Friday, September 16, 2011

Last Outdoor Dye Class of the Season

going over the game plan with our students

freshly picked goldenrod heads

the goldenrod dye pot simmering away

the wonderful surprise of beggar's tick!

locally collected black walnuts soaking in water

fermented black walnuts beginning to simmer in the big iron kettle

we always cook the walnuts over a wood fire outdoors

dipping indigo skeins in the thiox vat

first dip

Eleanor dyed a range of shades in the indigo urine vat

Norman Kennedy teaching spinning to a full house in the barn studio

in the afternoon the walking wheel spinners came outdoors to work

skeins and wheels

wetting skeins

our witches' brew on the fire

It's been a busy few weeks, so I'm playing catch-up right now. We held the last summer dye class over Labor Day Weekend for two students from the local area. Deb was from Northfield. She's a weaver already, and was interested in learning more about the local plant dyes, so we worked up a range of colors with her, primarily on wool, as the silks with these plants are mostly not as interesting. Elise came from Middlesex to dye a large amount of yarn for her employer who is a sheep farmer interested in developing a market for locally produced and processed wool.

First thing, we set off into the open fields around the school to collect fresh plants, in particular, goldenrod, beggar's tick, tansy, and black-eyed susan. Kate brought some fresh madder root and japanese indigo from her dye gardens at home. Norman had collected a large amount of fresh black walnuts some weeks back, and they've been sitting in the big iron cauldron outside, fermenting. We also used dried madder for Elise's quantity of wool, and it was interesting to see the difference between the fresh and the dried roots.

For these classes, we typically start the mordanting (with alum and tartar) three days ahead of the start of class. The active part of this is on the first day, when the yarn is scoured and then slowly simmered for several hours in the mordant. After sitting overnight in the mordant bath to cool, the skeins are removed and lightly wrung out, then stored together in a basin covered by a damp towel for two days so they really have a chance to be thoroughly wetted by the mordant. The day of dyeing, they are rinsed out in fresh water and are then ready to work with. Most of these plants seem to be more fast as dyes if the yarn is mordanted, with the obvious exception of indigo.

Our japanese indigo was a big disappointment this time. It pretty much failed to dye anything beyond a faint icy blue, similar to weak woad. So we're thinking about the processing of the fresh plant (we were more rushed this time trying to fit in all the dyes with fewer students to do the work required - and we didn't cut and macerate the leaves the way our big enthusiastic band of indigenous dyers had gotten into the weekend before), and the water source, soft or's definitely hard here in Marshfield at the school, and I think we were using soft water from their pond when we were at Twin Pond Retreat. Anyway, there's more to tweak and fine-tune next season with getting this process to the point where were know what its absolute requirements are for successful dyeing.

On the other hand, we've never gotten such an incredibly deep dark brown from walnut before. It was quite nearly black! I'm chocking that one up to super-fresh walnuts, soaked and fermented in iron for three weeks beforehand. The thing I am staring to notice is that the most successful processes with plant dyes seem to come from a long-term process that you coax along with little nudges over the course of several weeks. This is how I've read that traditional indigo dyeing in Japan is practiced. It's in tune with the cycles of growing and processing and preparing the dyestuff, and happens at the same time every year because that's when it's ready for use. And then it begins all over again. None of this doing it solely at the whim of when you feel like it. The dyer's life becomes molded to the life cycles of what material she works with, not so much the other way around.

Another pleasant surprise was the "black" (actually a deep deep charcoal - beautiful) that we got from purple loosestrife and copperas on mordanted wool. Having fussed endlessly with complicated recipes and logwood to try and get black, this was a piece of cake, and a much more beautiful, rich color to boot! Definitely a keeper.

Something we'll wan to try next year is jewelweed, which supposedly dyes a lovely apricot shade.

It was a really busy weekend because Norman concurrently was holding a spinning workshop in the barn studio. So there were seven students and Norman working on processing wool and flax, and using spindles, flax wheels, and big walking wheels to spin yarn. We were so lucky to have beautiful weather for most of the weekend, so the big walking wheels got set up outside as we were dyeing indigo in the thiox vat and cooking walnuts over an open fire. It was pretty cool to see all of this happening at once.

So now we're settling in to a slightly more internal kind of rhythm, bring it indoors to the looms, dismantling the outdoor vats for the season, putting the dye gardens to bed, but on sweet sunny autumn days we still take our lunch out to the picnic table to soak up every last drop of warm weather before the snow and wind arrive. Fall is definitely here.

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