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.

Each dyebath heated for about 45 minutes to an hour. While they were heating, we were inside and they were outside, so we did not monitor the temperature. We strained the baths one at a time over a fifteen minute period of time. The skeins only sat in the dye baths briefly at first, long enough for participants to see some color emerging on the skeins. Then I had to pack everything up and bring it home. I transported the wet skeins in tubs and the dyebaths in empty gallon jugs. Once I got everything home, I put the skeins back into the pots with the dyebaths to soak. The next day, I heated the skeins in the dyebaths for a full hour and let them soak overnight again before pulling them out to dry and eventually wash.

Madder–The day before the conference I weighed out 4 oz. of madder roots, put them to soak in a pot of water, added about a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a Tablespoon of soda ash (which made the bath about pH 8), heated the pot to about 160 degrees, maintained the heat for an hour, and then let the whole thing cool overnight. I’m not exactly sure where I picked up this term, but when I’m heating up plant material to make a bath I often refer to it as an “extraction”. So, this was the first extraction of the madder roots. I saved the strained liquid from that extraction, plus the original roots, and we made a second extraction from that same 4 oz. roots at the workshop. We added more water to the roots, plus calcium carbonate and soda ash to get a really high pH–it was like pH 10 or 11! I figured this wouldn’t hurt the roots. Plus we were pressed for time and getting more water to dilute the bath involved running up a flight of stairs and down a hallway to a bathroom with a shallow sink. So, pH 11 was good enough for the time being. We let that heat up on the low/simmer side of the hotplate for about 45 minutes.

When we came back outside to make the dyebaths, we strained out the roots and combined the high-pH extraction with my original extraction. The lower-pH bath was a much more orange color, whereas the high pH bath was much more of a cherry-red. We could see a difference in the color of the foam at the surface when we poured the two baths together. Together they made a sensible pH for wool. We lowered the first 4-oz. skein into the dyebath so that participants could see the color “strike”. That’s what it’s called when color first starts to attach to the fiber. It happens quickly with some dyes and more slowly with others.

The next day, I re-heated the original skein in the original bath for an hour at 140 degrees or so, and let it sit overnight. Then I exhausted that bath with a second 4 oz. skein. After that, I extracted the same roots two more times with calcium carbonate and soda ash to keep the pH around pH 8-9. I combined the two extractions to make a third dyebath, and dyed a third woolen skein that had been premordanted with alum. The combined exhaust dyebath was also pH 9. The color was practically indistinguishable from the original exhaust skein. Here are the three skeins together once they were all rinsed and dried:

It is possible to obtain much richer shades of red with madder root by making a more concentrated dye bath, but then you are looking at days and days of exhausting the bath, resulting in a small amount of reddish yarn and lots and lots of pink yarn. I tried to go easy on myself this time.

Weld–This is another pH sensitive dye plant that makes a kind of blah greenish yellow at a neutral pH and eye-poppingly bright yellows at a higher pH. We used 4 oz. of dried plant material. In an ideal world this would have had time to heat, soak, then sit around a while and steep. As it was, the plant material heated up for 45 minutes to an hour, then we strained it right away to make the dyebath. We added soda ash and calcium carbonate to get a bath of pH 8, and after all was said and done I got a nice yellow. I did not exhaust that bath.

Orange Cosmos–This is also a pH sensitive dye, which becomes more red in color at a higher pH. However, we didn’t bother to modify the pH in this workshop. We used 4 oz. of frozen flowers. Like the others, this dyebath heated up for 45 minutes to an hour before straining. The next day when I was dyeing the skein at a more leisurely ace, I left the pH alone. I didn’t even check it, so I can’t tell you what it was. The color was a pleasing tangerine, but not dark enough to bother exhausting.

Marigolds–We used 4 oz. of dried flowers to make the dyebath with no pH modification. The resulting color after heating for a full hour on Sunday was a sort of mustardy yellow or yellow-orange.

Together they make a nice range of colors. Here are all the skeins again (this is the same photos as my earlier post), minus the third madder exhaust:

From left to right: madder exhaust, first madder bath, orange cosmos, marigold, weld. I decided to use the same ratio of plant material to fiber for every dyebath, namely a one-to-one ratio. This was primarily to keep things simple for all of us. We could have made a more concentrated bath of weld, but 4 oz. of plant material filled up the pot, so that was really our limiting factor. A higher ratio of plant material would make for a stronger dyebath.

I hope some of these educators got inspired to dye with their students (or at home just for fun)!


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.

Back to the conference: My time-frame was 2:15-3:45 in the afternoon. This is a normal amount of time for most workshops at a day-long conference like this, even hands-on workshops. The only trouble is that all the steps in natural dyeing take a long time. If you want to make a dye bath with fresh, frozen, or dried plant material it takes at least 45 minutes to an hour, and then in an ideal world you let that sit overnight. Dyeing the skeins of yarn takes the same length of time. I always let the skeins or fiber sit overnight if I can, and I let them dry before I rinse them. Also, you have to mordant the fiber ahead of time. You cannot possibly fit it all in to an hour and a half. Nevertheless, I had committed to teach this thing. Making color with plants is so magical and so do-able that I am always happy to encourage people to try it.

So, I was excited about it, but also anxious. Basically I was counting on the fact that this would be a group of folks who are interested in process over product, and would want to see and participate in how the dye baths are made. Hopefully people felt satisfied with what we were able to do in that time:

  • make the dye baths (measure/weigh the materials, add pH amendments, test pH, set the baths to heat up)
  • talk about some considerations for setting up a dye plant garden or incorporating dye plants into an existing garden
  • look at some examples of projects I’ve done with kids
  • browse some of my favorite reference books
  • strain the dyebaths and put in the yarn

We were literally putting in the last skein of yarn at 3:45!

True to its name, we were outside for part of the workshop, and inside for part of it. When I set up in the morning, the outdoor space was shady and pleasant. A helpful custodian helped me run two long extension cords out of two windows, down to the ground on the playground below. There, I set up two portable electric burners. I set up everything we would need for dyeing outdoors, I set up books, hand-outs, and project samples in the classroom, and then headed off to enjoy the rest of the conference.

By 2:15, the sun had come around to our side of the building and it was blazingly hot. You wouldn’t have anticipated a blazingly hot day in late October, perhaps, but such it was. I think it was about 80 degrees. I had a great group of participants, about 20 folks, who obligingly tolerated the blazing heat for a few minutes while we got started. But it was really uncomfortable! I was feeling bad about it, but also feeling kind of stuck and unsure of what to do. Then, someone pointed out that it was shady just around the corner of the building. Yay! We moved things around the corner, and Ellen Doris (a former colleague at the Common School and my contact for the conference) brought an extra extension cord. We all breathed a sigh of relief in the small patch of shade behind a wall, and proceeded to set up the dye baths.

Here are the skeins drying afterwards on a rack at home:

We used four dyes for this workshop: madder, weld, orange cosmos, and marigolds. In my next post I will go into all the details of exactly how we obtained these colors!

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”

Exhausting the Weld Bath–Part One

After my dyeing workshop at Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom I had two strong dyebaths left over. One was weld and the other orange cosmos.

The original weld bath was made with 6oz. dried plant material from second year plants in bloom. I had originally divided the bath in half because I wanted to add calcium carbonate to the bath in which I dyed the cellulose cloth swatches, but not to the bath in which I dyed the protein swatch books. I’m not sure that the calcium carbonate would do anything bad to the wool or silk, but I consulted my notes from a workshop with Joan Morris and according to my notes we hadn’t added it to the protein dyebath. I decided not to experiment this time around. Continue reading “Exhausting the Weld Bath–Part One”

Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom

On March 8th I presented two workshops at the annual conference of Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom. You can check out their website here. One workshop was on growing and processing flax, and on ways to incorporate flax into the school curriculum. The other was on growing a dye plant garden at school and using dye plants with kids.

Based on an idea from Joan Morris, shibori artist extraordinaire, I decided to make two swatch books for the dyeing workshop. Each book had five small cloth samples sewn together. The dimensions were 3 inches by 1.5 inches. One swatch book was made up of cellulose (i.e., plant-based) cloth samples, including three kinds of cotton cloth, a linen-rayon blend, and a 100% linen piece. The other was made of protein (animal-derived) cloth, including silk satin, raw silk, and three weights of wool. I mordanted the cellulose swatch books with aluminum acetate at 5% WOG (weight of the goods, or fiber). I mordanted the protein swatch books with aluminum sulfate, at 1 tablespoon per 4 ounces. The protein booklets weighed about 6oz. altogether, and interestingly the cellulose booklets weighed almost the same. Continue reading “Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom”

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.