Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft 2018

On Memorial Day Weekend I did a dyeing demonstration at Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I’ve done demos there before, but this year was special. I was dyeing hand-spun yarns from a variety of sheep breeds, spun by Lisa Bertoldi of Weft Handwoven Linens, and supported by a grant from the Northeast Handspinners Association.

Here was the table with examples of my own naturally dyed handspun yarns, some of my favorite books, fliers for the Northeast Handspinners Association, and a 6-pack of marigolds:

Next to that I set up the portable electric burners and dye pots:

The jar on the left contains powdered madder roots that I weighed out and soaked in water the day before. The other dye plants I used that day were weld, marigolds, and black walnut hulls.

On a bench beside the pots I set out the tools, dried dye plants, tubs, measuring spoons, and other supplies, mordants and other additives that I would need:

I scoured and mordanted all the skeins ahead of time using aluminum sulfate. I transported them damp, and kept them in a tub of water to pull out and use as the day went along. In addition to Lisa’s skeins, which weighed about 13 ounces all together, I had prepped some mini-skeins from Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont (from their end-of-the-run stash) and some natural colored wool yarn from Bartlett Yarns in Maine (a very light gray-brown).

Since my demo ran all day this year, I had plenty of time to make the dyebaths as well as dye the yarns. In each case, the dye plants heated in the dye pots for approximately an hour, then I let them cool off a little before straining out the plant material and putting in the yarn. Usually I like to let the fiber cool and soak overnight, but in this case I wanted to keep the process moving along fairly quickly.

Once the crowds arrived I took no pictures whatsoever! It was a busy day with lots of curious visitors, great questions and conversations, and a couple unexpected but pleasant surprises regarding color.

Some of the skeins that Lisa had spun were naturally colored browns and grays. I felt a little bad dyeing them, since they were already very lovely. But, that’s what I had to work with, so I just went for it.

Some of the visitors came back multiple times during the day to check on the progress of the dyebaths, and I was able to get suggestions from them about which skeins to try in which pots. One young visitor was especially engaged and came back several times. At the end of the day, I let that young person pick the ones they liked the best. Hence, I do not have photos of those skeins (a madder skein and a weld skein).

Here are the details for each dyebath:

Madder

The day before the demo, I weighed 3 ounces of powdered madder root from Dharma Trading and soaked it in plain tap water overnight in a tall glass jar. The day of the demo, I poured the whole jar into a pot with some additional water, heated it to 150 degrees F, and maintained that temperature for an hour.

Because the powder was very fine, it was hard to strain. The remaining dyebath was still a little sludgy. I added 1/2 a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a glug of soda ash solution.The pH was 11, which is much higher than I was going for. So, I added more water and brought the pH down to 9. It also cooled off the bath a little.

In the first, strongest madder dyebath, I dyed a charcoal gray skein, at the suggestion of the young visitor I mentioned. The color turned out to be a very interesting shade of purple! I wish I had a photo of that one, and it’s an experiment worth repeating. The charcoal gray skein weighed about 2 ounces. That first bath heated for an hour, around 150 degrees.

Next, I put in two of the tiny Green Mountain Spinnery wind-offs (approx. 1 oz. each). The first exhaust bath heated for an hour. Alas, it got busy and I wasn’t watching the pots carefully. The first exhaust bath overheated and got up to a boil, but the color stayed pink nevertheless.

After the hour was up, I pulled those two out, and put in two more tiny Green Mountain skeins, plus a 4 oz. Bartlett skein. I heated them for 30 minutes.

At this point I added another of Lisa’s handspun skeins to the pot, a 1 oz. gray-brown skein.  All the skeins stayed in the pot together for another 30 minutes, then I turned the heat off and pulled it off the burner to cool.

Back at home the next day, I finished exhausting the madder dyebath using another 4. oz skein of Bartlett’s. Before adding the wool, I added a little more soda ash solution and a half teaspoon calcium carbonate to get the pH back up to 9. I heated the pot to 140 degrees, and maintained that for an hour.

Here are the exhaust skeins after they were all rinsed and dry (the one on the far right is walnut-dyed):

Weld

For the weld bath I used 7 ounces of dried weld (whole tops, including stalks, leaves and flowers). Normally I would soak this ahead of time, too, but for the demo I weighed out the plant material while people were watching, and only extracted it once. After the pot got up to about 150 degrees, it heated for hour. I only cooled it a little before straining. Then we added calcium carbonate and soda ash solution to get pH9, and I put in two of Lisa’s handspun skeins (total weight about 2 1/2 ounces). They heated for an hour. It was a very strong bath and we got vivid yellows!

One of Lisa’s white handspun skein weighing about 2 ounces went into the first weld exhaust bath. It was also bright but not quite so neon-electric as the first two. That skein also went home with the young person who was very excited and engaged with the whole process.

Back at home a couple days later, I exhausted the weld bath. It was pH 7, so I added half a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and some dissolved soda ash to get the bath to pH 9. Then I dyed a 6 oz. skein of my own handspun, mordanted with aluminum sulfate.

The top rack shows the weld-dyed skeins on the left hand side. The marigold skeins are on the right:

Marigold

I used 4 oz. of dried marigold flowers, all types of colors mixed together. People often ask me whether different colors of marigold give different shades of yellow or gold. I don’t actually know because I’ve never bothered to separate them. My hunch is that they all give basically the same color, but it might be worth it to test this out sometime.

The procedure for making the dyebath was the same as the weld, but I didn’t add any pH modifiers or other amendments. The first skein to go in the bath was a 6 oz. skein of Lisa’s. The skein heated about an hour, and turned a rich old gold color. In the marigold exhaust I put in two of the Green Mountain wind-offs, total weight just over 2 oz. They also yielded an old gold shade, but a little bit brighter. You can see the marigold-dyed skeins on the top right hand side of the drying rack above.

Black Walnut Hulls

I used 3 oz. of dried black walnut hulls for this demo. I usually use them fresh, and I wasn’t quite sure how dark of a bath this would give. The answer is, not very. I also only extracted them once: I brought the hulls and water up to about 150 degrees (could have been hotter, but that takes longer), held that for an hour, then strained out the hulls. In this short amount if time they probably didn’t have enough time to really soak and release their dye.

Nevertheless, the result was interesting. I used one of Lisa’s light brown skeins, about 2 oz., with a lot of gray. I didn’t think to take a “before” picture, but what happened was that the walnut shifted the grayer, cooler tone of the original skein to a warmer more yellow tone. You can see the skein in the image above, on the far right of the bottom rack with the madder dyed yarns. The pinkish-brown skein from madder exhaust is next to it.

Because color looks so different depending on the lighting, I also though it would be interesting to show how the skeins looked on the drying rack in the shade:

The weld exhaust looks so pale in this lighting, when in actuality it’s much brighter.

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.

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!

Inside-Outside Part Two

In this post I will describe more details about the dyebaths we made at the Inside-Outside Conference in Keene on October 21st. We ran four dyebaths with madder root, marigolds, weld, and orange cosmos.  As usual when I am running or leading an event, I didn’t get any photos. Hopefully the notes provided here will be useful even if they are lacking in visual information.

First of all, the fiber we were dyeing was woolen yarn. We dyed four skeins, each of which was 4 oz. I had pre-mordanted the skeins many weeks earlier with aluminum sulfate at a rate of 2 Tbsp. per 8 oz. (2 skeins could fit in a pot). The skeins had dried in the meanwhile, and had been soaked in water on the day of the workshop to “wet them out”, i.e. make sure they were thoroughly wet before dyeing. Continue reading “Inside-Outside Part Two”

Inside-Outside

On October 21st, 2017 I presented a workshop on growing and using dye plants with kids at the Inside-Outside Conference in Keene, NH. The conference was a collaboration of several local organizations, including Antioch University New England, the Monadnock Region Placed-Based Education Committee, the Harris Center for Conservation Education, the Caterpillar Lab, Symonds Elementary School (where the conference was held), and the Keene School District. The theme was “Promising Practices in Nature- and Place-Based Elementary Education.” You can view the full brochure here.

The audience was K-6 educators from a variety of educational settings. I don’t mention this very often on this blog, but I actually am a teacher! I co-teach in a combined first and second grade at the Common School in Amherst, MA, where I’ve been working since 2004. Most of the time, I am in the classroom doing all the usual academic things: reading, writing, word study, math, science, social studies, arts and crafts. I do fiber and dye projects with kids when I can, and the rest of the time I squeeze it in on weekends and vacations. Continue reading “Inside-Outside”

Woad, Weld, Rain and Humidity

It is now mid-July, a time of year which is inevitably humid here in Massachusetts and often rainy. It is also a peak time of year for harvesting many dye plants. The problem is, when it’s humid and/or rainy, where do you hang them up to dry? Not outdoors….

Here are the woad seeds I saved from the dye plant and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. This was from just two or three plants, harvested on July 2, 2015. We had been having a dry spell and they had almost entirely dried on the plants before I cut them off. Yes, I do already have a lifetime supply of woad seeds, and yes, they stay viable for a pretty long time. But here’s my crop of woad seeds for 2015. They are very beautiful, in my opinion.

July 2 woad seed harvest Continue reading “Woad, Weld, Rain and Humidity”

Weld Harvest

Way back on October 5th, a Sunday, we had a frost warning. I had a shift at the Shelburne Arts Co-op that day, so my time for gardening was limited. In the morning I went over to the garden at Bramble Hill to assess the situation and do triage. I decided to go back to the garden after my shift to cover the Japanese indigo plants because I was hoping to nurse them along for a while to let the seed mature. More on that later.

I did not think it would be possible to cover the hugely tall weld plants, and I could also tell that plenty of seeds had matured on the weld already. I think I have written about this before, but just as a refresher I will remind readers that weld flowers keep growing off of the same stalk throughout the season. At harvest time, the tips will still be in bloom while the oldest seed heads at the base of the flower stalk will be mature. Only black weld seeds are viable. Every other color of seed, from brown to yellow, gets tossed in with the flowering tops, leaves, and stalks for the dye pot. Continue reading “Weld Harvest”

Weld is Flowering and Proliferating

Weld is a biennial. The Latin name for weld is Reseda luteola. Luteolin is the molecule in weld that makes yellow. A plant that is a biennial typically lives for two years, and only flowers and sets seed in the second year. These weld plants were planted this spring, but as of July 18th several of them have already sent up tall stalks. They look suspiciously like they are starting to flower. This does happen sometimes, but it is still a little puzzling to me.

Below is a view of the weld bed with all the tall plants.

bolting weld

Continue reading “Weld is Flowering and Proliferating”

First Woad Vat of 2014

Due to one thing and another, I am not growing a lot of woad this year. I’m a little bit sad about it, but there it is. Nonetheless, I ran my first woad vat of the summer on Friday August 8th and had some interesting results. In the morning I picked 3 and a half pounds of leaves, which I did not expect to make a very strong vat.

Some blue color appeared in the stems as I ripped up the leaves, which was a good sign.

blue woad stems

Continue reading “First Woad Vat of 2014”

Exhausting the Weld Bath Part Two

After those intense, vivid colors on 40/2 linen yarns from the first and second weld exhaust baths, I assumed there was still quite a bit of color left in the bath. I thought it would be fun to try a couple experiments. My first experiment was to put a mordanted cotton-linen blend skein in the weld bath overnight, but not to heat it at all.

Why would I even try this? Well, the answer is kind of a long story. Even though my usual method is to apply heat when extracting color and dyeing fiber, I am very aware of the fact that this requires energy. Way back in 2006 I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Kyrgyzstan along with feltmaker Karen Page, to work with a group of women in a village who wanted to develop a crafts business. My part of the project was to teach them what I knew about natural dyeing, and Karen’s job was to teach them new felting techniques. Continue reading “Exhausting the Weld Bath Part Two”