Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Capturing the Sun, Round 2: WBB

I am continuing my experiments with natural dyeing. My second big experiment was to simmer up 12oz of very fragrant Perovskia blossoms to dye 7oz of wool roving. I expected that even if the reported blue was unattainable, I should at least be able to achieve a lavender or pink. Consider that when the blossoms are dropped from the plant they maintain a dark purple even after being bleached by the sun for a month. I carefully simmered the plant material and the water turned a dark reddish color. I strained the plant material out through a pillowcase and returned the liquid to a simmer. I gingerly added the alum-mordanted wool, and simmered it gently for an hour. I carefully monitored the temperature. Nope - no blue. No lavender. Not even pink. Just paper-baggish brown. I even tried putting some of the fiber into a high pH afterbath, with no color change. I only managed to add an ammonia tinge to the pungent aroma pervading the house.

I hereby name this new color WBB, short for Why Bother Brown. Several folks have given very good suggestions on how I could alter the process and try again. I don't think my sinuses are ready for another go. There are so many other plants to try. And as Laura always says: I could overdye it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Getting ready to get started to do more dyeing

My available natural dyestuff collection has expanded. In addition to the already collected Lingularia flowers, Arborvitae seedpods, Mahonia berries, and cherries, I have been collecting more Coreopsis, and have also collected large bags of Perovskia blossoms and dried blue Hibiscus flowers. These last two were readily available and I have seen vague mentions of their suitability as dye plants. The Perovskia is from the humongous shrubs in my front yard and the Hibiscus flowers are from the University campus (I swear I only took the dropped flowers!). I had to compete with the bees to collect the Perovskia, yet managed to collect 12.3oz without stripping enough branches to make my harvest even noticeable (or getting stung). I may go back and collect more, since I have no information on how much is required to get usable color. The Perovskia is so aromatic that my eyes hurt for the rest of the evening. I don't think I will be simmering it inside.

Although the usually procedure is to dry dye plants, unless using them fresh, I am putting everything in the deep freeze. This is entirely a matter of practicality - I have ample space in the freezer and it is safe from bugs and felines. Not so much, space for drying stuff.

Adding to my collection, I have recently received my first Nature's Cauldron Dye Plant CSA shipment. Inside was a tantalizing array of lodgepole pine bark, fennel, comfrey root and lichen, as well as a lovely skein of rhubarb-mordanted wool. I am especially looking forward to trying the lichen.

So my next effort will be to spin up and mordant some fiber. And to get my dye journal going to record my experiments.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Cookbook for the Little Trailer

I was recently gifted with this wonderful little cookbook. It was produced by the National Museum of Forest Service History and includes about 150 recipes from rangers, Forest Service newsletters, and other sources from the history of the Forest Service. Name an ingredient, any ingredient, and this book will probably tell you how to cook it in a dutch oven. Although I don't expect I will be making 'Great Basin Rattlesnake' or 'Depression Bologna Gravy', and I can't imagine wanting to eat 'Campsite Lima Beans' while on vacation, there are some wonderful looking simple hearty dishes described. I am puzzled by the recipe that starts with "Make mashed potatoes the way you usually make them on a camping trip" (really?) but can definitely see myself making the 'Spoon Bread' which includes corn muffin mix, blue cheese crumbles and bacon, or the 5-ingredient dutch oven 'Chili Verde'.

What makes this book absolutely wonderful though, is that it is packed with historic photographs of campers and campgrounds, most from the 1920s through 1950s. (Even a few showcasing 1950s trailers!) And scattered throughout the recipes are historical notes and stories about the rangers, foresters and fire crews that have protected our forests for the last hundred years.

I love this book!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Capturing the Sun, Round One


I have been fascinated lately with natural dyeing. It is a reasonable outgrowth of my other fiberish and gardenish pursuits. I am an inaugural member of the first natural dyestuff CSA, and am on the edge of my seat awaiting the first magic box. Meanwhile I have been reading up and gathering some potential dye plants from my own environment. So far I have collected from my garden: Coreopsis flowers and seed heads, Lingularia flowers, Arborvitae seed pods, and Mahonia berries. All of these have been labeled and put into the deep freeze. Along with them went several pounds of slightly-rancid bing cherries. (Yes, Laura, I do know that cherry pigments are fugitive, but I have an experiment in mind.) I have also set up 2 one-gallon jars of iron-water starter. Sort of like sourdough starter, feeding small rusty objects into vinegar-laced water will provide an unending supply of iron-rich mordant. I created 2 jars, because one of the jars contains rusty baling wire which, if it was galvanized, will also contain zinc. Different trace metals can greatly affect dye results. The other jar contains iron railroad spikes collected about 25 years ago along the former route of the historic Atlantic Coast Lines in Wilmington, N.C.

With some exceptions (most notably indigo) dyeing with plants is a 2-step process. Plant pigments don't really want to stick to fibers unless they have an intermediary, known as a mordant. The most common mordants are metal salts and are REALLY poisonous. Alum is one of the least poisonous (small amounts are food-safe) and brightens colors without modifying them, so it is the home dyer's mordant of choice. Iron is also commonly used, but it darkens or "saddens" the color. Using an aluminum or iron pot can be a substitute but may not provide the trace metal in high enough concentration. Everyone with me so far?

For my first experiment I divided 10oz of handspun Blue Face Leicester superwash wool yarn into 3 batches and simmered each batch in a separate solution: alum, RR spike iron water, and baling wire iron water. Note: be careful not to boil the iron water if you don't want your kitchen to smell like a machine shop. After copious rinsing, the alum skeins looked just like they had started and the iron skeins were a dark tan.

Mordanting is a bit like writing with invisible ink: the magic is revealed after the second step. I just couldn't wait until the weekend. Dreaming of sunny yellow socks to brighten up the depths of winter, I filled up the dye pot with water and tossed in the 12oz of Coreopsis flowers from my garden. The water started turning yellow almost immediately. I simmered the flowers for an hour. Along the way I tested the temp, and since it was too low, I turned it up, and gave it an extra 30 minutes. Then I poured the whole thing through a pillowcase to filter out the solids and returned the sunny yellow liquid to the dyepot. I added all the (presoaked) fiber and simmered for about an hour.

Each time I peeked, it became more evident where I went wrong. I should have dyed the alum-mordanted and iron-mordanted yarn seperately. Despite all the rinsing I had done, enough iron was floating loose to sadden the color of the alum-mordanted yarn. Still, I expected to get gold. In the pot all the yarn looked a uniform brownish color. It was not until I removed it from the dyepot that I could see the final two shades of deep bronzey green. I own eight books on natural dyeing, and none of them would lead me to expect this color of green with Coreopsis mordanted with alum and iron. That is the magic of natural dyeing! (For those technically inclined, the pH was lowish, 4.5, and I was dyeing with tap water in a stainless steel pot. Wonder what's in my tapwater...)

There was still plenty of color in the dye bath, but I didn't have anything else pre-mordanted, so I tossed in a half cup of alum and some white BFL and light grey Shetland roving. Those came out much closer to expected, but on the light side.

So this winter I will have the sunny green socks of summer.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011