gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

I’m spinning into thread the nettle fibers that nature grew and I harvested this summer. (Head over here if you want to read Part I about harvesting and processing stinging nettle fiber.)

What I had at the end of the summer was a bundle of wispy fibers extracted from stinging nettle stalks. Because I was doing this for the first time and had not figured out the ideal length of retting time, there was definitely still a lot of green plant matter (cellulose) from the nettle stalks adhering to some of the fibers. In August, over the course of a few evenings, I carded this silvery green mass using hand carders, and managed to separate a lot more of the fibers from the chaff.nettlespinning2In the end I held in my hands fluffy tufts of spinnable fiber from plants that I’d collected myself from woods and meadows on our family’s land!!!

Those who know me know that that’s the sort of thing that makes me almost burst with excitement, my face beaming and my heart pounding and way too giddy to go to sleep.

The actual spinning of the nettle fibers, it turns out, takes some patience. It’s quite comparable to spinning flax, in that the fiber lacks the crimp of wool, so having that analogy helped me to get the hang of it. I actually tried combining the nettle fiber with some silk, but in the end I went ahead and spun pure nettle thread. Since I hadn’t been able to get rid of all the green matter, now my nettle thread has light green color mixed with its linen-like off-white. Maybe the purists wouldn’t approve, but I love how it looks.nettlespinning3

nettlespinningWhat will I make with my nettle fiber, you ask? I may be able to spin enough to then weave into a scarf once I get the small loom I’m dreaming of. Or I could make a crocheted bra. Doesn’t every girl need a crocheted nettle bra? But whatever I end up making, it’s literally going to be clothing that grew in a forest.

Last week, Gather and Grow journeyed to London to attend the International Permaculture Conference and Convergence.

The conference, in downtown London, was a two-day extravaganza of presentations, workshops, films, book launches, and butt-kicking keynote speeches. After the conference, the Convergence gathered in the huge Gilwell Park outside of London for five more days of workshops, talks, discussions, films, conversations, and hands-on demonstrations… Whew!

This year’s theme was “Designing the World We Want.” Although a sobering shared awareness of the dire global challenges was a constant subtext to all that was said and done, the prevailing tone was one of hope and can-do attitude. There were about 750 of us, representing a global movement now 1 million strong (if you count all the people who have by now done their Permaculture Design Certifications). There’s a lot that a million people can achieve together.IMG_1841

Some highlights:

Reuniting with friends and past teachers from five continents, and making new friends from at least that many.

Meeting in person a number of the formative figures of permaculture and Transition whose names have been on the backs of the books on my bookshelf for so long that I consider them my teachers, too — from Rosemary Morrow and Geoff Lawton to Pandora Thomas, Rob Hopkins, and Graham Bell.IMG_1774

Learning about all kinds of impressive projects from around the world (here Dave Boehnlein of Terra Phoenix presenting the design for a Native American healing center in the Peruvian Amazon).IMG_1812The films! The beautiful Inhabit by Costa Boutsikaris, and Design for Life featuring Graham and Annemarie Brookman of The Food Forest in Australia.

This sample book of natural dyes from the Worker’s Educational Association of England.IMG_1779

Finding in the Convergence Marketplace the ethical knitwear booth of The Snail of Happiness, whom I’ve only known through her blog until now. Most of the people whose blogs I regularly read are people whom I’ve never met. Similarly, most of my own readers (you!) live in other parts of the world, and we don’t get to meet face to face. It would be nice for that to happen more often. Just saying…

Accidentally happening upon one of the Convergence sessions that were arranged on-the-spot, because somebody had the skills and others had the interest. I decided to stay, and got a fantastic refresher on holistic grazing planning and keyline design.

All the spontaneous jamming sessions, conversations over meals, anonymous acts of kindness — and play dates that can only happen when you are traveling with a sixteen-month-old who is much less shy than her mother…IMG_1834

A little progress report of my #1year1outfit locally sourced wardrobe. I wrote earlier about my hunt for regionally grown and milled cotton here and finding local alpaca fiber here.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been busy dyeing my organic cotton jersey fabric with locally grown natural dyes. This has involved learning new things, because most of my dyeing work until now has been with wool. Plant fibers, like cotton, take dyes very differently, and require a different mordanting process. I feel the steep climb of the learning curve I’m on.

I chose purple basil dye for a part of the fabric that I was going to use for a skirt, to create pink or purple hues. The purple basil comes from the dye garden I planted at the Carolina Community Farm & Garden in the spring. Goodness! If you love basil as much as me, this is one of the most pleasurable natural dye plants imaginable. The fragrance of basil was wafting all around as I slowly simmered the leaves to prepare the dye… And I’m pretty happy with the end result, a subtle cool-toned pink for my skirt. Here’s a little sneak preview of the skirt I ended up making:IMG_2404

The rest of the fabric, which will become a shirt or a top, ended up being the shade of stormy gray I wanted — but entirely by accident! I collected comfrey leaves, knowing that they create yellow to green colors. But because the cotton had been pre-mordanted with tannin and alum, leaving it beige to begin with, in the comfrey dye pot that mixture of beige + yellow-green resulted in a not-so-distinct brownish beige. A little discouraged, and entirely in the spirit of experiment, I dunked the fabric into another dye pot I had going on at the same time: blackberry leaves with iron modifier. And right before my eyes, I saw it turn into a lovely, stormy gray, something that I think goes very well with the pink from the purple basil.blackberry iron

Lastly, I’ve been finally spinning the local alpaca fiber I got in the spring for a cardigan. I chose black alpaca fiber rather than the whites or browns I have. Somehow I like the idea of a dramatic and elegant midnight black to go with the softer hues of pink and gray. The first skein is done — and many more left to spin before I have enough for the cardigan I have in mind.IMG_2421

After another nomadic summer, it has felt very grounding to get back — not only to the space of our home, but also to the rhythm of tasks and activities that punctuate the everyday for us here. Bags unpacked. The whole house cleaned up and the pantry re-stocked with our favorite foods. Fresh sheets on the beds. Our calendars beginning to fill up with work, but also with names of friends to visit and reconnect with.

For me, what creates the sense of being home again more than anything else are the familiar, rhythmically repeated acts of making things. I pull out my tools and work with raw materials — whether it’s milk or vegetables or soil or textiles and dye plants — through movements that are soothing in their familiarity, to provide nourishment and color and joy for myself and my little family.

There’s a rhythm to putting sauerkraut to ferment in crocks until it’s done and gets moved to the fridge, to make space for the next batch. There’s a rhythm to filling warm jars of home-made yogurt and then enjoying it once a day, or twice, or even three times a day (there are two serious yogurt eaters in the household) until it’s time to use the last bit as a seed to make a new batch.

There’s also the rhythm of cheese-making: warming milk, ripening it, draining the curds, salting and cutting them.rhythm-4-2

Or how about this latest addition to my dairy fermentation repertoire, kefir, for which I got the grains from a friend. (“Milk champagne,” don’t you love the sound of that?)rhythm

Our fall garden has been planted in the beds outside, and there the cycle, the rhythm, is clear: seeds planted, germinating, growing, feeding us, going to seed again.rhythm-3-2

In my outdoor dyeing studio, too, pots started simmering almost as soon as we got back. As always, I have loved being immersed in the steady, methodical practice of collecting dye plants, scouring, washing, mordanting, simmering, and rinsing. I’m slowly making progress towards my One Year One Outfit goal (but that has to wait for a post of its own).rhythm-5-2

And then there’s the amazing bounty of ripe late-summer fruit to seize and enjoy. I spent Sunday afternoon with 10 people in the lovely kitchen of Columbia Homestead Alliance canning peaches and fig thyme jam, two of my favorite recipes from Ashley English’ Canning and Preserving. It was the first in this year’s series of urban homesteading classes, and well-timed since South Carolina peaches and figs are at the peak of perfect ripeness just now. The yellow and ruby jars are glowing like gems, with promise of sunny sweetness for the winter days.rhythm-2-2

It’s challenging enough, logistically, to leave one’s home to go traveling for three months (although at this point I’ve done that so many times in my life that I’m accustomed to it). But it takes it to a whole different level when you are invested in cultivating a particular piece of land.

In the spring, I was involved in caring for three different sites: our own home veggie garden, the community orchard down the street, and the new dye garden at Carolina Community Farm and Garden. And then — as you know, if you’ve been stopping by lately — we embarked on our epic tour of rural places in France, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland. While we were away, the merciless southern sun baked this city in 100-110 F temperatures. I let go of any expectations of what I’d find when I came back.

Actually, I knew that the orchard would be in good hands. A number of folks in our community are committed to working there regularly. I got email updates over the summer of work parties that took place, with photos and all. Coming back, I find this lovely, lush green space — with much work to do in the future, yes, but a defined space starting to take shape…


…with fruit, such as these figs, getting sweet and ripe.IMG_2341

Over at Carolina Community Farm and Garden, the capable manager Allie kept looking after the dye garden I planted in the spring. The dye plants fared remarkably well. Only the Black-eyed Susans really took a hit in the heat, and the Japanese indigo bed fell to a dodder infestation and had to be completely uprooted. The purple basil, madder root, lady’s bedstraw, marigolds, dyer’s chamomile, elecampane and hollyhock are all going strong. We’re now planning a dyeing demo for the students in a few weeks.


What I didn’t expect was coming home to find our own raised beds actually producing and doing well:


A guerrilla gardener friend had kept our garden watered and neatly maintained through the summer. We had fresh kale and basil ready to eat as soon as we got back home, and found a few interesting surprise additions, such as broad leaf plantain, sorrel, Red Thai roselle and narrow-leafed arugula thrown in. Thank you, Michael!

In other words, if you’re caring for a piece of land and have to leave town for three months… find your allies (and michaels) in the community!

We’re seven months into the One Year One Outfit challenge, and wow — I’m half impressed, half intimidated by the progress some of the other participants have already made towards their locally sourced wardrobes. I’m nowhere near having entire items of clothing finished at this point myself. But I will, I will…

Since finding locally grown organic cotton proved to be such a challenge, I decided to experiment this summer trying to make fiber out of something that grows wild in nature: the humble stinging nettle. Not that I’ll necessarily be using nettle fiber for my #1year1outfit wardrobe, but I wanted to get a sense of how it’s done.

Nettle, along with flax and hemp, used to be more important as fiber material for textiles than cotton in Europe; unlike cotton, they could be grown even in northern climates. Nettle fiber farming started in the 19th century, and during the World Wars, nettle was often promoted as a substitute for cotton.

Why is nettle fiber worth exploring for the organic, eco-textile minded folk? Consider:

  • whereas conventionally grown cotton requires intensive inputs, such as irrigation and weed killers, nettles grow everywhere, even in fairly poor soil, with zero effort from humans
  • many textiles are produced in Third World countries, whereas nettle is something that could be grown even in European and North American climates
  • regional production and processing of nettle would also involve less long-distance transport
  • nettle is a common weed that already grows everywhere, so why not make use of it?
  • it has many uses besides fiber, and many parts of the plant can be used (e.g. for food, tea, medicine, or dye), so the same piece of land can yield multiple benefits


So, this summer, I did some initial research into how nettle is processed into fiber, and processed a small batch myself. You can find lots of different instructions online, but I found this video really clear and easy to follow. The basic steps are:

  1. collect nettles: preferably from August onwards, cutting the stalks near the ground and removing the leaves (wear gloves and long sleeves!)
  2. soak the nettle stalks (which is called retting): some sources say 1 week, others longer. You have to experiment. The idea is to break down the cellulose surrounding the fibers so the fibers can be extracted
  3. dry the nettles: you can do this in the sun out in the garden, or in a greenhouse or (as I did, being in Finland) in the sauna
  4. split the bigger stalks
  5. break the dried-up stalks by hand to separate the fine fibers from the woody pith
  6. spin the fibers into yarn

Full disclosure: my process was far from perfect, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. Most sources recommend waiting until August before harvesting the nettle, but I couldn’t wait that long so I harvested the first batch already on July 10th and the second one in late July. Also, the soaking was not very effective the first time around since I did it outdoors in a wheelbarrow filled with water, and it was an unusually cold July so the water was cold too. The stalks in the second batch were much taller, so I decided to soak them in the lake the way flax plants have traditionally been retted: held in place by the lake sedges and kept submerged by a few pieces of wood.


This time, the retting seemed to work well, judging from the authentic, hmm, earthy smell when I pulled the plant matter out of the water one week later. Once the stalks had dried — which only took a couple of days in the sun and at night in a warm (not hot) sauna, I was able to extract some nice, soft and wispy fibers.


Processing wild nettle like this, I found, is definitely labor-intensive and not for the impatient. I’d work for a long stretch extracting fiber manually from the stalks, and only end up with a small bundle of fibers to show for it. I had fun because I’m generally a persistent person and I was able to do it outside on lovely summer days. But I think it’s a task that would go fast, and be most efficient, when done together with a group of people.

Having said that: being able to figure it out, and hold in my hand my first fibers harvested from the wild, from the forest, has been one of the highlights of this summer.


Nettle fiber does have a lot of potential in the eco-textile industry. Studies done in both Finland and Austria show that it’s entirely feasible to cultivate, harvest and process nettle on a larger scale too. Different fiber nettle clones were tested in the Austrian study in terms of their fiber yields and fiber quality. It was found that, through cultivation, the fiber content can be increased (from about 5% in wild nettles to 17% in cultivated fiber nettles). The extracted fibers can be spun into yarn, but need to be mixed with some other fiber, with a maximum 70% nettle content.

That’s what’s next for me: trying to spinning my nettle fibers. Let’s see if that works. More updates to come!

P.S. Just because I know some of you will be wondering… the only stings I got in this process were during the initial harvesting. Once the nettle stalks have been soaked and dried, the stinging hairs are gone. The fibers themselves are beautiful – light green to linen colored, and some of them very, very soft.

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be teaching a series of urban homesteading classes again this fall at Columbia Homestead Alliance. Columbia Homestead Alliance — or CHA, for short — is an emerging new organization committed to community resilience, skill-building, local food and self-reliance in my very own neighborhood of Five Points in Columbia, SC. In the spring, our Permaculture Design Course students helped to install some keyhole garden beds at their site, which they are developing into a demonstration site for urban permaculture and growing food in the city.

This year’s line-up of classes includes:

  • Canning & Preserving
  • Home Dairy 101
  • Not-so-hard Cheeses: Feta, Mozzarella, and Chevre
  • Home-made Body Care

The last two are new classes that I’m particularly looking forward to introducing. In all classes, we’ll be whipping up home-made goodness of some sort, with treats to take home, and all levels of experience (or none) are welcome.

To find more detailed class descriptions, and to sign up, go to the Classes page.

If you live in the Columbia area, I hope to see you there! If not, maybe there’s an organization near you that organizes classes and workshops in urban homesteading? I know of pretty awesome homesteading schools in Atlanta, California’s Bay Area, Portland OR, and Boston, for example.


natural dyes

colorsoftheforestThe more natural dyeing I do, the more I fall in love with the colors I can achieve — or “discover,” I think, is a better word for it — this way. They’re subtle and soft, never harsh. It’s as if they have a story to tell. Those are the kinds of colors I’ve always gravitated towards anyway in my wardrobe and in my home… or, goodness, even in the design of this blog.

And now, when I look at the color palette from the last few days’ dye work at a Finnish lakeside cottage, I realize it’s a very familiar range. Where else have I seen the mossy greens, the purple browns, the soft yellows and greys? All around me, in fact. These yarns have captured the colors of the Nordic forests. The pine bark that goes from grey to a rich warm brown the higher up the trunk you go. The big ice-age rocks covered by grey moss and lichen. The soft, subdued pinks of heather blossoms. The rich range of greens on the forest floor. Fallen pine needles and cones in a range of browns and silvers. The vibrant yellows of chanterelles hidden underneath the grass, waiting to be discovered.


As I hinted at in my blueberry post, I also tried dyeing with blueberries (yes, the actual berries this time). The end result was surprising. I had been expecting pink or purple, or maybe even blueish tones. But the yarn emerged from the vat smokey purple — a complex, shimmering grey or brown or purple, depending on the light and how you look at it. As it happens, this is one of my favorite colors and one I always get compliments for when I wear it. How appropriate that this is the color that my favorite berry makes on wool in the dyer’s magic pot!  IMG_2166

From left to right: tansy on alum mordant; tansy on rhubarb leaf mordant; juniper with iron afterbath; birch with iron afterbath; heather with iron afterbath; blueberry on alum mordant; blueberry on iron mordant.

This is the best part about the Scandinavian summer, if you ask me. Nothing beats eating the summer’s first handful of ripe wild blueberries fresh from the woods. When the sun is shining and the forest floor is blue with tiny blue berries, a self-confessed berry addict like me will easily spend an hour or two in the woods, just picking and eating, picking and eating, till my fingers are blue and purple.


There’s been a lot of debate in the media about the so-called superfoods lately. In the Finnish media, nutritional experts have pointed out — and I agree — that it’s quite silly to spend a lot of money on imported goji berries when our domestic wild blueberry is just as packed with amazing nutrients, and is locally and freely available. In addition to vitamins, fiber, and minerals, blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any fruit, including anthocyanins, which give the berries their characteristic shades of blue and purple. Blueberries may improve memory, lower blood pressure, protect eye health, and reduce the risk of heart disease. A couple of handfuls of these per day — that’s a health recommendation that I will happily follow!

When I return to the cottage with my little bucket heavy with the goods, I store some of the berries to be enjoyed with yogurt and granola for breakfast the next day. Blueberries can also be used for dyeing — more about that later! Today’s harvest, though, went into a berry pie that I make every single summer. The recipe is one that my mother found in a magazine, maybe in the 80s, and I want to share it with you today because it’s the perfect summery berry pie.


You can use any mix of fresh berries you like. I always use at least some blueberries. The special ingredient in the filling is kermaviili, a Finnish low-fat 12% fermented sour cream, but since that’s not available in most places, it can be substituted with regular sour cream.


The ultimate summer berry pie


  • 150 g butter, softened
  • 1 dl (0.4 cups) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1.5 dl (0.6 cups) flour
  • 1.5 dl (0.6 cups) whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder


  • 2 dl (1.2 cups) kermaviili or regular sour cream
  • 1/2 dl (3.5 tbsp) sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla sugar
  • half a liter (1 pint) fresh berries of your choice (blueberries, currants, raspberries, strawberries)

For serving:

  • vanilla sauce (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 C (390 F). Whisk the butter and sugar together in a bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg and the flours and baking powder. Mix until the consistency is even, then spread onto the bottom and sides of a buttered, 10- or 12-inch pie dish.

Pour the berries of your choice onto the crust (sprinkle with some sugar if they are a little tart).

Mix the filling ingredients together and pour on top of the berries. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Serve with vanilla sauce and enjoy!

This summer, I’m working on a permaculture design for the small farm that’s been in our family for almost 100 years and that now belongs to my aunt. This is where I spent all my childhood summers, so it’s quite a wonderful process working with and re-acquainting myself with this land. And, as you’ll see, it is here that one might find the seed of all that I document on Gather and Grow. My father’s generation, even us as kids, grew up taking many of the practices of self-sufficiency for granted: growing and gathering and preserving much of their food, repairing and reusing and making do, knowing how to make things by hand.

IMG_2049During my visits, my aunt and I have coffee and talk about the history of the farm and our family. She’s done a great job preserving many of the traditions of the farm — stories and customs, but also old keepsakes and artifacts from past generations. Kitchen utensils, butter churn, sleds, farming tools. Family photos. Or — what especially captures the interest of a fiber buff like me — old spinning and weaving tools that my grandmother and great-grandmother used, back when these fields grew flax for linen and sheep for wool and my great-grandmother was known as a prize-winning spinner. We even found an old hackling board from 1906, for processing flax, and balls of fine, hand-spun linen thread.

But the treasure I want to share with you today is something else: my grandmother’s notebook from when she went to a “farm wife school” in 1947! Watch out, Mother Earth News and Encyclopedia of Country Living — for this is the true compendium of what a self-sufficient smallholder would need to know, from starting a garden and propagating plants to building fences and making soap and caring for clothes and shoes. All meticulously noted down in elegant hand-writing and precise drawings and charts.


It’s priceless, really. And all the more bittersweet because my grandmother, though still living, is steadily losing her memory. Keepsakes such as this notebook may be one of the few ways in which we can tap into what she once learned and what kept the family fed and clothed and sheltered for decades, even when times were hard.

I suppose Gather and Grow is my own, cyber-age version of a notebook like this?


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