Grackle & Sun

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Dye Day #1 Results: Eucalyptus

Orange.  Beautiful, deep, rusty orange.  That was what made me want to dye with eucalyptus.  I love orange.

Did you know that there are over 700 species of eucalyptus?  And none of them are native to Missouri.  Which meant that I was going to have to hunt for a source.  Somewhere.  Because no dyer’s supplies carry eucalyptus either.  But that wasn’t the difficult part.  The difficult part was figuring out which species of eucalyptus would give me the colour I desired.  In Wild Colour, Jenny Dean talks about dyeing with eucalyptus, and gives good instructions for how to do so, but very little information on what kind to use.   I was able to find a little bit more information onlinemostly from blog posts by intrepid experimenters and comments from other dyers.   I think it’s important to say that if you Google “dyeing with eucalyptus” or some similar search term, you’ll get a surprising number of results.  But a lot of information on dyeing with eucalyptus, while fascinating, was not useful for this project because  A) it was for eco-printing rather than dyebath dyeing  B) used species of eucalyptus that I don’t have access to  C) didn’t get orange  D)  used bark rather than leaves or  E) did not include pictures of results.   By the way, that eco-printing thing?  Very cool.  So totally want to try that.

But by digging around on some of the great links above, I was able to narrow down the field substantially.   I found a number of references to dyeing with “silver dollar eucalyptus”.  Well, guess what.  Lots of species of eucalyptus are commonly called “silver dollar”— cinerea, polyanthemos, cordata, gunnii… See the problem?  I realized that I was just going to have to close my eyes and pick one.   I finally settled on a variety that I could easily find locally:  eucalyptus pulverulenta, aka “baby blue”.  This variety is frequently used by florists in arrangements, which meant that I could buy it fresh by the bunch.  If fact, I actually ended up buying it at Trader Joe’s of all places, for $5 a bunch (which was $10 cheaper per bunch than my local florist was going to sell it to me). Be careful, though— lots of places sell dried eucalyptus for floral arrangements, but it’s been dyed.  Don’t use that kind!

So, I had the eucalyptus.  Now it was a matter of seeing if my research and varietal gamble would pay off…

Dye Notes:

Dyestuff:  Eucalyptus pulverulenta, “Baby Blue”

Part used:  Leaves and thin stems

Source:  Trader Joe’s super affordable floral section

Yarn:  Knitpicks Bare Superwash mordanted in 8% aluminum potassium sulfate and 7% cream of tartar; Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool unmordanted

Ratio of dyestuff to fiber:  The standard recommendation here is a 1:1 ratio.  I used closer to a 2:1 ratio.  We had 160g of fiber in the dyepot, and I estimate that we had about 300g of eucalyptus.  This was the one dyestuff that I didn’t get to weigh, so I’m guestimating that this was roughly the amount used.

Preparing the dyestuff:   Most of the information I found said that eucalyptus dye results are incredibly variable.  Even results with leaves from the same tree can differ based on if you harvested leaves during a dry spell, after a rain, or from the sunny or shady side of the tree.  Amazing!  But most everybody agrees that the leaves that give the most colour are those that have been dried.  So after I bought my fresh leaves, I hung them upside-down in small bunches in the Snug to dry for 3 weeks.  It smelled heavenly.

Eucalypt drying in the Snug

Extraction method:  The leaves and small stems were crumbled up into a stainless steel pot, covered with water (tap, pH 8.8), and then simmered very, very, very gently for 1 hour.

Dyebath:  Yarn was added to the dyepot with the leaves still in, as this is what is recommended for the best colour.  The dyepot was hot at this point, and I was worried about adding yarn to it that way, but it turned out ok.  In the future, though, I’ll do what Rebecca Burgess recommends, and soak the yarn in warm water first.   The dyepot was then brought up to a super gentle simmer again and maintained for 2 hours.  Jenny Dean says that it takes 3-4 hours to get the colour out of eucalyptus, but we found that it happened closer to 1.5-2 hours.  The pH of the dyebath was 4.9.   Again, we were very careful not to boil it.  Boiling will apparently kill the colour and make you VERY SAD.

Delish-alyptus dyebath. Look at all that colour!

And now we pause to discuss the DELICIOUS SMELL that is the eucalyptus dyebath.   Delicious.  Wonderous.  Fantabulous.  I would compose odes to it.  I would sing songs about it.  It is worth it to dye with eucalyptus just to be able to stick your face over the dyepot and breathe in all that goodness.


The results?  TOTAL SCORE!  Which means, we got orange, baby!

Pretty brown and orange. My two favorite colours. :D

Note, that the superwash wool took in a much darker colour again.  Of course it did.  This picture isn’t quite true to colour, because the superwash actually is a more rusty-brown.  That Fisherman’s wool is pretty accurate, though.  That stuff came out mad orange.  I love it.  And bonus score?  The wool comes out smelling like eucalyptus, too!  I think I mentioned how good that smells…

Here is the eucalyptus drying later that day.  It’s been rinsed, but not washed.  Superwash is on the right this time.

Eucalyptus skeins drying right after dyebath.  You can see bits of leaves in it still.

For a comparison, here are my friend Kittyraja’s skeins.  I’m showing these, because she used superwash and non-superwash, but both of hers were mordanted with the 8% alum 7% CoT.

mordanted superwash and non-superwash

Super orange.  Awesometastic WIN!

Now, I haven’t written about the sad, sad part of Dye Day yet.  That would be the stinkyass osage orange FAIL.  The trauma is still too fresh.  But I will talk about how well the eucalyptus works to cover up the bad, bad smells and complete lack of colour of other failed dyebaths.   I overdyed this skein in the eucalyptus exhaust.   The interesting thing is that I first just plunked the skein in the cold dyebath dregs just to get the smell out.  And look at what it did—

Cold eucalyptus after-soak. Interesting colour…

It actually had a bit of a blueish cast to it. Mind you, this skein started out cream coloured.   I wish now that I’d kept at least a sample to see how it would have dried.  But I decided to reheat the dyebath to overdye the yarn.  This is what I got–a very pretty and not at all stinky golden yellow.

Skein overdyed with eucalyptus exhaust

I will absolutely be dyeing with eucalyptus again.  It was my favorite out of the whole day—a total sensory experience.  Absolutely love it!

Live happy, dye happy!

Volunteers, Part 2

It would be wrong to say that a plant only has value in my garden if I happen to find it pleasing for some reason or another.  I don’t want to limit my understanding of a plant (or animal or anything else) only to my opinion of it or my use of it, although I recognize that those two factors greatly influence what I choose to grow.   I would like to be able to appreciate plants for their plantness, to be able to see them regardless of whether or not they are beautiful or useful or delicious.  Maybe this stems from a desire as I get older to be seen just as I am, not judged to be good or not good, not reliant upon values or opinions.    Just to be.  To have a patch of this good earth where we can live under the warmth of the sun.   People and plants have a fair bit in common.

As for the volunteers in my garden…

I talk about plant uses below simply because it’s the most obvious part of what I’m learning about them.  It is in no way the only reason why I keep them.  I keep them in my garden because they belong there.  It’s my tithe to the genius loci (hums “Getting to know you…”).   It’s just how it is.  I am cool with being a weed gardener, although I prefer weed steward.   I don’t grow them, after all.  I just care for them and keep them.

Some so-called weeds fall under the category of “beneficial weeds”, meaning that they in some way help the plants that people actually want growing in their gardens or are in some other way of use to people.   So why are they called weeds at all?  I think only because they don’t tend to do what people want them to.  They don’t like to be obedient like good bedding plants.  Weeds are independent and resourceful survivors.  They don’t need us.

Queen Anne’s Lace

Many of these beneficial weeds are considered such because they attract predatory insects or provide some type of companion growing relationship to other plants.  One such plant is Queen Anne’s lace.  Although not native to North America, it has become widely naturalized and is seen growing with abandon in fields and roadsides all over where I grew up.  It is one of my favorite flowers as much for nostalgia as anything else.  I recently learned that Queen Anne’s lace is a beneficial weed in that it provides shade for other plants, attracts wasps (which kill pesty insects), and is said even to boost tomato crops if interplanted with them.  So sayeth Wikipedia, so it must be true.


I brought seeds of Queen Anne’s lace from the Farm a few years ago and planted them in the dry, hot west bed which runs between the house and driveway.  I’m always looking for hardy plants to grow there, as the hose won’t reach it.  Plants in this bed must tough out the summer on their own.   Early each summer, our driveway is lined with Queen Anne’s lace that has seeded itself everywhere but where I planted it.   It’s a little piece of the country,  a balm to me here in a city I don’t want to be in.   It was only fairly recently that I learned that Queen Anne’s lace is also a dye plant.  I haven’t had the heart to to cut off the flowers to dye with, though.


Another favorite volunteer plant that I take great delight in is plantain.  It is the bane of lawn gardeners everywhere.  Little do they know how much good is packed into this unassuming plant.  There are lots of types of plantain, the most well known being plantago major, or broadleaf plantain.   What grows in my yard is another common type of called buckhorn, ribwort, or English plantain—plantago lanceolata.   Give it a nice spot in a garden bed, and it will grow HUGE.   And it also does fairly well in the cracks of my sidewalk.

Plantain is edible and said to be very nutritious.  It was actually brought over by European settlers as a potted herb for both culinary and medicinal purposes.  I’ve read that a tisane of the leaves is very effective for coughs, although I’ve not tried it.  I have, however, used it to good effect on poison ivy.  I just chewed up the leaves and stuck them to my forearms over said offending rash.  Hey, I was desperate.  But for something more sophisticated,  Sarah Powell of the excellent Lilith’s Apothecary gives a wonderful DIY recipe for making infused oils or salves of plantain and violet.   Her Etsy shop is full of fantastical goodness, too.


It’s taken me longer to love the goldenrod.  To be honest, it’s been a pain in the ass—always growing in the most inconvenient places.  I try to give it a home in the west bed, it wants to grow with my herbs.  I try to give it a corner in the east bed, it wants to make a wall across the sidewalk.   I feel obligated to give it a home, as I’m dedicated to the idea of native gardens.    So, when this year a big bunch of it came up around the telephone pole at the end of the driveway, and I said good, you can grow there.  Peace for both of us.  It’s gotten taller and taller, and I’m learning to like goldenrod.   You have to be patient with it—it starts out tidily enough, but soon gets leggy and straggly, and it takes until late summer/early fall for it to bloom.  But it is beautiful when it does.   Goldenrod is also a dyeplant.  We’ll see if I have the heart to use it.  I can’t help but feel bad about cutting down the flowers it worked all season to make.  But a dyer’s garden is all chopped off stems and no flowers—like something out of The Addams Family.   If I want to dye, and I do, I have to make peace with that.

goldenrod phone pole garden

Goldenrod is much more widely accepted as a garden flower now.  It also has been used traditionally as a medicinal tonic.  It is also considered a companion plant, beneficial for attracting and hosting predatory insects.   Every time I look at goldenrod, I think of Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert style.  Maybe I will dye with it after all.  Ma Ingalls would be proud.


Finally, we have sambucus canadensis, the American elderberry.  These sucker up all over the place, but this is the first one to grace my yard.  I am thrilled.  Elderberries have a ridiculous number of uses—culinary, medicinal, dye, winemaking.  It provides food for birds and other animals, too.  Care must be taken with it, though, as parts of the plant, including unripe berries, are somewhat toxic.   I am mostly interested in the berries for dye.  But I am also content just looking at it.  It’s very pretty.   There’s something very seventies about elderberry.   It’s all beaded headbands and macrame and Mother Earth love.  Maybe it’s those great big flowers.   I smile every time I see it.


Elderberry farming is slowly but surely becoming a thing here in Missouri.  A few foreward looking farmers as well as Missouri State University are working both on developing elderberry farming techniques and marketing.  I hope it catches on—in a sustainable way.  What better to grow than a native plant with such a variety of uses?  I’m glad to be a volunteer elderberry farmer.

I talk to my plants a lot.  To me, they seem to have spirits, personalities.  Maybe that’s my synaesthesia talking, but that’s how I experience it.  One is not like another–even the same species.  I do my best to be a good steward of the land and to balance my wants with the land’s wants.   And while it’s fascinating to see all the different ways that plants are useful to me, I am trying to see past that to how a plant is intrinsically valuable to the earth.  There are connections from one living thing to another that go far beyond what we observe, especially if our view is narrowed only to how we are affected or benefited.   Part of cultivating awareness here is just watching and listening and letting things grow.




I don’t know a lot about plants.   I mean, I took botany in college as a requirement for my then bio major, but I don’t have that deep-seated intimate knowledge of plants that some people do.   I do ok growing them.  Houseplants and I get along so-so, usually better if I ignore them most of the time.   I garden better in the country than I do in the city.  The way I see it,  successful gardening has a lot more to do with the plants’ tenacity and will to live and propagate than it does with me having a green thumb.   My thumbs are just ordinary thumbs after all.

Japanese Knotweed

But plants fascinate me.  I love them.  Which is why I am trying to be a better gardener.    But it wasn’t the desire to grow more vegetables that sparked this love, nor was it a blossoming need to fill flower beds (see what I did there?), although both of those things are true.   It was weeds.  Well, truthfully, it was one particular weed that made me start looking around at the fascinating world volunteering their growth all around us:  Polygonum cuspidatum.  This plant was growing in our yard when we moved in to our house 7 years ago.  Didn’t know what it was. It looks like bamboo, and the bees are crazy about the flowers.  Swarms of bees.  So many bees, in fact, that the kids had a hard time playing in the back yard where this plant had absolutely taken over a 30ft section of fence.   So I took a sample of it to the Missouri Botanical Garden for an ID.   Japanese knotweed, they said.  Invasive.  Get rid of it!   So I did.

At least I thought I did.  Because the next year, it was back.  This time instead of pulling it, I dug it up.  All the roots I could find.   But the next year, it came back again.  Turns out that ANY little knob of root left in the ground will sprout.  And it didn’t help that two of my neighbors let it grow all along their fence-line.  So this time I dug, removed roots, and put down weed barrier.  Well, all I had was newspaper, but I laid down a ridiculously thick layer of it all along the back fence, and then recovered it will soil.  And this seemed to work.  For a while.   The polygonum is back, but in pull-able amounts.   And in the seven years that I’ve been battling the polygonum, I’ve had a change of heart.  I’ve decided that I just can’t hate a plant that is so damned determined to grow.   So, I give it a little space now—just a little—and keep it from choking out the rest of the garden.  We have a tentative truce.  Not enough for me to take pictures of it, though.

Lady’s Thumb

My relationship with other weeds is much friendlier.   After I learned about the polygonum, I started looking around at all the other plants growing in my yard.  Part of this, I think, was just the newness of owning my own patch of land for the first time, which meant that every plant was potentially precious just by virtue of it growing on my soil.   One of the first I noticed was this little sweetie:

I think this is Polygonum pensylvanicum

As best as I can tell, it is polygonum pensylvanicum (used to be classified as a persicaria), also known as smartweed and lady’s thumb among others.  Most consider this a very invasive weed.   It is really quite lovely, however.  It braves the intense heat of the summer without withering, and it blooms for a very long time.  It’s also pretty easy to control by mowing.  So we let it grow in mounds in places where it seems happy and where other things are more reluctant to grow—like things I intentionally plant.   This plant is native to North America, and I found information suggesting that it was used medicinally by various tribes for diarrhea and hemorrhages.   Some species are said to be edible, although they are reported to be very, very peppery.   I have no desire to eat them, but I find this kind of information interesting.

Creeping Charlie

Another beautiful plant that likes to grow in my yard is creeping charlie.  It’s probably my favorite volunteer because of the gorgeous ground cover that it provides year after year under the trees and bushes I planted at the back of the yard (formerly Japanese knotweed territory).   It is most beautiful in  spring when it is in full bloom, although the greenery stays pretty lush for most of the year, dying back only after a deep frost has occurred.  It tolerates the whole summer without ever being watered.   It is easily manicured into a border by mowing.   Creeping charlie has medicinal uses and has also historically been used for some culinary purposes, although the safety of this is disputed.   Again, I don’t want to eat it, I’m just happy that it volunteered itself as ground cover around my back tree garden.

creeping charlie

This is a picture of the area where it is now growing with abandon.   I linked because the tags are helpful.   In this picture,  all these trees and shrubs are only a year old in the ground, and the creeping charlie is just clustered around the base of each.  Now it has spread across the entirety of the back fenceline in a lush, deep ground cover.  I’ll have to get a good picture of it next spring.   It’s really pretty.  I’d take a picture of how it looks now, but my camera is borked, and the phone camera is just barely getting me by—by which I mean that every time I take a picture with it, I want to throw it against the wall.  I miss my camera.    Here is a patch of it, though.

creeping charlie = great ground cover


Pokeweed.  Pokeberry.  Poke.  Phytolacca americana.  It grows all over the farm where I grew up in the Ozarks, and I’ve always loved it’s magenta-stemmed and purple-berried gorgeousness.   I remember the first time I  really noticed this plant.  I was maybe 14 years old and was out riding fence with my dad.  We came out of the woods and into one of the upper pastures, and I saw this giant magenta plant full of long clusters of purple-black berries.  It had to have been 7 feet tall, and the stem was very thick.  It looked like something from an alien planet—far too exotic for some farm in Southeast Missouri.   But no, it was just poke.   I was taught that it’s poisonous, and it wasn’t until I got married and was blessed with the chance to meet my husband’s wise and wonderful Gran that I learned that in many parts of southern Missouri (and indeed the South), it is eaten as “poke salat”.   Gran says that she was sent out as a child to pick the young, tender leaves to cook.   Still, it is regarded as a highly toxic plant, regardless of how many people grew up eating it every spring.   Poke is apparently also being researched medicinal use for both AIDS and cancer.  Way to go, poke!

Poke has only chosen a few places in my yard to grow.  Here we’ve got a beautiful specimen of pokeweed growing up beside the compost pile.

Pokeweed, soon I will dye with you!

I am more comfortable with the greens from my garden or from the local farmer’s market to bother eating the poke growing in my yard.  No, I’ve got a far better purpose for it in mind:  dyeing yarn.    Using the berries to create the dyebath produces the same gorgeous magenta colour as found on the stems of the plant.   For a long time, it was not considered a fast dye (meaning that it either washes out or bleaches quickly in the sun).  But a local dyer named Carol Leigh developed a way to make the dye fast by mordanting the fiber in vinegar.  I discovered this in the very awesome book Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess, who studied with Leigh when researching recipes for the book.  Now I cannot wait to try it this fall!  It takes a lot of berries, so I’ll be harvesting at the Farm, too.


One of the most abundant and welcome volunteers in my yard is the noble dandelion.  You can make wine, tea, salad, medicine, and dye all with this one weed.   I say weed only because of the number of people who try to eradicate dandelions from their yards.  They know not what they do.   Dandelions make me smile.  I happily give them all the space they want to grow.

i love dandelions


Then there is the wonderful violet.  Often overlooked, but this is a mistake.  Violets will grow like nobody’s business if you just give them a chance.  They are edible and medicinal and generally a lovely plant to have around.  Right now I’ve got violets growing for me in pots, in all of my garden beds, around my roses, and in my yard.  All volunteers.  Anything that works so hard to grow so prettily deserves a spot in my garden.  I freely admit to talking to the violets.  We’re friends.

a big colony of violets in the west garden bed. gorgeous when they are blooming, and lovely ground cover the rest of the year.

That is all for now.  The rest of the volunteers will have to wait for Part 2.  I hope that this encourages you to take a closer look at all the cool weeds growing around you, and maybe think of ways of giving them space in your garden and in your life.   Taking the time to develop a more intimate awareness of  these plants has enriched my life.  It has helped me remember to be aware of what is right under my feet, and it keeps me from taking things for granted.

Dye Day #1 Results: Elm Bark

It has been written that a dyebath made of elm bark can give a pinky-salmony colour on wool.  I’m sure that under the right conditions, with all variables being met perfectly, that is the case.  But I scoured the interwebz looking for any proof that anyone has ever gotten that colour from elm bark, and I found nothing.   Maybe not too many people like dyeing with elm?  I don’t know.  I liked it a lot, although our results were quite variable.

Dye Notes:

Dyestuff:  Elm, Ulmus

Part used:  Bark, split for weaving

Source:  Martha Younkin the fabulous basket weaver and teacher

Yarn:  KnitPicks Bare Superwash mordanted with 8% aluminum potassium sulfate and 7% cream of tartar; Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool unmordanted

Ratio of dyestuff to fiber:  A minimum of 1:1 is recommended.  I soaked all that Martha gave me—842g—but only used 160g for the heated extraction, so that part was done as a 1:1 ratio.

Extraction method:  The elm bark was soaked in a bucket of cool water on the back porch for 2 weeks.  It was covered with saran wrap to keep obnoxious effluvia and mosquitoes out of it.   It took a few days for any real colour to start coming out of the elm, but by the second week, the bucket was loaded with colour.

Day one, fresh into the bucket

The night before Dye Day, Husband and I stayed up until the wee hours to make the bark extractions.  The bucket of elm bark was strained through a stainless steel colander with a coffee filter to get out all the junk floating around in the bucket.  It must be said that the elm bucket was the cleanest and freshest smelling at the end of the 2 weeks.  Some of the others, cough stinkyass osage orange cough, didn’t fair so well.  I then put 160 g of the elm bark into some pantyhose to put into the extraction bath. The elm bark was very, very gently simmered for an hour and then cooled to be used the next day.

Dyebath:  We had 10 different dyebaths going on Dye Day #1, and because we only had 2 campstoves and one hot plate, we decided to do some of the dyebaths cold to help out with the propane usage.   Elm is one that can be done cold.   The dyebath had a lot of colour in it.   We measured the pH at 4.1, which means that the elm itself is quite acidic, as the water used had a pH of 8.8.  This explains, I think, why the elm bucket never got stinky when it was sitting out on the back porch.   Elm is also pretty tannic, and this might have had something to do with it, as well.   So, in went the skeins to soak overnight.  They were in the dyebath for just over 24 hours.

The results?   Actually quite variable depending on the yarn, mordant and modifying done later.   Below is a picture of my two skeins.   The superwash was mordanted with alum and cream of tartar.  It came out of the dyebath with an ever-so-slightly-pinkish tinted brown.

Elm bark with iron modifier. You can see the original pale colour, and then just how dark the iron made it.

I modified it with iron, which took any red out and made the brown more… brown.   The Fisherman’s wool skein was unmordanted, and it came out not quite as pinky as the superwash.  I played with the iron mordant on it, too, but didn’t like it.  So in the end, I overdyed it with more elm bark—-this time doing a heated dyebath.   You can see how much more orange it came out of the bath the second time, especially compared to the other skein.

My elm bark results

So, those first two results are pretty different, right?  Now look at how my friend Kittyraja’s skeins came out (this is her picture):

Kittyraja’s skeins of elm bark awesomeness!

Totally different, and totally peachy-hued.  I think they are beautiful.  Both of her skeins were mordanted with the same 8% alum/7% CoT that mine were.  Both were totally different brands of yarn, though, and one is superwash (guess which) and one is not.

Modifiers:  Various people tried various modifiers on their yarn.  I told you about the iron after-dips above—they saddened and enbrownenated the colour.  Vinegar and copper had no effect.    I tried a solution of washing soda on one bit, and it actually seemed to bleach some of the colour out of the  yarn.  Nobody used ammonia on this one, so I’ve nothing to report there.

Anyone else dyed with elm bark?  What did you think?

Live happy, dye happy!


There is a difference between being poor and being broke.  It is a difference of which I am keenly aware.   I consider my life to be incredibly abundant—just not usually with money.  Over the last decade or so, being broke is something which I’ve begrudgingly come to be thankful for—-it has taught me a lot of lessons about what is truly important in my life, lessons I might not have learned otherwise—like how little I actually need, and what things I actually want (not just think I want), where I find my happiness, and what truly makes me joyful.    It has made me appreciate the generosity of others, and it has, in turn, made me more generous.   This has been a process, though.  There was a time when if i wanted something, I’d  just run out and buy it.  Later, there was also a time when I viewed my inability to do that as a really bad thing.   I don’t feel that way anymore.  Sure I’d like to not ever have to worry about money—-so would 99% of the rest of the world.  We’re all rowing the same boat, and manning this oar has changed my perspective.   Now I see wealth as not owing anybody a dime.   Having my hands tied as a consumer has made me rethink my role and my power as a consumer; it has made me rethink what I consider to be resources.  This is a gift.  This is useful.   I now see the myriad ways in which things can be re-purposed;  I can see the resources that we have all around us if we just look hard enough.

I am a functionalistic artist, my medium is serendipity.   Today’s reflection is on good-luck gardening.

A couple years ago, I decided to build a low retaining wall around one of the flower beds which runs along side the house.    When we bought the house 7 years ago, the bed just had some concrete pavers leaning up against it at an angle to hold in the soil.  Needless to say, it didn’t work very well, and it was a ridiculous mess.   We also decided to build a raised bed garden on a strip of the backyard that refused to grow grass.   Combined, these two projects needed about 100 linear feet of building material.

Where I grew up in the country, such a building project would merely require going to the creek or field and picking all the rock you could carry.   That’s one thing you can count on having in the Ozarks—rock.   I know, because that’s how half the house I lived in was built.   Good thing my parents had so many kids to haul all that limestone, lol.   But as I looked out into my seemingly resource-free urban backyard, my spirits plummeted.    In the city, people buy rocks.   That wasn’t going to happen.  So I mulled it over for a while.   Then I remembered Freecycle.

Serendipity:  Someone less than 2 miles from my house decided to rebuild all of their flowerbeds and their patio with shiny, new interlocking pavers—-and they wanted somebody to haul away all the old brick from their yard.  200 bricks for the cost of heaving them to my car?  Yes, please!

So we bricked a little cottagey wall on the east bed of the house:

East bed built from FREE bricks. Yes this was my first time working with mortar.

We even have enough bricks left over to brick in the west bed, too!  I’ll get to that side of the house sometime soon…   So, the east bed was fixed.   Garden soil held firmly in place by a rustic little brick wall.   It was on to the raised bed.

In looking for ideas for raised bed designs, I stumbled across this awesome article on building with urbanite.   How cool is that?  Very.   Do you know why?  When we moved into the house and started working on the yard, one of the first projects we tackled was to bust up a concrete pad and a weird broken sidewalk that we found half buried in the backyard.  Sledgehammer:  I have one.

The sledgehammer is my friend.

Serendipity:   All of that concrete was piled up by the side of our garage while we waited until such a time as when we could have it hauled off.  It never occurred to me to look at it as a building material.  Silly me.  Now I know better.  So for the price of a couple bags of mortar, we had a raised bed.

Urbanite raised bed just after construction

You know what the problem with raised beds is?  You have to fill them with dirt.  Well, we’ve got a pretty awesome compost pile going, but that wasn’t going to cut it.  The first two years, I just kind of…. fluffed up the dirt to help it fill in the bed.  It worked ok, but the soil in this city yard has seen better days.  Last year’s garden faltered miserably despite all my attempts at watering and fertilizing.  It just wasn’t happy.  It didn’t help that half the summer was over 100 degrees.  :/  Even my cilantro died.  This good Puerto Rican has never not been able to grow cilantro.   That is not right!    This past fall, I dug all the leaves I raked up from the yard into the garden—this being a good bit of advice from the classic homesteading book Ten Acres Enough.   Even still, as of last week, I’d pretty much given up the ghost on putting a garden in.  The bed needed more soil.  A lot more soil.  Good soil.  And it just wasn’t in the works to buy any.   Geez, good dirt is expensive in the city!

But one night last week after work, I had to run to the grocery store to pick up stuff for the kids’ lunches the next day.  I thought about my choices for stores open at that hour that would have the gluten-free alternatives that we need, and on a whim, I went to a grocery store that I almost never shop at.

Serendipity:   There was a great big sign on the remains of their summer gardening section that said, “Garden Topsoil:  10 for 10”.   That’s right.  They were selling off all their dirt for $1 a bag—that’s how much they wanted to get rid of that display.   For the grand total of $16, I bought enough dirt to (mostly) fill up my raised bed.   Together with the compost I added, we have a chance at gardening success this year!

Sweet topsoil SCORE!

More serendipity:   And since I’d saved all my seeds and the seeds my sister-in-law gave me last year, I planted out my garden for free.   The tomato plants were a gift from one of my mother-in-laws co-workers who just moved out of state,  the parsley, thyme, chives, rosemary, and oregano came back from last year, and the black-eyed susans are volunteers to keep it all cheerful.    There’s also a rogue radish that I couldn’t bring myself to pull after it flowered so prettily last year.  It overwintered, staying totally green, and is now in full bloom again.   The only thing I bought this year to help in the planting was a box of popsicle sticks.  I am horrible about remembering what, where, and when I planted anything.  This year I got all militant on the garden and I marked EVERY SINGLE SEED.  LMAO.  Now there will be no guesswork as to whether or not that thing sprouting up is weed or a beet.  I’ve got it down.

Little placemarkers to help me remember my rows

And, AND!   In other areas of the garden…

I decided ages ago that the best way to attract and help out the birds in my yard (without making messes and spending a bajillion dollars) is to give them water instead of food.   But how could I do this without tromping to some garden center to spend money on a birdbath?

Serendipity:   I had all kinds of dish-shaped things laying around!  I just had to look at them with the new purpose in mind.   I found some large planter bottoms that were in storage in the garage, and I turned them into my makeshift birdbaths.   It actually works really well.  I put a larger, deeper one on the bottom—it also serves as the outdoor dog water bowl—and then i set a smaller dish on top of a brick inside of that so that the little birds can bathe and drink, too.  But my birdbath needed to be made into it’s own pretty little space.    I received a beautiful yarrow plant from my Gran for my birthday.  This was the first planting in the birdbath garden.  And I ran to a local nursery and found 3 Russian sage plants on sale for $6 a piece—-which i mention only because with tax, it came out to the exact amount of money I had on me.  I always think that’s funny.

Birdbath garden

It’s not super-fantastic now, but when it all grows and fills in, this is going to be a lovely little birdbath garden.  The birds already love it.  They use the birdbath at all hours of the day.   Oh, and the mulch!  Lol.  Found two bags of hardwood mulch, a bag of lime and a bottle of organic fertilizer that I totally forgot I had stashed in a corner of the garage.  I’d curse my memory, but it was like Christmas when I found it, so I can only be happy about it.

The dictionary defines serendipity as the aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.  It is happily a common thread in my life—one that I am astoundingly thankful for.  I like to think that between serendipity on one hand and financial exigency on the other, I have discovered my homesteading spirit in the most unlikely place.   I would have expected that to happen on the Farm, and certainly life in the country laid the foundation.   But that experience, while creating wonderful memories and providing a lot of useful knowledge, is not what did it.  It has been my experience in the city that has helped me distill this understanding—in part because my yearning to return to the country has made me read voraciously about farm life, but also because figuring out how to be an urban homesteader without the resources I took for granted before has made me creative by necessity.   Lessons learned.   Lessons that I am now ready to take back to a farm of my own.  Any time now…

In Memoriam

I’m going to tell you a story about the life of Knowledge.

Once upon a time, on a farm deep in the Ozark woods, a very special dog was born.  He was one of nine, the runt of the mother’s first litter.

And he was dying.

We had just gone down to The Farm to visit my parents.  I didn’t even know that they had bred their pair of mastiffs.  My dad asked if I wanted to see the pups, and off we went to the barn where he’d set up a cozy and quiet place for the mom and litter.   Mastiff puppies look like little sausages.  They are roly-poly, chubby little chunks of furry cuteness.  Really, it’s almost painful.  There they all were, eagerly nursing and mewing.   All except for one.  One little guy was laying very still in the corner of the pen, too weak even to try to crawl to his mother; his mother too inexperienced to know to bring him back with the others.  Things looked grim.

But, we can’t just let a roly-poly little sausage-puppy die!  Not on my watch.  So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

Have you ever tried milking a dog?  It’s not easy–especially when you’re competing with a litter of puppies.  Luckily, one of my dad’s sheep had just had a lamb.  So I milked the sheep instead.  Not as easy as milking a goat, but easier than milking a mastiff.  We took the failing pup and our precious container of fresh sheep’s milk back to the house where it would be easier to care for him.

My dad’s a doctor.  And a rancher at heart.  Our farm was an animal farm, not a crop farm, and he has always kept it well stocked with medical supplies for the inevitable times when animals need to be patched up.  So, it was no surprise that he had a small syringe and a wee little intubation tube.  This made feeding the puppy much easier and safer, as he was too weak to suck or swallow.  We gave him tiny little bits of the sheep’s milk every half hour or so.  In between feedings, I kept him warm by snuggling him up against my skin.  I’ve done a lot of reading into attachment parenting, breastfeeding, natural birth, etc., and a lot of that research cites animal studies showing the need for touch and skin contact to stimulate the nervous and respiratory systems.  So I kept him against my skin and gently massaged him up and down his spine.  I also knew that if not licked by their mother, newborn puppies will die because it is the licking that signals them to use the bathroom.  So I took a warm, wet washcloth and imitated a mother’s licking to help him pee.   A little weird, but totally effective.   So, yeah.  Feeding sheep’s milk through a tube, constant skin contact, massage, and a wet washcloth on his puppy-junk.   For 12 hours.

The day he almost died.

After 12 hours, we had to go.  It was a long drive back to the city, wondering if he would live.   But the next day, I got a call from my dad saying that our effort had worked.  He was not only alive, but able to nurse on his own.  WOOT!   Happeh little sausage-puppeh lives!

And then 10 weeks later, I got another call from my dad.  This time he said that it was time to come take my puppy home.  What?!  No, no, no.  I mean, I LOVE dogs, but a mastiff?  In our little house in the city?  How was that going to work?  But he was insistent that since I’d saved his life, he was now connected to me.  And damn it, he was right.  So on June 4th, 2006, we took our little sausage-puppy home.  And we named him Knowledge.

Knowledge at approximately 10 weeks

We loved him, and he was sweetness itself.  And he grew a little bit…

And a little bit more…

And whoa, he kept growing!

Until finally sometime around 3 years old, he decided he’d grown enough.  He weighed 180 pounds.   Dude, we had to buy a new car—one that would fit the kids and the dog.   And you know what?  Living with this dog was wonderful.  Slobbery slingers and all.  (If you don’t know, a slinger is mastiff-owner slang for the long strings of drool that mastiffs have a tendency to leave all over the house.  No, really.  ALL OVER THE HOUSE.  Floor, walls, ceiling.  Yeah.)

Knowledge was laid-back.

He was also playful.

A mastiff’s jowls run at a different speed than the rest of the mastiff. LOL.

It was hard to find good toys for a dog this size.  We ultimately settled on basketballs.  Well, he settled on our son’s basketball, and we realized that he was right–it was the most appropriate choice.  Although, they didn’t last long.

Knowledge is thankful for basketballs

He could literally put his entire jaw around a basketball and pop it.  And he did it with such joy that it was hard to get upset that we had to buy a new one every couple months.   He happily played with the deflated ones.  He liked to play fetch and tug and soccer.   And, man, could he run fast for such a huge, lumbering thing.   We loved playing ball with Knowledge.

Knowledge was a wonderful family dog.  He was part of the family.  He loved the kids and was ever patient with all the goings-on in a busy house.  He liked to be wherever we were, whether laying down by us in the living room, sleeping next to the kids’ beds or while we cooked in the kitchen.  Especially, when we cooked in the kitchen.   He loved pretty much all food, swallowing most of it down his gaping maw in one gulp.  He particularly liked bananas.  It was hard to deny that dog a banana.  He would just look at you with so much hope in his eyes.

Knowledge had a great sense of humour, too.  He was funny.  Not in a cheeky, mischievous way.  Just in an innocent, joyful way.   And while he looked ferocious to people who couldn’t see past his size, we knew better.  Knowledge was full of love.

The “ferocious” dog is actually smiling as my son tickles him.

Knowledge was also ridiculously silly.

This was going to be a nice picture of the two of us—then he licked the side of my head right before the shutter clicked.

And very tolerant of our silliness, too.

Knowledge helping me show Ravelry that not all knitters are cat people

We took him with us everywhere that we could.  He wasn’t great with the heat of Missouri summers or with long walks.  His hind end had poor conformation— he had extreme luxation in his rear hocks which caused his thigh muscles to atrophy.  This didn’t stop him from getting around or running, but it did make hiking with him difficult.  His favorite place to go was The Farm.  He LOVED swimming in the lake.  It not only cooled him, but it took the weight off his joints.  Knowledge was big, but not fat.  His 180 lbs was a very lean 180. He just had wonky joints.  What’s a dog to do?

It was after such a trip to The Farm last year that I noticed him limping.  It wasn’t unusual for him to overdo things there, so I didn’t think too much of it.  But a few days later, he was still limping.  I figured he pulled something and took him to the vet just to check things out.   The x-ray results were a bomshell.   From out of nowhere:  osteosarcoma of the right distal radius.  Fucking bone cancer.  My sweet, sweet puppy had bone cancer.

If you don’t know anything about bone cancer in dogs, it’s actually very similar in many ways to bone cancer in humans.  The prognosis is grim:  it grows quickly in the young,  is typically metastasized by the time it’s diagnosed, is excrutiatingly painful, and the treatments suck.   The standard protocol is full amputation of the affected limb followed by chemo.   The amputation won’t stop the spread of the cancer—in fact, studies  show that removing the mother tumor actually can cause the mets to grow faster.  No, the amputation is strictly for pain management.  The chemo only to hold the mets at bay.

We were told early on by both our vet and the oncologist we saw that because of his wonky hind end, Knowledge was not a candidate for amputation anyway.  The next option was chemo.  But after doing a lot of research and talking to friends who are vets or work for vets, we decided that it just wasn’t worth the maybe 6 months he’d gain from the chemo to have him feeling even more sick and stressed and miserable from the treatments.   We were told of test treatments that were being done at some nearby universities.  Calls to those departments revealed that one treatment would involve injecting our dog with radioactive substances and then leaving him in alone in a radiation isolation ward FOR A WEEK.  My Bubbie alone for a week?  Get out.  And then we were told that when we brought him home, we would have to limit our contact with him further because he’d STILL BE RADIOACTIVE.  A person actually said these words to me.    And I thought, are we really being kind to our dog trying to heal him through such inhumane treatments?  No.  Not a freaking chance.

We looked up alternative treatments and even tried a few.  For weeks, all I did was research bone cancer.  I was on boards and forums.  I read the stories of countless other people who had gone or were going through the same thing with their pets.   This time was a study in hope and desolation.   Some piece of information would seem promising, would provide a tiny glimmer of a chance.    But the final conclusion was always the same.  Always.  The.  Same.  Nothing would cure him.   The only hope at this point was to provide effective palliative care.  Pain meds and herbs.  That was what was left for us and our poor puppy.  He wasn’t yet even 5 years old.

Finally, I had to back away from the interwebz and stop researching.  My buddy had months to live.   We wanted to spend every minute of that giving him belly rubs and playing ball.  So we did.   We tried our best to be happy and relaxed and normal so that our emotions wouldn’t stress him out.  Because you know what?  Through all of this, all of the pain, he was happy and relaxed and normal.  He was our same puppy—just with a really bad limp.  He still ran and played.  His appetite was as big as he was.  Only every now and again did he have a really hard time.  But even then showed us that he wasn’t done yet.   We watched him carefully, dreading the time when he would really start to deteriorate, fearing a catastrophic fracture now that his tumor had grown to the size of a baseball.

It was a few months later that while waiting for the script for his pain meds to be filled at the Humane Society, that I found another dog who desperately needed a home.  Another big dog.   Ronin’s story is for another time.  But I bring this up, because Knowledge helped welcome this new dog into our home.  Ronin had been horribly neglected, but Knowledge showed him that we were good people, that things were going to be ok.  Knowledge helped show him how to be a dog again.  And Ronin was a good playmate for Knowledge.  He cheered Knowledge up and was a calm companion when we had to leave the house.  They were good for each other.

And then in the middle of the night, a month after we adopted Ronin, Knowledge came to us clearly not feeling well.  He just wasn’t right.  It very quickly became apparent that he was suffering a gastric torsion—bloat.  And that was it.  We knew the time had come.  Just like that.  There was no point in putting him through an operation, not with his tumor as progressed as it was.  We knew, as we called in to the emergency vet, that we had to say goodbye.   Knowledge actually got up off the floor and walked to the car.   I think he knew there was no easy way we could have carried him.  My husband and I gently put him in the back, and I sang to him and pet him and kissed him good bye.  It was so fast—so much shorter than I wanted—but we didn’t want him to suffer any more.

I had to stay with the kids.  My husband held him when they put him to sleep.  He says it was fast, peaceful.  Then he brought his body home.  We had already decided to bury Knowledge at The Farm.  So at 4 o’clock in the morning, we loaded our sad and sleepy family into the car and drove his body to be buried.  We picked a spot under the trees beside the lake.  His favorite place to be.    We all dug—me, my husband, the kids, and my dad.  We dug his grave and laughed and told stories about Knowledge.  But, boy was putting his body in that grave hard.  We buried him with his basketball.  Filled in the grave and put a marker that my daughter made on top.

My friend always

A lot of people just don’t get dogs, will never understand their intelligence and unconditional love.  The fact that they have personalities and thoughts and feelings.  This was a member of our family.    And I might not believe in any gods, but I know that dogs have souls just as sure as people do.   Death is as natural as life.  It is to be expected.  I don’t have a problem with that.  But it doesn’t stop it from being hard.  It doesn’t stop the missing.   I like to think of Knowledge as being one with the Cosmos now.  He’s still with us.

So, this is in memory of Knowledge, who died on June 5th, 2011.  It’s been a year today, and I still miss him.  He was my friend, and he taught me a great deal about how to live life with humour and graciousness, and without complaint.   Ever in good spirits  and always with love.

Dye Day #1 Results: Safflower Petals

Oooh, I was really excited about this one.   A dyestuff that yields two entirely separate colours?  Hell, yeah!  And such pretty colours at that—bright yellow and hot pink.  From flower petals.  It’s so perfect in its beauty and botanical bounty.  Look at the stuff.  Don’t you just want to get your hands in it?

Safflower Petals drying after the yellow dyebath

Dye Notes:

Dyestuff:  Safflower petals, Carthamus tinctorius

Parts used:  Petals

Yarn:  KnitPicks Bare Superwash mordanted with 8% aluminum potassium sulfate and 7% cream of tartar; Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool unmordanted

Source:  Hillcreek Fiber Studio,  a big 8 oz bag of happy!

Ratio of dyestuff to fiber:  226g of safflower petals : 160g of fiber.   Yeah, this is one where I think we could have backed of just a little bit—-for reasons that will be made clear in the second part of this post.   A ratio of 1:1 is recommended on this one, and I think that would have worked just fine.  But, as we’d all chipped in for the dyestuffs, it seemed easier to just use it all up than to try to divvy out the remains of 66g to all 8 people (which would only have been 8.25g per person, and who’s going to dye only 8.25g of yarn?)  So, we used it all up.

Extraction method:  We wrapped the petals in a square of muslin, closely tied, and dunked it in a pot of cool water.    We left the petals in for one hour, giving the occasional squeeze to help them release their colour.  I feel it extraordinarily pertinent to say that safflowers are more than happy to give you yellow dye.  They want you to have the yellow dye.   They want your children to have yellow dye.   It just doesn’t stop.  This will be important information later.

Dyebath:  After a final squeeze, we removed the petals and added yarn to the dyebath.   The pH of this dyebath measured 4.8.   The bath was slowly brought up to temperature and simmered for an hour.  The yarn was allowed to cool in the dyebath overnight.

Yellow Safflower Dyebath

See how much colour is in there?  It’s hard to tell with it in the old stainless steel milk pail from the farm (I used to milk goats into that pail at 5:00 in the morning before school), but that yellow dyebath is actually remarkably clear and such a saturated colour.    Safflower hospitality.  Generous flowers.

The results?  Well, they were interesting.  This was one dyebath were the results were very different depending on the yarn and mordant combination.  The first picture is of the skeins drying right after the dyebath.  They’ve been rinsed, but not washed:

Fisherman’s wool unmordanted (left) and mordanted superwash (right) from the first safflower dyebath.

Here they are after being cured, washed, and skeined up:

See how bright the yellow is on the unmordanted Fisherman’s wool?  The mordanted superwash achieved more of a dark goldenrod, almost dijon kind of yellow.   Maybe even more of a stoneground mustard yellow.  It’s important to note that in ALL of the dyebaths, the superwash wool took up a much darker version of the colour than the non-superwash wools, mordanted or not.    Sometimes this meant that the superwash came out of the dyebath with richer colours.  But in this case, although a pretty colour was achieved, it was not the bright yellow that I was hoping for.   This is not something that I’ve seen any dyeing books really talk about or show examples of, although I have heard anectdotes of certain cold dyebaths, like black beans, working better on superwash.    If you want to see even more variety, have a look at my friend Kittyraja’s results.   The skein on the left is superwash.  The bulky on the right is not.  Both are mordanted.   Again, the superwash was darker.   So, lesson learned:  superwash vs non-superwash WILL affect your colours.

Safflower Petals Part 2:    An Epic Saga of Yellow, Yellow and More Yellow

Remember how I said that Safflower Petals are supposed to give you hot pink on the second extraction?  Turns out that was a little trickier than I thought it was going to be. See, the instructions for getting the pink dye imply that it is done merely by changing the pH of the petals—to very basic, and then back to slightly acidic.  And we did this…

Dye Notes:

Extraction attempt number 1:   After squeezing out the petals (which were STILL giving out yellow dye), we put them into a fresh pot of cool water to which we’d added washing soda.  The instructions were to raise the pH to 11, but with the washing soda we were only able to raise it up to 10.2.   We left the petals in this basic solution for an hour.  Then we lowered the pH, as per the instructions, using vinegar.   Two differences from the instructions here:  1)  I only had apple cider vinegar instead of the recommended clear distilled.  2)  We dropped the pH a little low to 5.5 instead of to the recommended 6.0.

No pink dye.

The dyebath was yellow.  A deep, dark yellow.  Hmmmm.  Well, maybe it was the fact that we couldn’t get the basic solution up to 11.  Or maybe it was because of the apple cider vinegar.  So Husband ran to the store and got us some ammonia and some clear vinegar.  And we tried it again.  Because, as you surely must know by now, those petals still had colour in them.

Extraction attempt number 2:   In yet another fresh pot of cool water, we used the ammonia to bump the pH up to 10.9, added the petals, and let them steep for an hour.  Then we used clear distilled vinegar to lower the pH to 5.6.  We did all the things.

No pink dye.

Nope.  This bath was yellow, too.    And I was all like, science FAIL!!!  But waste not, want not.  We dyed with it anyway.   The results?

Here are the skeins drying after the dyebath.  They are rinsed but unwashed:

Mordanted superwash on the left, unmordanted Fisherman’s Wool on the right.

Here they are cured, washed, and skeined up:

Safflower Exhaust Dyebath Results

Warm, buttery yellows on the non-superwash.  No surprise, the superwash was a little darker.  This skein is variegated because I modified part of the skein with vinegar on the second day.  We found that vinegar slightly darkened the colour, ammonia reddened it a bit, iron made it greenish, and lemon brightened the yellow.   Again, you can see more variations on Kittyraja’s Flickr page.  The two on the left are from the first dyebath, and the two on the right are from the second dyebath.  I don’t consider this a total fail, but I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the hot pink.

So, what happened?  I was stumped at first, but research hound that I am, I think I figured out my mistake—one missed little line in Wild Colour:  rinse the petals until the water runs clear.  This was confirmed on the very excellent blog post by the Barefoot Shepherdess on dyeing with Safflower.   Her work is amazing, and her blog is wonderful to read and to drool over.    Her method also talks about getting most all of the yellow out before moving on to the pink step, however, she leaves her petals in the alkaline solution for 3 hours rather than just 1 hour.    So, I think one of two things was happening here—-either we still had way too much yellow dye in the petals for it to work, or it would have worked had we left them to soak for considerably longer.

The next day, E and I sat and rinsed the rest of the yellow dye out of the petals with a hose.  We saved another bucket full of yellow dye, and the rest we used to water the garden.  It took almost half and hour before those petals kinda sorta ran clear.  Kinda sorta.  As in, THERE WAS STILL YELLOW IN THEM.  But, they looked like the picture in the Barefoot Shepherdess’ blog, so we called it good.  I then dried them (seen in the first picture), because I want to try the pink experiment again.  I’m not sure if it will work after they’ve been dried, but I figure it will be a fun experiment.  :D

Live happy, dye happy!

Results from Dye Day #1: Alkanet Root

So, let’s break it down by dyestuff.   We’ll start with Alkanet Root—the biggest surprise of Dye Day.

Dried Alkanet Root, post-dyebath

Although the primary source of our information on how to dye with Alkanet Root was from Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour, I did get some very helpful advice from Carol Lee on Ravelry.  Carol Lee is a font of wisdom regarding natural dyeing.  I’ve learned a lot just by reading her posts on Ravelry.  But, she was kind enough to give further advice by email, as well.   With this said, let’s dive in to the methodology!

Dye Notes:

Dyestuff:  Alkanet,  Alkanna tinctoria

Parts used:  Roots, dried

Yarn:  KnitPicks Bare Superwash mordanted with 8% aluminum potassium sulfate and 7% cream of tartar; Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool unmordanted

Source:   Hillcreek Fiber Studio.   The roots are a wonderful deep purple with a reddish cast.  I was surprised by how light and almost papery they are.

Ratio of dyestuff to fiber:   226g of alkanet : 160g wool yarn.   This ratio is higher than the 1:1 recommended in Wild Colour.  I chose to up the grammage on this one for a couple reasons.  First, the 1:1 ratio frequently given is a basic amount that should give good dye results.  However, Carol Lee says that she more commonly uses a 2:1 ratio for many dyestuffs to get better, more saturated colours.   I bought an 8oz bag of alkanet, which is 226 grams.   This made it 66g more than a 1:1 ratio and  94g less than a 2:1 ratio.   I figured, we might as well chuck it all in and ask questions later.   Finally, I knew that in addition to the 160g of yarn we were dyeing,  I was going to dye and unknown quantity of cane as a favour to my basketweaver friend, Martha.   I wanted to make sure that there was enough dye in the dyebath to cover this experiment, as well.

Extraction method:    This is where cross-referencing multiple sources really came in handy.   The recipe given in Wild Colour is for a water extraction.  She does, however, talk about alcohol extractions more on her website.  However, it was Carol Lee who recommended soaking alkanet first in alcohol—specifically Everclear or a grain alcohol over 90 proof.    She says that this is the best way to get the Alkanet to readily release its colour.

I soaked all 226g (8oz) of the dried Alkanet Root in 750ml of Everclear overnight.  Important note:  Whoa is this flammable!   I kept it covered and away from anything that would even look at it sideways.  Cautious, that’s me.    But wow, did that release a lot of colour.  It was a deep, deep burgundy purple.

Dyebath:  The next day, we strained off the dyed liquor into a large stockpot.  We then put all the bits of Alkanet Root into some pantyhose, tied it off, and added it to the dyebath.   Wild Colour notes that Alkanet Root is sensitive to both the pH and the minerality of the water used in the dyebath.   My tap water has a pH of 8.8 (as measured by my trusty pH-o-meter) and a lot of minerals.  Because of this, we decided to use distilled water for the dyebath.  Unbeknownst to us, we accidentally bought distilled water “with added minerals”.  Oops.  Lol.    Not sure if that had anything to do with our results or not.  In any case, we added about 2 to 2.5 gallons to the dyebath.   We tested the pH, and got a reading of 5.5, so we added a little sprinkle of washing soda (also bought at Hillcreek) to the dyebath to bring up the pH.  This INSTANTLY changed the colour of the dyebath.  Before it was a dark purple with more greyish undertones, and the washing soda made it redden and deepen a bit.  It was pretty cool.   We retested the pH, and had a reading of 6.9.

At this point, we added our yarn.  Everyone came with different brands and weights of yarn, both superwash and non-superwash, but my Lion Brand Fisherman’s Wool was the only unmordanted yarn in the bunch.  I wanted a control of sorts.  In retrospect, I would have left some superwash unmordanted, as well.  I was really amazed how differently superwash wool took up the colour vs non-superwash wool.  In the future, I’ll dye both kinds mordanted and unmordanted to see the results.

The dyebath was slooooowly brought up to temperature and then simmered for an hour.  The yarn was then allowed to cool in the dyebath overnight.  In the future, I’d like to get a thermometer to more accurately measure temperature in these dyeing experiments.  The only thermometer I had this time is our beer-brewing thermometer, and that could not be sacrificed to the cause.

The results?

Superwash and non-superwash wools dyed with Alkanet Root

Purple-black what???  Not what I expected at all, but I’m very pleased with it.  My only regret is that somehow in the process, one of the knots on the superwash hank slipped and tightened, creating a very distinct resist on the yarn.  No colour got through on those spots.  It was a good lesson in how effective that method can be in creating resist patterns on yarn in the dyepot.   I’d be curious to hear from anyone who has also gotten this dark of a colour from Alkanet Root or if anyone more versed in natural dyeing can explain why we got this colour.

Dye Experiment Aside:

One of our dyebaths on Dye Day #1 didn’t work really at all.  This was the birch bark dyebath.  I would call it a total FAIL except that by not even imparting any colour, we were left with skeins that could be modified guilt-free.

I decided to overdye my superwash skein of birch bark un-dyed yarn in the exhaust from the Alkanet dyebath.  I also decided to see what would happen if I made the pH acidic.  So I used distilled vinegar and dropped it down to 3.9.  The colour of the dyebath didn’t really change much.  I added my yarn to the dyebath and simmered it for an hour.   Results?   I got a slightly purple-ish undertoned brown:

Birch bark superwash overdyed with acidic Alkanet dyebath exhaust

This was a surprise both because the “exhaust” bath really was not at all exhausted.  There was still a ton of colour in there.  Also because the bath was in fact purple.  I’m not sure if this is a result of dropping the pH so low or of a reaction with the colour over the birch bark.  Probably some combination of both.  But, as brown is my favorite colour (followed closely by orange and turquoise), I am fine with the results.

Live happy, dye happy!

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