, or on the side of the road. Seriously, I can hardly walk anywhere without running into a tempting fiber source. Within walking distance of my home in western Massachusetts, there is literally fiber everywhere.

Here is a springtime tour of my plant-fiber observations. The first one is a photo I took along the dyke in Hadley the other day. This is an old milkweed stalk that weathered away through the winter. The fiber is too weak for cordage at this point, but it certainly catches the eye with its glistening sheen:

Here are a few photos of fibers in a vine that I am pretty sure is bittersweet, also along the dyke.  The touch of blue in the right hand photo is the Connecticut River. Bittersweet may be hated and vilified for its vigorous growth habits, but it sure looks promising for fiber:

Here is a close-up:

Here is another example of milkweed just lying there, right in the path, over at Amethyst Brook conservation area in Amherst. I took these photos yesterday:

These are from a walk today. This is yucca on the side of Route 9 in Amherst:

And this is more milkweed at Wentworth Farm in Amherst:

Testing Japanese Indigo Seed

In 2014 I was very excited to acquire my first Japanese indigo seedlings at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I bought them from Blue By Ewe in Temple, New Hampshire. That year I saved the whole crop for seed. You can read about my harvest in an earlier blog post here. I intended to expand the amount I grew each year and save my own seed annually.

I did manage to grow my own seedlings in 2015, which I documented in a couple posts that you can link to here and here. I even managed to use the plants for dyeing that year. However, I was not on the ball to save seed in an organized way that fall, and I did not grow any Japanese indigo in 2016.

This week I am on vacation from school, and the weather yesterday was fantastically warm and sunny. So, I decided the day had come to clean up some seed and try to get some started. I have read that Japanese indigo seeds do not stay viable for very long, so I am not sure that any will grow.

At some point in the past I had separated some seeds and dried flower stalks in an 8-oz canning jar, so I started with this pile of colorful debris:

I originally thought that the pink dried flowers were just dried flowers. I assumed I would be able to winnow this pile like I have done with flax seeds. My method for that is to blow around the edge of a wide pan (really, the lid of a big pot) and let the lighter chaff blow away.

This method did not work. Everything blew away. Plus, I couldn’t see many seeds at all. What was going on?

I decided to separate the debris using a screen. I haven’t invested in actual seed-cleaning screens, but we picked up some small window screens last summer, and I used those. It worked really well to separate the smallest particles, which included a lot of dried soil:

On top of the screen were the larger particles, including the seeds and flowers, etc.:

As I rubbed the debris against the screen, I realized that the seeds were inside a dry papery cover. Even the little pink things that I had assumed were just dried flowers actually had seeds inside.

In the photo below, the shinier seeds are the ones from which the covering has been rubbed off. The duller ones with a slighter rougher texture still have the covering on:

To be honest, I am not sure if rubbing off the covering is helpful or harmful. Maybe too much rough handling will damage the seed coat, and/or maybe they would have germinated just fine with the outer layer still attached. We will see!

On the left hand side, below, is a close up of a damp paper towel with seeds sprinkled on, so I can see how many will germinate (if any) before I plant them. On the right are both of the paper towels I set up:

Here is the germination experiment bagged up (to retain moisture) and labeled:

Now that I had a pretty good method figured out for cleaning up the seed, I decided to separate all the flowering seed stalks from the dried leaves. I have never read anywhere, nor heard from anyone, that dried leaves are useful for dyeing. Alas. I kind of want to try them anyway because the color is incredible. So, I put the leaves into a separate bag, and wound up with a large paper grocery bag of leaves and stalks, and a smaller one with flower stalks. At the bottom of the original bag was a jumble of broken-off leaves, flowers, and seeds. For the final sifting job, I used a regular colander to separate the larger leaves from the rest: