Electra Progress Report Part One

I had meant to post updates about my flax crop this summer in “real time”. However, “retro time” will have to do.

Here are a few things that I observed and learned as the 2017 flax was growing and maturing.

First, the flax chewers who devastated my crop in 2016, and half of my crop in 2015, were back at it again this year. However, when you have 1500 square feet of the same variety (Electra from Biolin), rather than tiny test plots of 12 square feet or less, the effect of the damage isn’t as troubling. I found dozens of chewed up flax stalks, but it was a negligible percentage of the whole crop. I am sticking to my hypothesis that the culprits are rodents of some kind. Here’s some scat that may or may not belong to them:

Second, the chewers are not solely interested in flax. It might not even be their favorite or preferred plant to chew. The fact that flax is *my* preferred plant in that location means that it bothers me when they chew it. I don’t care about the other plants, so I’m less inclined to notice their demise. Predation of “weeds” is a boon, from a flax-grower’s point of view. But it’s possible that from the chewers’ point of view, it’s the flax that’s a nuisance.

The two most significant weeds in my plot were lambsquarters and campion. Since apparently most people spell that “lamb’s quarters” I guess I should adopt the convention. I found chewed stalks of both. Here are a few lamb’s quarters plants that had been chewed as they were going to seed.  On the left you see the entire stalks, and on the right a close up of the stalk where it was chewed. The diagonal angle is similar to the way the flax is chewed:

Campion plants were also chewed as they went to seed:

For comparison, here are some chewed flax stalks:

The pillowcase is there for contrast and scale. Yes, the lamb’s quarters were as tall as (and in many cases taller than) the flax.

Third, I can understand why campion is so hard to weed out. It had all gone to seed by the time I was harvesting the flax. Every time I pulled up a campion plant, I had an image of a million baby seedlings sprouting from my hand as I flung the plant aside. Basically I was sowing next year’s campion crop. This is the number of seeds from one pod. Every plant makes lots of pods….

Fourth, not everyone knows what lamb’s quarters are. I was describing to someone how difficult it was to pull up my flax this year, and made reference to how many “lamb’s quarters” there were in the plot. They asked enthusiastically, “How much is that?” It had never occurred to me to think of the name as a unit of measurement, but now I love the idea! It does sound like a old fashioned measurement term.

The plant to which I am referring is a Chenopodium album. I went looking for the etymology of the name lamb’s quarters, but I’m not sure if I got to the heart of it. One source refer to Lammas, a harvest celebration on August 1 to bless the first loaves of bread. Personally, I am not sure how Chenopodium album fits into the picture. The seeds from C. album are edible and nutritious, so maybe they were an ingredient in a harvest-time loaf. I have never eaten the seeds, but I have eaten my fair share of lamb’s quarters. They are a delectable green vegetable, even more nutritious than the seeds.  But once the plant has gone to seed, the greens are well past their prime. In fact, they shrink up and often turn pink and fall off. Here’s another interesting article about lamb’s quarters. I may have to follow up on this question with better information.

Anyway, it isn’t a unit of measurement, it is a plant. A very useful and nutritious edible plant. It just so happens that it can grow as tall as me, and twice as tall as a flax stalk, and digging it up is very difficult.

Here’s what it looked like relative to the flax:

And here is a lone flax stalk surrounded by campion and lamb’s quarters:

Lastly, there is a lot more going on with regard to the relationship of insects to flax than I have any idea about. What are these creatures doing?

They were on the bolls as they were ripening. My guess is that they’re either eating them or laying eggs inside them. At the time I didn’t investigate further, but it might be important knowledge to possess.


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.