gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

Or that’s what I remember my cheese-making teacher at the Institute of Urban Homesteading saying years ago when I first ventured into the world of homemade cheese. By hard cheeses, she was referring to cheeses like Swiss or Gouda or Parmesan — as opposed to ricotta, feta or mozzarella, which we were learning to make and which, in fact, I’ve found quite easy to get right since then. Ruby told us to succeed at all the easy and soft cheeses at least five times before trying to make hard cheese, and now I’m grateful for that advice. Had I tried my hand at making something like Gouda without having first mastered the basic cheese-making techniques, I would probably have failed and become so discouraged I would have abandoned the whole thing.

But here we are today with my first-ever cheddar and gorgonzola cheeses.

hardcheeses3I made them in September, so they’ve been ripening for over three months, and today was the day when I decided to taste them. To tell you the truth, I was prepared to not be happy with the results… After all, those cheese disks have just been sitting there for three months and, well, who knows…? But in the end, both turned out really quite good. The cheddar tastes like cheddar, and the gorgonzola tastes like gorgonzola. If anything, both were a little too dry, which means I need to adjust the humidity in my cheese ripening refrigerator. But, people: the cheddar tastes like cheddar, and the gorgonzola tastes like gorgonzola! Dan and I proceeded to have a little spontaneous cheese and crackers party while listening to Christmas music, and the fact that my cheddar-loving husband consumed by himself a respectable chunk of my cheddar marked the victory of the month for me.

making Parmesan cheese

So what is it about making hard cheeses that is “hard”? None of it is insurmountable, really. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from embarking on this venture — on the contrary, I would want everyone to experience the rewarding moment of tasting your own cheese after months of waiting! All I’m saying is that it takes time and patience, and you have to be prepared for a bit of a learning curve. With each of the hard cheeses I’ve made so far — most recently, the Parmesan pictured above, fresh from the cheese press and ready to go into the brine — I had to set aside several hours of the day for the process: warming up milk to a certain temperature, adding the starter culture, then waiting while keeping the milk at target temperature, then adding rennet and waiting some more, then cutting the curds and again waiting, very very slowly and carefully heating the curds, then ladling them into the cheese press and pressing the curds under various prescribed amounts of pressure for 15 minutes, then 2 hours, then 12 hours, and so forth. But you follow the instructions step by step and eventually you get to the point when the active part of the process is done and you can begin waiting for the ripening to be over. I’ve found Ashley English’s Home Dairy to be a user-friendly beginner’s cheese-making book.

cheese ripening refrigerator

Homemade cheeses ripening in the tiny wine fridge. From the top: gorgonzola, cheddar, and (newly made) Parmesan.

DIY Cheese press

The DIY cheese press in action

As I wrote in my post about the DIY cheese press, making hard cheeses requires acquiring two more specialized pieces of equipment: a cheese press and a ripening refrigerator. The first one I made myself and the second one I got cheaply on Craigslist, so neither one was a major investment. The fridge I use is a small wine fridge, with a thermometer and hygrometer inside to monitor the temperature and humidity, and a tray with water and a sponge at the bottom to help maintain the required humidity. As I learned, I need to figure out a way to increase the humidity to keep the moldy cheeses, like gorgonzola, nice and soft. But otherwise this setup has worked. Some cheeses, like cheddar, also require a wax layer as a protective membrane on the cheese rind to protect them from mold. I got the wax, like most of the other supplies, from The Cheesemaker. The didn’t like the idea of applying the hard wax directly onto my cheese — even though it’s food-grade, it’s still petroleum-based — so I used a non-petroleum cream wax instead. But it’s possible to first do a layer of cream wax and then the hard wax on top, and that’s what I’ll try next time. making homemade hard cheese

For right now, though, I think I’ll just enjoy these treats for a while.

Some readers have asked me for a tutorial on how to get started with natural dyeing if you’ve never done it before — a beginner’s how-to that demystifies the process. Since I recently taught a natural dyeing class, I’ve already been compiling a mental list of all the things I wish I had known when I first started. This tutorial sums it all up. I give an overview of the entire process, the tools and equipment you’ll need, and some practical tips that could only have been gained through trial and error.

My first warning: working with plant dyes is… highly addictive! If you give it a try, you’ll likely never stop. For me, it all began a few years ago when I first saw the back cover of Rebecca Burgess’ book Harvesting Color, with her holding skeins upon skeins of beautifully colored, hand-dyed yarns. I had never really thought about the colors of textiles before. I wasn’t even a particularly passionate or skilled knitter. But something deep inside me said: “I want to be able to do that.” Now, three and a half years later, I have my own rainbow of yarns to hold. I learned it all on my own from books, so I know that it can be done. I list some of these excellent resources below.

natural dyeing tutorial, making natural dyesSo, let’s get started!

Where to find natural dyes

It’s not hard to find dye plants in nature. Many common plants, including ones that are often considered “weeds” or waste material, are rich in dye potential: stinging nettle, carrot tops, onion skins…

In fact, I bet you could walk out of your front door right now and — unless you live in a concrete jungle — find a plant on your street that yields some dye when you throw it in a pot of boiling water. The most common colors in nature are yellows and tans, but these also tend to fade most quickly. The dye plants that have been most prized throughout history are the ones that yield the strong blues and reds, like indigo and cochineal.

Different parts of plants can be used to extract color: flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, fruit, heartwood, or root. Lichen and mushrooms also yield some truly amazing colors. When you learn to look at the world through a dye gatherer’s eyes, you start to see everything differently. That Japanese maple on your street? Its leaves could transform an old shirt into a lovely pale pink. Blackberries that got crushed during your afternoon berry-picking venture? There’s another ancient dye source, yielding pretty lilacs. Black tea leaves in your kitchen cupboard? Throw them into a pot and see what they do to a skein of white yarn. The possibilities truly are endless.

The key word with natural dyes is: experiment. There’s always a factor of unpredictability involved when working with nature’s dyes. That’s part of the excitement. Try something and see how it turns out.

In summary, the dyeing process usually involves
  1. choosing textiles to dye, and preparing them for the dye bath
  2. IF the plant dye requires a mordant in order to “stick” (not all of them do): simmering the textiles for about an hour in a mordant bath, which is water mixed with a small amount of metal salt, such as alum
  3. collecting or buying your dye plant material
  4. extracting the dye by boiling the plant material in water, usually 30-60 minutes
  5. removing plant material from the dye bath and placing mordanted textiles in it for an hour or until color is of desired depth

Here are some plant-based dyes that a beginning dyer can easily find…

…in nature — foraging in the wild or in the garden:
  • marigold: flowers and/or plant tops (yellows, greens)marigold natural dyeing
  • yarrow: leaves and stalks (greens and yellows)
  • blackberry: berries (mauves, lilacs and purples)
  • stinging nettle: leaves and stalks (greens and yellows)
  • black walnut (browns)
  • ivy (grey, greenish yellow)nettles natural dyeing
…at the grocery store, farmer’s market, or from your own garden:
  • turmeric powder (bright golden yellows)
    fennel natural dyeing
  • black tea (browns)
  • red cabbage (greens and mauves)
  • rhubarb (yellow, gold and orange)
  • fennel (olive greens)
  • yellow or red onion skins (yellows)

onion skins natural dyeing

…from an online supplier:
  • brazilwood (raspberry reds and pinks)
  • logwood (deep purples, lavenders, blacks)
  • madder root (orange to red)
  • cochineal (bright reds)
  • indigo (blues)logwood

Choosing materials to dye

You can dye many things: yarn (wool, cotton, silk etc.), fabric, or unspun fiber (raw wool or roving). But do keep in mind that there’s a difference between animal fibers (like wool and silk) and plant-based fibers (such as cotton, linen and hemp): animal fibers tend to take dye better. That doesn’t mean you can’t dye cotton or linen, but the colors may not be as strong — for example, you’ll get a pale yellow instead of a stronger golden yellow or green.

Tools and equipment you’ll need

  • Large pots with lids (stainless steel or unchipped enamel is best — large enough that the textile materials can move freely in the pot)natural dyeing supplies, natural dyes equipment
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Kitchen scale
  • Thermometer
  • Stirring utensils
  • Strainer or colander
  • Mesh bags to hold fibers while simmering (if using unspun wool)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Hot plate for cooking outdoors

All the pots, utensils, measuring cups etc. that you use for dyeing should be reserved for that purpose only. In case you’re concerned about costs, rest assured: none of this needs to be brand new or fancy. I’ve found thrift stores or garage sales to be great places for finding large pots and perfectly usable kitchen utensils for a dime.

A word about mordants

alum mordant natural dyeingMordants are mineral salts that act as bonding agents: they fix the dye to the fiber. I have sometimes used the metaphor of a match-maker: mordant causes the dye molecules and the fiber molecules to really want to hold on to each other tight, and as a result, they make the color more light-fast and wash-fast.

Mordants come with some cautions. The most commonly used and safest one is alum, a white, powdery substance sold by dye suppliers. You can get really beautiful results with alum, without ever venturing into the more toxic ones such as chrome or copper. Alum is the least toxic both for humans and for the environment. It is, however, an irritant and should not be ingested. Use common-sense cautions: wear rubber gloves when handling mordants and mordant baths, store in clearly labeled containers and keep away from children and pets, and work outside or in a well-ventilated area.

But these are metal salts and the less of them that end up going down our drain and potentially into our water system, the better. Here are ways to reduce your “mordant footprint”:

  • use the least amount of mordant necessary to get the desired changes
  • save your mordant baths: keep bottled/covered and well labeled in a safe place, and when using the second time around, add one half the normal amount of mordant
  • explore non-chemical mordants: rhubarb leaves (oxalic acid), tannin, heuchera flower


  1. Preparing fibers for the dyebath

Your textile material should be clean before preparing fibers for natural dyeingdyeing for the dye to adhere properly. Yarn, fabric and garments should be unbleached and pre-washed before dyeing. If using raw wool, pre-wash it according to these instructions to remove grease and dirt. Then,

  • tie yarn in skeins
  • put unspun fiber in mesh bags to keep them from getting tangled up
  • weigh textile material while it’s still dry
  • wet out textile in water for at least 1-2 hours, or overnight
  1. Mordanting the fibers (if necessary)

  • measure the mordant: the recommended amount of mordant varies enormously depending on whom you ask. The amount that I now use, after much trial and error, is 3 tbsp alum PLUS 1 tbsp tartaric acid per 1 pound of fiber.
  • dissolve mordant in boiling water in a heatproof measuring jug, add to a pot almost full of warm water
  • squeeze out excess water from textile material, add it to the mordant solution and stir gently
  • the fibers should be submerged in the liquid and able to move freely
  • heat to 180 F, stirring occasionally to ensure evenness of color
  • continue to simmer (180 F) for 1 hour
  • let cool, remove fibers and rinse. Keep fibers damp if you are going to dye right away.

Mordanting silk: follow the steps above, but turn off heat once the temperature has reached simmering (180 F). Let cool overnight. Silk loses its luster if too much heat is applied.

Mordanting cotton or other cellulose fiber: 4 tbsp alum PLUS 1 tbsp washing soda per 1 pound of fiber. Heat to boiling or very high simmer, and keep “working” the cotton to prevent streaks.

Cold-mordanting: let fibers soak in a mordant bucket for 3-5 days.

  1. Extracting the dye

    natural dyeing, yarrow dyeBoil the dyestuff in plenty of water:

  • flowers: boil 20-60 minutes, strain off water
  • barks & roots: soak overnight, boil ½ hr, strain and save the extract. Repeat two more times or as long as the dye continues to extract.
  • berries: crush, then simmer for about an hour
  • The amount of dyestuff you’ll need to obtain strong colors varies according to the plant. This is where you may want to consult sources such as the books I list below. Amount of dyestuff is usually given per weight of fiber. Here are some examples:
  • Yarrow, blackberry, birch leaves: use equal amounts (by weight) of dyestuff and fiber
  • Onion skins: twice as much dyestuff as fiber
  • Turmeric, logwood chips, walnut husks: half the weight of dyestuff to fibers
  • If you want stronger colors, try using more dyestuff (but not more mordant!).

4. Dyeing the textiles

  • If necessary, add more water to the dye bath to allow the textiles to move freelymarigoldpot
  • Add textile and heat to hot. The fibers should be submerged in the liquid and able to move freely. Keep temperature between 180-200 F. Heat for 1 hour or until the color is the desired depth.
  • If you wish to modify the color with an after-mordant, follow the steps below at this point
  • Take out to cool, then rinse and dry
  1. Optional: Modifying dye colors

  • making natural dyes, natural dyeing, logwood, brazilwood, madder, osage orangeModifiers change the pH value of the dye, making it more acidic or alkaline. You could try to dissolve in the dye bath or a separate bucket of water:
  • vinegar: 1-2 tsp (acidic)
  • household ammonia: a few drops (alkaline)
  • wood ash water (alkaline): put cold ashes into a bucket, fill with cold water and leave to steep for 1 week. When ready to use, add about ½ cup into dye bath.

Tips for successful dyeing:

  • Make sure the fibers are damp or wet before submerging them in the dye bath. This way they will take the dye more evenly.
  • Animal fibers don’t tolerate sudden changes in temperature. Bring wool and dyebath up to temperature together, to avoid wool from becoming matted due to the cold to hot shock.
  • Maintain proper temperature at all stages of the dyeing process: when extracting the dye, mordanting your fibers, and finally heating up the materials in the dye bath. The water should be at most simmering, between 180 and 200 F. Anything hotter than that can burn the pigment; anything cooler will not dye effectively (except for special dyes like indigo and woad).
  • Don’t agitate or stir wool during the dyeing in a hot bath, but do turn them over a couple of times like a pancake.natural dyed yarn samples
  • Cotton, on the other hand, does need to be continuously stirred and worked.
  • Let fibers air dry and cool down before rinsing.
  • Label each skein and/or mesh bag of fiber (masking tape and water-resistant marker work well)
  • Keep notes! That way, you can always go back and try to reproduce a particularly lovely color, or avoid repeating a mistake. I personally haven’t been good about taking notes, and have regretted it many times.

My favorite books on natural dyeing:
Online suppliers of dyes, mordants, information and inspiration:

All kinds of exchanges have been taking place in my little community in the last few weeks.

  • Anne babysat for Dan and I, which allowed us to have our first date night since our daughter was born six months ago.
  • I taught spinning yarn to a group of kids at the local community center.
  • Emily did some photography work for me.
  • I helped Michael get hold of a food dehydrator so he could dry massive amounts of apple slices and Red Thai roselle herbal tea.
  • Jerry lent me his belt sander and showed me how to use it so I can sand a little table with peeling red paint that needs a fresh new start.

None of us paid a dime for any of these services. That’s because we did it all through the recently launched First Time Bank of Columbia, our local branch of TimeBanks USA.



Time banking is a way of giving and receiving services and support within a community that does not involve monetary transactions. Instead, it uses time and skills as the currency, operating on the principle that everyone’s time is equal. I give one hour of my time to provide a service and earn one time credit. I can then use that time credit to receive an hour of help from someone else to meet a need that I have. It might be plumbing, or arts and crafts instruction, or elder care, or a ride to the airport, or garden work, or language instruction, or home organization, or helping with doing taxes. The TimeBank’s website tracks the hours, so we don’t have to.

As you’ll see in this ABC News Report — an episode that caused the website to crash — time banking is a way of both saving money and getting things done. It also promotes equality, since everyone’s time is equal: an hour equals an hour, whether it’s dentistry or raking leaves. Time banking reminds us that we all have something to contribute: our time, our energies, our talents and resources.

Yet it’s about something even more than that. These exchanges start to bring back something we’ve lost in our cities and suburbs: the village. Not in the sense of a place, but a collective sensibility — the knowledge that we can turn to our neighbors for help with simple daily tasks rather than outsourcing them to strangers for monetary compensation. Already, I’ve started noticing how the time bank is beginning to change the way I view my community and what’s possible. For example, I don’t know Jerry that well. I probably wouldn’t have contacted him about borrowing his belt sander if it wasn’t for the time bank. Why? Because I’ve been acculturated to be independent and buy the services I need… because I wouldn’t want to bother him… because borrowing such an expensive tool would have meant asking him to put his trust in me that I would care for it properly and return it in good condition. It is that sense of mutual trust that we’ve lost, so much so that we’d rather turn to the anonymity that the commodity market, and the monetary exchange, grants us.

I happen to be currently reading Ben Hewitt’s book Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, and thinking a lot about time and money — the value we assign to each of them. I was struck by a quote from Lewis Hyde in the book:

I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade and walk out. I may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don’t want to be bothered.

We don’t want to be bothered. That’s exactly it. Can we bring back a world in which we dare to bother one another?

Incidentally, if the title of Hewitt’s book may get you curious — spoiler alert! — the secret to feeling like the richest guy in the world, for him too, lies in community, interdependence, having those networks that only trust and mutual help and paying it forward can build. So there. Investing in a TimeBank could make you rich!

Do you have a TimeBank in your community? Here‘s how to find out and join.

No TimeBank in your area? Consider starting one.

I’ve alluded to this in a previous post, but I’m beyond excited now to be able to reveal what a couple of local permaculturists and myself have been scheming lately:

We are organizing a full, 72-hour Permaculture Design Course in Columbia, South Carolina, in Spring 2015!

PDC Columbia posterThis is going to be the first-ever Permaculture Design Course in Columbia, and only the second one in the entire state. We’ve nailed down most of the logistics and are now moving forward with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

I am one of the three co-facilitators in this course, along with Nick Tittle of Surplus Permaculture who has taught PDCs for several years in Southeast Asia and the US, and Matt Kip who has been pioneering permaculture in the Midlands of South Carolina and has a deep understanding of its applicability to this specific bioregion. Together, we’re bringing in both global and local perspectives to this course. It will involve classroom instruction as well as hands-on projects, interactive group exercises, site visits to budding permaculture sites on urban backyard, farm, and community orchard scales — and of course, a final design project through which the participants will earn the internationally recognized Permaculture Design Certificate. The course meets every other weekend starting March 21, and our hope is that the weekend format will accommodate those who wouldn’t be able to do a residential course because of work or family commitments.

If you’ve spent any time reading through Gather and Grow posts, you probably know that my own permaculture course a few years ago changed forever the way I look at the world around me and at myself in it. It’s been a long-term, not-that-secret dream of mine to be able to pass that experience, and the invaluable design toolkit of permaculture, on to others. I take my dreams seriously… So one of them becoming a reality is something I want to pause for — and then shout out loud:

Come join us!! Check the website for details and registration!! Join us in helping to create an abundant future for all!

butter-6I must confess I haven’t read the book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter that inspired the title of today’s post. But it sprung to mind when I was walking home from the bakery with a still-warm bread in a paper bag warming me in the crisp November air, on my way home to make butter. I thought, when you live five minutes’ walk from a fabulous artisanal bakery, and have access to local cream — well, in my book, it’s just fine to buy the bread and make the butter.

One of the unexpected delights of teaching homesteading classes is seeing what it is that gets the class participants really excited. At my Home Dairy class, in spite of major contenders such as yogurt and lemon ricotta cheese, the big hit was making butter. I suppose it’s the fact that I had the class try the human-powered mason jar shaking method. The collective process of taking turns shaking a sloshing mason jar full of cream, stopping to see how solid it was getting, shaking it some more, passing it on to the next person until all of a sudden it turned into butter, brought childlike giddiness and excitement out in us. Several of the participants contacted me afterwards telling me they’d already tried making butter on their own several times. One of them invited me to teach spinning to kids at a local community center, and since only one person could try the spinning wheel at a time, to keep small hands busy he had them make butter.

And no wonder. For me, freshly whipped, just slightly salted homemade butter is like the proverbial heirloom tomato — once you’ve tasted it, the store-bought kind will never be good enough for you again. Even though I don’t make butter as regularly as, say, yogurt, the days when I do, a toasted slice of bread feels like the food of kings in our house.

If you’ve never made butter before, here’s how.


Let 1 pint of heavy cream come to room temperature. Pour into a food processor and begin to whip the cream until it separates into butter and buttermilk (this should take a few minutes). If you want to try the human-powered alternative method, pour the cream into a quart-size mason jar with a marble inside the jar, and shake vigorously until butter and buttermilk separate.

Once you’ve reached this stage following either method, drain off the buttermilk with the help of a strainer. Put the butter in a small bowl and start to run cold water over it until the water in the bowl is clear. At this point, you can add salt if you wish — about 1/4 teaspoon.

Now put the butter on a cutting board and begin pressing with either a spatula or your own clean hands. Press the remaining liquid out of it, turning it over and kneading it like a dough. When there’s no more liquid coming out, your butter is ready. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or in a butter crock in room temperature. Enjoy!


Dyeing with plant colors has been a solitary craft for me until now. I taught myself through books and online tutorials, and then went on to learn more at the great school of trial and error during many, many sessions of stirring dye pots at home. Both the hard work and the thrills of new colors have been mine alone…

dyemarathon…until now. My friend Barbara and I got together for a weekend dyeing extravaganza at my place. Barbara is a skilled spinner, textile artist, angora rabbit owner and book maker, and has studied natural dyeing before at the John C. Campbell Folk School. She had a dye kit from Carol Leigh’s Hillcreek Fiber Studio she had ordered some time ago, and suggested that we get together to do all the dyes in the box — all seven of them: brazilwood, logwood, cutch, osage orange, madder root, cochineal, and indigo. You can guess that she didn’t need to twist my arm. Especially as three of those dyes — cutch, osage orange, and cochineal — were ones I had not tried before.

Saturday and Sunday were a mad circus of enormous simmering pots, billowing clouds of unspun fiber of different kinds, careful weighing and measuring, checking temperatures, pulling out colors — some expected and some unexpected — out of the vats, spinning and carding while waiting, splashing and rinsing and hanging to dry. We did the dyeing mostly outside in my backyard using hot plates, and using the laundry line and an old screen door to dry the finished yarns, unspun fibers, and silk cloth. I’m stunned by how much I still learn every single time I do dyeing work. The difference that all these variables make: time, temperature, modifying mineral salts, quality of fiber, even the water we use!

dyemarathon-2dyemarathon-3Of course, everything took longer than we had expected, especially since most fibers needed to be mordanted as well. So we didn’t get to cochineal and indigo yet, but you’ve got to leave something for later, right? In any case, I’m sure there are more fiber fests to come. Our new friend Caroline stopped by to check out what we were doing, and shared beautiful images from her shibori dyeing course in Japan that made me want to learn so much more about that unique technique.

This morning, I stepped outside to a perfect fall day in my backyard and to the radiant colors drying in the crisp air. This moment always makes it all worthwhile:


From left: brazilwood with chrome mordant, brazilwood with alum mordant, brazilwood-dyed silk (two different durations of dyeing), logwood with iron afterbath, madder root with chrome and alum mordants, osage orange with alum and chrome mordants.

We have home-grown shiitake mushrooms! They are amazing and delicious, and they just keep coming! And you can grow them indoors, even on the kitchen countertop where you can admire their rapid growth and pluck them straight into your cooking pot.

It couldn’t have been easier to grow them, either. I got a shiitake fruiting block from Mushroom Mountain, the source of good quality mushroom spawn and mushroom growing supplies here in South Carolina. The process is super simple: submerge the entire block in water for a few hours, put it on a plate and cover with a humidity tent, and keep misting it twice a day. Within a couple of days, eager brown knobs start to push out of the block, and in just one more day, you have your first generous harvest of full-fledged, fresh, velvety shiitake.

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We have been both cooking with the shiitake and drying them for later use. A good excuse to pull out all my best recipes with shiitake — and to discover, or invent, others. The first shiitake harvest inspired me to try to recreate the dish that knocked my socks off at the Laughing Seed Cafe in Asheville last weekend: a shiitake pot pie with a mashed potato “crust” — an autumn comfort food if I ever saw one. I’m usually not good at inventing recipes, but I declare this one a success, and include the recipe below. The flourless “crust” is made with mashed potatoes and turnips. The filling is adapted from a corn and mushroom ragout recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.


Even as the first harvest is exhausted, the fun is not over. You can let the block rest for two weeks and then start the process all over again, for up to four times. So there will be more to come.

Some of my favorite resources for growing — and eating! — shiitake:

Shiitake pot pie with a flourless crustshiitake-5

Mashed potato “crust”:

  • 1 lb Yukon or Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1 lb turnips or other root vegetable
  • 3 tbsp salted butter
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • salt and freshly ground pepper


  • 1/4 onion, sliced
  • 10 garlic cloves: 2 peeled, 8 unpeeled
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 large bell pepper, roasted
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 3 cups of corn kernels, fresh or frozen and thawed
  • 6 oz shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 8 sage leaves, chopped
  • 1 tbsp parsley, chopped

Prepare the mashed potatoes: add potatoes into boiling water with 1 tsp of salt. Cook until tender, about 15-20 minutes. While they are boiling, melt butter in a small saucepan, add milk, and bring almost to boiling. Drain the potatoes and mash them together with the milk-butter mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Heat up 2 cups of water along with the sliced onion, the peeled garlic, shiitake stems, and 1/2 tsp salt, and simmer for 25 minutes. Heat a bit of oil on a skillet over medium heat, add the unpeeled garlic and cooked until the garlic skins are crispy and charred, and the insides soft. Peel and mash with a fork. Sear the tomatoes in the same pan, mush with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the tomatoes into the stock.

Heat oven to 375 F. Heat 1 1/2 tbsp oil in a wide skillet over high heat. Add mushroom and saute for 4-5 minutes. Set aside. Return the same pan to heat and add another tbsp of oil. Then add the diced onion, mashed roasted garlic, corn, and the sage leaves, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and pepper. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Finally, strain the stock into the pan and simmer for 5 minutes.

Assemble the pot pie: spread half of the mashed potatoes on the bottom of a cast iron pan or a pie pan, then pour the filling on top of it, and finally top the filling with the remaining half of mashed potatoes. Brush with a beaten egg if you wish. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the top is golden in color. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I attended a workshop on spinning flax at the Fiber Fair this past weekend. I had spun flax before, but it’s a craft quite different from spinning wool, and I wanted some guidance from an experienced teacher. The workshop also covered the growing and processing of flax, which I’ve been wanting to learn about. Our instructor, Cassie Dickson, is a masterful spinner and weaver who specializes in weaving coverlets and processing the flax plant into linen cloth.

No wonder linen is such a prized textile, and used to be even more so in the past: it’s a lot of work! Traditionally, it would have taken about three months to grow the flax, then another month to ret it — soaking and rotting the flax stems, which loosens the fibers — and then perhaps yet another month to process the fibers by drying the stems, crushing them with the wooden blades of a flax break, combing and finally spinning the fibers. The weaving and sewing of clothes might have taken the rest of the year. So we’re talking about one full year of work towards a new set of linen clothes. How’s that to make you appreciate your wardrobe and take good care of it?


Crushing the flax stem between the blades of a traditional wooden flax break

The crushing of flax, in particular, is pretty hard physical work. And yet, at the same time, so satisfying: as the woody outer layer breaks up into small bits, underneath one begins to find long, straight, blond fibers. These are then scraped, or “scutched,” using a scutching board, which Cassie demonstrates here:


Lastly, the fibers are combed using an old tool called a hackle — a pretty violent-looking one, don’t you agree? Some of us actually got our fingers scraped by the nails.


Combing the bundle of flax fiber on a hackle.

This final combing step separates the long line flax from the short, tangled fibers, called tow. Tow can still be spun, but it will be more rough, so it’s good for ropes and other everyday items. Incidentally, some of the idioms of the English language derive from this almost-forgotten terminology of flax-processing: a “tow-headed child” meant a child with hair as blond as the tow, whereas “to get one’s hackles up” — well, judging from the look of the look of the hackle, not a pleasant state to be in.

Lastly, we learned to dress a distaff, a vertical stick onto which the flax fiber is carefully wrapped and which keeps it neat for easy spinning, and practiced spinning flax with a cup of water in our laps to create even, smooth thread.

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago when I first got into spinning: “You do know, don’t you, where all of this is going to take you? You do realize that you are inevitably going to have to learn weaving on a loom as well?” I didn’t see it then, but I think she was right. Seeing Cassie’s beautiful woven handwork, as well as these vintage linen handkerchiefs, nudged my crafter’s heart in such a way that there probably is no other way but to venture into that world as well.


Some Flax-to-linen resources:

  • Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich
  • The Big Book of Flax by Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf
  • the Hermitage in Pennsylvania, the community of Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and their flax supply store — great source of flax seeds
  • The Wool Gatherers: a source for beautiful quality strick flax, plans for making flax processing tools, and resources, including a fantastic “Flax Cam” — a photographic diary of a flax field

In addition to the delights that usually lure us to Asheville for a long weekend — the hiking trails along the Blue Ridge, the permaculture and natural building scene, and the abundance of farm-to-table restaurants — this time there was something else: the Southeast Animal Fiber Fair in the small town of Fletcher, just outside of Asheville.

This fair is where the knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, dye artists, felters, tattlers, fiber farmers, and designers of the Southeast gather every fall for four days of workshops, animal shows, contests, and just plain old browsing and admiring of iridescent yarns, fluffy balls of wool and roving, fiber crafts of every sort you can imagine, shiny wooden spinning wheels and looms and… It was enough to make a first-timer like me wide-eyed and a little dizzy. I spent an entire morning touring the vendor booths and the animal shows. In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on “Flax Plant to Linen Thread” — but more on that later: it was so perfectly in the spirit of “gather and grow” that it deserves a post of its own.

At this fair, one could see the entire journey that fiber makes, from the furry or woolly animal…


…to the bags of sheared fiber…fiberfair-4

…to the magical things we do to transform, and play with, that fiber…fiberfair-2

… and finally, to the craft and art that then renders those locks and strands into beautiful things for us to wear and decorate our homes with:


I came back with some lovely, regionally grown fiber to spin this winter: alpaca from Waxhaw, NC, and merino wool from Morgantown, NC. I am transitioning more and more to using fibers and dyes that are from my region, that is, my fibershed, the Southeastern United States. Nothing feels better than being able to talk and work directly with the farmers who raised the animals whose wool becomes the clothes that keep me and my family warm. It makes sense to me in just the same way that trying to eat locally grown food does. One day, I hope to raise my own fiber flock — maybe Icelandic sheep and Pygora goats? — but until then, I want to work with fiber suppliers from my region.

As for dyes, there are so many that I can grow or forage myself. Right now, there’s another harvest of marigold waiting to be picked just outside my front door, and a packet of nettle seeds waiting to be planted for the spring. In fact, natural dyeing was the one thing I would have liked to see more of at the fair. To me, those soft, fluffy fleeces of real, warm-bodied farm animals that you can touch, raised by people you can talk to, in all their earthiness are at the heart of what I call “slow fashion.” To bring synthetic dyes — characteristic of the world of “fast fashion” — into the picture just seems off somehow… when there’s a rainbow spectrum’s worth of color spread out all around: non-toxic, free of cost, ours for the taking.

Marigolds and I share a name. But that’s not the only reason why I like them. They are a great flower to plant along the edges of veggie beds because they have pest-deterring properties. They also bloom all summer long and well into the fall — apparently even bursting out in a wild explosion of yellow and orange in October. But marigold is also a potent dye plant. The flower petals yield shades varying from greeny yellow to gold and orange, while the plant tops give greeny yellow and olive green shades.


Actually, I had almost packed my dyeing pots away for a while after the previous week’s dyeing extravaganza… but then all those bright, dye-potent petals dotting my own garden were just too much to pass by. So into the pot they went, followed by some lovely, soft wool roving I had around for some late autumn spinning.


Once rinsed and dried, the fibers ranged from light buttery yellow to bright canary yellow. I intentionally tried to get uneven results — even leaving some bits of the roving unmordanted — because this will give the yarn more life as I spin it in combinations of lighter and brighter shades of yellow.


As it turns out, spinning yarn is one of the easiest crafts to work on while keeping a baby entertained. Aava is utterly mesmerized by the movement of the spinning wheel — round and round it goes — and will contentedly watch me spin for a long, long time. Which is in her interest (not that she knows it) because this yarn will hopefully turn into something that will keep her warm this winter.


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