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!

Last Year’s Flax is Retted

Summer is rushing along, tipping noticeably toward fall. The Concord grapes are ripe and fragrant, waiting, camouflaged, to surprise passers by. “Mmm, what’s that smell? Oh, grapes!” But right behind our apartment it currently smells like a retting tank and a woad vat. It’s not “Mmm,” it’s somewhere between “Uh…?” and “Ugh!”

Here in Amherst I am happy to report that we have been having glorious weather for the past week. Flax retting, a modest amount of flax processing, dyeing, making salsa (not really in the scope of this blog, I know) are all continuing apace.

For several weeks, the majority of this year’s flax has been drying on the hay tedder in the tractor shed over at Amethyst Farm (thanks to the generosity of the Brennans). To make room to move this year’s crop gradually into the back of our car (which serves as our shed) I had to ret last year’s flax. I posted about that earlier. That is now all complete.

I retted the first batch (from our community garden) in the 50 gallon tank. I didn’t change the water at all during the retting period (from July 27th to August 2nd–six days). Here’s how the water looked when it was ready to pull out.

scummy surface of retting tankNote the yellowish grey film on top.

At the flax demonstration in Gilmanton, NH, Gina Gerhard had given Faith and me a tip on how to check when your retting is complete: the fiber should pull away from the stem with absolutely no resistance.

pull test to check ret Continue reading “Last Year’s Flax is Retted”

Flax Harvest at Small Ones Farm

Between Wednesday July 11th and Monday July 16th I pulled up all my flax. I started a bit earlier than 90 days after planting (I planted all the plots the same day, April 15th), and earlier than 30 days after peak bloom (which was around June 21st). These had been the two harvest benchmarks I had in mind all summer. However, we have had such hot, dry weather that despite my diligent watering efforts the flax was just done. Usually people recommend pulling it up when the lower third of the stalks turns yellow. I have typically pulled it when more like half or even two thirds of the stalk is yellow. You can see in the photos that this year a lot of the flax was entirely yellow, and a few stalks had even begun to turn brown. Continue reading “Flax Harvest at Small Ones Farm”

Flax Likes Rain

We have had a good amount of rain over the past couple weeks, interspersed with some stunningly gorgeous sunshine. This is flax’s favorite weather (unlike the 90 degrees, dry as a bone weather we had mid-April, which is not). Here’s how it was looking as of May 18th and 19th, last Friday and Saturday.

vns at Small Ones Farm May 18Above is the v.n.s. at Small Ones Farm May 18, about four inches high.

vns at Amethyst Farm May 19Above is the v.n.s. at Amethyst Farm May 19, about 5 inches high.

vns at Amethyst Brook May 18Above is the v.n.s. at Amethyst Brook May 18, about 4 and a half inches high.

Marylin at Amethyst Brook May 18Above is Marylin at Amethyst Brook May 18, about six inches high.

Evelin at Small Ones Farm May 18Above is Evelin at Small Ones Farm May 18, three and three quarters of an inch high.

Evelin at Amethyst Farm May 19Above is Evelin at Amethyst Farm May 19, between 6 and 7 inches.

Evelin at Amethyst Brook May 18Above is Evelin at Amethyst Brook May 18, between 5 and 6 inches.

Flax Grids: Evelin at Amethyst Brook

Finally, we reach the end of the flax grid photos. Phew. In future I think a 3’x3′ grid will be enough, or maybe just three one-foot sample squares out of each bed. 4’x4′ was overkill. Anyway, it’s done now. In the time since these photos were taken (April 29th and 30th) the plants have shot up. They are now feathery and about 5 or 6 inches high, and lovely. But here was how the Evelin looked at our community garden, back on April 30th.

Evelin at Amethyst Brook 1Evelin at Amethyst Brook 2Evelin at Amethyst Brook 3Evelin at Amethyst Brook 4Evelin at Amethyst Brook 5Evelin at Amethyst Brook 6Evelin at Amethyst Brook 7Evelin at Amethyst Brook 8Evelin at Amethyst Brook 9Evelin at Amethyst Brook 10Evelin at Amethyst Brook 11Evelin at Amethyst Brook 12Evelin at Amethyst Brook 13Evelin at Amethyst Brook 14Evelin at Amethyst Brook 15Evelin at Amethyst Brook 16

Flax Grids: Marylin at Amethyst Brook

Here are the photos of Marylin at Amethyst Brook where we have our community garden plot. They were taken on April 30th. The Marylin growth is the most lush of all the plots, which means it had the best germination rate. It is also the only treated seed variety I grew. I think the treatment is an antifungal agent to prevent rotting the damp soils of early spring. We did not have damp soils this spring. We had dry soils. It was 90 degrees the day after I planted in mid-April. So, I am not sure why the treatment would have given these seeds an advantage, and maybe that’s not really what’s going on. Anyway, here they are:

Marylin at Amethyst Brook 1Marylin at Amethyst Brook 2Marylin at Amethyst Brook 3Marylin at Amethyst Brook 4Marylin at Amethyst Brook 5Marylin at Amethyst Brook 6Marylin at Amethyst Brook 7Marylin at Amethyst Brook 8Marylin at Amethyst Brook 9Marylin at Amethyst Brook 10Marylin at Amethyst Brook 11Marylin at Amethyst Brook 12Marylin at Amethyst Brook 13Marylin at Amethyst Brook 14Marylin at Amethyst Brook 15Marylin at Amethyst Brook 16

Flax Grids: Evelin at Amethyst Farm

Earlier today I was searching the web for interesting tid-bits about Evelin to share, to spice up all these admittedly monotonous photos. I came across Bast and Other Plant Fibers by Robert R. Franck (CRC Press, 2005). Franck lists Evelin as one of 31 fiber flax cultivars approved for use in Europe as of 2002. I didn’t get far enough to figure out why these 31 were approved in particular, or what the differences were between them. A research task for another day. Among other things, I learned that I’ve been spelling the variety “Marilyn” incorrectly. It is actually spelled Marylin, even though I thought I had read that it’s named after Marilyn Monroe. While it merits being on the list, for whatever reason, Evelin was not among the most popular varieties grown in western Europe in 2002. That honor went to four other varieties: Agatha, Hermes, Marylin, and Diane.

I had to laugh at one comment the author made. In outlining the reasons for low productivity in certain countries, he cites one reason as being “the innate conservatism of peasant agriculture.” I think I must fall into that category.

Here are the photos of Evelin growing at Amethyst Farm in Amherst, MA. As before, each square is a foot square, and the full grid is 4 feet square. The images appear in order, numbered from 1 to 16 across the grid from bottom left corner to top right. See my original post for more info on this set-up.

Evelin at Amethyst Farm 1Evelin at Amethyst Farm 2Evelin at Amethyst Farm 3Evelin at Amethyst Farm 4Evelin at Amethyst Farm 5Evelin at Amethyst Farm 6Evelin at Aethyst Farm 7Evelin at Amethyst Farm 8Evelin at Amethyst Farm 9Evelin at Amethyst Farm 10Evelin at Amethyst Farm 11Evelin at Amethyst Farm 12Evelin at Amethyst Farm 13Evelin at Amethyst Farm 14Evelin at Amethyst Farm 15Evelin at Amethyst Farm 16

Flax Grids: “Variety Not Specified” at Small Ones Farm

Here are the photos of the “variety not specified” (v.n.s.) flax at Small Ones Farm in South Amherst on April 29th. They are posted in order from square 1 to square 16 in the grid. For an explanation of the grid numbering system, and what these flax grids are all about, see my last post, “Belated Photos of Flax Grids: Evelin at Small Ones Farm.”

vns at Small Ones 1vns at Small Ones 2vns at Small Ones 3vns at Small Ones 4vns at Small Ones 5vns at Small Ones 6vns at Small Ones 7vns at Small Ones 8vns at Small Ones 9vns at Small Ones 10vns at Small Ones 11vns at Small Ones 12vns at Small Ones 13vns at Small Ones 14vns at Small Ones 15vns at Small Ones 16vns at Small Ones height April 29Above is a photo showing the height of the vns seedlings on April 29th at Small Ones Farm.


Belated Photos of Flax Grids: Evelin at Small Ones Farm

Back on Sunday April 29th and Monday April 30th I set up one-foot-square grids in my flax beds. I used sticks to stake out the one-foot increments, and flagging tape to outline the edges. They are not perfectly square, but it’ll do. At each plot (Small Ones Farm, Amethyst Farm, and the community garden at Amethyst Brook) I used a different color flagging tape for each variety, but didn’t plan ahead enough to use the same color for each variety at each place. That would have been handy, but too late now. As you might suspect, it is hard to tell from a photo of little green plants just exactly which variety of seed or section of a plot I am looking at. So, I thought the color coding would help differentiate photos back at home when I’ve downloaded them onto the computer and am figuring out which is which. I also wrote labels on the flagging tape, but it twists around sometimes so they aren’t clear in every photo. Each grid is four feet square (the width of the bed, and four feet in length), divided into 16 sections. I took a photo of each section. I have a total of 7 beds, which multiplied by 16 is a lot of photos of little green plants. One hundred and twelve, to be exact. That is too many for one post. It actually has crossed my mind that perhaps not everyone will be interested in looking at 112 photos of flax. But in the interests of documenting this project, I’ve decided to post them all, divided between several posts.

I set up the grids because I wanted a more quantifiable way to measure the germination rates of the different seed varieties, and to count how many plants were growing in each square foot. Mostly what this exercise taught me is that my sowing technique is terrible. I have clumps and bare patches in an extremely uneven pattern. Sigh. Raking did not help at all, so I will omit that step in future. In fact I think many of the ridges where there is a density of plants were created by the edge of the rake. So, there is a lot more to learn about that step of the process. Honestly, I think this season was my worst broadcasting job ever, but then again I have never scrutinized every step of the process so closely.

This post features the variety Evelin (an untreated variety from Richters in Canada) planted at Small Ones Farm in South Amherst. The photos were taken April 29th, and are labeled with the variety, the location, and a number 1 to 16. The squares in the grid are numbered from left to right, starting in the row on the near side of the bed and moving to the back. That is,1 is in the bottom left hand corner, and 16 is in the top right corner. They are posted in order from 1 to 16.

Evelin at Small Ones 1Evelin at Small Ones 2Evelin at Small Ones 3Evelin at Small Ones 4Evelin at Small Ones 5Evelin at Small Ones 6Evelin at Small Ones 7Evelin at Small Ones 8Evelin at Small Ones 9Evelin at Small Ones 10Evelin at Small Ones 11Evelin at Small Ones 12Evelin at Small Ones 13Evelin at Small Ones 14Evelin at Small Ones 15Evelin at Small Ones 16

Evelin bed at Small OnesAbove is an overview of the bed of Evelin, and below is a photo showing the height of the plants on April 29th (14 days after planting).

Evelin at Small Ones height