Fiber Fiber Everywhere

When I’m describing the steps involved in extracting fiber from a fiber-plant such as flax, people often ask, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” I have thought about this question a lot. I have many ideas about it. Some can be backed up with references and citations, and some are just hunches based on my personal experience.

I believe that we humans come from a long line of brilliant thinkers and observers, experimenters and creators. The human use of flax fibers in Europe dates to at least 34,000 years ago. Humans and our human-like relatives and ancestors have been really smart and really creative for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, primates in general are really smart, so I am happily willing to accept any kind of habitat-modifying, tool-using, culture-teaching behaviors dating back 2 or 3 million years, at least. Which is all very deep. It is admittedly hard to have a clear mental picture of what life might have felt like for a hominid so long ago.

But lately I’ve been thinking that the answer to the question, “How on earth did anyone ever figure that out?” isn’t mysterious or inaccessible at all. With regard to fiber, at least, I actually think the answer is really straightforward:

People look around and notice things.

There is fiber lying around all over the place. I catch glimpses of it whenever I go for a walk… laying on the ground, tangled in a bush, climbing up a tree, hanging out in someone’s yard, or on the side of the road. Seriously, I can hardly walk anywhere without running into a tempting fiber source. Within walking distance of my home in western Massachusetts, there is literally fiber everywhere.

Here is a springtime tour of my plant-fiber observations. The first one is a photo I took along the dyke in Hadley the other day. This is an old milkweed stalk that weathered away through the winter. The fiber is too weak for cordage at this point, but it certainly catches the eye with its glistening sheen:

Here are a few photos of fibers in a vine that I am pretty sure is bittersweet, also along the dyke.  The touch of blue in the right hand photo is the Connecticut River. Bittersweet may be hated and vilified for its vigorous growth habits, but it sure looks promising for fiber:

Here is a close-up:

Here is another example of milkweed just lying there, right in the path, over at Amethyst Brook conservation area in Amherst. I took these photos yesterday:

These are from a walk today. This is yucca on the side of Route 9 in Amherst:

And this is more milkweed at Wentworth Farm in Amherst:

Black Walnut Ink

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

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

Microscopic Fiber Images

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

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

More Queen Anne’s Lace

Since Queen Anne’s Lace has been so abundant this year, I wanted to experiment with using the entire plant, roots and all, for dyeing. Quite a lot of plants needed to be weeded out of our garden plot, so on August 2nd I decided to try it. I was pretty certain it would make yellow, which is the most common color from wildflowers, but you never know until you try.

When I am dyeing, I often think of Jill Goodwin’s summary of her dyeing philosophy in her introduction to A Dyer’s Manual. I find two of her points especially comforting and motivational:

  • “Only use the results of other people as a rough guide, for their conditions will not be the same as your own. Prove everything by your own efforts.”
  • “Persevere with each problem, for sometimes after years of thought the solution will become clear.”

So, I do try to prove everything with my own efforts. And I try to persevere with each problem. Hopefully over the years I solve some of them.

Queen Anne's Lace roots and allI pulled up many plants and chopped them up with pruning shears. I got 4 lbs. 8 oz. of plant material. I liked the cauldron-esque look of the dye pots with stems, leaves, flowers, and especially the roots. Whereas the flowers alone smell lemony and sweet while they are simmering, the whole plant smells a bit more like carrots, as you might imagine. Lemony carrots. Continue reading “More Queen Anne’s Lace”

Queen Anne’s Lace and Woad

Supposedly this blog is about dyeing. Even though I don’t seem to write about it very often, I do sometimes actually dye things. This week I had great success with woolen yarns using Queen Anne’s Lace flowers. Plus I managed a successful woad vat, aerated and everything. Here are the lovely yellows, greens, and blues hanging on the line to dry in the back yard (each skein is about 4 ounces).

wool dyed with Queen Anne's Lace and woad Continue reading “Queen Anne’s Lace and Woad”

Mystery Cordage Plant Identified

Simone and I concur that our mystery cordage plant is Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. What a name! The milkweeds are named after the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asclepius. According to The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern Region) this is “undoubtedly because some species have long been used to treat a variety of ailments.” The Latin species name incarnata means “flesh-colored,” according to the Audubon Guide. Incarnata doesn’t make it into the “epithets” list in The Hutchinson Dictionary of Plant Names: Common and Botanical, unfortunately. To me the name implies that this is the god Asclepius incarnate (made physical, made flesh, the body of the god), which is spectacular. Continue reading “Mystery Cordage Plant Identified”

Mystery Cordage Photos

Back in May I was visiting family in Maryland, and made some cordage from an unidentified plant growing behind my sister’s apartment. Click here to read the earlier post and Simone’s comment. Now it is in bloom, and she has sent me some photos. At first glance I think it is some kind of milkweed relative, judging by the flowers. I will look into it. Here are the leaves.

mystery cordage leaf structure Continue reading “Mystery Cordage Photos”

Mystery Cordage

Last week I was down in Maryland visiting my sisters and seeing lots of family at a wedding. One morning, my mom and I went to consult with one of my sisters about various plants that had been planted by the previous tenants outside her apartment. In one spot we found some very intriguing dead and naturally weather-retted bast fiber from the previous year’s growth. Unfortunately I did not bring my camera so I don’t have a photo of it in situ. We don’t know what the plant is, but my sister will keep an eye on it as it develops so we can identify it. Here are some photos of the fiber and cordage.

mystery bast fiber 1mystery bast fiber 2mystery cordagemystery fiber and cordage in processMy method was this: I twisted a bundle of fibers enough to get a kink at the center, then bent the bundle in half. I used my teeth to hold the middle, and twisted both sides at the same time, between my thumbs and index fingers, rolling to the left. (That is, I twisted the left strand with my left hand, and the right strand with my right). Then I wrapped the two strands around each other twisting to the right. To add a new piece, I repeated the starting procedure, but inserted the new bent middle section into the “v” where the two strands separate. I tried to keep the two sides slightly uneven so that the splices would be staggered. I think it has a very pretty silvery quality. I would be happy to use this plant again, once I find out what it is.

What’s a Lichen?

What is a lichen, anyway? A lichen is a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus and another organism that can photosynthesize. Fungi do not photosynthesize, that is, they do not make their own food from sunlight (and carbon dioxide and water) using chlorophyll. They are heterotrophic, meaning they get their nutrition from outside themselves. Fungi are different from plants and have their own taxonomic kingdom. The photosynthesizing organisms in lichens are different kinds of algae, cyanobacteria, or sometimes both. The photosynthesizing part of a lichen is called the “photobiont” (short for photosynthetic symbiont).

The photobiont makes sugars and other carbohydrates through photosynthesis, and allows some of these nutrients to be absorbed by the fungus. In return, the fungus provides structure and stability, some protection from sunlight, and as much consistent moisture as the habitat can provide, by conducting water through its cell walls. The fungus combined with its photobiont grows into a particular shape or structure. By itself, with identical genetic information, the fungus would not grow into this shape. The algae and cyanobacteria would not be able to colonize rocks or bark or other places that lichens grow without the fungi.

Lichens are amazingly complex, and scientists still don’t know all the details about exactly how they work. They come in a huge range of colors, textures, shapes, and sizes, and grow on lots of different surfaces (or substrates) in a very wide range of habitats. Some lichens are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, and play a role in creating conditions to support plant life. Lichens readily accumulate minerals, including toxic compounds, are thus very susceptible to pollution. They grow very slowly. Foliose lichens (named for their leaf-like structure) like my Flavoparmelia caperata grow an average of .4-.5 mm a year. Umbilicates are also a type of foliose lichen with extra-big “leaves.” Umbilicate lichens form new cells at the center, which is why it doesn’t kill the lichen to tear off small pieces from the outside edge.

The acids and other compounds that make lichens useful for dyers serve a range of functions in the lichens themselves. Some are pigments that filter out certain wavelengths of light, some have antibiotic properties that inhibit other organisms that might compete with the slow-growing lichens, some make them taste bad so herbivores won’t eat them….

OK, I could go on and on, but if you’re interested you can read more on your own. Again, here are my two trusty references:

Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book by Karen Diadick Casselman. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001.

Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. This is THE book. In addition to being an incredible and beautiful reference, its bulk makes it useful as a book-binding press, and occasionally to hold up the printer:

lichen book holding up printer

A Tale of Lichen and Weird Winter Weather (Part Six)

This part of the story actually happens before the lye testing in Part Five, but to me it is the climax of the whole story, so I saved it until the end.

As the ground stayed bare this winter, I continued to see lots more (probably) Flavoparmelia caperata lying on the ground, and other lichens. It made me wonder how much usually gets buried under the snow. Does it usually get crushed and decompose? If it had been a regular snowy winter, I’d never even know it was there. Which leads me to….

Part Six: Non-Snowy Woods on the First of February

The first of February was glorious and warm and sunny. To celebrate the day, I went for a longer walk than usual. A hike. There was not a patch of snow on the ground anywhere, only occasional ice. Just as I was thinking about how happy I was that this non-snowy winter enabled me to learn more about lichens, I noticed a lot of umbilicates growing on a rock face that I’d never really noticed before. I scrabbled over to check at the base of the rocks for any fallen pieces. There was an incredible, astonishing abundance! I felt like I was in a fairy tale; I’d been thinking about how awesome lichens are, and then ta-da there were tons of them. Magic. And not just any lichens, the awesomest ones.

I filled both my pockets with loose pieces from the ground, but there was way more than my pockets could hold. A blissful day and a blissful foraging treat.

Here are some photos. Some pieces were right on the ground, and some were hidden under the leaves. The underside of these umbilicates is velvety and black. The top is greenish, olive, or brownish. They are sometimes called “rock tripe,” hence the labels on the photos (if you hover over or click on an image it tells you the title of the photo).

fallen rock tripe black undersidedamp fallen rock tripefallen rock tripe underneathdry fallen rock tripeI went back to the same spot on February 6th (another glorious day) with a gallon sized zip lock bag, and filled that also.

The discovery of this abundance made me wonder whether this much falls off every winter, or whether more pieces than usual broke off this year because of the weird (comparatively warm and dry) weather. Would I find this much again another winter? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. I think this weird winter was special.