Low Humidity is Good for Dressing Flax

We are being visited by some gloriously cool, dry weather here in Amherst. The humidity has been relatively low for the past several days, so I’ve taken the opportunity to chip away at processing (otherwise known as “dressing”) my enormous back-log of flax.

I’ve been growing flax since 2004, and I’ve grown some every summer since then (except for one year). I have yet to spin any of my own fiber, mind you, let alone weave it. Very slow cloth. After all this time, the part of the process I still find the most difficult is retting.

Retting is the controlled rotting process that separates the useful bast fibers from the other layers of the flax stalk. The bast fibers run the length of the stalk. Retting separates these from the tough, waxy skin on the outside and from the woody core of the stalk at the center. Traditionally, the two ways to ret flax are water retting and dew retting. I water ret in stock watering tanks. It is a stinky process. Bacteria grow in the tank over the course of several days, and these bacteria basically eat up the pectins that hold together the layers of the stalk. The trick is to let the bacteria work just long enough but not too long. When the pectins are sufficiently broken down, the layers should separate fairly easily. If you let it go for too long, the long bast fibers themselves will break apart. If you don’t let it go long enough, the waxy skin or cuticle is really hard to remove.

Despite my efforts of the years to improve my skills at judging when retting is complete, have repeatedly under-retted my flax. I didn’t realize my first several batches were under-retted until I went to brake/break them. “Braking” or “breaking” is what it’s called when you smash up the woody pieces of the dried, retted flax, or flax “straw.” The stalks just bent but nothing shattered, and the fibers stuck together in ribbons. Too late, I’d already broken several bundles. You have to ret flax straw while it’s still intact.

Even in recent years, I have still managed to under-ret most batches, so I’ve now had the same experience quite a few times…. I think a batch is well-retted, but when I go to break it, it isn’t. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to tell when the flax is truly well-retted.

Meanwhile I have a lot of bundles of broken flax that are under-retted. What I’ve read states that under-retting makes it harder to separate the layers. So, I figured maybe it would be hard, but not impossible. I didn’t want to waste all that under-retted flax, and I was willing to work harder to get to the next step. Having spent about six days now dressing under-retted (and some nicely-retted) flax, I can now report the following:

1. It is true that you should break and scutch flax (scutching is scraping off the woody pieces or shives that remain after breaking) when the weather is dry. I can attest to this from personal experience. On a humid day in July, I broke several bundles from different retting tanks, but the shives and skin stuck on like glue. I despaired that my *whole* crop from 2012 was under-retted.

I was struck with a terrible sense of futility and doom, which remained with me for weeks. It was a bad feeling to realize that despite all my efforts all these years, I am perhaps no better at this whole flax thing than I was when I started. It was also a bad feeling to face the prospect of re-retting all that flax. Retting is a lot of work, and I wasn’t confident that I’d judge when the flax was properly retted any better this time around. Meanwhile, I had already broken those bundles. But then…

Last Thursday afternoon the relative humidity was about 40%. I decided to face my dread, and I tackled some of these broken bundles. To my surprise and delight, the shives which had clung so tightly to the fibers in July were popping off in my hands on Thursday, “Snap, crackle, pop!” So, I cleaned off a few bundles with my “hardware store tools” method, learned from Chris Hammel. Lesson learned: Don’t bother breaking or scutching when it’s humid.

2. Even though it is possible to clean up under-retted bundles, it is very hard to get the skin or cuticle off. Very, very hard. Ouch, say my hands. It takes a lot of scraping and manipulation, and a lot of what appears to be good, long fiber gets broken in the process. Then, even when the fiber looks fairly clean, the strands are stuck together with some remaining pectins and they don’t entirely separate. Consequently, they feel coarse and stiff, not silky and luscious. It’s possible that the fibers themselves are coarse. I may have let them grow too long, or there could have been too much nitrogen, or I could have planted too sparsely. A number of other factors could contribute to coarse fiber. In the stalk, the fibers are clustered together, and these clusters are also held together by pectins. I strongly suspect that, in most of my flax, the fibers are still attached to their neighbors.

These things are very useful to know. I had already read these facts. I had even been told these facts in person by knowledgable people. But I can now definitively say, from personal experience, that under-retting will reduce the quality of your fiber!




First Woad Vat of 2014

Due to one thing and another, I am not growing a lot of woad this year. I’m a little bit sad about it, but there it is. Nonetheless, I ran my first woad vat of the summer on Friday August 8th and had some interesting results. In the morning I picked 3 and a half pounds of leaves, which I did not expect to make a very strong vat.

Some blue color appeared in the stems as I ripped up the leaves, which was a good sign.

blue woad stems

At first I planned to dye only cellulose skeins, specifically linen, cotton, bamboo, and tencel (which is made of cellulose from wood, like rayon). I’ve never tried dyeing bamboo or tencel before, so that was novel. Here are the skeins before dyeing. They’ve been scoured with soda ash and anionic scour, but not mordanted. Very white and shiny.

tencel and bamboo skeins

Two of the skeins were 40/2 linen previously dyed with weld back in April. They had been mordanted originally with aluminum acetate, but I did not re-mordant for this woad vat. In theory woad does not require a mordant. One skein was a very rich yellow, and the other a little lighter. I was hoping for a decent green, at last, after my repeated failures with making green on cellulose yarns.

weld dyed 40/2 linen yarns

Speaking of which, two of the skeins I planned to over-dye were “not-green” failures from that same series of weld dye baths in April. You can see my earlier post about it here.

not-green cotton yarns

Two skeins were cotton skeins that I’d previous dyed with woad. I was hoping to get a darker shade of blue.

woad on cotton

I figured that would probably be all I could dye with this batch of leaves. So I set them to soak in a tub of water, and commenced with the vat.

Since I’ve posted about my ammonia/hydrosulfite vat process before, I didn’t document all the steps this time. One thing I will mention is that I did short dips, just a couple minutes, and “worked” the fiber in the vat. Instead of just dropping the skeins in and walking away for 5, 10 or 20 minutes, I just dyed one skein at a time. I squatted next to the bucket and manipulated each skein under the surface of the liquid in the vat (wearing heat-resistant gloves). I did this for two reasons. First, I was attempting to keep the strands of yarn spread apart, to allow the liquid to penetrate evenly and to prevent blotchy spots. Second, because I was over-dyeing most of these skeins, I didn’t want the hydrosulfite to have a chance to strip off any of the existing color. A problem with using hydrosulfite or thiox in a woad vat is that both of these chemicals act as a color remover. In fact, the quickie form of hydrosulfite that I use is RIT Color Remover.

Here is the darker weld skein. Green at last! Grass green, in fact. Despite my manipulation, there are some patches where the yellow shows through, but it looks very lovely anyway.

woad on weld-dyed linen

Here’s the lighter weld-dyed skein. It is also very green! Whee!

woad on weld exhaustHere they are against a white background, to give better contrast than the grass. The exhaust (lighter) weld is on the left, the darker weld-yellow on the right.

two greens with woad and weld

Next I dipped the not-green skeins, and then the light blue cotton skeins. After that, I dipped the bamboo and tencel skeins. Here they all are oxidizing on the grass.

oxidizing cellulose yarns

At this point I realized there was still a lot of color left in the vat, so I hurriedly grabbed some wool skeins to over-dye. I over-dyed some light blue wool skeins, and then dipped a skein dyed with marigolds during my summer camp in July.

You may recall my discovery at Mass. Sheep and Wool this spring that an acidic marigold dyebath yielded olive-green. I tried to replicate that in my camp, but we just got a mustard-yellow, not olive green. Well, here is a marigold-dyed yellow skein after a quick dip in the woad vat:

marigold not green

It isn’t at all green. I let it oxidize for a while and pondered what might be going on. I decided I’d better see if the vat was exhausted after all, and put in some white roving from Balkey Farm in Northfield, MA. Well, there’s not a ton of color left, but it’s still going.

vat is not exhausted

So I re-dipped the marigold skein. Then I let it oxidize some more. Then I rinsed it to remove any un-bonded woad. The rinse water is on the left.

marigold rinse

The entire lack of green reminded me of a similar phenomenon during an indigo workshop I took at Vermont Sheep and Wool a couple years ago. I wrote about it in this post in 2012. Two participants had brought yarn dyed with dahlias, which I have never used. They were a nice, slightly orange shade of yellow. Neither of their skeins turned green when we dipped them in the indigo vat. Instead, they turned a very similar rusty brown to my marigold skein above. I still can’t explain why this happened. I’m speculating that it has something to do with pH, but that doesn’t really explain much. More research to be done on this.

Here are the wool skeins and roving oxidizing:

oxidizing wool fiber

After the nice light blue on the roving, I decided to sop up the remains of the color with the last of an ancient stash of Corriedale fleece. I have such a backlog of dyed fleece that hasn’t been carded or spun that I’ve pretty much stopped dyeing fleece. But it was already scoured, and I hate to waste color…. Plus, I have actually been chipping away at carding that huge back-log during the spinning and knitting nights at Sheep and Shawl in South Deerfield (Liz Sorenson’s inspiring local fiber enterprise).

Here I am desperately exhausting the vat in the dark, about 10 hours after I first started in the morning.

dyeing in the dark



Marigolds at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair

I discovered something interesting about marigolds at Mass. Sheep and Wool. In a nutshell, an acidic dyebath yielded olive green whereas an alkaline dyebath yielded yellow.

Here’s how I found out. I made the marigold dyebath during the demonstration on Saturday May 24th. Here’s a photo of the marigolds in the dyebath:

marigolds in dyebath

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Sunday at Sheep and Wool

Well, today turned out to be a gorgeous day with just a couple showers. No thunderstorms or hail, thank goodness! In this post I’m just going to follow up on the St-John’s-wort dyebath, and show some photos of my set-up in the pavilion at the Cummington Fairgrounds.

First, here are some of the samples I brought to show. In the basket on the left are yarns that are dyed with plants you have to grow or purchase, and which don’t grow wild around here. These include madder, orange cosmos, weld, purple basil, Lady’s bedstraw, and marigolds. In the basket on the right are yarns that are dyed with a woad vat to make blue or green (woad-blue on top of yarns previously dyed yellow). The pinkish colors are from exhausted woad leaves, second year leaves, and my sole attempt at a urine vat.

cultivated color

Below is a basket full of colors that can be obtained from wild plants and umbilicate lichen. Wild plants represented here include yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, tansy, wild mustard, yellow sorrel, sheep’s sorrel, black walnut, St-John’s-wort flowers, poke berries, purple loosestrife, and northern bedstraw. All the pinks are from umbilicate lichen vats.

wild colors


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Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair 2014

This weekend, May 24th and 25th, is the 40th annual Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair at the Cummington Fairgrounds. I am doing natural dyeing demonstrations again this year. I was there from 2-4 yesterday and will be there from 1-3 today. Yesterday’s weather was lovely for most of the day and I had a large crowd. Thanks to everyone who stopped by to watch and listen and ask questions! We had a brief heavy afternoon rainstorm but it cleared up after about half an hour. Today is supposed to be warmer with a slight chance of heavy rain and hail. Well, let’s hope for the best.

To prepare for the demo, on Friday night I made a dyebath with 12 ounces of dried whole tops of St.-John’s-wort from last fall. I cut the tops back after the flowers had gone by, and the dried stems and leaves had turned an amazing red color. I’ve used St.-John’s-wort flowers before, and the whole tops in bloom, but never just the dried tops alone. So, it is an experiment.

Here’s what St.-John’s-wort looks like in bloom.

St.-John's-wort in bloom

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Black Walnut Ink

Over the past few weeks in my class at school, we have been making black walnut ink. It is one of the craft and science projects we’re doing as part of our study of Colonial New England. We plan to use the ink to write with quill pens in pamphlet-stitch-bound “copy books” to scribe historical aphorisms such as “Mind your book,” “Strive to learn,” “Call no ill names,” and “Cheat not in your play”. Yes, OK, these are pretty moralistic, but speaking as a primary school teacher, I actually think they are still pertinent to a 21st century classroom in a progressive independent school.

To make the ink we are using the highly composted/aged/fermented contents of a 5 gallon bucket of black walnut hulls in water, which dates back not just one but TWO Autumns ago (i.e., Autumn 2012). Fresh walnut hulls are fragrant, even perfume-like. Mine, as it turned out, had become manure-like. Continue reading

Microscopic Fiber Images

Gardening season is kicking into gear here in Amherst, MA. This year I am planning to add swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and amsonia (Amsonia spp.) to my fiber and dyeplant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. I got the swamp milkweed seeds from my sister, Simone, from a plant near her apartment. You can see a photo of some cordage I made from it in an earlier blog post here.

I was inspired to grow amsonia after botanist and fellow-flax-enthusiast, Carolyn, brought some gorgeous bast fibers from her amsonia plants to one of our flax and linen study group get-togethers. On my initial foray to Andrew’s Greenhouse yesterday I found three varieties of amsonia available, but wasn’t sure which one might be best, so I shot off an email to Carolyn. She sent back some good advice, plus this incredibly awesome link which I must now urgently share with anyone else who might be reading my blog! Continue reading

Exhausting the Orange Cosmos

These last two posts are very belated, so a reader may have totally forgotten that the weld and cosmos baths I’m talking about were left over from my workshop at the annual spring conference of Mass.Ag. in the Classroom back on March 8th.

Compared to the questions raised by the weld exhaust process, the exhaustion of the orange cosmos bath was relatively straightforward. I only dyed woolen yarns, mordanted with aluminum sulfate. Below you can see the first exhaust skein in the dyebath:

skein in cosmos exhaust dyebath

Here are the colors of yarns once they were rinsed and dried! Continue reading

Exhausting the Weld Bath Part Two

After those intense, vivid colors on 40/2 linen yarns from the first and second weld exhaust baths, I assumed there was still quite a bit of color left in the bath. I thought it would be fun to try a couple experiments. My first experiment was to put a mordanted cotton-linen blend skein in the weld bath overnight, but not to heat it at all.

Why would I even try this? Well, the answer is kind of a long story. Even though my usual method is to apply heat when extracting color and dyeing fiber, I am very aware of the fact that this requires energy. Way back in 2006 I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Kyrgyzstan along with feltmaker Karen Page, to work with a group of women in a village who wanted to develop a crafts business. My part of the project was to teach them what I knew about natural dyeing, and Karen’s job was to teach them new felting techniques. Continue reading

Exhausting the Weld Bath–Part One

After my dyeing workshop at Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom I had two strong dyebaths left over. One was weld and the other orange cosmos.

The original weld bath was made with 6oz. dried plant material from second year plants in bloom. I had originally divided the bath in half because I wanted to add calcium carbonate to the bath in which I dyed the cellulose cloth swatches, but not to the bath in which I dyed the protein swatch books. I’m not sure that the calcium carbonate would do anything bad to the wool or silk, but I consulted my notes from a workshop with Joan Morris and according to my notes we hadn’t added it to the protein dyebath. I decided not to experiment this time around. Continue reading