Catching Up

So I realize that I went almost a year without posting here, and I’m now playing catch up. A lot happened during that time, and I’ll be slowly filling in the gap now that I have a little breathing room.

Last spring I was awarded a grant from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which allowed me to return to Kullu Valley and continue work with the women’s group there. I didn’t post about it at the time because I was writing for their blog. I just saw that they have put up the first of my posts–please go take a look at it.


Busy Busy Busy

It’s shaping up to be an exciting spring and summer. I’m about to head up to Hopland for a week of sheep shearing school and wool classer certification. That’s right, I’ll be able to fondle wool professionally.

I’ll also be using what I learn there as the basis for a paper on “The Life of Wool,” which I’ll be presenting at the November conference of the International Textile and Apparel Association. It’s my first academic presentation!

But the biggest news is, I just received grant funding to go back to Himachal, play around some more with my human and plant friends, and interview folks about traditional craft knowledge and forest ecology. Time to really buckle down on learning Hindi!



After the shearing, I headed to Pt. Reyes for the 10th Annual Fungus Fair. One of the talks was on mushroom dyes, so of course I had to go. I brought along a couple test skeins in case I’d get a chance to pop them in a dye bath, but unfortunately it was really a talk, with slides, in an auditorium. Not really that unfortunate, though, because I did get the chance to meet and chat with Dorothy Beebee, scientific illustrator, natural dyer, and all-around cool lady.


She worked with Miriam Rice for over 40 years developing several crafty uses for mushrooms, including dyes, watercolors, paper, and crayons.


Once we found her table, my friends and I just kept hanging around it, like to the point that I hope she didn’t think we were stalking her or anything. My  new obsession is to find these guys…


…which make reds that she claimed were more light-fast than the aniline dyes. Check out the International Mushroom Dye Institute for more awesomeness.

Symplocos Part II: Back in Black (beans)

After she got over her noodle disappointment, my housemate wanted to know what comes next. “Well,” I said, “we’re gonna have to eat more black beans.” Back when I taught the workshop at Lambtown, I had soaked four pounds of beans for that dye bath. Four pounds! Dry! That’s a lot of burritos.

So I’ve been kind of holding off on this next round. But with the heat in the house not working, it seemed like a good time to hang around in the kitchen with pots bubbling for hours on end. Since I’m just running two little test skeins, I only soaked one cup of beans. A totally reasonable amount of burritos.

Alum on the left, symplocos on the right.
Alum on the left, symplocos on the right.

I’m trying to be a little more rigorous about keeping track of projects, so: 500% weight of goods, although since the dye is only in the skins of the beans, it’s really much less. Simmered for an hour and a half. I used tap water, which I’m learning is not only really alkaline but also seems to fluctuate pH. The first few times I did black bean dye with Davis tap water, I got greens like I have here. Then for a while I was getting blues, which means the water was more acidic (or at least not as far off from neutral). That shift coincided with moving across town, so I thought it had something to do with the pipes, or which particular wells feed in to which parts of the system. Guess not.

The other surprise came when I popped another skein into the exhaust bath. I was of course expecting a paler color, but I ended up with…brown.

Exhaust bath. Brown.
Exhaust bath. Brown.

I guess there must be two colors in there, and lucky for us the nice ones get sucked up into the fiber first. Live and learn.

Symplocos Experiment, Part One

Over the summer I was researching alternatives to metal-salt mordants, and found information about a plant-based mordant from Indonesia. Traditionally, weavers have used the bark of several species of Symplocos, but are being encouraged to switch to using the leaves. I ordered some, and followed my usual timeline of thinking about it for months before actually doing anything with it. This weekend I finally got around to trying my first experiment (not coincidentally, right before the last week of the quarter with papers due and finals coming up. Eep.). I mordanted some test skeins of handspun merino cross (sigh, despite being so anti-merino lately) in Symplocos powder, and a control set of skeins in the usual alum purchased down the street at the International Market. I know you all want to see the outcome, so I’ll cut to the chase:


From left to right, the yarn is mordanted with Symplocos, Symplocos + onion skin dye, alum + onion skin, just alum.

I dyed the yarns in the same bath, made with mostly red onions. It’s a little hard to tell in this picture, but the Symplocos skein came out slightly darker and with a slight reddish undertone. The alum-mordanted skein has a slight greenish tinge. I have no idea yet how they’ll compare for light- and wash-fastness.

Okay, now that we got the exciting part out of the way, I’ll let you know how it was working with the Symplocos. The stuff I ordered came as powdered, dried leaves:

measuring out symplocos powder

When I added the powder to my pot of water, it all just floated on top. It took several minutes of heating and stirring to get it to wet.

Mmm, tasty.

It did eventually sink as the directions said it would. It smelled lovely while it was simmering, sort of like a cup of rooibos tea. My housemate came home while I was letting the yarn cool down in the bath, and was disappointed that I wasn’t cooking noodles.

Not noodles.
Not noodles.

The directions suggested straining out the plant matter before adding yarn, and I wish I had. I put the yarn in a strainer that fits in the pot, and the Symplocos was below that. Unfortunately, I let the water come to a boil and that circulated the Symplocos powder throughout the bath. The dried powder did come off the yarn while I was rewinding the skein, but kind of made a mess under the umbrella swift.

Anyway, I declare Symplocos Part One a success! I have test skeins to try it out with a couple more dyes, and then plan to knit all the bits together into a piece that will be functional and also allow me to compare the different mordants over time. Stay tuned!

References for those that want ’em:

Cunningham, A. B., Maduarta, I. M., Howe, J., Ingram, W., & Jansen, S. (2011). Hanging by a thread: Natural metallic mordant processes in traditional Indonesian textiles. Economic botany, 65(3), 241-259. It’s the first hit on this Google Scholar search and is available open-access.

Also, check out the Bebali Foundation’s Plant Mordant website for directions on how to use it and where to order it.

Lambtown Ladies Sing This Song…

Oh, Lambtown. I know I always gripe about how you’re always on the same weekend as everything else cool that my friends want me to go to, but man, am I glad this year that we got things out of the way before school really started.

I spent Saturday afternoon with a fun bunch of natural dye enthusiasts. Things were very nearly disastrous when the stove wasn’t working at first, and I had to come up with Plan B–solar dyeing on the blacktop outside the kitchen and rotating the dye baths on one electric induction burner. Thank goodness I had thought to bring that just in case! About halfway through the class the stove was finally working, so we were able to finish up with multiple dyebaths simmering.

Of course there were many other surprises, as always with natural dyes. This time around, purple corn came out more like a slate blue, and even with a vinegar rinse didn’t shift much into the purple/pinkish zone. Was it the corn? Some was from the same batch that I used for my first test, and some was ordered from a different farm. Was it the water? Dixon tap water versus Davis tap water? Was it the alignment of planets or phase of the moon? We’ll never know.

I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of students. They were game for unpredictable results, asked really perceptive questions, and were ok with answers like “I don’t know. That would be a great experiment to run.” They came up with great ideas for activities to do with their own families and students–like having a group of 4H-ers each bring a bucket of water from their homes and seeing how the same dye comes out differently in different water. If any of you are reading this, thanks for your part in making this a successful workshop!

On Sunday afternoon I was scheduled to do a one-hour demo of card weaving. I showed up early enough to have time for a little shopping before hand, but not so much time that I could get into too much mischief. But I considered some heavy-duty mischief (drum carder? viking combs?). The demo went great, and then I watched Stephenie Gaustad judge the alpaca fleeces in the wool show. I learned a lot from watching her handle the fleeces to check for luster, softness, evenness of staple, and vegetable matter contamination. Oh, the VM. So many of the fleeces seemed to have great character but lots of foxtails and feed stuck in the locks.

So that’s all done with. Now we’re on to Spinzilla and the first week of grad school, two activities which are proving to be not entirely compatible…

So About that Workshop…

One thing that’s been difficult for me in transitioning from hobbyist fiber arts nerd to semi-professional fiber arts nerd is fighting the sense that I’m wasting time when, for example, skimming 19th century travelogues for descriptions of shepherding practices. Okay, that probably still counts as wasting time. But it’s been really hard to convince myself that this is my work now, and that it’s really okay to spend a hefty chunk of my time reading about and playing around with string. So I’m really excited to have my first gig as a fiber festival presenter next month. Yay for Lambtown!

I’ll be leading a workshop on natural dyes, focusing on locally available materials and environmentally sustainable methods. I promise that it will be fun! If you happen to be in the Sacramento area in the first weekend of October, please check it out.

I’ll also be demonstrating card-weaving the following day, and I promise that that will also be fun. Thanks to my colleagues in the Davis Spinners’ Guild and Sacramento Weavers and Spinners Guild for putting together this event and letting me be a part of it.

Purple Corn

I was going to philosophize about the haphazard nature of my blogging habits, but let’s cut to the chase.

Purple corn.

purple corn

Purple. Freakin’. Corn.

I adapted the recipe from  Navajo and Hopi Dyes. I was supposed to leave the yarn in the dye for 48 hours but was too impatient. I don’t think it really mattered. The lighter, more pink one is from the exhaust bath, which I just put out in the sun for the day. I don’t know yet how light-fast or wash-fast they’ll be. I’m drying the corn kernels back out and think they’ll still be edible (it’s a variety for grinding up into flour anyway). I have enough corn left to do a little batch during my workshop next month (oh yeah, remind me to tell y’all about that) and am asking around among farmer friends to see if anyone is growing some in this neck of the woods.


In Praise of Prinsepia

Fiber arts have been on hold due to more pressing matters, such as trekking in the mountains

There were shepherds!
Oh yeah, and stunning views too.
Oh yeah, and stunning views too.

and eating too many jalebis

One-stop shopping for heart attack AND type 2 diabetes!

and watching my friends dance in the village festival.

They also sang, very loudly and off-key. But they rocked the pom-poms like nobody’s business.

But now things have settled down again, so it’s back to the grind. Nettles take 1 didn’t take, but we’ve seen enough success stories on other blogs to give it another go. Ranbir just rinsed out his experiment and was quite disappointed to find that the color ran out completely. But this is NOT another fail post, thanks to the heretofore unsung Prinsepia utilis.


P. utilis is known in the local language as “bekhali” or something like that (I have a hard time distinguishing some of the sounds, and it’s an entirely oral language so getting someone to write it in Hindi wasn’t much help). It grows absolutely everywhere. Its main utilis seems to be as a natural barbed wire fence–people pile up the dead, thorny branches along the stone walls surrounding their orchards. But it was also listed as a dye plant in some of our sources, and was one of the few that we could positively identify. It produces small purplish-black berries which have only just starting coming ripe. So the other day I worked my way down the path and gathered a small handful for experimentation.*

We didn’t have any idea of how to process them, and weren’t even sure which part of the fruit gives the dye. So I opened them up to see what’s inside. The less-ripe berries contained a bright green goop, while the older, more wrinkly ones were dark all the way through. They started to stain my fingers purple while I was opening them, so that seemed like a good sign. And when I poured hot water over them, lots of color came right away. But of course none of this is a guarantee. I put in some test fiber, some of which was mordanted with alum and some which was not.

And it worked! After a couple sessions on the induction burner, and a couple days just sitting around because the kitchen was rather busy cranking out vats of mattar paneer for festival guests, I rinsed out my little samples and was relieved to see that some color stayed. And wasn’t yellow. I tried out some lemon juice on one piece, and it shifted the color from bluish-purplish-gray to magenta. Not a color I personally would wear, but, decidedly not yellow. Score.

Believe it or not, this is the most exciting picture of this post. Really.
Believe it or not, this is the most exciting picture of this post. Really.

*By the way, while I was collecting berries a local stopped and asked me what they were for, and was very adamant that I shouldn’t eat them. Then he proceeded to try and sell me a 2000-year-old Buddha. Just because.