My woad beds are looking fantastic! I am very pleased about this. For the past couple summers, the woad plants at Amethyst Brook have been small and feeble compared to the woad I grew up at the dye- and fiber-plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. This year that garden at Bramble Hill has been sadly neglected (well, I’ve been distracted by multiple flax plots), so the community garden is my sole source of woad. Consequently, I made an extra effort to add plenty of composted manure before planting this year. And ta-da, success. Here is one bed before I weeded it the other day:
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
The 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.
On 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.
The 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.
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.
I 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.
I 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).
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:
I 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).
The 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.
Just 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.
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.
The Leap Day of the Leap Year
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.
I 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.
I 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.
I 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).
These 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.)
It’s been great to have an extra day to work on all these projects. We should have a leap day every year.
What do weavers and dyers do when they are not weaving and dyeing? For one thing, textile-related puzzles! Matthew and I just finished this incredible puzzle.
According to the description on the box, the image shows a portion of an offering cloth from the late 1700s found on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, made from handspun wool. The description specifically says that it probably was not a woman’s manta (shawl), because of its size. It is in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
On the website of the National Museum of the American Indian, this same cloth is catalogued as a woman’s manta, 120x120x110 cm, made of cotton and camelid fiber yarns (meaning alpaca or llama). The site where it was found is described as the Temple of the Sun or Temple of the Virgins of the Sun on La Isla de la Luna, or Island of the Moon. I’m not sure which source is more accurate (I assume the museum catalogue). By the way, check out the “materials” list in the “object specifics” part of the collection search function. A list after my own heart.
The cloth features horizontal rows of abstract patterns (reminiscent of flags and bunting) alternating with fields of representational images including amazing animals like deer (or maybe alpaca or llamas), ducks, eagles, parrots and other birds, monkeys, people, and mer-creatures (one looks like it’s playing a guitar and is half-seal or perhaps half-manatee). There are lots of things which look like stacked up bowls, which we came to refer to as “ice cream sundaes,” and reminded us of those beautifully presented piles of fruit and other offerings at Buddhist temples. The overall feeling is a celebratory sense of teeming life and energy and abundance.
As a dyer, I was very interested in the colors. Shades of red and maroon dominate, with gold, yellow, white, purplish brown, and several shades of blue, of course all dyed with natural dyes. It was hard to tell how many colors had been used in the original cloth. The same shade of maroon looked different depending on whether it was surrounded by bright red or gold… or were they really two different shades of maroon? Tricky.
This is a color theory phenomenon called simultaneous contrast. The hue (color), chroma (intensity), and value (degree of light/white or dark/black) of a color look different depending on one color’s relationship to another. If you search for this on line you can find some great examples. I liked the examples on David Brigg’s website (though to view the videos you need Flash and some other plug-ins).
This is a long story. I will tell it in parts.
Part One: The Snow Storm
At the end of October, 2011, we had a big snowstorm. The snow was wet and heavy, and snapped and broke tons of trees and branches. There were sad broken trees all over the place, and it took a very long time for all the wood to get cut and stacked or moved away. In the woods, depending on how much people-traffic there is, a lot of trees and branches are resting where they fell to this day. And many of these trees and branches were, and are, covered in lichens. It was an unusually early storm with an unusually destructive impact–the first installment of the weird winter, weather-wise.
Part Two: Karen Diadick Casselman
Around this same time, I was planning a series of cellulose dye projects. One of the dyestuffs I wanted to use was an umbilicate lichen fermentation vat that had been sitting in the closet for an indeterminate length of time. Well, it was determinate. Since July 2006. I know, ridiculous. I blame my Master Weaver certificate. After so long, I figured it was time for a refresher on lichen dyeing, so I re-read Karen Diadick Casselman’s Lichen Dyes.
It is an inspiring book on several levels. I especially appreciate her guidelines on the ethics of gathering and using lichens, and her promotion of “salvage botany.” After rereading her book, I was embarrassed to realize how far I had fallen short of the Code of Ethics she outlines, and was motivated to try harder. She suggests learning to identify five species of lichen, including the Latin names, before you collect or use any. I haven’t done this. I’m lucky to own an incredible resource, Lichens of North America by Brodo, Sharnoff and Sharnoff (a score at Raven Used Books in Northampton many years ago), so I don’t really have an excuse. Among her other recommendations, which I do follow:
“Focus your attention only on found (unattached) lichens.”
“Use for dyeing only those lichens that are conspicuously abundant.”
“Avoid using lichens to make unexceptional dye colors (e.g., beige).”
I take to heart, in particular, this admonition and astonishing, awe-inspiring fact:
“Learn to appreciate that large umbilicate lichens may be hundreds of years old. Respect these organisms as you would any other botanical specimen of mature years.”
Part Three: A Little Personal Lichen Back-story
My first lichen experiments were in 2004. I used two different types that had fallen from the trees onto a lawn on Cape Cod. With the boiling water method and no mordant on wool (Finn), one type produced a warm creamy yellow, and the other golden brown. I never did positively identify them. The one which made yellow was possibly some type of Usnea (my best guess was Usnea strigosa), the other possibly a Flavoparmelia (F. caperata?) or Rimelia (R. reticulata?).
Here are the same samples on two different color backgrounds. The sample in the center was first dyed in the yellow bath, then the golden brown one:
Some lichens make amazing colors in the magenta, red, and pink range, with an ammonia fermentation vat. It is very hard to get these colors with natural dyes, unless you use cochineal. Cochineal is not local to New England. Plus, it’s pregnant female bugs and that just makes me feel bad. So, using these special lichens seems worthwhile to me.
These awesome lichens are called umbilicates. An umbilicate lichen attaches to its substrate (what it grows on) by an umbilicus, which is like a little foot or holdfast, or an umbilical cord. I’m sorry to say that I am still not positive if I have been using Umbilicaria americana or U. mammulata, or perhaps both (apparently they often grow together).
These umbilicates are not too hard to find, if you do a lot of hiking around in the woods. They grow on steep rock faces, and where they are happy you can sometimes find tons covering the whole surface. It’s a simultaneously earthly and alien sight.
Here are some happy lichens growing on a small south-facing cliff yesterday (February 6th, 2011):
If you tear around the edge and leave the umbilicus attached, the lichen can keep growing. My practice had been to gather infrequently and sparingly from several different spots. This was how I gathered the jar-full that had been sitting in the closet in an ammonia solution fermenting for oh so long. I have used them a few times very successfully on wool.
Here are the samples of my umbilicate dyebaths on wool, using the ammonia fermentation method that Casselman outlines in her book.
The top pictures demonstrates that too much fiber will give pale colors, so don’t be greedy with umbilicate vats. This process requires a bit of discipline and restraint. In the bottom picture, the difference in color between the samples on the right and the ones on the left is due to pH. The ones of the left were immersed in a high pH bath (not as high as the vat itself, but still very alkaline). For the ones on the right, I added vinegar as well as water to the vat solution, and got the pH down to 7. In general, higher pH (alkaline) will give more blue colors, and lower pH (acidic) will give more reds.
There’s more to come in the lichen saga, so stay tuned.
OK, I haven’t sewn a new book in a couple weeks because I have been taking advantage of the extended fall weather and have been dyeing (outdoors) with some particularly stinky and stainy dyes: weld, black walnut, and an ancient umbilicate lichen vat from 2006. Each one deserves a post of its own, so I’ll start with the black walnut.
The black walnut has been an unintended exhausting marathon. That’s a pun. “Exhausting” is what you call it when you re-use the same dyebath (or dye liquor, or ooze, depending who’s talking about it) multiple times until there is no color left. One of my on-going projects is to weave a series of rya rugs using a limited palette of yarns that I have dyed with a given quantity of plant material.
To dye the yarn for the first rug, earlier this summer I dug 5.5 lbs. of Lady’s Bedstraw roots. This quantity ended up dyeing 2lbs. 12 oz. of wool in various shades of pink, peach, apricot, salmon, and, yes, warm beige. Beige in any of its various shades is not my (or, I think, any dyer’s) favorite color. Certainly it comes in handy when you need some neutral to balance out a design. But considering all the work involved in dyeing with plants, especially when you start with the raw materials themselves, it’s not really worth it just to make beige, even warm beige. There are plenty of beige sheep. Creating beige does not inspire awe, or joy, in the dyer. It also does not impress non-dyers with the power and magic of natural dyes. Since part of my concept with this project is to demonstrate the incredible range of color that a single plant–even a single dyebath–can generate, too much beige defeats the purpose.
This year, as you may recall, was a bumper year for black walnuts around here. I decided to commemorate the bumper black walnut year with a rya rug, even though I often joke that dyeing white wool brown is a questionable pursuit (there is probably a fairytale about the foolish girl who spent her time and energy on this…). There are plenty of brown sheep. Nevertheless, I really love noticing and celebrating the natural world around me, whether events are daily and mundane or unusual and remarkable. Being aware of and participating in the cycles of plants, especially, is one of my great joys in life, and one of the reasons I am passionate about natural dyeing. Plus, you can get an incredible range of colors from black walnut. Thus began the mega-black walnut project.
After the bedstraw experience, I decided I didn’t want as many beige skeins relative to the total quantity of yarn. So, I started with an admittedly huge amount of walnut hulls hoping for a lot of nice dark browns and not so many beiges. OK, you can already tell at this point in the story that I was dreaming, but my vision was blocking my vision, so to speak, and I can only see that in hindsight. I started with nine and a half pounds of walnut hulls that had been soaking in buckets outside for several weeks. I usually think that boiling walnut hulls smell delicious, but these had an unpleasant “swamp” smell due to the fact that they had been decomposing in the relatively warm weather. So, this had to be an outdoors project, using the portable electric burner.
I don’t have large pots, so this whole operation is being run with small pots and small quantities. In fact, I’m thinking “Small Potatoes” may become the name of the series (assuming I ever actually weave these things). I divided the hulls between two pots and extracted the same hulls twice, creating 4 different dyebaths.
When extracting the hulls you can let them boil and it won’t hurt the color, but it will make a huge mess if it boils over, so I kept a close watch. Above on the left, “a watched pot never boils.” On the right, a portion of a hull in the dyepot. Below on the left you can see the white skins being mordanted with aluminum sulfate, and on the right, the rich color of the dye bath once the hulls were strained out.
Ah, turning white wool brown!
Those four original dyebaths have thus far dyed 4 pounds of wool, in successive batches of 4 ounces each, and I have yet to reach beige (I’ve gotten to tan). I have been mulling for many days now whether or not to continue. I already have plenty of wool for a rug, at least a rug of the size I initially envisioned. But I have not truly exhausted the baths. I think I could dye another pound of wool before I actually exhaust the color.
I took a hiatus from the walnut project when we had a cold snap, and my pots and buckets froze (too stinky to keep indoors). Here are hulls with frost on them (which I could even extract again, if I was crazy) and a frozen dyebath:
But I think I have to continue to the point of true exhaustion. A bumper walnut year calls for an epic quantity of brown yarn, and perhaps an astonishingly big rug.
Many thanks to Sally and Bob Fitz of Small Ones Farm for inviting me to table at their fruit CSA pick up days on Saturday October 1st and Wednesday October 19th. It was very inspiring to meet their members, and I had many stimulating conversations about CSAs, locally sourced materials, natural dyes, local wool, flax, and vegan cloth.
At my table I displayed a basket of naturally dyed wool yarns that were mostly handspun by me, over the years, using natural dyes. For the madder, I displayed the results of a dye bath using roots from Earth Guild. (I have also bought madder root from Tierra Wools and Aurora Silk.) For all the rest, I used plants I gathered or grew myself in Amherst or the surrounding area. When I first began spinning, the most economical way to acquire a lot of wool was to buy raw fleeces. I bought and have enjoyed working with Corriedale from the former Mad Women’s Farm in Amherst, Dorset/Border Leicester cross from Natural Roots in Conway, Coopworth from Shirkshire Farm in Conway, the mixed breed flock at Hampshire College, and Romney and mohair from a few farmers I met at the Webs fleece markets. After I got tired of washing and carding my own wool, I’ve enjoyed roving from Balkey farm in Northfield and others. I also had a smaller basket of naturally dyed linen (commercial 40/2 from Webs). The yarns (and my bundle of home grown flax) were for show and tell.
And for sale, I had handbound books with handwoven cloth covers.