Farm School Dye Day

One of the fun things I got to do last week was to visit the Farm School in Athol, MA, and to lead a natural dyeing workshop for the participants in their adult farming program. The Farm School combines two of my favorite things: agriculture and education. I had never visited their farm before, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be there and to get a better understanding of their different programs. I was greeted by this cheery sign when I first arrived:

Well, actually, when I first pulled up I was greeted by large, white goats browsing the brambles along the side of the road. The goats were accompanied by some friendly humans with welcoming smiles, so I knew I was in the right place. But at that point I was keeping both hands on the wheel and was driving very cautiously. I did not try to snap photos, since goats can be unpredictable! In reality I took this photo on my way out, once the coast was clear.

After a helpful orientation, I was invited to a delicious lunch of spicy daal with the adult student farmers with whom I would be working that afternoon. The food was very yummy and much appreciated! And in case it wasn’t spicy enough, there was a bottle of Sriracha to squirt on top. That’s my kind of meal.

After lunch, we jumped right into the dyeing process. There were roughly 15 students, and the goal was to run a hands-on workshop in which everyone could directly participate. We ran five different dyebaths or vats, in order to offer a range of colors and techniques. We used dried weld to make a bright yellow, dried marigolds to make a golden yellow, an umbilicate lichen vat for a purplish-magenta shade, chopped madder roots for a brick-red, and natural indigo powder for blue.

Students divided into teams of three to make and monitor each dyebath.  We used the Farm School’s own wool for this workshop from their flock of primarily Border Leicester sheep, which were sheared earlier this season. The fleeces were spun into skeins at Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, VT, and were mordanted with aluminum sulfate by Stephanie Cook, who organized this whole lovely experience.

Here is a photo of some of the students testing the pH of a dyebath using pH test strips:

Students also mixed and tested a solution of soda ash that we used as a pH modifier. The pH of a dyebath (how acidic or alkaline the bath is) can make a big difference in the colors that are obtained. Weld and madder also benefit from the addition of calcium carbonate (chalk) to enrich the color, so we used it for both of those baths.

Indigo vats are particularly tricky. For making blue, I usually use fresh plant material during the summer and fall months. For many years I have used woad, and more recently, have used Japanese indigo a couple times. I am very confident with those methods, but I was a little anxious about the indigo vat. While I have certainly run indigo vats before, they can be fussy and we were on a limited time table. Luckily, it worked out fine.

The team that set up the indigo vat wore gloves to handle some of the ingredients. In the interest of time, we used a quickie chemical vat rather than a natural fermentation vat. We used lye and thiourea dioxide to make the stock solution. The indigo powder and Thiox were from Long Ridge Farm in Westmoreland, NH.

Here’s the indigo station. The deep blue skein in the tub on the right is what we dyed that afternoon:

Here is a happy dyer contemplating the prospect of brightly colored yarn:

Here is a shot of students watching the stove:

Each team was responsible for monitoring the temperature of their dyebath and timing how long the dyeplant or the yarn was in the pot. This photo reminds me of the proverb, “A watched pot never boils.” I actually think that this adage is meant to remind dyers that you have to watch your dyebaths to make sure they don’t get too hot. When you are dealing with natural dye materials that are temperature sensitive, such as madder and umbilicate lichen, it is important to make sure that your pot never boils.

Here is a shot of the stove in the kitchen where we were working. I have never run a workshop where we had access to an industrial gas stove, and it was quite a thrill! Six burners could run simultaneously:

I am a proponent of a long soak (overnight or more) and a delayed rinse (allowing the fiber to dry before rinsing) when using plant-based dyes. So, with the exception of the indigo-dyed skein, we transferred all the skeins and dyebaths to five gallon buckets at the end of the workshop so they could absorb more color before rinsing. The colors looked rich and promising by the end of the afternoon, and I hope the skeins turned out well. I certainly enjoyed my time there, and was grateful for the opportunity to meet this energetic and creative group of farmers!

Gleeful Woad Vat

On July 18th and 19th I ran a woad vat! This is exciting because last summer I planted woad, but didn’t have time to use it for dyeing. That made me sad, and I vowed to rectify that this summer. This summer I planted two beds about a month apart, so that the leaves will mature at different times. I ran this first vat of the summer with much glee and happiness.

I stuck with my tried and true but not truly “sustainable” chemical vat, using ammonia and RIT Color Remover. One of these years I will learn how to precipitate my own woad powder and master a natural fermentation vat (maybe even the urine vat!). Meanwhile I dyed some fiber blue with my own woad and it made me happy. Continue reading “Gleeful Woad Vat”

Exciting Lichen Information!

After all the flax-related posts lately, you might be justified in thinking that I don’t care about dye plants anymore. Not true! I thought I’d kick off what I hope will be a series of posts about dye plants with a link to a fascinating article about recent research on lichen.

OK, technically a lichen isn’t a plant. What exactly is it? Well, I used to think that a lichen was a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus and an algae (perhaps more accurately, “alga” singular). My go-to definition is from Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. This massive and beautiful book is one of my prized possessions, acquired from Raven Used Books in Northampton many years ago (FYI my beloved Matthew is a former employee and does their website, as well as websites for many other good folk). I abbreviate the definition here:

“[A] lichen is not a single entity, but a composite of a fungus and an organism capable of producing food by photosynthesis. Lichen fungi can associate with green algae or cyanobacteria (the latter also known as blue-green algae), or sometimes both […]. The special biological relationship found in lichens is called symbiosis.”

The authors also offer a sweet, almost diminutive term for the photosynthetic symbiont, “photobiont, for short,” which is a word I aspire to slip into casual conversation more often. (Well, OK, ever!)

However, please follow this link for some exciting new insights into the life of lichen ….

 

Winnowing and Wine Bottles

OK, so I said earlier that I am bad at winnowing. This is still mostly true. I also said that on the next sunny weekend day I would use the wine bottle method to get the seeds off my flax in an efficient way. This is only a bit true, but it’s “truthy” in a way that can be explained with details and isn’t a lie.

This post is about how I spent a significant portion of April vacation removing the seeds from six varieties of flax from last summer, and got it cleaned up for planting. I know that ostensibly my blog is about dyeing, but I have been flax-obsessed lately. You might have noticed the flaxy-flaxy-flax-flax theme…. So, yeah. Flax. Again. Continue reading “Winnowing and Wine Bottles”

Low Humidity! April Vacation!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to process flax, you’d better do it while the humidity is low. I am not entirely positive why this is so, but I know from experience that it is true. If you try to break or scutch your flax while it’s humid, the stalks just bend and the shives cling to the fibers for dear life. You do not hear the gratifying crackling, snapping sounds that should accompany such activities. It is arduous and futile. Well, maybe not futile, but it’s certainly a lot easier and more successful when the humidity is low.

I suspect that this is related to one of the properties of linen that make it a desirable fabric. Flax fibers are hydrophilic, meaning that they absorb water easily. I am sure someone has done research on how being damp also makes flax want to stick to itself. If you know of good resources on this, shoot me an email.

For the past several days here in western Massachusetts, we have had very, very low humidity. Well, low for Massachusetts. It’s been anywhere from 30-50% in the morning, dropping to about 18% in the afternoon. The weather has also been bright, sunny and warm. And best of all, it is April vacation! So, I have had time to sit and process flax! Everything I’m working on this week is the variety Marilyn, though I’m chipping away at bundles from various years. Continue reading “Low Humidity! April Vacation!”

Magnification Technology Mach 2

Apparently one of the unforeseen functions of my blog is to document the decline in my vision over the decade of my forties. I have written about it here and here. Despite my attempts to be philosophical about it, I still find it annoying (at best) and unsettling (at worst) that I can’t see as well as I used to. Fortunately, magnification technologies come to my rescue at opportune moments. So honestly I cannot complain. Here’s a great example of such a rescue.

I’ve been stripping the seed bolls off of my flax from last summer, and sifting through debris for individual seeds. Flax seeds are shiny and glossy, and they stand out amidst the beautiful but comparatively lusterless dried leaves, flowers, and other bits of plant debris. Well, they stand out a *bit*. They do not stand out a *lot*. The chaff and other debris are highly textured and multicolored, and even glossy, shiny seeds can get lost in the mix. Especially with my not-so-awesome eyesight. The other day I was stripping the seeds off of the variety called Ariane. I’d removed all the seed bolls from the plants. Yay. However, I had a huge pile of debris to sift through with loose seeds mixed in. Sigh. Time to double down. Continue reading “Magnification Technology Mach 2”

If It’s April It Must Be Time to Plant Flax

It is, in fact, April. No foolin’. I am excited that it’s spring but, as usual, I’m ill prepared. Even though we had a mild winter here in terms of temperatures and snowfall, it was still winter. And I was still surprised by the sudden acceleration of the hours of daylight around the spring equinox. Winter winter winter winter winter, then, ta da, spring!

The other day I read on a blog post from one of the Vävstuga students that they had planted flax as part of the Väv Immersion class (tip: hit the back button to get back to my post from these links). What? I felt a sudden panic. I am not ready to plant. Continue reading “If It’s April It Must Be Time to Plant Flax”

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. Continue reading “FIBERuary in Western Massachusetts”

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 indigo Continue reading “Wrapping Up A Loose End”