That Time of Year

Wood thrushes are back! I heard one this morning in the wee hours before it was light. I thought maybe I was dreaming and just wishing it was true. But, I heard one again this evening on my way home from watering flax at Amethyst Brook, fully awake. To me, the song of the wood thrush is a sound of beauty, a perfect point between grounded earthiness and soaring transcendence. It is officially spring in my person calendar.

Japanese Indigo Take Two

After realizing my mistake with the first attempt at growing Japanese Indigo seedlings, I tried again. On April 25th, I laid out some seeds to sprout in damp paper towels. I’ve used this technique with beans before, but I didn’t think to try it with the Japanese indigo seeds until I heard from Laura Harris, a fellow Seed Savers Exchange member to whom I sent some of my seeds earlier in the spring, that she had done it. And ta da! Success!

Here are a couple photos of the seeds once they germinated.

May 1 Japanese indigo seeds sproutingMay 1 Japanese indigo seed germinationHere are several sprouted seeds placed gently into potting soil (store-bought, free of tomatillo seeds!). After I put them into the pots I covered them with a little more soil:

May 1 Japanese indigo transplantsAnd here they are popping up on May 3rd:

Japanese indigo seedlings May 3The newly planted seeds are in the 6-packs on the left, with the darker soil and no vermiculite.

Meanwhile, I started pulling up all the obvious tomatillo seedlings from the 6-packs on the right, and noticed that some of the newer, shorter seedlings looked a little different. The leaves were more round, and the stems a little more pink. In the cell on the lower right you can see one that I’m pretty sure is not a tomatillo. In contrast, in the cell right above it there are some taller tomatillos, and a very short tomatillo. The leaves are pointy. But in the middle of that cell you can see a couple seedlings with rounder leaves:

possible Japanese indigo seedlings May 1Could these be my original batch of Japanese indigo seeds finally beginning to sprout? Let’s hope so!

Flax Springs Eternal

Last week, April 20-24, was April vacation week for those of us who are K-12 teachers or students here in Western Massachusetts. I am in the former category. My flax aspirations for the week were astronomically high. I am happy to say that I came very close to meeting my aspirations, and it was utterly thrilling. I did research and learned a lot of new things (which I will write about later). I dug in the soil with a pitchfork, used a rake, a shovel, and a hoe. I planted and watered seeds. These are many of my favorite things, so it was pretty much a perfect week.

Flax is best planted as early as the soil can be worked in the spring, which is typically mid-April around here. Ideally I aim to plant flax during April vacation. Well, technically I might be able to plant earlier, but during April vacation I have time to dig beds, pull out grass roots, purchase and haul soil amendments, etc., so the timing is good.

On Saturday April 25th I actually managed to plant some flax! Consulting my records, calculating and measuring the square feet, digging, healing from blisters and stiff muscles, finding the bamboo stakes from last year, pressing up some little walls of soil to keep in the moisture … all those steps take a while. By the time I got around to actually getting the seeds into the ground on Saturday, the hour was growing late and the shadows were lengthening.

Here are my beds. Last year this area was used for woad, onions, and tomatoes. Crop rotation, such as it is.

flax beds for MarilynThis year, I planted this particular patch with the variety called Marilyn, acquired from Johannes and Christian Zinzendorf at the Hermitage in Pennsylvania (thanks to fellow flax and linen study group member, Lisa!). Marilyn is one of the few varieties of fiber flax that is available in any quantity to the small-scale grower in North America. It is imported from Holland. It is tall and lovely.

In the past I have had trouble with lodging when growing Marilyn. Lodging is when the plants flop over and get all bendy, and can never be induced to stand up straight again. To counter this problem this year, I planted fewer seeds per square foot than the Zinzendorfs recommend. Typically they suggest planting at a rate of 1 pound of seed per 100 square feet. My two plots are 12 feet by 4 feet, so 48 square feet each. I used 6 ounces of seed per plot (approximately 12.5 oz. per 100 square feet). Here are my pre-measured seeds:

6 ounces of seeds per containerThe reason to cram in the seeds so densely is to force them to grow tall and slender, and to prevent branching. A lower planting density means thicker stalks and coarser fiber, but the stalks ought to be a bit stronger and less prone to flop over. When the stalks fall over they are not that useful. So it is a trade-off between fineness and floppiness. Also, I chose not to add any compost this year. Too much nitrogen contributes to lodging. Too little nutrition and the plants may be stunted. We’ll see how it goes.

pressed and stompedAfter scattering the seed, I tried a teensy experiment. In the left hand bed, shown above, I pressed the seed down (after covering it with soil) by stepping on boards, then packed the soil down more firmly by stepping directly on it with my feet. In the right hand bed (shown below) I sowed, covered with soil, and then just stomped with my feet. The right hand bed is slightly more lumpy. I am curious to see if there is any effect at all on the flax.

stomping onlyAfter watering, I covered the beds with row cover to keep off people and, hopefully, dogs. Our garden plot is at the community gardens at Amethyst Brook conservation area, so there are lots of passers-by going on walks and enjoying the scenery. Also, we are still having frosts round here. Flax is frost hardy, but I like to give it a little protection.

left hand bed coveredright hand bed coveredBeds were sown, watered, and tucked in under blankets. Satisfaction! Then, I glanced up from my labors and saw this magnificent sight:

glorious treesNow that it is truly spring, the trees are beginning to bloom around here. There are small red flowers on the maples, and the sky was dramatic to boot. I thought, “Wow, it must be really late but the sun hasn’t set yet. I wonder how close it is to the horizon?” I turned around to check, and this was the spectacular sight I beheld:

sunset while planting flaxWhat a fabulous way to leave the garden, under the protection of the setting sun. As I headed out to the road, the light still caught the tops of the trees while the trunks were in shadow:

setting sun on treesGoodnight flax seeds.

Japanese Indigo Take One

On Sunday April 19th I decided to start some of my Japanese indigo seeds. You may recall that I was able to save a substantial quantity last fall. I ought to have started them weeks ago, perhaps even months ago. However, earlier in the spring it was hard to believe that the snow would ever melt so I just couldn’t handle seed starting. This past weekend, it was gloriously warm and it was clear that spring had triumphed at last. So, I figured it was better late than never.

I borrowed a teeny cold frame from school, which has been sitting in the basement over there for years. It needed a little washing and reinforcing. I used our very own compost mixed with potting soil, planted seeds in little six-packs, watered them, and set them in the warm sun. The cold frame is on the wagon is so we can move it around to keep it in the sun, and bring it indoors easily at night.

April 19 Japanese indigoWell, to my surprise some seedlings popped up just a couple days later. The weather had stayed pretty warm for a few days, so I wasn’t suspicious at first.

April 22 seedlingsBut then I got suspicious. There were way more seedlings in some pots than the number of seeds I had planted. Ooops. I neglected to consider that our compost is rich with tomatillo seeds left over from our salsa-making endeavors. These are *not* the fastest-sprouting Japanese indigo seeds known to humankind. These are, without a doubt, regular old tomatillo seeds that got excited when it got warm.

April 24 seedlingsTo make sure, I looked up some photos of Japanese indigo seedlings at the two-leaf stage (when many seedlings look a lot alike). This blog, Folk Fibers, has lovely photos. There is a pink quality to the stems, even when tiny, that the tomatillos do not possess. Another blog, Wool, also has a good image of Japanese indigo seedlings when small. This fellow is so keen on dyeing with indigo that he was giving away seedlings this winter. At the two-leaf stage, in those little peat pots, there’s not much to distinguish the Japanese indigo seeds, but my tomatillo leaves are more narrow. You can see a few more photos here and here.

So, I will obviously need to replant with some seed-free starting medium. Sigh.

Purple Cloth

I wove some cloth! This shouldn’t be so remarkable, I suppose, but I’ve been really unproductive in the fiber art realm lately so it’s big news. Ultimately I plan to use this cloth to make a new batch of books with purple covers. I had hoped to have a few made in time for the upcoming “Purple Show” at the Shelburne Arts Co-op, but alas they will not be ready in time. I may get them finished before the end of the show…. The show hangs this Tuesday March 31st, and is up until Monday April 27.

Here are the weaverly details about this project: The warp is 20/2 cotton, from the discontinued UKI line. The color is called Malay Purple. There are 598 ends in the warp. The sett is 30 ends per inch. The width in the reed is 20 inches. My draw-in (how much the edges pulled in as I wove) was about 6% and the shrinkage in the width was about 4%. Shrinkage in length was about 6%. I washed it by hand in hot water and hung to dry.

The pattern is a miniature overshot motif called Maltese Cross. I’ve written about overshot in earlier posts, but I’ll quickly recap here. To weave overshot, you typically weave one pick of fine yarn (the same size as the warp) alternating with one pick of thicker yarn (approximately twice the diameter of the warp). The fine yarn makes a background that stabilizes the cloth creating a plain weave structure called tabby. In this piece of cloth, I used the same color of 20/2 cotton for the warp and the tabby. The thicker weft yarns float over several warp ends and form the pattern. I’ve woven most of my book cloth using overshot motifs. I really love them. To me they are simultaneously old-fashioned and psychedelic.

Here are some close-ups of the sections I’ve woven so far (there’s a lot more warp on the loom). In these images the cloth has been washed but not yet ironed. I wove the first section with 10/2 cotton for the pattern. I can’t tell you the name of the color because Webs (where I bought the yarn) doesn’t include this info on the label and I didn’t bother to make a note of it when I bought the yarn. Here’s the front of the cloth:

10/2 dark cotton frontAnd here’s the back:

10/2 dark cotton backThe second section also uses 10/2 cotton from Webs in the pattern, but in a lighter color that’s very close to the warp color. Here’s the front:

10/2 light cotton frontHere’s the back:

10/2 light cotton backIn the third section I tried a variegated 8/2 tencel for the pattern. I wasn’t happy with the way that the variegation interfered with the pattern, so I only wove a couple inches.


variegated tencel frontBack:

variegated tencel backFor the fourth section, I wanted greater value contrast between the pattern and tabby, but I didn’t have a darker 10/2 or 8/2 purple yarn. Instead, I wound a bobbin with two strands of 20/2 cotton together and used that for the weft. The color is Deep Purple. On the cone you can tell it’s a very dark shade of bluish purple. Against the light background it looks almost black. The weaving in this section went a little more slowly because I had to make sure the two strands of yarn passed through the shed evenly, which took a little futzing. But I really like the effect. I got the idea of doubling the warp yarn from Scott Norris of Elam’s Widow, who doubles his 40/2 linen for the pattern weft of his fabulous hand-dyed 100% linen towels.

Front of the cloth:

20/2 cotton frontBack of the cloth:

20/2 cotton backThe last section is 8/2 tencel. Here’s the front:

8/2 tencel frontAnd here’s the back:

8/2 tencel backThe color of the 8/2 tencel is almost identical to the darker 10/2 cotton, but I bought it anyway because tencel has a lustrous sheen that’s hard to resist and I wondered if it would make a difference in the cloth. The difference is subtle but noticeable, though I don’t think you can see it in the photos at all.

Lastly, it is interesting to see how the different pattern colors influence the color of the tabby background. I swear that the warp and tabby are the same in every sample!

To me, the background on the right looks pinker/redder than the one on the left. I think this is because the pattern color on the right has more red in it, and the pattern color on the left has more blue. The background of the sample on the left also looks darker in value because there is less contrast than in the sample on the left.

tencel next to 20/2 cottonIn the photo below, the background on the right looks slightly bluer than the one on the left. The background on the right also appears slightly darker in value because there is less contrast with the pattern yarn in the sample on the right.

reddish purple cotton next to bluish purple cottonI believe these difference are examples of a phenomenon called simultaneous contrast. It’s a complicated phenomenon with a lot of different aspects. Color theory has been on my mind again lately, since Sue McFarland presented a program on simultaneous contrast at last month’s guild meeting of the Pioneer Valley Weavers. Here are a couple links (1) (2) to read up abut it if you like.

In my next pieces of cloth I am planning to use some greens and yellows for the pattern yarns, and see what happens to the purple background.


Errata and Edits

I misspelled orifice as “oriface” in a recent post, which I have corrected. However, since someone out there may have read it with the incorrect spelling, I figured it would be honest to own up to it, as well as fix it for posterity.

Also, a while back I wrote that my bookmarks were 9 inches long with an inch fringe on each end, and the wrappers were 11 inches. All of this was wrong. Usually the bookmarks are about 10 inches long, with an inch of fringe on each end, and the wrappers are twelve inches long. The length is determined by the tracing paper which I’ve been using for the wrappers. I print onto sheets of tracing paper, trim them, and fold them up. However, lately the tracing paper has been jamming in the printer. I was thinking of switching to a more standard sized 8 1/2 X 11 inch sheet of paper, say velum, that would be sturdier and less fussy to work with. I haven’t actually done it yet, but that’s where my wonky thinking came from. I have also fixed this up in my originally post, but I didn’t want to do that without informing the general public.

OK, then, moving on.

Planning a Linen Warp

After I spun up that modest quantity of linen singles yarn (the bleached Louet top I wrote about last time), I got excited about planning a warp for it. I plan to use the handspun as weft. My current thought is to use the wet and dry spun yarns in alternating stripes in the weft. I think this will create stripes of different textures. But what to use for the warp?

I have a motley stash of naturally dyed linen yarns, including 20/1, 20/2 and 40/2 yarns. This project seemed like a good opportunity to use some of it. Since most of my dyeing consists of experiments and small batches, I don’t have a lot of any one color. So, I can’t make the whole warp from a single color, which obviously means I need stripes in the warp.

I did some calculations to estimate approximately how many yards of each yarn I have. This is possible to calculate because commercially spun yarns are standardized, and can be reliably trusted to yield a certain number of yards of yarn per pound of yarn. This measurement is referred to as “yards per pound” and is indicated on the label or in the description of most yarns you buy commercially. 20/2 linen is 3000 yards per pound. 40/2 and 20/1 linen are both 6000 yards per pound. They are half the diameter of the 20/2, so the same weight of fiber can be stretched twice as far.

I weighed all my skeins in ounces, converted the weight to a percentage of a pound, and multiplied by 3000. For the singles, I will double up the ends so they are the same size as the two-ply yarns.

Here are the yarns I decided to use:

naturally dyed linen yarnsFrom left to right, the colors are from woad, orange cosmos, a tree lichen, madder, umbilicate lichen, and black walnut.

Initially I was worried that my yarns made a random, unappealing palette. But they reminded me a little of a wrap that I really liked, which I’d made during a color workshop with Daryl Lancaster in October 2014. In her workshop, we made lots of wraps with different tasks or objectives in mind. A yarn wrap is a fun way to play around with color and plan out a warp. To make a yarn-wrap you literally wrap yarn around a stiff piece of card stock, and tape the ends down on the back. We used folded-over index cards.

This assignment was to select a small number of colors to reflect a particular image, in my case a photograph of The Strawberry Thief by William Morris, and make a wrap that reflected the image in terms of colors, values, proportions, etc.. Here’s an image of The Strawberry Thief:

Morris Strawberry Thief 1883 detailHere is my wrap (and an incomplete second wrap), next to a postcard of a different William Morris print with a similar palette:

William Morris inspired yarn wrapsSince my hand-dyed yarns are limited in quantity, I didn’t want to use them up making a yarn wrap. Instead I substituted commercial yarns, using the closest colors to the naturally dyed yarns that I could find in my stash. Here are the substitute yarns:

substitute yarnsI have nothing as dark as the darkest-value yarn in the wrap, so my whole palette is much more subdued than the Morris-inspired one. I made a wrap with some stripes and proportions that I liked, and then made some color xeroxes of it so I could play around with a composition.

yarn wrap and color copyHere’s the plan for the warp as it currently stands:

symmetrical warp with stripesThe white yarn I plan to use in the warp is undyed commercial 20/2 half-bleach, so it is less bright than the yarn I used in the wrap. Here are the two side by side:

half bleach and bleached yarnsSo, this plan for a small linen textile is well underway.

Handspun Louet Flax Top

Thanks to more snow days than usual this winter, I have finally finished spinning up a fiber preparation I bought years ago, 8 ounces of Louet bleached flax top. I have not spent much time on spinning in recent years, hence the delay. My plan was to experiment with wet-spinning and dry-spinning the fiber, to see if it made a significant difference in the yarn. I think it did.

“Top” is a term usually used to describe a fiber preparation in which all the fibers are aligned parallel to each other. It makes for smooth, comparatively dense yarns. I would describe this fiber as tow, due to the fact that the fibers are short and of varying diameter. Here’s a photo of a little sample of it.

bleached flax topI spun about half of the fiber wet, which means I dipped my fingers in water periodically while I was spinning. I drafted with my right hand, and dipped my left hand into the water. My left hand was closer to the orifice, which is the little hole in your spinning wheel where the yarn goes onto the bobbin. Wet fingers help to smooth down the fibers between the drafting zone and the orifice of the spinning wheel. I tried to introduce the water into the far edge of the drafting zone (on the yarn side) but keep it from getting into the main part of the drafting zone. If the water gets too far up into the untwisted fibers they get gunky, stick together, and then it’s hard to pull them apart to draft smoothly. Here’s the bobbin of wet-spun yarn:

wet spun yarnYou can see that it’s fairly smooth. The diameter is approximately comparable to a 20/2 linen yarn, though mine is only singles. In the linen-spinning world, my yarn is pretty coarse.

With the dry-spun yarn I just treated it like wool and spun as I normally would. Here’s the bobbin of dry-spun yarn:

dry spun yarnIt is hairier or fuzzier looking than the wet-spun. It is not significantly different in color, despite the photo. Both yarns are a bright bleached white.

I plan to leave them white and weave with them as singles in the weft.

Bookmark Success!

After I wove off that pink warp, dyed with madder, I finally put a new warp on the loom. It’s a blue warp, dyed with woad, for more “Jack Frost” pattern bookmarks. Amazingly enough, the first three came out exactly the same length! This is a feat of consistency of which I am rarely capable, so I was pretty happy. Here they are:

consistent weaving

What I have been aiming for in my bookmarks is a woven length of 10 inches, with 1 inch of fringe on each end. This allows them to fit exactly into the stylish wrappers Matthew designed, which are 12 inches long.

bookmark wrapper

A brief moment of triumph!

Bookmark Failures (Successes Coming Soon)

This post is the latest installment in a longer saga about weaving bookmarks with naturally dyed 40/2 linen. The saga spans many months, if not years. I have posted about these bookmarks in the past. You can read my most recent post about it here.

Or you can just catch up on the back story in this post!

My linen bookmarks are woven with 40/2 linen. They are not too time-consuming to produce, though the pricing still works out to a meager hourly rate when I take into account all the steps involved in the dyeing plus the weaving.

On the other hand, since I love dyeing more than almost anything (except possibly growing the dye plants), I never really account for that part of the process when I think about pricing. I am so compelled to dye that I dye yarn even when I have no specific outcome or product in mind.

My bookmarks are a lower-price-point item than my currently non-existent books or my rya wall hangings, so they sell pretty consistently at the Shelburne Arts Co-op. I make some additional direct sales to co-workers and friends. Thanks to the fantastic invention of reading glasses, I can now hemstitch with increased efficiency. So, as a sweet little item for sale, it’s mostly good.

Here’s the bookmark back story. In January of 2014 I decided to weave a new batch of bookmarks with a darker shade of madder-dyed pink. Normally I use a very light shade of pink. But, I’d made some lovely darker pinks and wanted to use them. I made a few huck lace heart motif bookmarks from this warp, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with them, so I didn’t weave off the warp for literally months.

There were two problems. First, the gauge of yarn seemed slightly more coarse than the 40/2 linen yarns I’d bought in the past from the same retailer. Just slightly, but enough to make a difference. I’ve had some discussions about this with another weaver who uses the same yarn, and with one of the folks at the store where I buy my yarn. They do not agree with me. So, maybe it was something else and not the size of the yarn. Whatever it was, I could not get the same number of picks per inch (threads in the weft) as I had in the past, and the heart motifs were all slightly elongated. I wasn’t pleased.

Second, the darker color did not work as nicely with the lace weave structure, in my opinion, as the lighter shades of pink. I have read that lace works best with light colored yarns. The structure involves horizontal and vertical lines (floats) which need to be viewed in a certain way in order for the design to be distinct. Light must bounce off of the yarn in order for the motifs to be clearly seen by the viewer. The more reflectivity (i.e., the lighter the color of yarn) the better the motifs will show. So, the combination of less reflectivity and less compact threads made the whole design less successful, in my opinion.

Due to life circumstances, for months I did not have the mental energy to tackle the relatively simple task of re-designing a new pattern for the number of ends in my warp and rethreading the warp (only 75 ends).

In September I was finally motivated to get the warp off the loom. First I tried a heart motif from Twill Thrills (scroll to the bottom of the page). The draft was designed to be woven with sewing thread. 40/2 linen is much thicker. So, it didn’t work at all. Pretty ugly.

white and blue heartscloser view of heart twill

Yes, the first heart (closer to the viewer) is upside down. No, you can’t see it at all. I reversed the treadling and tried with a darker weft color. Also ugly. Why not just start fresh? I was trying to use up the warp. Naturally dyed with madder, don’tcha know.

So, I re-threaded once again. This new pattern was much more satisfactory. The dark pink warp and extremely pale pink weft worked very nicely together. However, I couldn’t manage to beat it evenly. I wove three little bookmarks of various lengths and imperfect quality, and that was the end of the warp.

fancy twill motif

Now I have washed and ironed a couple of the bookmarks with the four-petaled flower-like motif above. They have a nice drape. Actually they are pretty cute.

pink twill motif bookmarkspink twill bookmarks with tape measureYou can see that the third motif from the left is short in both bookmarks. Matthew thinks they look like bacon. “You can see that the bacon is 11 inches long,” says he.

I think the lesson learned from this experiment is that I need to adjust the design so that the motifs are taller. And obviously be more careful with my beat.