Japanese Indigo Is Flowering

Way back on Memorial Day weekend, I was lucky enough to find some Japanese indigo seedlings for sale at the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair. I had been wanted to grow this plant, Polygonum tinctorium, for many years, but it’s not that easy to find seeds and we don’t have a good set-up for growing seedlings anyway here at the apartment. I had never come across seedlings before. In a fit of excitement, I bought out the vendor’s entire supply (11 plants) and planted them in the front bed at my dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm with maximum southern exposure.

They were nibbled by rabbits in June and July. I covered them with row-cover to keep the critters away, and they bounced back from that, thankfully. I also had the kids in my summer camp spray them with a chili pepper solution for good measure (along with the orange cosmos, which were suffering the same predations). After the plants got a little bigger, the leaves curled up and just seemed very narrow and spindly. I watered the plants a lot, since I read that they like humidity and water, as well as heat. But for much of the summer I was worried that the plants were unhappy because we had an unusually cool, dry summer this year.

Here’s a photo of some of the plants on July 31st. You can see them in between the marigolds in front. They were pretty small, even smaller than the marigolds, which were not very big yet.

July 31 wide viewYou can also see that we already pulled up the flax (the empty bed in the back), that the weld hasn’t bolted yet (short rosettes on the far right), and that I haven’t put in the swamp milkweed yet (empty bed behind the amsonia and calendula). Early days in the dye and fiber garden even though it was well past mid-summer.

Here’s a close up of the Japanese indigo plants on July 31st.July 31 2014 Japanese indigo

I think the curling leaves must be a feature of the plant. They never flattened out, even in hot, rainy weather.

At last in August the plants began to look lush and I figured they were ready to harvest. The very week that I was planning to pick the leaves for a vat, I noticed pink flower buds! Here are some photos of the buds on August 18th.

Aug 18 2014 Japanese indigo bud

Aug 18 2014 Japanese indigo flower

Aug 18 2014 Japanese indigo buds

According to Rita Buchanan, my go-to source for growing dye plants, they do not produce much color once the plants have begun to bloom. So, I decided to let them bloom and hopefully set seed.

Here they were on September 8th. The flowers have opened up and there are a lot more of them.

Sept 8 2014 sprig

Sept 8 2014 flowersSept 8 2014 leaves and flowersThey set seed late, apparently, and I may still have to build some protection around them if we get early frosts. Tonight it’s supposed to be in the low 40s, which is early for such cool weather around here. There are beehives right next to my garden, so hopefully I will get some seeds and can grow out more plants in the spring. I may have to impose on someone for greenhouse space, but it’s exciting to imagine that I might have a significant crop next summer.

I Am Pleased With My Linen Yarns

This is just a short post to say that I’m pleased with my stash of linen yarns. Here they are:

linen yarnsThe pink colors at the top come from madder roots, and also the little orange skein on the left. The browns are from black walnut. The light orange in the center is from orange cosmos. The blues are from woad. The greens are from weld with woad on top. The yellows are from weld. This modest-sized basket represents a ton of work, and I am very satisfied!

After a long hiatus, I am returning to a warp on the loom which I abandoned in January. It’s 40/2 linen and was threaded as huck lace with a heart motif. The warp is only 75 ends and two inches wide, and the cloth is for bookmarks. I have woven many of these before.

However, this time I decided to use a darker shade of pink which didn’t work as well with the lace structure as the lighter pinks I’ve used in the past. The yarn was also just slightly coarser than my usual size for some reason, and it absolutely would not beat in as snugly. So, all my hearts were elongated. All of this is very subtle, mind you. But at 36 epi and only 2 inches across, every thread counts. So, after making a few bookmarks that I wasn’t totally satisfied with, I gave up.

But today, at last, I’m motivated to re-thread and weave off this warp. The deadline for the Weavers of Western Massachusetts “Heddles and Treadles Show” is coming up. I have already had a request for several bookmarks for holiday gifts. My inventory at the Shelburne Arts Co-op is very low. Hence, weaving!

I plan to re-thread in an 8-shaft twill with a different shade of pink in the weft. Hopefully it will look like nested hearts. Then, I plan to put on a green warp and try the same pattern to create a “leaf” effect. Hopefully. You never really know how it will turn out until you try it. But at least I have a wide range of inspiring colors to work with.

Weld is Flowering and Proliferating

Weld is a biennial. The Latin name for weld is Reseda luteola. Luteolin is the molecule in weld that makes yellow. A plant that is a biennial typically lives for two years, and only flowers and sets seed in the second year. These weld plants were planted this spring, but as of July 18th several of them have already sent up tall stalks. They look suspiciously like they are starting to flower. This does happen sometimes, but it is still a little puzzling to me.

Below is a view of the weld bed with all the tall plants.

bolting weld

Here’s a slightly closer view showing one plant that has bolted and another, to the left, that’s doing the normal biennial thing and just hanging out close to the ground as a basal rosette:

short and tall weldAnd here are two structures developing in the tall plants which look suspiciously like the buds of flowers:

teeny flower budsmall flower budsSo, I said my weld is bolting. The term “bolting” is usually used about edible plants when they go to seed and therefore are no longer edible, like lettuce or spinach or radishes. That’s not exactly my problem, since the plants are still perfectly useful. The only reason I am bothered by this activity is that I do not think the weld plants will get as tall in their first year as they would if they waited until next year. Second year weld plants can reach five feet or more. These plants are about 3 feet tall, though they may get taller before summer is over. I had been anticipating a lot more plant material, not this year but *next* summer. Ah, well.

On the other hand, another surprising thing has happened in the bed. When I planted back in the spring, I put in a lot of seeds but only a few germinated. I often think of weld as fussy and a little hard to grow, though I have read that in some places in Europe and the Middle East it has naturalized and grows weedily. I tend to have poor germination, so I figured a few plants from a lot of seeds was normal. They had germinated in little clusters, so I transplanted and spread out the seedlings so they’d have more room. Well, just a few weeks ago I noticed that several more weld plants had sprouted up, and they are now respectably big. So overall I have more plants than I anticipated.

I’m not sure if all this means that the weld is happy and content or that it’s sad and stressed out. We have had a blissful summer weather-wise, from my point of view, so I assume the plants are happy. I plan to harvest the tall ones later this summer or early fall, and leave the rest to grow next summer. Hans, the farmer who tends “Mr. McGregor’s Garden” at Bramble Hill (where my plot is located), said the plants that are bolting this year might grow again next year. I may leave the roots in the ground and see if they do.

Flax Dressing Photos

After I wrote about our gloriously low-humidity weather, which provided the perfect climate for dressing flax, I realized I had not included any photos. Here are some illustrations of my modified “hardware store tools” technique, including a new innovation since last time I posted about using this method.

The hardware store tools that I use are a paintbrush cleaning tool, a 3-inch-wide joint compound knife, a wooden cutting board, and a flick carder designed for wool. And a dust mask. And gloves. The gloves are new, but my hands have been a lot more sensitive this summer.

I’ve been dressing largely under-retted flax which has already been broken with a flax brake. The bundles I made to dry and ret the flax are too large to handle all at once using this method, so I separate them into thirds or even fourths. The reason I think the flax is under-retted is that the cuticle, or skin, of the stalk is really hard to get off, and the fibers stick together in ribbons. The lighter colored, papery-looking pieces below are the cuticle.

cuticle closeup

Here’s another view of a bundle before I get to work.

under-retted flax ribbons

Initially, my first step was to scrape a portion of a bundle of flax with the joint compound knife to break up the remaining woody material and scrape it off. However, after a few days of doing this (about 2 or 3 hours a day, in the afternoon when the humidity was lowest) my hands were killing me.

The innovation I stumbled across last week was to drag the paintbrush cleaning tool through the bundle first. It smashes up a lot of the woody pieces into much smaller pieces and pops them off. It requires much less pressure to do so at this stage than using the joint compound tool right away. As with traditional tools, I start at the end of the bundle, and move my way toward the center, then flip the bundle around and do the same on the other end. The center of the bundle is the hardest to clean.

brush cleaning tool scutchingA lot of big pieces of tow come off at this point.

Step two is to use the joint compound knife to scrape off more of the woody or straw-like bits. It works best to pull up on the flax slightly while I’m scraping.

putty knife scutching

The remaining shives (woody or straw-like bits) are small at this point.

small shives

Then I use the brush cleaning tool again like a coarse hetchel.

putty knife coarse hetchel

short tow

The tow that comes off at this point is shorter but much cleaner. You can see it dropping off the knife on the left above.

I start of the end of the bundle, and work toward the middle, then flip it over. In the photo below I have cleaned one end pretty nicely, but the end under my left wrist is still tangled and full of tow.

working at the middleAfter all this, there is usually some cuticle still clinging on tightly. That’s the hardest part to remove. In the process of getting it off, I feel like I break up a lot of otherwise useful long fibers. Below you can see a mostly clean section with a few bits of cuticle still stuck on:

stubborn cuticleAfter this I use the flick carder as a “fine hetchel” and it scrapes off most of the remaining straw pieces, aligns, and smooths the long fibers.

flick carder fine hetchelAfter I clean up all the sections of a bundle, I tie them back together into their original configuration. It is pretty easy to tell the root end from the branch end because they are different colors.

Below you can see a bundle of flax before cleaning. The branch end on the left is darker and the root end on the right is lighter.

root end and branch end


And below is a bundle after a little cleaning. The root end is on the left this time, and the branch end on the right. The color difference is still noticeable.


As much as possible, I have been trying to keep track of the flax I grew from different seed varieties, different years, and in different locations. In some years I’ve even managed to label the batches from different retting tanks. When I started working with flax lo these many years ago, I imagined that I might be able to strike upon the optimal conditions for creating long, fine flax. However, there are so many factors to consider that I’m not sure I will ever find the “best” combination of seed type, soil/location, length of ret, etc.. And even if I could, I’m not sure I could ever duplicate the best results. However, I am now several steps closer to spinning my flax, which is exciting!



Asclepias incarnata and Amsonia tabernaemontana

I wrote earlier this year that I wanted to add Amsonia tabernaemontana and Asclepias incarnata to my fiber and dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. They are both bast fiber plants native to North America. Bast fibers are found in the stems of a plant (rather than around the seeds, like cotton, for example). I was introduced to the fiber potential of amsonia by fellow flax and linen study group member, Carolyn Wetzel, who brought some gorgeous, creamy-colored fibers to a meeting one night. A. incarnata was the “mystery cordage plant” from my sister’s parking lot that she helped me identify in 2012. I have finally managed to acquire both plants!

Actually, the amsonia wasn’t too tricky to get. I had to do a little research about which of the varieties available at the nurseries nearby grew tallest. My assumption is that taller plants will create longer fibers in the stems. I bought two plants of Eastern Bluestar at Andrew’s Greenhouse earlier this spring. They were in bloom at the time with delicate, star-shaped, light blue flowers. Apparently I did not take any photos of it at the time, though, which is hard to believe. You can check out some images at the New England Wildflower Society site here. Here is one of my plants in July after the flowers died back.

Amsonia tabernaemontanaThe story of the Asclepias incarnata, otherwise known as swamp milkweed, is a little longer. My sister had collected some seed for me last summer, which I planted early this spring. Nothing came up for weeks and weeks. Finally I realized something was wrong. I went to Nasami Farm, a native wildflower nursery in Whately, MA, which is part of the New England Wildflower Society. They were out of stock at the time, but the staff person there helpfully looked it up for me to find out if the seeds needs special treatment. Yes, they do, it turns out. The seeds need to cold-stratify for four months in order to germinate. This means they need to be cold to mimic the dormancy of winter before they will germinate.

At that point, back in June, it was too late to grow any from seed this season. My options were to stick the seeds in the fridge until October, then plant them, or just to wait until fall to plant the seeds, and let them naturally cold-stratify over the winter. The third option was to buy plants. So I left my name and contact info, and they said they would call me when they got them back in stock.

Last weekend I finally got my plants! Because of the timing of their cultivation, the plants were still in bloom, even though all the milkweed around here finished blooming ages ago. They are gorgeous! I *did* manage to take some photos of the swamp milkweed.

Asclepias incarnata planted

Above you can see four plants in the bed I’ve been saving for them all summer. In front of the swamp milkweed are the two amsonia plants.

Here are some close-ups of the spectacular flowers of swamp milkweed:

A. incarnata closeup

You can see that the leaves are more slender and pointed than the leaves of common milkweed (A. syriaca).

A. incarnata flowers and leaves


This one had already begun to set seed. The seed pods are also more slender and pointy than those of the common milkweed:

A. incarnata seedpods

Here’s a wider view of the garden at this point in the season:

garden with swamp milkweed

The “fiber” portion of my fiber and dye plant garden is now much improved!

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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