Paper Making

In my retrospective of the past 9 months, I somehow skipped over January. Oops! Here it is:

In January I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon learning how to make paper with May Babcock of Paperslurry. If you are interested in hand-made paper, especially paper from your own local plant material, then check out her website. She has lots of excellent, clear tutorials and links to fabulous resources and inspiring projects.

High quality linen paper is nothing new, though in the past it would have been made from linen rags. I don’t have a lot of old linen rags kicking around the apartment, but I do have a lot of tow!

Tow is the name for the shorter fibers in the flax process. The long fibers are called line. When you process flax, you end up with a lot of tow, and proportionately less line. Line is special, so small-scale growers such as myself reserve it for spinning a fine thread. Tow is good for spinning, too, but can also be used for many other things.

May had generously offered to help me make paper with my own flax tow. She walked me through all the steps, and in one afternoon we turned a handful of tow into several sturdy sheets of paper!

First, we weighed out 3 ounces of tow. We snipped up the fibers into short pieces, between a half and three quarters of an inch long. We dropped them into a 5 gallon bucket of water:

While we snipped, May explained that flax has several unique properties as a papermaking fiber. It expands more than other fibers when it’s wet, it’s stickier, and it shrinks more than other fibers when its drying, unless it’s constrained while it dries (i.e., is dried while attached to a physical backing and under a weight).

Then, May set up her adorable little Hollander beater.

The fibers go through a crushing, smooshing, beating process inside that gray cylinder in the center. Inside is a roller and a plate with teeth and grooves. The numbers taped up on the wall behind the beater are May’s guide for how many times she has to turn the mechanism that sets the plate and rollers at the height she wants. Raising and lowering the mechanism increases or decreases the pressure on the fibers.

In the beater, the fibers are compressed and squeezed, not chopped, so that they stretch out until they are very fine and create a lot of surface area. The fine strands are called fibrils.

Then she turned the Hollander beater on. It’s really loud!

Then we gradually added the wet, snipped-up pieces of tow.

Underneath the table is a bucket for catching drips.

The motor is powerful, but the fibers can get bunched up when they are first going through the beater. May monitored carefully and broke apart the clumps to keep things moving smoothly.

Here’s the beater running once we added all the tow.

Every 20 minutes or so, she scooped out some of the fibers, stirred them in a jar of water, and held it up to the light. This was to check how finely the fibers had been broken down. Then she adjusted the height of the plate. When things seemed right, we set the timer and let the beater run for an hour. Meanwhile we went to the back of her studio to look at some of her beautiful paper samples and talk about plants.

When the hour was up, May filled up a tub with water and wetted down the supplies we’d be using the make the sheets of paper. It being January, it was pretty cold, so we used warm water for comfort.

On the right of the tray are pieces of army blanket that we used as felts between the sheets of paper.

May added some of the flax pulp to the warm water.

Then she stirred it around until the ratio of water to pulp was right. This step is called hogging. Then our slurry was ready!

At this point I stopped taking photographs because my hands were wet. I got a chance to pull several sheets of paper using a beautifully crafted deckel and mold. I made two sheets with inclusions, which involves placing an item between two thin sheets of paper. I used a long strand of flax that May had grown, and some of my un-cut tow.

May explained that one of the properties of linen in papermaking is that it is “slow draining” so you don’t need to add anything to the slurry. Other fibers require a mucilaginous or viscous “forming agent” so that the water will drain through the screen at the right speed.

This is a stack of sheets of interfacing. I pressed the papers onto these, pre-dampened, as they came off the screen.

After I pulled a few sheets of paper, May put the stack of felts and interfacing into a small book-binding press and squeezed out a lot of the water.

After about 15 minutes, we took them out of the press. We peeled the strong, sticky sheets of paper off of the wet interfacing and placed them on dry sheets of interfacing and felt. We stacked them up between pieces of thick corrugated cardboard inside her drying rack. Then she put a heavy weight on top of the stack, turned on two fans behind the whole set-up, and left them to dry.

After the papers were dry, she mailed them to me. Here are three that were constrained while they dried so they are relatively flat and smooth:

Here’s a close up:

Here are the two sheets with inclusions:

This one was dried without constraints so it is more shrunken and wrinkly:

It reminds me of a motto that my Flax and Linen Study group considered at one point, “Wear your wrinkles with pride!” To make a linen textile smooth and shiny requires a lot of pressure and labor. To whit, starch and the mangle (an admittedly obscure but interesting and not straightforward topic in North America).

However, being smooth, supple, and shiny is only one of linen’s magical modes. The strength and beauty of linen reveals itself in so many other ways, including crinkly, shrunken, dry, and indestructible! Linen as crone.

There are tiny pieces of straw in my paper because I hadn’t carded and cleaned up the tow for spinning. More careful preparation of the fiber ahead of time would have led to a smoother texture, I think. That said, the papers are really strong!

It was an incredibly fun and inspiring day. I was excited to learn yet another way to use the amazing and versatile properties of flax, Linum usitatissimum: the most useful. Thank you, May Babcock!

FIBERuary 2018

Since it has been so many months since I last posted, I am trying to catch up in chronological order. My last series of posts was from December 2017. This one is from February 2018.

Thanks to the efforts of Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm, and Liz Sorenson of Sheep and Shawl, among others, we have a new local tradition here in Western MA called FIBERuary. During the month of February, Carole features local fiber farmers and fiber artists on the FIBERuary blog, and Liz hosts a speaker series at her shop in South Deerfield, MA. 

I have been a contributor to the FIBERuary blog on a couple occasions, and a speaker at their speaker series. In these hot and humid days of August, I decided to share an expanded version of the post I wrote this February. It’s about one of my favorite dye plants, weld:

Growing Weld

If you are a gardener who is interested in dyeing with plants, there are many interesting dye plants that you can grow in your garden. Weld (Reseda luteola) is one of them. It is originally a Eurasian plant, and its use dates back to antiquity. It has not naturalized here in New England, unlike so many other Eurasian plants. So, if you want to use it, you have to grow it yourself or buy it from a natural dye supply company. It is relatively expensive to buy, but it’s very easy to grow, so I encourage you to grow your own. Weld produces a very lightfast source of yellow, thanks to the luteolin that is present in all the above-ground parts of the plant.

Starting Seed

I find that it is difficult to direct-sow. The seeds are incredibly small, and need to be kept consistently moist while germinating. I usually start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they’re big enough. I am fairly certain that only the black seeds are viable, but it is hard to to separate the green, yellow, and tan seeds efficiently, so I just plant a pinch of mixed seed and thin the seedlings if necessary. The photos below show the results of a germination test I ran in 2011. You can see that none of the yellow or brown seeds germinated, but the black seeds did:

The plant has a taproot, so transplant carefully. Weld prefers alkaline soil, and you can add chalk or lime to your bed if your soil is acidic.  Wherever you put it in your garden, be sure to leave space for much larger plants in the second year.

Weld is a biennial, which means that its lifecycle takes two years. In the first year, the plant grows low to the ground in a round clump or rosette.

The leaves are long and thin with wavy edges. You can use the leaves in the first year by cutting them close to the center of the plant. The quantity of plant material that you can gather in the first year is relatively small, though, so I usually wait until the second year to harvest weld.

In its second year, weld sends up a tall woody stalk that can get as high as 5 feet.

It produces tons of tiny creamy-colored flowers that are attractive to bees and other insects.

It is easy to save your own seed, though cleaning it can be a chore. Some dyers find that letting the plants go to seed produces an unwanted abundance of volunteer weld seedlings. In my experience, I get at most one or two volunteers a year, which is manageable.

To harvest weld, cut down the entire stalk in full bloom.

If you are saving seed, wait until you can see dark colored seeds at the lowest part of the flowering stalk before harvesting. The flower stalks keep adding new flowers at the tip, while the seeds mature at the base.

You can use weld fresh, or dry it for future use. I hang it upside down from a laundry-drying rack to dry. In some years, I have noticed a strong smell as the weld dries. It is not to everyone’s liking, so be prepared to dry it with ventilation or move your drying set-up if the smell becomes objectionable.

Once it’s dry, chop up the plant material to reduce the bulk, and store it in a dry location until you are ready to use it. The dried stalks can be extremely hard and woody, so I use garden clippers. I store dried weld in a paper bag to absorb any condensation when there are temperature fluctuations, and seal that inside a plastic bag. It also keeps well in a cardboard box.

Weld is known for producing extremely clear, bright yellows. It combines beautifully with indigo, Japanese indigo, or woad to make greens, and with madder to make oranges.

Icy Queen Anne’s Lace

On Christmas Eve my family went sledding on a snow, icy hill in New Hampshire. My sister Denise captured these beautiful images of Queen Anne’s Lace encased in ice after an ice storm.

You can see the seed heads at the tops of the plant stalks, still standing despite the weather. Here are a couple close-ups:

Queen Anne’s Lace is a beautiful plant in any season, at any phase of growth, but the ice adds a glistening sparkle! Below you can see the seeds pretty clearly. They are oval shaped with little hairs all over them. You can also see the remains of the structure of the umbel from when it was flowering.

I have been meaning to do a post about identifying dyeplants at different times of year. Knowing where plants are going to come up in the following season is very helpful. You can watch for their emergence and check back at favorite spots to see when they’re ready to harvest. I think it’s fun and exciting to understand what plants look like at different phases in their lifecycle.

Until I get around to writing that post, I recommend two books. My favorite guide on this topic is Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph DiTomaso. It has incredibly detailed photos and descriptions, different kinds of keys, a glossary, illustrations of botanical terms, comparison charts of look-alike plants, and more. The other is Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter by Lauren Brown. It has expressive black and white line drawings and poetic descriptions.

As I write this now in early August, the Queen Anne’s Lace is in full bloom and setting seed.

More Madder on Cotton

If you read my post about the tannin-iron-madder experiment, you may have noticed that I divided the original dyebath in half. I didn’t explain why at the time. My rationale was this: I  worried that the iron would affect the subsequent colors I got from the exhausted dyebath.

For the rest of the experiment, I prepared small pieces of cotton cloth with three different treatments, which I’ll describe below.

You can read my original post here for a description of how I made the madder dyebath and prepared the fiber.

Usually when I’m extracting madder roots, I use calcium carbonate and soda ash to make the water mineral-rich and alkaline. The soda ash is inspired by a comment by Rita Buchanan in A Weaver’s Garden that “the pigment alizarin dissolves better in alkaline solutions.” In Jim Liles’  recipe for “Amish Madder Purple” he directs you to use calcium or chalk in the dyebath (though he specifies calcium acetate). He doesn’t mention pH, so for that sample I didn’t mess with the pH (which was 7).

However, in the other half of the madder bath, I added a half teaspoon of calcium carbonate *plus* a teaspoon of soda ash, which brought the pH up to 9. The bath got noticeably pinker.

Here’s the first sample from this dyebath. You can see that it has a bright pink quality. It’s cheery but also earthy, and I like it a lot:

When I’m working with madder, I try to keep the temperature below 160 degrees F. I have read some recipes that call for strategically manipulating the temperature higher than that, and even boiling for a limited period of time, but I haven’t tried them. So, in this case I kept the temperature below 160, maintained it for an hour, and let the fiber cool in the bath overnight.

Then I combined the two dyebaths and added the next sample. The sample below was tannin, alum acetate, and madder exhaust. I didn’t add any soda ash to bump up the pH, nor did I test it. To my eye, it’s more orange-brown than the first sample.

Lastly, I put in a piece of cloth that was not treated with tannin. This was a thick 100% cotton plain-weave piece. It was scoured, mordanted with alum acetate (along with the other aluminum acetate pieces I’ve described in this series of posts), and then dyed.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of this series of posts, I have often found tannin to be a frustrating factor in my dye process. For many years I have used aluminum acetate by itself without tannin when I’m dyeing cellulose fibers. This is the kind of clear, bright pink that I’m used to from a madder exhaust:

Here are the last three madder samples stacked up together:

Here is the full set of samples I made that week (December 18th-21st, 2017):

After all these experiments, I am:

  1. Excited about the possibilities of tannin to extend the range of colors I can get on cellulose fibers.
  2. Excited about trying alternate recipes for mordanting cellulose that I came across while researching these topics, including Maiwa’s process for a combined aluminum acetate-aluminum sulfate process as described here. Scroll down to the section titled “How to Mordant Cotton or other Cellulose Fibers”.
  3. Less inclined to think of cotton as my dyeing nemesis, with the caveat that…
  4. For cellulose fibers, I still love linen more!

Tannin and Black Walnut on Cotton

I have often joked that using black walnut hulls on white wool is perhaps not the best use of my time. Black walnut hulls make various lovely shades of brown, but there are plenty of brown sheep.

Dyeing cotton brown, on the other hand, makes sense. There are naturally brown cottons, but they are not commonplace. Sally Fox has spent many years breeding naturally colored cottons in a range of beautiful colors, which you can see for sale here. However, most of the cotton that’s available at the moment is white.

Using the same heavy cotton twill samples that I used for the tannin-iron-madder and tannin-copper-weld experiment, I ran some samples with black walnut hulls. I should note that black walnut itself is a source of tannin, so the tannin step at the beginning was probably redundant. However, for this series of experiments, I treated the whole piece of cloth with tannin originally before I cut it up for samples.

I usually use walnut hulls when they are fresh in the fall. But since it was winter, I used dried hulls. I made the dyebath with 1.5 oz. dried hulls, which I extracted three times over three days and then combined the dyebaths. I am a fan of really giving the plant material time to soak to get the most out of it. This is especially true when the material is dried and woody.

As you can probably read on the label, the sample above was made with the sequence tannin, copper, weld, black walnut. You can read all the steps in the tannin-copper-weld process in my last post. I cut that piece of cloth in half and then in half again for these walnut experiments. This one was dyed in the original full-strength walnut dyebath, along with the sample below. With all of these walnut samples, I brought the bath up to 180 degrees, kept it there for an hour, and cooled the fiber in the bath overnight.

Above you see tannin, iron, black walnut. It was dyed in the same full-strength bath as the sample above it. For the iron process, see my earlier post about “Amish Purple”. I really like this warm chocolate brown. I was expecting a darker gray-brown because of the tannin-iron combination, but I think that would require a more concentrated black walnut bath.

The sample above was tannin, copper, weld, black walnut exhaust. “Exhausting” means using the same dyebath again to get a lighter color. After I pulled the first two pieces out, I put in this sample and the one described below. The stray pink thread is from the madder exhaust (which I will write about later).

The sample above is tannin, alum acetate, black walnut exhaust. Alum acetate is the mordant that I usually use with cellulose fibers. Many dyers recommend it for cellulose, rather than aluminum sulfate (which is what I use on wool). After the tannin treatment, I mordanted some of the cloth with alum acetate at a rate of 5% of the weight of the fiber. Use caution with alum acetate, as the powder is very fine and light, and goes airborne easily!  Once it was dissolved in the dyepot, I added the fiber and maintained the temperature at 100 degrees. That’s basically the temperature that hot water comes out of my tap, so it doesn’t really need to be heated at all. Maintain that temperature for an hour, stirring regularly. As with other dyeing steps, I usually let things cool overnight.

Here they are all next to each other:

From left to right, they are: tannin-copper-weld-black walnut; tannin-copper-weld-black walnut exhaust; tannin-alum acetate-black walnut exhaust; and tannin-iron, black walnut. A nice range of browns!

Tannin, Copper, and Weld on Cotton

As I mentioned in my last post, tannin is an important component when dyeing cotton. The same week that I ran my tannin-iron-madder experiment, I also made this lovely color with a tannin-copper-weld sequence:


Here’s how I did it. For the scouring and tannin details, you can read my last post. For the copper mordant, I used the ratio of half an ounce of copper sulfate per pound of fiber. For the quantity of the cloth I was mordanting, that was about a tenth of an ounce of copper. I dissolved the copper crystals in a stainless steel pot, then I intended to follow Jim Liles’ instructions and heat the mordant bath to 150 degrees.

It got a bit too hot, up to 200 degrees, while I was busy with other dyepots, so I added some cold water and took the pot off the heat. Then I waited for it to get back down to 150 degrees before adding the wetted-out cloth. Once I added the cloth, I kept the temperature as close to 150 degrees as I could for an hour, then let the cloth sit and cool in the mordant bath overnight.

For the weld bath, I used a 1:1 ratio of plant material to fiber, and extracted the dried weld tops three times over two days. For the first extraction, I added water to the chopped up stalks, leaves, and flowers, brought the temperature up to about 150-160 degrees F, and maintained that temperature for an hour. Then I shut off the heat and let the plant material cool and steep overnight. The next day I strained off the dye liquid and repeated the process first thing in the morning, but I only let the plant material steep until the evening. I strained off the second bath, and extracted the plant materials a third time that night.

The next day I combined all three extractions, and added half a teaspoon of calcium carbonate to the dyebath. The pH was only between 7-8. When I first added the cloth, I was not very pleased with the color. It takes time for color to develop with natural dyes, but you can often get a sense of what might be happening with the first color “strike”, or how the fiber first takes in the color. I felt it was drab and uninspiring.

Here’s what it looked like at first:

Fortunately, I know that weld is pH sensitive, like many dye plants, so I pulled out the cloth and stirred in half a teaspoon of dissolved soda ash. This brought the pH up to 9. When I re-introduced the cloth, it was much brighter. Yay.

At this point I stopped writing down notes or taking photos. I was running several different dye experiments that week, in an overly-ambitious whirlwind of winter vacation before heading off to celebrate Christmas festivities with my family. Oh, and buying a car.

Typically I would heat a weld dyebath to not higher than 180 degrees, maintain that for an hour, then let the fiber cool in the dyebath overnight. Then I pull out the fiber to dry completely before washing and rinsing. Let’s assume that’s what I did!

Tannin, Iron and Madder on Cotton

Way back in December, around the time of the winter solstice, I ran some dyeing experiments with heavy cotton twill cloth. I have had some frustrations with cotton over the years, some of which I’ve documented here on this blog. On cotton yarns and cloth, I often get colors that are much lighter than I want, or a different shade than I was expecting.

Nevertheless, there are some colors and techniques that have always intrigued me. So in December I tried a recipe for “Amish Madder Purple” from Jim Liles’ book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing.

Cotton, like other plant-derived fibers, is primarily composed of cellulose. Cellulose is harder to dye with natural dyes than protein fibers. Protein fibers come from animals, for example: wool from sheep, mohair from Angora goats, alpaca from alpacas, llama from llamas, and angora from rabbits. Plant fibers can come from a wide range of sources, such as cotton, linen (from flax), hemp, and ramie (from a type of nettle).

Most plant-based dyes require a mordant, whether you’re dyeing plant fibers or animal fibers. A mordant is a metallic salt which bonds to the fiber and creates sites for the dye molecules to attach to. It’s like a bridge between the dye and the fiber. Protein fibers are able to bond with plant-based dyes much more easily than cellulose, due to their chemical composition.

When you are dyeing cellulose fibers, you need to add some extra steps to the process. One step that improves the depth and fastness of color on cotton is to use tannin in conjunction with your mordant.

The only downside of using tannin is that it can darken the color and make it more brown. There are lots of sources of tannin, some of which produce a light yellow or beige, others a pale pink, and still others dark yellows and browns. This page from Maiwa has some useful information about tannins. But I had found in the past that even with the lightest tannin I had tried (gallotannin from oak galls), I didn’t like the way colors shifted to a muddier tone.

However, for this recipe, the color was supposed to be dark and rich. So, tannin was my friend this time around.

Tannin combined with iron does something amazing! Check it out:

In the tub on the left are the samples of cloth that have been scoured in a liquid cationic scour from Earthues (via Nancy Zeller at Long Ridge Farm) along with soda ash. I used scour at a rate of 5.5% of the weight of the goods (the weight of the dry cloth), and soda ash at 2% of the weight of the goods. Following Earthues’ general directions, I dissolved both the scour and the soda ash in a pot of hot water, added the fiber, brought it up to 180 degrees F., then maintained it at that temperature for 30 minutes. I pulled out the cloth while it was still pretty hot and rinsed it well. I should say, too, that the cloth had already been washed in a washing machine with my usual laundry detergent. Well-scoured cotton is key.

Then the cloth was soaked in a tannin solution overnight (roughly 12 hours). For twelve ounces of fiber I used a little less than 4 oz. of gallotannin from Earthues. After that I let the cloth dry, then cut it into smaller pieces for my experiments. Each little sample was about 1.5 oz.

On the right hand side of the photo above, you can see the dramatic shift in color when the tannin-treated fiber was submerged in a solution of ferrous sulfate (iron) for 30 minutes. For the small samples I was doing, I used a quarter of a teaspoon of iron dissolved in a stainless steel pot with 2 gallons of hot water. Iron can make blotches, so I “worked” the fiber, meaning I picked it up and moved it around under the water. Wear gloves! This is an important safety rule when working with mordants. The color shifted noticeably after only ten minutes! I have to say, it was really exciting!

The last step in this “Amish Purple” recipe is the madder dyebath. A while ago I bought powdered madder root on sale from Dharma Trading. It is a little tricky to work with because it is very fine and hard to strain, but the price was right. I used about a 1:1 ratio of plant material to fiber, extracted the madder twice over two days, then combined the two dyebaths. I kept the temperature on the madder bath around 130 degrees F while it was heating.

Once the madder bath was strained, I divided the dyebath in half. In one half, I put one of the little samples into the dyebath overnight just to soak. In the morning I pulled it out, stirred in a quarter of a teaspoon of dissolved calcium carbonate, returned the cloth to the pot, and heated it. The pH was 7. While dyeing the cloth, I let the bath get up to 160 degrees and maintained that temperature for an hour.

Here are some photos of the madder bath on the stove:

On the far right above you can see the sample while it was still wet. Here’s what it looks like all washed and dried:

Here you can see the madder purple next to some pieces of tannin-iron cloth without any additional dye:

I really like the rich eggplant-purple in the madder sample. I expected the tannin-iron samples to be more of a charcoal gray, but they have a purplish tint as you can see here. Clearly, tannin on cotton is way more exciting than I previously gave it credit for!

Weaving Star Work

Back in the fall of 2016, I was registered for a class on 18th and 19th century handwoven textiles with Marjie Thompson. Each of us in the workshop was going to set up a loom ahead of time with a specific pattern. We’d bring our looms to the workshop and, during the weekend, we would all go around and weave a sample on each person’s loom. By the end of the weekend we would have lots of samples of different patterns. I was very excited.

I got my draft in the mail. A draft is the plan for a weaving project that tells you how to set up your loom to weave that particular design. I wound the warp, threaded my loom, organized the tie-up, wove a sample, and then got sick. I wasn’t able to attend the actual workshop.

The pattern I was given is called Leisey Star. The weave structure is known as “Star Work.” My specific pattern came from the manuscript of Henry Leisey in the collection of the Landis Valley Farm Museum in Lancaster, PA. I was excited to get this pattern because Landis Valley was one of the first places that I bought fiber flax seed from years ago, through their heirloom seed project. Continue reading “Weaving Star Work”

Praying Mantis Egg Cases

Here’s another reflection on the fascinating intricacies of plant-insect relationships.

Way back in April, I was prepping some beds to plant woad at our Amethyst Brook community garden plot. I noticed this egg case on a hyssop plant:

I was pretty sure it was a praying mantis egg case. Several year ago, a parent in my class at school brought us a praying mantis egg case to observe. She told us to leave it in a glass jar in the garden shed all winter. In the spring when it started to warm up, we brought the jar into the classroom. Continue reading “Praying Mantis Egg Cases”

Goldenrod Ball Galls

One of the things I love about dyeing with plants is that plants are amazing and awe-inspiring in so many other ways, too. First of all, they create their own food from energy from the sun, and provide all of us oxygen-breathers and plant-consumers with life and sustenance. For that alone I am so grateful. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of amazing things about plants!

They are an integral part of complex inter-relationships that are not always obvious at my human eye level. I catch glimpses of some of these sometimes while I walk in the fields and woods, or when I garden. It makes me realize how much I don’t know about the intricate network of relationships between plants, animals, and microorganisms that are going on around me all the time. Continue reading “Goldenrod Ball Galls”