FIBERuary in Western Massachusetts

In case you haven’t heard, it’s FIBERuary here in Western Massachusetts! Carole Adams, of Whispering Pines Fiber and Herb Farm in Colrain, came up with the idea as a way to promote local fiber farmers. She was inspired by an initiative in the UK called Wovember which encouraged people to think more deeply about where wool comes from, to celebrate the incredible diversity of British wool, to wear 100% woolen garments, and to knit with British wool.

Around have we a lot of local shepherds who raise lovely fleeces from a variety of breeds, everything from Cormo (fine and soft) to Leicester longwool (durable and lustrous). FIBERuary is not limited to promoting wool, however. Fiber farmers around here have a lot of different animals, including alpaca, llama, angora rabbit, angora goat (where mohair comes from), and pygora goats (who can grow a fiber similar to cashmere). In addition to animal fiber, there are a few of us growing flax in the hopes that this amazing plant fiber can play a role in a more local, sustainable approach to textiles in North America.

How can you celebrate FIBERuary? One way is to read the FIBERuary blog that Carole set up for the month of February. She plans to have guest writers sharing their stories and experiences almost every day this month, including local fiber farmers and fiber artists.

sheep-and-shawl-signAnother way to celebrate FIBERuary is to come to Sheep and Shawl in Deerfield each Sunday afternoon from 1-3pm. Liz Sorenson is hosting a series of speakers at her shop. Alas, you have already missed Carole Adam’s talk on February 7th, “Stories from the Farm.” She shared many funny and sweet stories yesterday from her years living with and caring for sheep, llama, and chickens, along with some cautionary tales about wool moths, skirting your fleeces, and neighborhood dogs.

However, you can still make it to the upcoming FIBERuary talks at Sheep and Shawl:
Feb 14 – Panel of Fiber Farmers – Hilary Woodcock, alpacas; Chris Pellerin, Pygora goats; Jenny Atkins, angora rabbits.
Feb 21 – Rare Breed Sheep & Weaving – Margaret Russell
Feb 28 – Flax & Linen – Michelle Parrish

And while you’re there, you can buy some local wool from Liz’s consignment vendors and do some local knitting, felting, crochet, or weaving!

Japanese Indigo and Frost

We’ve had a pretty mild winter thus far around here. Today, though, I have a snow day so I’m catching up on a post I started writing ages ago. This post is about nursing my Japanese indigo plants through the frosts in the fall. When the first frost was forecast on October 10, 2015, I bundled up the plants nice and snug.

October 10 wrapped Japanese indigoOn top of the blankets I put a lot of stakes to keep them from blowing off. You can see the color blazing on the trees in the background. We had a glorious fall! Here’s another stunning view of fall foliage at Bramble Hill Farm that afternoon:

October 10 Mount NorwottuckThey survived the night, and then the weather warmed up again for a while. I was optimistic that I might have time to run another vat, but that did not happen before we got another frost forecast. It was for a Friday night. Matthew and I were going to visit his mom for the weekend, and we had a really tight schedule. He picked me up at school, and we raced over to Bramble Hill to cover the plants before it got dark. As we pulled in to the driveway, however, we saw a row of traffic cones across the road, which gave us a sinking feeling. A cheerful fellow waved us to the side, and Carol (the town’s animal control officer, who has a lot of animals at the farm) informed us that the Royal Frog Ballet had a performance that evening. No one was allowed to drive up the farm road. We couldn’t walk in, either, because a portion of the performance was right next to the dye and fiber garden, and the performance was about to start. I have nothing against the Royal Frog Ballet. In fact I’ve heard that they are wonderful and magical. However, I do blame them for preventing me from covering my indigo plants that night.

Covering the plants in the fall is merely forestalling the inevitable. Eventually, all things must die, and the Japanese Indigo died beautifully. Actually, that sounds like a pun but I only mean it to sound lovely; I’m talking about death, here!

Here’s how the plants looked when I finally got around to dealing with them on November 15, 2015:

November 15 Japanese indigo and fall leavesYou can see by the brown leaves on the bed that the fall foliage has passed and the leaves have fallen from the trees.

November 15 Japanese indigo bedI was sad that the plants were so very dead and dried up, but I was also captivated by the incredible blue-black of the papery leaves and the intense pink of the stems. So, I took a lot of photos:

November 15 Japanese indigo leaf close upNovember 15 Japanese indigo after frostsBeing me, I couldn’t bear to just consign them to the compost heap. So, for the past three months they have been hanging out in the back of the van in paper bags. I’m not sure if they’ll be any use for dyeing, and I’m not sure if any of the seed is salvageable. I’ll have to wait until the warm weather returns to experiment with them.

Wrapping Up A Loose End

I have not done much dyeing lately. My last dye day was on September 6th when I ran my second Japanese indigo vat. Since then, I managed to rinse and dry the skeins, but didn’t get much further than that. They’ve been sitting in a tub waiting for closure. On New Year’s Eve I finally wrapped up that loose end.

As I noted in my original post, I don’t have good photo-documentation about that vat. But at least now I can show you photos of the skeins I dyed. All the yarns are wool. Here are the blue skeins.

over dyed blues with Japanese indigoThey were originally dyed in August in my first Japanese indigo vat. Two were very light after the first vat. One was a decent medium blue but I figured I could get it darker. Each skein is about 4 ounces.

I always (or almost always) take little samples for my notebooks so I can refer back to what I did in the past. I aim for written, physical, or photographic documentation (or some combination of the three) because my memory is otherwise terrible. In this case, it was helpful to see just how different the colors were before and after the second vat.

Below you can see the samples I pulled from the original skeins next to the samples from the second vat:

Japanese indigo blues before and afterIn each pair, the teeny skeins on the left are the colors from the August vat. The ones on the right are the over-dyed skeins from the vat in September. You can see that the two skeins which were originally very light did get a lot darker. The skein in the middle which was already a medium blue didn’t change much.

In the vat on September 6th, I also overdyed some skeins previously dyed with tansy. They were mordanted with aluminum sulfate. Each skein was teensy, about a half ounce. I had prepped them for a workshop for Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom last year (October 25th, 2014). Since it was billed as a day of “hands-on skills” I had assumed everyone would want a small sample to take home. But it didn’t turn out that way, so I ended up with a ton of teeny yellow skeins. Apparently I didn’t have the presence of mind to photograph or take samples of the original colors, alas. Suffice it to say that tansy yields yellows, ranging from dull to bright, and is pH sensitive: the more alkaline the solution, the brighter the yellow. I had used a soda ash solution in the demo, so the original yellows were pretty bright.

Here are the greens I got in September. Each little bundle is a group of 5 or 6 teensy skeins which I treated as a unit when I submerged them in the Japanese indigo vat. The yarns are all wool, but they are a mix of plied and singles, from different sources. Each little bundle weights between 2.6 and 3.2 ounces.

tansy overdyed with Japanese indigoMatthew helped me take the photos. Often I take photos outdoors with natural sunlight. It wasn’t an option the other day, though. After a warm fall and early winter, on New Year’s Eve it was icy and slushy outdoors, so we set up a little photo shoot by the back door where there was a little natural light supplemented by three of our desk lamps. As we were setting up, Sammy our cat had to check things out, of course. Here I am arranging skeins while Sammy inspects the set up:

Sammy and skeinsI am very happy with the colors, even though the quantity is minimal.

Here’s to a more productive year of dyeing in 2016.

What Are Those Bees Doing?

This is yet another post in which I attempt to catch up on the wealth of observations from the summer’s flax project. In this post I will share a lot of photographs of bees. Photographing bees and other flying insects isn’t easy. However, my certainty that bees visit flax blossoms was the main reason that I was worried about cross-pollination when I was setting up my USDA seed project this spring. It’s the reason I covered the plants, even though flax is considered self-pollinated. I’m not sure what bees and other insects are doing, exactly, when they visit flax flowers. I just know that they do.

Here’s a bee visiting a flax flower on July 29, 2015.

July 29 2015I didn’t make note of what variety it was on.

The next photos are all from the same day, August 14, 2015, on the same variety, the type nicknamed Soctoss.

Aug 14 Soctoss 1Aug 14 Soctoss 2Aug 14 Soctoss 3In all of the photos above, you can see the range of seed pod colors and maturity.

In the photo below you can see two very ripe pods, while the plant is still blooming away happily. Remember what I said about flax being indeterminate?!

Aug 14 bee and ripe podsThe flowers of Soctoss are noticeably larger than other flax flowers. If anyone wanted to develop an ornamental fiber flax with showy flowers, they’d start with this one. In the photo below, I love how the little legs are clinging to the petals. You can almost hear the bee making happy yum-yum noises.

Aug 14 Soctoss 4Aug 14 Soctoss 5I’m only posting so many pictures because I feel gratified to have taken so many clear photos. I deleted just as many or more photos that were blurry. In the photo below new flower buds are forming.

Aug 14 Soctoss 6This one is just too cute to not include.

Aug 14 Soctoss 7In terms of data, I’m not sure what all these photos really prove or demonstrate. There were a limited number of bees on the flowers at that time, maybe 3, so I can’t really say how many bees visit flowers in a given period of time or over a given area. I’m not even sure if I ended up with lots of shots of the same bee, or these photos show all the bees that were active during those few minutes. I was just like, “Oo, there’s one! Ooh, there’s one!”

The other varieties were covered while I photographed this one, so there was no danger of cross-pollination in that moment. However, I see no reason why the bees wouldn’t have just flown to the next patch if it were uncovered. The bees clearly have full pollen sacs, but they seem to be guzzling nectar, judging by the total face-plant pose in most of the photos. I don’t know how to measure the degree to which pollen might have been spread inadvertently.

Anyway, in case anyone wants proof that insects visit flax flowers, here’s a little more photographic evidence.

More About Flax Seed Maturity

This is a follow-up to my recent post about fiber flax seed maturity. After I posted it, I realized that I have a lot more photographs depicting the things I was trying to describe. So, here’s a bit more visual detail.

Let’s revisit the problem of dehiscence. This would mean that mature/over-ripe seed pods, bolls, or capsules would a) fall intact from their teeny withered stems onto the ground or b) shatter, pop open, and drop their glossy seeds willy-nilly on the ground. As a seed-saver, I was not in favor of either of these possibilities.

Here’s a glimpse of my initial attempt to bag up the seed pods, as suggested by Carolyn (though I do not blame her for my inadequate design!):

attempting to bag seeds Aug 13 2015As you can see, it looks like I am making bizarre and potentially offensive puppets. Moreover, my tubular bags didn’t actually enclose all the ripening seed pods. Wind and other forces allowed the bags to move upward on the stalk, so eventually they were not entirely covering the flowering portions of the plants. I visited the plot (almost) daily and could pull them down and adjust them, but it was not a perfect solution so I didn’t bother to sew these little bags for any of the other mini-plots.

What do truly mature fiber flax seed pod look like? They look like this:

Aug 14 Viking seedpodsThis photo above is the variety named Viking on August 14th. I think it is, or was, commercially available in Canada, but I’m not so sure about the US. Click on the image for a close-up, and hopefully you’ll be able to see:

The brown/tan color of the seed pods (they also feel dry and sound rattle-y to the touch, but I doubt you can feel or hear that from a photo)

The deep brown, shriveled appearance of the little stalk that connects the brown seed pod to the main stem (sorry I don’t know the botanical term for that).

The thin, dark splits along the length of the pod/capsule.

The teeny opening at the pointy tip at the top of the pod.

Below is a wider view of the stand of Viking plants:

Aug 14 Viking plantsThe type nick-named 5NN was at a similar point on August 13th. A lot of seedpods were mature, but a lot were still green, and the stand was still producing buds and flowers:

5NN Aug 13, 2015When I looked on the ground inside each isolation tent, I found whole ripe pods that had dropped off, but I couldn’t see individual seeds. This may just be a problem with my middle-aged vision, or it may indicate that fiber flax seeds drop off intact rather than splitting open. Either way, I maintained my seed-pod snipping protocol for each mini-plot, as described in the previous post.

Some varieties seemed to mature more consistently than others. For example, here’s the type nick-named Soctoss on August 14, 2015:

state of Soctoss Aug 14 2015It seems to be mostly done flowering. There are certainly a few lush flowers:

Soctoss flower Aug. 14, 2015But there are not that many new buds, and on the whole the plants seem to be moving past the active growth phase.

A similar thing was happening with the type nick-named Lisa:

Lisa flower Aug 14, 2015There were certainly new flowers between August 13th and 14th. However, most of the seeds were ripe as evidenced by the fact that something had clearly been trying to eat them. The photo below shows a chewed-up Lisa seed boll, and illustrates another problem of seed maturity: predation by intelligent creatures looking for oil-rich food sources!

Lisa chewed seed pod OK, fine, I’m not sure whether the stiffness of the mature seed pods and their supporting stalks were sufficient to poke through the Agribon and expose the seed pod, or whether an intrepid seed-eater used its beak or other physical attributes to cut through the fabric.

Either way, the seeds were exposed and taken advantage of:

Lisa seeds Aug 14 2015I obviously cannot claim to have solved all the problems pertaining to seed maturity!

Saving Flax Seed: Days to Maturity

This is the next installment about the USDA germplasm project I have been working on this year. In this post I will discuss the definition of “days to maturity”, which was one of the pieces of information I was supposed to be tracking for the USDA. I will also share some of my thinking around how I decided to harvest seeds this summer.

Since there has been a significant lapse of time since my last flax-related post, I will quickly recap. In this first season of the project, I was hoping to increase our supply of seed. I tried to prevent cross pollination by using isolation cages made out of lightweight Agribon and wooden stakes. Half of my project suffered utter crop failure in mid-July due to predation by rodents (or possibly other unidentified flax-stalk chewers and flax-seed eaters). Luckily, the other half of the project escaped largely unscathed, thanks to better weeding, daily monitoring, and cat-pee soaked scraps of cloth pinned to the isolation cages. You can read my earlier posts from April to August of 2015 for more details.

Between late July and early September I devoted a lot of time and energy to maximizing the seed yield from the remaining plants. I wanted as much mature, viable seed as possible. During this time, two closely-related questions emerged.

First, how exactly does one measure days to maturity for flax plants? Second, how does one determine when flax seed is mature? Neither of these questions was as simple to answer as you might think (assuming you think about these questions at all, which I’m assuming you do if you are reading my blog).

The main reason that these questions aren’t straightforward is that flax is an indeterminate plant. When you hear indeterminate, you might think of tomatoes, but other plants share the same characteristic. Basically, it means that the plants just keep on happily blooming away until some external force makes them stop. And it’s true about flax. Here’s what it looks like in action:

1602 various stages all at onceThis is the variety nick-named 1602 on August 13th, 2015. It’s still blooming, and new growth is burgeoning from the tips of the stems and stalks. Some seed bolls are green. Some are yellow, and some are brown. Some seeds are mature and some aren’t. The height is really tall, but the plant isn’t done growing. If I didn’t pull it up, it would just keep getting taller and keep flowering and setting more seed.

Here’s another, closer view of the same plot:

1602 indeterminateYou can see that there are quite a lot of brown seed pods, but the plant is still blooming away merrily. It’s a white-flowered variety by the way. In the photos below you can see that there are still new flower buds forming:

1602 white flower

1602 all phases of seed maturityFrom a seed-saving point of view, the more the plant branches, flowers, and sets seed, the better. Since I wanted as much seed as possible from each little plot, it was clearly in my best interests to just let the plants keep growing for as long as possible. Even if a plant were “mature” in terms of pulling it up for fiber, I wanted to let the plants grow past that point.

Up until this summer, I have always harvested my flax with the intention of retting it and processing it for fiber. Once the lower third or so of the stalks turned yellow, I harvested the whole crop at once by pulling up the plants by the roots. This usually happens roughly 90-100 days after planting, but you have to watch the plants and see what they look like. You can’t just count the number of days from planting because there are a lot of other factors that influence the timing. For example, if it’s been exceptionally hot or dry, you may have to pull it earlier. If you’re going for very fine fiber, you might want to harvest the stems when they are still green. Anyway, the point is that I have pulled the whole crop when it looked ready. Since I wasn’t trying to save seed in the past, it didn’t matter to me whether the seed was mature or not.

When the USDA sent us the seeds, each packet came with a stated number of days to maturity. It seemed nice and clear-cut at first, but when I was faced with the decision of actually pulling up the plants, I realized that the definition wasn’t clear to me. I wasn’t sure whether the USDA had prioritized seed maturity or fiber readiness when determining days to maturity for each type. Their definition of “maturity” was relevant because it was something I was supposed to be keeping records about.

Carolyn our resident botanist helped me clarify what I needed to know. Laura Fredrick Marek, the oil seed crop curator at the USDA in Ames, who we’ve been corresponding with during this project, sent some helpful information about their harvesting procedure.

She said that they harvest when a good portion of the bolls appear mature and before too much has been lost to dehiscence. Dehiscence can mean different things, but with flax it means either that the seeds pods fall off because they are mature, or the seed pods pop open and the seeds fall out when they are mature. She said that they harvest the entire plot by cutting the tops off.  Depending on the season and time of first harvest, they may be able to harvest twice in this manner. The uniformity of the plot is noted. She also said that the data regarding days to maturity were received with the collection of fiber flax seeds when it was transferred to Ames from the station where the flax research had previously been conducted.

OK, seed maturity was the main criterion. Check. Uniformity of the plot was also of interest, so take notes. Check.

However, I didn’t want to cut the tops off the plants because we’re interested in their maximum height and growth habits, including branching. Admittedly, from a fiber point of view, the additional height that is gained by allowing the plants to continue branching and blooming isn’t of any benefit. When you ret and process the plants, anything above the point where the plant branched and made smaller flower-bearing (and seed-bearing) stems just breaks off. I wasn’t growing for fiber this year, but I figured we might want to ret these little samples anyway and see if we could determine anything about fiber quality. I’ve read that cut ends of the stalk can make retting uneven, so I wanted to avoid that. I had to figure out another approach.

It seemed obvious that the more brown and dark the seed pods were, the more mature they were. However, I couldn’t just leave the ripe pods on the plants indefinitely because of the problem of dehiscence. If the over-ripe seeds just fell off that didn’t help me.

Carolyn suggested a couple ideas. One was to tie a bag around the seed pods as they matured in case the seed pods fell off or the pods popped open. This proved not so easy in practice.

Her other suggestion was to snip off the seed heads as they matured, and to leave a little piece of stalk attached so that the seeds could continue to draw whatever they needed from the plant as they finished maturing and dried. This is what I ended up doing.

1602 stemsIn the photo above you can see that the stem of the seed pod that’s still green is also green. The stems of the seed pods that are brown are starting to turn brown. Below is a closer image of the same thing:

1602 stem colorEach day I uncovered one little plot at a time and searched the plants for the most mature-looking pods. I was looking for stems that had started with look withered closest to the seed pod, and were either brown all the way down or getting yellow at the base. I snipped the stem down to the point where it joined the larger stalk.

1602 snipped stemsThen I spread these out to dry in a tray, and then bagged them up labeled with the variety and date. It was insanely time consuming. However, I think it was effective.

The Hurrier I Go

Life has been very busy. Back in July I kept thinking, “July is the month of everything.” Dye plants blooming, flax needing to be harvested, NEH summer institute, NEWS, family weekend at Queen Lake, hiring a new co-worker at school…. I did a lot, but since I can’t do everything, I had to let a lot of things go. No goldenrod or Queen Anne’s lace dye baths this year, and I missed Peggy Hart‘s talk on the history of NEWS, for example.

Then when August came, I thought, “No, August is the month of everything.” Even *more* dye plants blooming, flax *really* needing to be harvested, prepping for school, getting to know my new co-worker….  I did a lot, but ditto July. I had to let a lot of things go. No flax retting experiments. No purple loosestrife or black walnut experiments, despite an absolutely ridiculous abundance of wild dye plants. Very few orange cosmos flowers were collected and frozen. No woad was cut or dyed with. The flax and linen study group website was not updated. Continue reading

Japanese Indigo Vat At Last

Last year at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair I bought several Japanese indigo plants (Polygonum tinctorum, though I’ve heard that perhaps the name has changed). I was very excited and intended to dye with them, but then next thing you know, summer had raced past and they were blooming. I was worried that they would have lost a lot of their color once they started to bloom. And I was worried that I might have a hard time finding plants or seeds again. I decided I’d save them for seed and not use them for dyeing after all. You can recap a couple posts from last year here. And here.

This spring I successfully grew about 40 seedlings, half of which I put in at Bramble Hill Farm and the other half at our community garden plot. I guess I was in a “don’t put your eggs in one basket” mode this spring. Very wise, as it turned out. Continue reading

Anti-Rodent Action

After I discovered the rodent catastrophe at our community garden plot, I fearfully headed over to the other site at Amethyst Farm to assess the situation there. Some damage had already occurred, but it was really minor in comparison.

Here are some chewed up stems from the type nick-named 448, and another variety that I apparently forgot to make note of below that.

448 chewed stalks July 24July 24 Amethyst Farm chewed stalks Continue reading

Rodent Apocalypse

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because the events I’m about to relate are extremely regrettable and sad. Well, to me anyway. I cried a lot. However, it was also an opportunity to learn about the perils of seed saving first hand, so I am now ready to reluctantly admit that it was a learning experience.

Back in July I was very busy. I was in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute for K-12 teachers at UMass on the history of Native Americans in New England. We met from 9-4 each day, and at night I worked on the reading, homework, and culminating project. It was an excellent program and I was very grateful for the opportunity to learn from fantastic, creative scholars and activists. However, it also meant that I didn’t have time for other things, including flax. I’d been checking on the flax periodically, but didn’t devote as much attention to it as I would have liked. So, I was very excited when the institute was over and I could re-prioritize my flax experiment. Continue reading