gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

I spent the morning of my birthday doing what to me is the best way to celebrate: working at our community orchard with my little family and friends, spreading newspaper and cardboard and compost and leaves on the ground to make new, fertile soil for future edibles of all kinds. Especially after a week during which I’ve been, well, flat-out flat out and discouraged by a ridiculous cascade of unfortunate events — including a computer crash and a fairly significant loss of data — the morning sunshine and the physical work felt like the best way to begin anew.IMG_4255

Last month, my co-designer and I unveiled our design for this site that we’d been working on all winter. Soon afterwards, the implementation of the plan began. A couple of weeks ago, we had a work party to make pathways, laying old garden hoses to outline the new paths and filling them in with wood chips. Today, we continued the ongoing sheet mulching effort (laying cardboard or newspaper as a weed barrier, compost on top, and mulch such as leaves, straw or wood chips on top). Next, we are plotting a big group effort to hand-dig some sub-surface drainage trenches to resolve the drainage issues on site: the trenches will lead excess water to a wetland/rain garden, giving the fruit tree roots some room to breathe.IMG_4252

And so, like magic, the design map I drew this winter is starting to come to life. That two-dimensional plan, drawn and imagined on paper, is being transformed into a living landscape. The parts that, on the final design map, I colored with green pencils to mark the cover cropped areas, are now covered by clover so thick it looks like bright green velvety carpet. Where I used brown pencils to mark the pathways, we’ve now colored inside the lines with rich, brown, crunchy chips on which, we hope, many feet will tread in the future as they walk around the orchard. And amidst all of this, the fruit trees are starting to bud, with shy, pink new blossoms and my daughter, squealing with delight in my backpack baby carrier, is growing up seeing her parents doing exactly what she likes to do: playing in dirt.

It’s been a good day.

One Facebook post from one of my favorite organizations of all time, the Fibershed, and I’m already researching organic cotton grown in the Carolinas and thinking about sewing patterns and planning a trip to local alpaca farms this spring… Welcome to an ordinary Sunday evening here at the Gather and Grow urban homestead.

Here’s the challenge:

Do you knit, sew, or dye your own clothing? If you’re following Fibershed, you’re probably already very interested in knowing the source of your clothes, and the materials, supply chains, and people who make them. January has passed, but it’s not too late to set a new goal for yourself: join the One Year One Outfit challenge, as proposed by Australian sewing blogger This is Moonlight. We are excited to announce that One Year One Outfit is an official Fibershed Affiliate, and you can participate from anywhere in the world — the premise is simple: create one outfit in 2015 that is entirely sourced from your fibershed. You can also pledge to purchase no other new fabric throughout the year, as a commitment to sustainability.

OYOOAs you’ve guessed by now, I’m joining the One Year One Outfit challenge, and invite you to join in as well. You can do so from anywhere in the world. At the end of the year, you will have not only a locally sourced outfit, but also a more intimate understanding of the sources of raw materials for clothing in your region, the existing textile supply chains and the gaps (or, more likely, thousands-mile-long, fossil-fueled digressions) in them, and what might be possible if regional textile cultures and networks are revived.

I’ll be writing about the progress of my locally sourced outfit — if only because it’ll keep me accountable. Stay tuned for more updates!


Over the last couple of weeks, I have planted more seedlings in flats than ever before. And, for the first time in my life, I have enough space to grow them. Warm, sunlit indoor space. A real greenhouse, in fact.

I have partnered with the Green Quad of the University of South Carolina to start a dye garden on campus, right in downtown Columbia, SC. In a conversation with their staff, it came up that they wanted ideas for their student garden, known as the Carolina Community Farm & Garden. I, on the other hand, have been dreaming of starting a garden devoted just to dye plants, but don’t have the space in my own yard. The idea of a campus dye garden was born. Two days later, everything was settled, the first seeds went into the flats, and I have been beyond excited to be planning the garden.

My hope is that this small garden of botanical dyes will serve as a demonstration site that gets students and other visitors to the garden to think more about where our textiles come from, and to start making connections between the fibers and dyes that make up clothing, and the environment. In the fall, I plan to do dyeing demonstrations for students using the dyes we harvest on site. I will also create signs and a map that identifies all the plants in the garden that can be used for dyeing. Some of them, like blackberries and fig trees, are already well established. Others — the ones I’ve planted — are just germinating. I have sown indigo, Japanese indigo, madder, sunflower, fennel, Rudbeckia, purple basil, marjoram, dyer’s chamomille, Our Lady’s bedstraw, hollyhock, nettles and yarrow… plus heuchera, or alumroot, to be used as a natural, non-toxic mordant. It’s a potential rainbow of colors, just barely emerging from the tiny seeds. This is how color begins.


Yes, we’re more used to drinking them, preferably from a nice hot mug with a book or good company on the side. But tea and coffee can be used as dyes as well. This year, I’m particularly exploring dyes that are either locally gathered or produced, or otherwise environmentally sound choices. The tea I used to dye yarn belongs to the former category: it came from the Charleston Tea Plantation, located on Wadmalaw Island in the heart of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. (Yes, tea grown in our state — fairly awesome, don’t you think?) The coffee grounds I used, on the other hand, are most decidedly not locally produced, but they are diverted from the local waste stream. You can pick up used coffee grounds at most local coffee shops — in most places, the barista will be happy to give you a big bag — and use it at home for your compost pile, in the garden to keep nitrogen-hungry plants happy… or to dye fibers. Dan and I are not big coffee drinkers anymore, so it would have taken me a very long time to collect enough used coffee grounds for this project, but the café down the street gave me a sack of espresso grounds almost heavier than I could carry, enough for compost and garden and a little bit of dyeing.

These are among the easiest dye projects to try. Whether you are using tea or coffee, simply heat up enough water that your fibers can move freely in it, then add your tea bags or coffee grounds, and let steep for 20 minutes, or an hour, or even overnight if you want to get darker shades. The amount of tea or coffee is also up to you — you’ll have to experiment with how intensely caffeinated the dye bath has to be for you to achieve the desired shade of brown. After the steeping, remove tea bags or filter out the coffee grounds using a cheesecloth, immerse your textiles in the liquid, and bring to a gentle simmer (about 180 F) for 15-20 minutes. For stronger results, leave to cool overnight.teaandcoffee

Tea or coffee dyes can be used on either animal or plant fibers. Mordanting ahead of time is not necessary, although it can help yield darker, more long-lasting results. Espresso beans are roasted darker than regular coffee beans, so they are more likely to create darker browns. As for tea, there’s no need to stick to regular black tea: see what happens with rooibos, green tea, etc. Once you’ve achieved your desired shade of brown, simply rinse the fibers well and hang to dry.


I’m really happy with the end result — the neutral but warm shades of café au lait (top) and milky chai (bottom). It was enough to inspire me to make a pot of chai to drink while enjoying my newly dyed yarns. Notice the similarity of color?


As I may have mentioned before, I’m pretty serious about my breakfasts. I’m the type of person who wakes up ravenous and is grumpy if I she doesn’t get the proper fuel to start the day. On weekday mornings, home-made yogurt with granola and some toast usually do the trick. But on weekend mornings, we like to prepare a hot breakfast of some sort and take our time doing it. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas to incorporate into our repertoire. Just in case that’s true for some of you too, here are five breakfasts that have been big hits around here lately.

1. Fat almond pancake

fat almond pancake, brunch

First of all, how can you not love something called “fat almond pancake”? The very sound of it makes me smile. Makes me hungry, actually. The recipe is from Green Kitchen Stories, my biggest food blog crush of the last few months. David and Luise, the cooks and creators of Green Kitchen, are Scandinavian and live in Stockholm. What I love about the recipes they create is that they often take Scandinavian classics — comfort foods that I, too, grew up eating, just across the border in Finland — and give them a bit of a healthy twist. That’s the case with the fat pancake as well: it is made with almond and buckwheat flour and uses maple syrup instead of sugar. In my family, we called it “oven pancake” and used to eat it as an evening treat rather than as brunch food, but I’m quite pleased to rediscover it as a way to start a day. Topped with berries, it has everything I want from my breakfast: warm, fluffy, filling, fruity, just a tad sweet.

2. Oatmeal with bananas, dried fruit and nuts, and almond butter


This is the ultimate hearty beginning for a Saturday work day at the orchard. Or any day of the week, really. I like to cook my oatmeal in half-water, half-milk, and throw in some sliced almonds and dried fruit while it’s cooking, so there’s just a little bit of crunch to the almonds when it’s done. Serve with bananas, almond butter, and milk.

3. Sprouted wheat-free crepes


I wrote about these once before. They’re made with quinoa and buckwheat, sprouted overnight for extra nutrition and soft texture, and my husband makes them for me. Need I say more?

4. Roasted roots with eggs and toast


Now we’re getting serious. Actually, we whip up this breakfast really quickly because we only tend to make it when we have leftover roasted roots from dinner the night before. There’s no recipe for our roasted roots dish — it’s usually some mélange of sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, carrots, garlic and sweet onion, roasted with generous amounts of olive oil and coarse salt (about 375 F for one hour, give or take) — but we eat it all the time, especially in the wintertime when root vegetables are in season. The next day, we simply heat up the roots, throw in some broccoli or kale, fry some eggs, and toast a slice of Crust bread, and ta-da — we have a breakfast of champions.

5. Crunchy baked blackberry oatmeal


This one is also from Green Kitchen — from their cookbook, Vegetarian Everyday, although a variation of the recipe can be found on their blog as well. For a while, I was really making it almost every day. A crunchy hazelnut and pumpkin seed topping on top and a blackberry treasure buried at the bottom, and in between hearty oatmeal cooked in a mixture of eggs and milk of your choice — I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel nourished and contented, and like I can take on the world.

On a late December afternoon, I took this image of the soil beneath my feet, asking myself: How do you regenerate life in soil like this? Compacted, eroded, lifeless, seemingly only good for grass?

IMG_0495I was on the edges of the Rosewood Community Orchard, a newly established orchard in my neighborhood that has had a rough first few years, to say the least. It was started with perhaps more enthusiasm than forethought: among other things, as it turned out, the soil at the site was compacted hard-pan clay. The varieties of fruit trees that were chosen were not that well suited for the hot South Carolina climate. At one point, during a period of heavy rains, an automatic irrigation system was left on for who knows how long. Before too long, the trees were essentially drowning in their poorly drained clay “bowls” and many of them died.

Not a promising beginning, right?

In 2013, our Transition Town initiative, Columbia Resilience, took over the stewardship of the orchard and began to try to rehabilitate it. Many dedicated folks put in a lot of hours during Saturday work parties and in between them. Truckloads upon truckloads of organic matter — including 300 bags of leaves last year alone! — were brought to the site to heavily mulch it and to “build up” more fluffy layers of soil in which tree roots could actually breathe. Some areas were sheet-mulched, others cover-cropped, invasive grass species removed.

IMG_0366A year and a half later, the orchard is doing much better. In November, I was asked if I would like to develop a design for it, and I jumped at the opportunity. Until then, I’d only had the chance to design on the scale of urban backyards and rural residential sites, but here was a half-acre orchard, one we wanted to turn into an urban food forest providing free food for foraging for the surrounding community, along the lines of Seattle’s inspiring Beacon Food Forest. It’s a fledgling, struggling food forest, to be sure, but at least it wasn’t lacking in either potential or challenges. If anything would stretch my abilities as a permaculture designer, this orchard would.

And so it has. My learning and understanding of orchard systems and the design process for food forests has grown exponentially during these winter weeks as I’ve been spending a lot of time observing and working at the orchard, poring through Jacke and Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, sketching maps, and talking to people in the area who are experts on soil hydrology, horticulture, and fruit tree cultivars suited to South Carolina and to the specific tricky conditions of our site.

IMG_0688And in the process… I’ve come to realize once again that I really, really love design work. To me, it’s the perfect blend of hard-nosed research, problem-solving thinking, creativity, and simply becoming attuned to the workings of nature. The Soil Food Web course I did over the summer has been an enormous asset, since most of the challenges on this site stem from the poorly drained, compacted soil.IMG_0367

To an outside observer, the orchard may still look like a fairly sorry little spot: the trees are not all thriving, and the ground may seem somewhat unorganized and messy due to our vigorous mulching activities. But I, through my design work, have come to see what’s possible for this site, and now that vision won’t let me go. I have fallen in love with the future shady, inviting nooks and abundant branches bearing fruit and colorful patches of flowers where the pollinators can get drunk with sweet nectar. Together with everyone else in our Resilience community, I want to try to midwife that potential into existence.

More updates to come!

This winter, I decided to try to use as many of my plant-dyed textiles as possible in crafting holiday gifts. In the wake of a recent dyeing extravaganzaand then another, I’ve had lovely colorful yarns and fabrics accumulating in the corner of my studio. I’ve been so focused on the dyeing process that I sometimes slip into thinking of these dyed materials as the finished product. Yet they’re really just raw materials for some further craft, aren’t they? Something unique and treasured of which we’ll be able to say: I know where its color came from.

And so it is that for Christmas, friends and family received these little lavender eye pillows made with hand-dyed silk and linen.winter craftsThe fabric for the blue pillows is dyed with indigo, the red ones are dyed with brazilwood. I wrapped them together with my favorite home-made facial cream, as a little pampering package so luxurious and relaxing that, as my brother teasingly said, the bags under his eyes were gone by Boxing Day.

My Christmas present for my own little one has been in the works, well, longer than her. I dyed some wool with fennel back in the spring of 2013, and eventually spun it into yarn last winter when I was expecting her. And finally this December — again slowly, mostly because my hands were often occupied by holding her — I knitted this simple, warm cardigan for her. I love the earthly olive or moss green. I adapted the Ravelry pattern to create the size for a 6-12 month old, but it’s a simple pattern so that was fairly easy to do. Oh, and I omitted the hood because I ran out of yarn! That’s something one has to live with when working with textiles hand-dyed with plant dyes: you can’t just call the store to see if they have more in stock. To get more yarn of the exact same color, I would have had to repeat all the steps, starting with collecting the fennel by the roadside… and even then, the color might end up being quite different. So I can truly say this piece is the only one of its kind in the world… Even though my daughter is mostly interested in what she can put in her mouth while wearing it.winter crafts-3winter crafts-2Finally, a very dear friend had a big birthday recently, and I knew I wanted to give her something really special. I recalled the colorful Turkish socks I had seen on the cover of a Knitting Traditions magazine (Winter 2010 issue), and then realized that all the colors I would need — red, aubergine, violet, green, and yellow — I already had in my stash of natural-dyed yarns. So the colors on these socks all come from plants. And I dare say they all worked well in these socks, reminiscent of Oriental rugs in their richness of color and pattern. These socks are begun at the toe, and are complete with a fun, pointed heel and tassels.winter crafts-4

winter crafts-5The colors are obtained from these dye plants:

  • red from brazilwood
  • aubergine from logwood (longer dyeing time)
  • lavender from logwood (shorter dyeing time)
  • yellow from osage orange
  • green from osage orange, overdyed with indigo

Knitting with these colors — unusually bold for me, actually, I tend to favor subtler combinations — has definitely brightened up the midwinter days for me. I hope they will keep my beautiful friend’s feet warm up in cold Massachusetts.

Hello again! Wow, I didn’t intend to go silent in this space for almost a month. The holidays, travel, family time, friends time, all three of us getting sick, working on my most challenging and exciting permaculture design project to date (more on that later), and now going back to work after almost eight months at home with my sweet babe… It’s been very full in a very good way (except the sickness). And now I’m happy to be at home, and healthy, and have the clean slate of January to start preparing the soil for growing new things in this year of 2015 — and, of course, I mean that both literally and figuratively.

Which brings me to this:


I’m proud to be a part of Cultivate, a new three-day event organized by the South Carolina Organization for Organic Living in Greenville next month. The first day (Saturday, February 28) will be the Organic Growing Conference, with classes on mushroom cultivation, permaculture, farm animals, foraging, fermenting, etc. Sunday is a day of cooking classes taught by the chefs from the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas, and Monday will see a networking event for the local food scene. I will be teaching a class and giving a demo on making plant-based dyes on Saturday, but hope to catch as much of the other classes and events as possible. Maybe I’ll see some of you there?

Early bird discounted tickets are for sale here.

Cultivate good things — now there’s a good start for a new year here at Gather & Grow. I look forward to sharing it all with you.

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:

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