Another Woad Vat

Yesterday I picked 8 and a half pounds of woad leaves. This is a lot, probably the largest quantity I’ve harvested at one time. Many of the leaves are droopy and yellow at this point in the summer. It has been hot and dry, but there is a lot of color in them, so no worries.

woad in AugustI had written earlier in the summer about woad’s enemies. To fend off the cabbage whites, I planted two hyssop plants, which are supposed to help. I could only find anise hyssop, which may or may not be the right type. It definitely attracts the adult butterflies, as a food source I suspect. But I’m not sure it keeps them from laying eggs on the woad, and it’s the caterpillars that eat the woad leaves, not the butterflies.

anise hyssopI think at this point in the summer that slugs are the main predator on the woad, but I did find quite a few cabbage white eggs. The hyssop is very pretty, though, and it smells great, and the woad is doing OK, so even if the cabbage whites are still laying eggs on it, I guess it’s all fine. Continue reading “Another Woad Vat”

Microscope Images of Flax Fibers

On Thursday, May 17th, our flax and linen study group met at the lab of one of our members to look at flax fibers under a microscope (and cotton and wool, for comparison). It was so incredibly fun!

Here are the tools and equipment we used to make slides.

making slides (permanent mount)We used tweezers to position our samples and to pull them apart a little to separate the fibers so the light could pass through. We put our samples on a slide (in the square boxes on the right), and added a drop of the mounting adhesive on top (from the little bottle in the blue box). Then we dropped on a small glass cover and used tweezers to press out the air bubbles and get the adhesive to spread evenly between the slide and the cover (small glass covers are in the orange box).  Sharpies are for labeling slides. The pink yarn in back is madder-dyed 40/2 linen. Scissors and razor blades are for cutting. Because the samples were dry, we could make permanent mounts.

Folks brought in a range of flax in various stages of processing: dried but un-retted, retted but unbroken, and retted and broken but not scutched (or hetcheled), and fully processed strick, both old and recent. We looked at flax in several different stages including some of my naturally dyed yarn.

Here is the microscope.

microscopeHere’s the big monitor, which was awesome because we could all see the slides without having to take turns looking through the microscope.

monitorThe program let us do things like adjust the color and take photographs.

We took a lot of very beautiful photos. Here are a few highlights. This image shows the tips of two flax cells overlapping. You can see it in the upper-most edge of the large central bundle, just to the right of the less-in-focus strand that’s crossing diagonally in the left hand corner. Those two greyish-colored pointy tips are the ends of two fiber cells.

retted and broken flax cell ends overlapThe granular purplish area just to the right of the overlapping cell ends shows that part of the structure of the fiber there is hollow. The black circles are air bubbles. Beautiful but irrelevant.

This image shows cotton fibers for comparison. Cotton fibers are flat and ribbon-like in structure, and they twist, whereas flax fibers are rounded or tubular.

cotton 2There is some twist in the structure of flax fibers, also. The image below shows this twisting (in a greenish color in the thin strand in the center). One important thing I learned on Thursday is that the flax fibers we use for spinning and weaving are not the fibers from the circulatory system of the plant (xylem and phloem), which I had previously believed. In fact, they are the structures that give the plant strength and rigidity. They are associated with the vascular cells but are different.

retted and broken flax twistThe two images below show strick fibers (fully processed and ready to spin) from the Zinzendorf brothers in Pennsylvania. The flax was grown and processed on their farm. In the top photo, the center-most green, translucent strand shows the horizontal bars that are typical of flax fibers. In the upper left hand corner you can also see some brown decayed plant matter that is still sticking to the fibers. Click on the images to see a larger view.

brother johannes strickbrother johannes strick 2On slide below we used a stain that shows lignin (the woody material that makes the fibers strong and rigid) in blue and pectin (the starchy glue that holds cells together) in pink. This is a piece of water-retted flax fiber. In the process of water retting, bacteria consume the pectins and allow the fibers inside the plant stalk to separate from the woody core and the outside “skin” of the stalk. If you let the retting continue until all the pectins are eaten, then the individual cells separate also, and you don’t get long fibers to spin. You just get a hairy mess. So, since these fibers are still holding together, there is still pectin present. We think the blue made the pink hard to see. You can see the tubular structure of the flax fibers and the horizontal bars very clearly.

stained retted flaxThe photos below show pale pink madder-dyed 40/2 linen. I used alum acetate for the mordant. I was amazed at how the color sticks to the fibers in clumps. I wonder if yarns with a darker color would show the color adhering more evenly.

madder dyed linen yarn1This photo shows some strands of undyed fiber next to the dyed fibers. I wonder if these were on the inside of the yarn and came free when I teased apart the snippet of yarn to put on the slide.

undyed strandWho knows what is going on here, but whatever it is, it doesn’t look good. That little nugget of color is about to get away.

madder clumpHopefully we will have a chance in future to look at cross sections of the plant stalks at different points in their growth, to see how the fiber bundles develop. Science is fun!



New Huck Lace Bookmarks–Still Pink, Still Heart-y

Since my madder-dyed linen heart-motif Huck lace bookmarks have been selling pretty well, and since Mothers Day is coming up soon, I decided to weave some more of them. Also, I thought my loyal readers might like a little break from photos of small flax green plants (as there will be a lot more on the way). So, here’s a photo of a bookmark in progress, showing the edge of the two-inch spacer I use to separate each one.

book mark with spacerThere are a lot of steps involved in planning and weaving anything. There are more steps involved if you dye your own yarn and, like me, do not necessarily dye it for a specific project. For example, I had dyed three skeins of 40/2 linen with madder a while back, and had used two of them for my previous batch of bookmarks. Luckily, I keep copious records and I always “show my work,” since I was raised in that 1980s math-generation. So, I knew that I had used 2.16 ounces for the warp last time (with a little left over) and 1.56 ounces for the weft (with almost a full bobbin left over). With 3.72 ounces I wound a ten yard warp and wove 23 bookmarks, plus some weft to spare.

My third skein was 1.7 ounces, a very pale but pretty shade of bluish-pink (the others were more on the red/orange/salmon side of pink). That’s about half as much as I used in my last project, and the question was, how many bookmarks could that make? There are a few ways to find out. Here’s my way.

Yarn is usually sold with a certain amount of helpful information provided, e.g., its size and ply. Sometimes the vendor will also give you a measurement called “yards per pound” which tells you just what it sounds like: how many yards of that yarn it takes to weigh a pound (or an ounce, if you divide by 16). If you don’t know the yards per pound, you can figure it out (or get a good approximation) using a nifty tool called a McMorran yarn balance. You could use the yards per pound for the yarn, and the weight of your skein, to figure out how many yards your skein is.

However, when dealing with limited quantities of naturally dyed yarns (or handspun, naturally dyed yarn, even more so), I have found that the best way to be certain of what I have is to measure. Ideally I would have a niddy noddy that measured skeins by the yard or some other useful increment, but mine doesn’t. So, I often count out the length on a warping board, and that’s what I did this time. OK, done! I had 630 yards of pale pink. Since I had roughly half as much yarn as I used in the last batch, I estimated that I could wind a 5 yard warp and get about 11 bookmarks out of it. But how to be certain? (Certainty is important to me, to a point). Math to the rescue.

To calculate the amount of yarn I’d need for the warp, I first multiplied the width in the reed by the ends per inch (which really just tells you the number of ends in my project, which I actually knew already). My project has 75 ends (a bit more than 2 inches in the reed sett at 36 ends per inch, or epi). Then, I multiplied that by the number of yards in my desired warp, which means I’d need 375 yards for a 5 yard warp. To calculate the number of yards I’d need for the weft, I multiplied the length of each bookmark (12 inches) by the number of bookmarks I thought I could make (11), which meant I would need to weave 132 inches of warp. That’s the length part of the bookmark (two inches of each bookmark is just fringe, which doesn’t use any weft, so I figure this covers the take-up and then some…see below). Now for the width, 75 ends, which means I need a total of 9900 inches (75×132) or 275 yards of weft (divide 9900 by 36). Add that to the warp requirements, and you get 650 yards total. Well, I was 20 yards short, but luckily I had a bobbinful from last time that was definitely more than 20 yards.

My way is sort of a middle way. I could have gone with my initial estimate, which was accurate enough. Or, I could do a lot more fastidious calculations involving additional factors, including draw-in (how much the project pulls in as you weave compared to its width in the reed), take-up (how much it shortens in length due to the fact that the threads are traveling over and under one another; even though the distance taken up by each little bump is minute, it adds up over the length of the warp), and shrinkage (how much it shrinks when you wash it). I have notes about all these things from the last batch of bookmarks (“I have detailed files…“), but I glossed these considerations because eventually you just have to get started on the weaving before it actually IS Mothers Day.

So, I wound a 5 yard warp, dressed the loom, and began weaving away. The first two bookmarks were happy enough (the second was a little squat from beating too hard). Then near the end of the third, I got one broken end, and then immediately another. Grrr. Broken ends are when one, or more, of the yarns in the warp break. Then you have to stop and fix them, and it slows everything down. These bookmarks take me about an hour and a half *each* as it is (including winding the warp, dressing the loom, weaving, washing, ironing, trimming, but not including the dyeing because that labor is infinite and cannot even be quantified). So, I fixed them and then decided I needed to be more strategic about preventing any more broken ends.

A note here. I had problems with broken ends last time, too, and didn’t ever solve the problem. I blamed my yarn, and thought perhaps it was not high-quality. But then I had the good fortune to confer with another weaver who weaves with the same yarn, and he said he has no trouble with it and thinks it’s very good quality. He also hand-dyes his own yarns, but with synthetic dyes, so they are not subjected to the same high-temperature, high-alkaline treatment that mine are. The fault, we decided, was in my comparatively harsh treatment of the fibers in the scouring process (too much soda ash and boiling water is maybe a bad thing). Something to keep in mind as I perfect my cellulose techniques. In sum:

1. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the yarn.

2. I only had myself to blame for its weakness.

3. I will certainly need to continue to use soda ash and may run into this problem again.

Thus, I’d better find a way to solve the problem.

Much of the information I have read about weaving with linen insists that you have to size the warp (or apply “paste”). I have never sized a warp. I admit my total ignorance, and even prejudice, on this matter. Partly, I just can’t believe it actually helps rather than make everything worse, though I don’t want to offend the hundreds of weavers who say it does help. But mostly I cannot imagine having a lot of sticky-when-wet-dusty-when-dry starch smearing all over my lovely loom and getting everything gross. NO!

So, instead I cast about in my memory for other ideas I had read about…. Linen fibers are stronger when damp. Weave in the basement? Don’t have one. Run a humidifier by the loom? Our apartment is built on a concrete slab by a stream in the floodplain of the Fort River, more generally located in the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States of America. I can’t imagine voluntarily adding extra moisture to the air. We have to run a dehumidifier in the summer to keep the mildew at bay. So, NO! Then I recalled someone saying that it used to be her job to spray the warp to keep it damp as her mother worked. So, I acquired a clean spray bottle (ours always get filled up with fish emulsion or borax or vinegar or somesuch thing, don’t ask me why).

spray bottle with waterI put some water in it, and I sprayed the warp just at and above the fell line (where the beater presses the new rows, or picks, of weft into place). Bad idea. Everything got wobbly, the fibers swelled up, nobody could stay in their correct place and threads were pushing and pulling all over the place. It was a sad sight to see among my orderly little linen threads. So I let it dry. Then I decided to spray up where the beater rests when it’s upright (the white cloth in the photo is to absorb excess water and wipe off droplets from the shuttle race and reed).

spraying near the reed when the beater is uprightThen I pulled the beater forward and sprayed in amongst the heddles.

spraying among the heddlesThis was the zone of weakness, where the breakages occurred, where there must have been a bad combination of abrasion and stress. In addition to keeping that region of the warp damp, I also kept the fell line closer to the breast beam and advanced the warp more often so I was always weaving with the widest possible shed. These techniques are good practice anyway, but when I’m feeling pressed for time I try to push it a little. You can’t really push linen.  I re-sprayed each time I advanced the warp. And ta da!  Success! I wove 5 more bookmarks with narry a broken end!

Last but not least, if you read my earlier post about hemstitching and Chuang Tzu, you may remember my trouble with fraying in the hemstitching process. I tried adding twist as I worked, using a magnifying glass, and other tricks. But the one that really seems to work is wetting the thread. Don’t get it too wet, or it swells up, and then the water absorbs into the woven cloth and it also swells up, and then even with a magnifying glass you can’t see where the holes are or get your needle through…. Enough water to make it damp. Once in a workshop at Long Ridge Farm, when she was describing how wet you want your cloth when you apply soybean-milk as a binder, Michele Wipplinger described it as feeling damp, but only just damp, not wet, and primarily cold. You feel for the temperature. It’s a bit like that with the hemstitching thread (which is a piece of extra weft yarn reserved for the purpose of securing the edges of my bookmarks. Six times the width of the bookmark is optimal. Five times is enough, but it cuts it a little close and is stressful.) You want it cool, damp, but not dripping wet. And bingo.

You can go buy my new batch of bookmarks at the Shelburne Arts Co-op in Shelburne Falls or at Saw Mill River Arts in Montague.

Exhausted Madder and Exhausted with my Warp

I have exhausted the madder bath I’ve been working on.

madder exhaust on bleached cottonThese are the 10/2 bleached cotton skeins which were double-mordanted with aluminum acetate and heated in the calcium carbonate fixing solution. Actually, I could probably run one more bath for an extremely pale pink, but I’m ready to move on with other projects.

Now that I have a pretty decent stash of naturally dyed cotton, linen, and cottolin, I have been using only naturally dyed pattern weft yarns for my current batch of book cloth (the warp and tabby yarns are commercial). Thus far, I have really enjoyed using yarns that I dyed myself. However, on Monday I was having a mightily difficult time choosing color combinations. I couldn’t figure out what my problem was, but I was dissatisfied with everything I tried.  Colors that I had been perfectly happy with before–my screaming yellow weld, for example–looked ugly and annoying.

After a while I realized that I was just tired of weaving the same pattern over and over again (Young Lovers Knot). I put on enough warp for about 20 pieces, with the idea that I was being efficient. But instead I was bored. I am never, ever bored. There is so much to do all the time, and so many interesting things in the world, how could I ever be bored? It took me a while to recognize the feeling, and I felt better when I figured it out.

So, I decided to mix things up a little. I bought some new spring-like colors of 20/2 cotton (the sadly discontinued line from UKI) and decided to use commercially dyed 10/2 for the pattern weft for a while. I also switched from weaving the Young Lovers Knot pattern “Star Fashion” (which gives it those nice diagonal lines) to weaving it “Rose Fashion” (which makes all the motifs more rounded). It was a nice change of pace, and the new colors got me motivated again. In fact, with the new tabby colors, my naturally dyed yarns have taken on all sorts of new possibilities. Here is a 20/2 linen madder-dyed skein from the recent dyebath woven with a rich purple commercially dyed 20/2 cotton tabby weft. It’s sort of easter-eggy but considering that crocuses, daffodils, and all the other bulbs are blooming now, it feels OK to me.

madder-dyed pattern weft with purple tabby

Madder Dyed Yarns

After a leisurely process of heating, soaking, and delayed rinse, the first four skeins of madder-dyed yarns are done. Here they are outside today, a bright and sunny day.

madder dyed yarnsI’ve done four dyebaths so far. The photo above shows successive dyebaths moving from right to left. The yarn on the cone is from the first dyebath. The yarns in the first three dyebaths were 20/2 linen and the fourth was 22/2 cottolin. The linen yarns were mordanted with alum acetate, and the cottolin was mordanted with alum acetate plus tannin. The weight of goods in each dyebath was about 2 ounces.

For the last couple exhaust baths I am preparing 10/2 cotton (bleached) because that’s what I have on hand at the moment. After some disappointing results with my last two umbilicate dyebaths, and out of a general desire to achieve greater depth and brightness of colors on cellulose fibers, I am going to try some new procedures. I’m especially frustrated with cotton at the moment, and for help I am turning to Jim Liles’ book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use. In his instructions for scouring cotton, Liles writes, “… simmer or boil for an absolute minimum of 2 hours. Three or 4 hours is better in some cases, and in the old days cotton was sometimes scoured at the boil for 8 hours. Cotton is full of wax, pectic substances, and oil, all of which must be removed.” This is much longer than I’ve ever scoured before.

So, I boiled the skeins for two hours with anionic scour (from Earthues) and soda ash. Then I rinsed them three times, and mordanted with alum acetate at 5% weight of the goods at 100 degrees for one hour, let the yarns steep in the mordant for a couple days, dried them, and am now re-mordanting in the same mordant bath. This procedure is a combination of my usual cellulose treatments (based on recommendations from Earthues) and recommendations from Jim Liles.

Double-mordanting with a period of drying in between is a new experiment for me. Liles gives instructions for making your own aluminum acetate, and writes that you should wait until the acetic acid smell has dissipated before proceeding with dyeing. Since I am using alum acetate that I did not have to make myself, I didn’t detect any acetic acid smell after mordanting the first time, so I went ahead with the second mordant bath after just drying the skeins for a day.

Next will come the “fixing solution” Liles recommends. To remove unbonded mordant, he recommends soaking with a solution of calcium carbonate or sodium phosphate for 30 minutes, then rinsing with water. I’m not sure from the book whether I can just use calcium carbonate, or whether it has to be soaked with cattle or sheep dung. It seems to me that if I have the calcium carbonate, I don’t need the dung (since that seems to be a source of sodium and calcium phosphate), but maybe it helps.

Since I am already pretty far along with this madder project, I’m not planning to make any changes to my usual dyeing, drying, or rinsing steps with the last exhaust baths this time around.

However, for my next madder project I will try one of Liles’ recipes for madder red. Reading through his recipes has been very eye-opening and I am fascinated by, and kind of surprised by, many of the things he writes about. For example, instead of just rinsing the madder-dyed goods, he describes a process where the dyed material is simmered or boiled with soap. This is supposed to make the color brighter and more clear. I watch the temperature very carefully while the roots are extracting and the yarn is in the dyebath to make sure it *doesn’t* boil or even simmer. It never occurred to me that high heat later in the process could be beneficial. Also, he writes that the dyebath ought to be acidic when dyeing cotton or linen with madder. Oops. Did you see my pH comments in the last post? Clearly I had the wrong idea about what that calcium carbonate was for. In fact, he writes that making the dyebath alkaline will produce a bluish-purple. Well, I didn’t get anything like purple this time with my alkaline dyebath, but maybe I can…. So many things to try.

Here’s the madder-dyed linen yarn getting woven into cloth with black 20/2 cotton tabby weft.

cloth with madder-dyed yarn coming around the breast beamThis shot is from underneath the breastbeam to show the cloth winding onto the cloth beam. I really like these colors together. The blue-green is woad overdyed with weld.

book cloth going onto cloth beam


Madder and Flavoparmelia Dyebaths

After three extractions and a lot of soaking in between, my madder and lichen baths are ready to go. I’m sticking with Flavoparmelia caperata for the ID on the bark-growing foliose lichen, though I’m sure I could be wrong.

For each dyebath, I combined all three extractions. Next for some tinkering.

Here are the color and pH of the madder bath before I did anything to it. Brown.

initial madder bath colorinitial madder pHI would call that pH6 which is acidic, not where I want it to be to develop good reds. So, first I added more calcium carbonate (there was already one teaspoon in the roots as I extracted them). This did not produce much of a pH shift (see below). I’d still call that 6, though I don’t know what’s up with that bottom square. It’s not supposed to be so orange. Happily, the color darkened and shifted a little from brown to red.

madder bath color with chalkmadder bath pH with chalkI wanted to get the pH up a little, so I added 1/2 teaspoon dissolved soda ash at first, which got it up to pH 8 (photo on the left below). The dyepot contains about 2 gallons of liquid. I did not weigh my modifiers or figure out the percent on the weight of the dyestuff this time around (I extracted 8 ounces of roots). After another half teaspoon of dissolved soda ash, the pH was 9, which I was happy with (photo on right).

madder bath pH with half teaspoon soda ashmadder bath pH with 1 teaspoon soda ash





Since I’m dyeing linen, I’m not worried about making it too alkaline. I introduced a 2 ounce skein of 20/2 linen half bleach, which I had mordanted with alum acetate back in December, and re-mordanted yesterday for good measure. After 30 minutes heating, the color was promising:

linen yarn in madder bath at 30 minutesHere is what it looked like once I got up to my target, and maximum, temperature of 160 degrees (over 160 you’ll get brown rather than red tones):

linen yarn in madder bath at 160 degreesI am very satisfied with this so far. My quest to create rich color on linen yarns seems to be advancing, though I shouldn’t speak too soon. The color is always lighter once it is dried and rinsed. I held the temp between 150 and 160 for an hour (and actually had to shut off the heat for a while to keep it from getting too hot). Next, the skein will sit and soak all day and overnight in the dyebath, and then it’ll drip dry before I rinse it. I find that delaying the rinse helps with fastness. So, that’s the status of the madder bath. As the week progresses, I expect to re-use the bath repeatedly and get a lot of pink, salmon, apricot, and so on until it’s exhausted.

The Flavoparmelia experiment is less exciting, but at least now I know not to bother with it again, so that’s useful information anyway. Here’s the initial color of the dyebath with all three extractions combined (I started with 5.4 ounces of lichens including a lot of bark).

initial color of Flavorparmelia bathThe pH was a bit weird. I didn’t take a photo (by now you’re probably tired of photos of pH strips). It looked like 6 at first, but as the liquid wicked up it shifted to 5. The initial color of the skein was light and not promising.

linen yarn in Flavoparmelia bath at 30 minutes pH 5Just for the heck of it I decided to see if the color was pH sensitive (since I already had the soda ash out anyway…). I put some of the hot dyebath liquid in a jar and added 1/4 teaspoon of soda ash. It darkened, so I decided to add this solution to the dyebath (I took out the skein first). Since this dyebath contains less liquid than the madder pot, about one gallon rather than two, even such a little soda ash had a noticeable effect on the pH, which went up to 8.

Flavorparmelia plus quarter teaspoon soda ashlinen yarn in Flavoparmelia dyebathlinen yarn in Flavoparmelia bath after 8 hours




OK, I guess there isn’t a big difference between these two photos. On the left is the yarn halfway through heating it, and on the right is how it looks after sitting and soaking for eight hours. I do not plan to exhaust this bath.

February 29th, 2012

The Leap Day of the Leap Year

leap year snow Today it is snowing. A much more typical wintry day than February 1st. Here’s what I have been doing so far today, fiber-wise:

I wove a section on my new warp, threaded once again with Young Lovers Knot, for a new batch of journals. Today I wove the section in the photo below. The blue is 22/2 cottolin dyed with woad and weld, and the tabby weft is teal 20/2 cotton, commercially dyed. When I first dyed the cottolin I was disappointed not to get a better green, but with the brighter colored tabby background it looks very nice anyway.

woad and weld dyed cottolinI changed the treadling for the sections where I’m using 20/2 linen or 22/2 cottolin because no matter what I do, I can’t beat it square with these yarns. With 10/2 cotton or 10/2 tencel it’s not a problem. Linen is just less inclined to submit to compression. It’s one of the things I love about linen, it has a mind of its own. And really, it’s not meant for overshot pattern weft, so who can blame it? To accommodate the linen, I shortened the square (or table) by two picks.

I wet-spun spun some bleached flax top (from Louet, not my own). It’s tow (short fibers). I did about half this bobbin today. My legs got wet, but it went with the snowy theme outdoors, so I didn’t really mind.

wet spun towI was originally planning to spin a second bobbin and ply them, but I think I will leave it as singles and take out some of the extra twist when I wind it onto bobbins for weaving. My new plan is to spin the other half dry and then weave samples with them (using them for weft) to see if there is a noticeable difference between wet and dry spun tow.

I did the second extraction on two new dyebaths that I started over the weekend. One is madder (8 oz. roots bought from Aurora Silk a few years ago). The other is the Flavoparmelia lichens I collected this winter, plus the bark they were growing on. Since it is snowing, I heated these indoors today. Fortunately, they both smell amazing. Too bad you can’t smell them. The lichen smells like hot piney woods in the summer or a toasty fire in a cabin in the woods. The madder smells fruity, like red wine or blackberries getting boiled for jelly.

flavoparmelia dyebathmadder dyebathI plan to extract each one more time, then combine the extractions for stronger color. With the combined extractions, I am hoping to get a respectably rich color from the first madder bath, at least. The Flavoparmelia is an experiment, but I figure I’ll give it every opportunity to yield a strong color, if it can.

I am sticking with cellulose yarns for the time being, which are proving to be tricky. The colors are coming out lighter than I expect each time, with the exception of the CRAZY bright weld earlier in the fall/winter. Here’s how it’s looking woven up. These two photos show 20/2 linen half-bleach pattern weft with black 20/2 cotton tabby (on the black warp).

weld dyed linenweld after woadThese two show the same weld-dyed yarn with a light blue 20/2 cotton tabby weft. It’s a very woady blue, but it’s commercial. (In these sections I had not yet shortened the square, hence it is rectangular.)

weld with blue tabbyweld with blue tabby closeupLast but not least, I have stirred up my new umbilicate lichen vats to incorporate oxygen. I will post about that separately.

It’s been great to have an extra day to work on all these projects. We should have a leap day every year.



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

Part Five: Picking up Fallen Lichen in the Non-Snowy Woods

Right after the big storm in October, we had a spell of very warm weather and all the snow melted at the beginning of November. However, the broken trees and branches still lay everywhere. Lichen and salvage botany were very much still on my mind. Karen Diadick Casselman wrote in Lichen Dyes that in the woods behind her house, several species of lichen dropped daily to the ground, which provided an almost unlimited supply, should she choose to use them. (She went on to say that she focuses on studying lichens rather than on dyeing in volume.) I wondered how much lichen could be gathered if I picked up only what had fallen on the trail, road, or sidewalk as I went on my walks, and only what was most abundant. Well, in one week of walking almost every day, I had 4 cups of this lovely stuff (including quite a lot of bark, to which it was attached):

lichen on groundlichen on oak barkTo be honest, I’m not positive it was all the same species, but visually all the little pieces looked very similar. I could sure collect a lot of it, but what exactly was it, and was it useful for dyeing?

Positively identifying it has been an on-going process. Today I completed the most recent step, having acquired a container of lye from my mom, whom I visited yesterday. Thanks, Mummy!

Earlier in the winter, I had gone through the dichotomous key for “foliose lichens that are not umbilicate, jelly-like, or yellow” in Lichens of North America. With a pretty good degree of confidence I continued on to the Parmelia key. The most likely candidates were Flavoparmelia caperata (a.k.a. Pseudoparmelia caperata, the Common Greenshield lichen), Flavopunctelia soredica, or Flavopunctelia flaventior. The time had come for chemical testing.

I hoped that using just bleach for the C test (short for calcium hypochlorite), I could tell the difference between F. caperata and F. soredica or F. flaventior. Here’s why. Both of the latter are supposed to react C+ red when spot tested on the medulla. That means when you scrape off the top layer (cortex) and expose the white layer underneath (medulla), then apply a dab of bleach to the white area, it will turn red. It didn’t. Here’s a photo comparing the foliose lichen in question with an umbilicate lichen that definitely did react C+ red.

comparing the color of C+ and C- reactions on lichenThe umbilicate is in the lower part of the photo, and shows a very bright red-orange reaction. The foliose lichen above shows very little color change. Depending on how dramatic the reaction is supposed to be, you could call it yellow, or you could call it nothing. On the medulla of the foliose lichen, there was more of a reaction (the spot on the upper right which is a little bit darker yellow), but it’s definitely not red.

Having ruled out F. soredica or F. flaventior, I was pretty happy to say that my abundant foliose lichen was Flavoparmelia caperata. But I didn’t actually prove what is was, only what is wasn’t. Enter the lye, which lets you do the K and KC tests (K stands for the potassium in potassium hydroxide)

F. caperata is supposed to be K- on the cortex and medulla, KC + gold on the cortex, and KC+ pink on the medulla. Here’s what my results this morning looked like. The first photo shows a piece of the lichen with the medulla exposed (the white area):

foliose lichen with exposed medulla

K minus cortexThe photo above shows the K- reaction on the cortex, and the one below shows K- on both the medulla and cortex. It’s slightly brighter green where I dabbed on the lye solution because it’s wet.

K minus on the cortex and medullaThe photo below shows the KC+ reaction on both the cortex and medulla. (KC means you apply a dab of lye solution, then a dab of bleach on the same spot.) However, I would not call the color on the medulla “pink,” exactly. It’s redder than the gold on the cortex, but it’s more orange, I’d say.

KC plus on cortex and medullaOn the other hand, my “red” reaction on the umbilicate was sort of orange, too. So, there you have it. Probably my abundant foliose lichen is Flavoparmelia caperata. It does not appear to be an interesting source of dye, unfortunately. I may go ahead and try it anyway. I’ll let you know.

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

Part Four: Dyeing with the Ancient Umbilicate Vat

Winding skeins, scouring, mordanting, tannin baths, etc. took a long time, so the dyeing didn’t actually happen until December. It was the first time I’d used lichens on cellulose fibers. According to Casselman, and others, lichens are substantive dyes, meaning they don’t require a mordant. But I’m inclined to agree with Joan Morris, who said in a workshop last summer, “With natural dyes, cellulose fibers need all the help they can get.” Cotton, linen, and other plant-derived fibers are not naturally inclined to slurp up color the way wool does, so you’ve got to give the fibers every opportunity to hold onto the dye molecules. I decided to mordant with alum acetate *and* treat the yarns with a tannin bath for good measure.

Here’s the vat liquor strained into a jar, undiluted, pH 12 or 13.

umbilicate lichen liquor in jar Here in the dyepot you can see the magenta color of the vat liquor.

umbilicate lichen liquor colorI diluted the vat liquor with water (6 cups vat liquor to 28 cups water) and the pH was 9. Into this stinky (rotten fishy) pot went my tannin and alum acetate-treated linen and cottolin skeins. Well, if you read my earlier post about weld and cellulose, you know that tannin can have a darkening and weirdening effect on color, even the gallotannin I’ve been using, which is very light. The darkening effect of iron is called “saddening,” so maybe I can call it saddening with tannin, too, but it’s not quite the same. Anyway, you can probably already picture the scene. Here it is:

umbilicate lichen with tannin on celluloseYes, I got a very interesting purplish brown. Basically brown. An unusual sort of brown. But brown. At first I was disappointed and felt very bad because, to me, dyeing with lichens is a weighty thing. I feel there is karma, or at least a moral burden, attached to it in a way I do not feel with goldenrod or Queen Anne’s Lace or other more happy-go-lucky sorts of plants. Venerable ancient organisms shouldn’t be wantonly ripped up and fermented for the making of browns.

Here though, I must digress. Later in December and January, I noticed this color regularly on my walks, especially in the woods when the sunlight was orange-pink early in the morning or just before sunset. Something about the light made the trunks of certain pines (red pine, I think) reflect exactly this purplish brown. I also saw it in tangles of old blackberry canes, and where red maple leaves had fallen and dried among oak leaves. When I noticed this, I felt grateful to the lichens for having opened my eyes to this color. It’s a real color in its own right, with a place in the world, not just an accident or a mistake. Now I love that color. OK, back to the story.

Back in December, still hoping for pink, I added a little soda ash to the exhaust bath to bump the pH up to 10, and used bleached cotton skeins mordanted only with alum acetate. I got a pale bluish pink, a very subtle color, and was happy.

umbilicate lichen no tannin on cotton

Chuang Tzu and Huck Lace Hearts

In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, I’ve been weaving bookmarks with heart motifs in huck lace. I really like them. They have a sweet, old-fashioned feeling.three huck heart bookmarksHere are three next to a yardstick to show length. Click on the photo to see more detail. The weave structure of huck lace creates floats that pass over five threads, and these reflect light more than the plain weave background. The reflectivity or sheen helps differentiate the pattern.

I’m using 40/2 linen that I dyed with madder root last summer. The warp and weft are slightly different colors, and came from two successive dyebaths. The madder roots were leftover from an excellent, inspiring workshop last summer with Joan Morris at Long Ridge Farm (unfortunately a “what I did this summer” post that never got written). By the time I dyed these linen skeins, the roots had been extracted twice already, hence the light colors.

The warp is slightly more salmon colored, toward the orange side of red. The weft is lighter pink, more toward the blue side of red. To my eye the colors and values blend smoothly;  except along the hemstitching, I don’t see the difference. I was surprised to see in this photo, though, that the camera picked up the differences in color.

pink and salmon madder tonesThe threads going across are the weft, and the ones going up and down are the warp. The sett is 36 epi (ends per inch), sleyed 3 per dent in a 12 dent reed. The bookmarks are two inches wide in the reed, an inch and three quarters after washing and ironing, and range from 10 and a half to 11 inches long including the fringe. I have woven 20 at this point.

Mostly these bookmarks have been fun and satisfying to weave. The only difficulty I’ve encountered is the hemstitching. The yarn untwists as I work and starts to disintegrate. Re-twisting and wetting it helps a little, but it’s still a tricky business, even though the bookmarks are only 2 inches wide. By the time I get to needle-weaving in the ends, there’s not much left to work with. That’s problem number one.

Problem number two is that, at 36 epi, it is hard to see what I’m doing. So, I’ve been using a magnifying glass to help. magnified hemstitchingIt would be more efficient to have one on a stand so I could keep both hands free, but I do OK with a handheld one. Sometimes the hemstitching goes smoothly. I feel skillful. Other times there’s fraying and lumps and wispyness. I feel inept.


Here’s where Chuang Tzu comes in. If you’ve heard of Taoism, you’ve heard the sayings of Chuang Tzu: he’s the guy who inspired it all 2000+ years ago.

While I was enjoying a happy hemstitching experience and contemplating its pleasures, a story from Chuang Tzu came to mind. It’s about a butcher, or cook, who never needs to sharpen his knife. I’ve been a vegetarian for about 30 years, but I still like this story. Here’s a little excerpt from the Burton Watson translation. Cook Ting is cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui, who marvels at his skillfulness, and Cook Ting says …

“I’ve had this knife for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room–more than enough for the blade to play about in.”

This is how it is with hemstitching. If you slip the needle through the spaces between the threads, it all goes smoothly. There is less abrasion on the thread, less interference with the structure of the cloth, and nothing wears out. I decided I needed a needle with less thickness. Voilá, easier hemstitching!  And the magnifying glass helps.

Cook Ting describes how he feels when he has successfully worked through a “complicated situation” …

“I stand there holding the knife and looking all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

One more bookmark completed. I feel satisfied, then I advance the warp. The Tao of hemstitching.