gather and grow

Homestead skill-building and simple living

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The best part about trying to create a network of local fiber artists is actually getting to know these incredibly talented and inspiring people, and watching how one connection leads to another.

That’s what happened when I connected with my friend Caroline, a fellow natural dyer. She found out about my natural dyeing classes in the fall and got in touch, and before long, we were sitting around my dining room table doing an excited show-and-tell together with my spinning and dyeing friend Barbara, whom I introduced to Caroline. Caroline, in turn, told me about Donna, who is reviving the indigo growing tradition in the South Carolina lowcountry, and put me in touch with Shanika, another active DIYer and dyer from whom I learned about dyeing with avocado pits. And there you have it — the beginnings of our local natural dyeing and fiber craft network.

Caroline is a talented textile artist and the creative force behind Chi Design, an indigo arts studio specializing in the traditional Japanese techniques called shibori. Shibori comes from the Japanese word root shiboru, “to wring, squeeze, press,” and indeed shibori designs are achieved by various methods of applying some kind of a resist to the cloth prior to dipping it in the dye vat. The methods range from intricate stitching work and stenciled rice paste designs to simply experimenting with rubber bands or threads that squeeze parts of the fabric together, preventing it from absorbing the dye. Last fall, Caroline traveled to Japan to study shibori indigo dyeing. Upon her return to Columbia, she launched her business, bringing a bright splash of blue (in the form of pillows, scarves, table linen etc.) to the weekly farmers’ market, and began to offer dyeing services and workshops.shibori-6

shibori-5This past weekend, I attended Caroline’s indigo and shibori class. The class was a total delight for the senses: patient folding and wrapping of cloth that could be either playful or precise; the earthy smell of the indigo vat, which I love; feeling the warmth of the dye solution while slowly working the submerged cloth, rubber gloves in hand — and then, the final results, which had us oooh’ing and aaaah’ing as the beautiful designs unfolded:

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When first dipped in the indigo dye vat, the fabric appears turquoise-green. It turns indigo blue only when exposed to air.

When first dipped in the indigo dye vat, the fabric appears turquoise-green. It turns indigo blue only when exposed to air.

shibori_finishedI came home with three cotton hankies I’d dyed during the workshop, each with a different technique and a different design. (If you know your shibori vocabulary, the techniques I tried were the arashi, itajime, and kumo.) I couldn’t get over how satisfying it was to get such beautiful results in just one afternoon. And I dare say I managed to impress my husband, too.

If you want to check out Caroline’s wares, visit her online boutique. Everything is made with natural fibers such as linen, cotton and silk, and combines the ancient dyeing traditions of Japan with Caroline’s own creative vision and careful craft.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about participating in the One Year, One Outfit challenge to create one entirely regionally sourced outfit this year. I’d already been planning to research local fibers, mills, and dyes in order to make my fiber crafts as local as possible, but this challenge was the kick in the butt that I needed to get more serious about it. With this post, I launch a new series, “Local Fiber,” in which I’ll be reporting about this process.

This past weekend, I went to visit an alpaca farm just 40 miles outside Columbia to get some fiber from them. Ed and Vicki Hinshaw, the owners at Sea Ayre Suris, raise Suri alpacas known for the fineness, density and luster of their fleece. Ed kindly showed me around the farm and took me to meet the animals — the 44 alpacas, ranging in color from white to brown and black, and the one lone llama, Little Mister.

It’s endlessly entertaining to watch these animals — somehow a little awkward and at the same time so graceful, with their long necks, like giraffes. Don’t you just love their faces with those enormous, alert eyes?

alpacasOr the way they are often all looking in the same direction — with the exception of the one oddball (what is he looking at, anyway?):

seaayreIt was while we walked and greeted the alpaca that Ed explained to me how alpaca fleece is evaluated and ranked. I’m a spinner, not an alpaca connoisseur, and I was frankly quite stunned to hear about the intricate process of determining the quality of the fleece: among other things, it involves sending samples to a lab to get a histogram, a fiber analysis report that calculates the average fiber diameter, and therefore the fineness of the fiber. I’ve only learned to judge fiber by my fingertips, by my words — “soft” or “fuzzy” or “shiny” — and I’m happy to stick to those imprecise methods, but I realize that professionals must resort to qualitative measures. Ed’s own herd is carefully chosen based on fleece characteristics and health, and he is proud of the bloodlines that go back to some of the finest Suri alpaca sires in this country.

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I came home with bags and bags of some of the most exquisite fiber I’ve ever seen. Each bag came tagged with a name tag, bearing the name of an animal. Many of the names I recognized from the same afternoon, as Ed had been introducing his alpacas to me by name. Now, as I embark on the task of cleaning, sorting, washing, carding, and spinning, I feel that this is a good beginning for my “local outfit” creation process: bags of fleece from animals whose furtive, warm bodies I’ve petted, from pastures where I too have walked, with name tags still on.IMG_0363

I feel a bit sheepish admitting this, but… Even though I’ve been dyeing fibers with natural dyes for years, I’ve never tried making naturally dyed Easter eggs until this year.

I know, I know. It’s the ultimate easy, accessible, fun and colorful spring craft that lets you play with some of the most common botanical dyes — the kind that we already have available in our kitchens. And it’s for grown-ups, too. But somehow, for me, it took having a child of my own and wanting to make this a tradition we share from year to year to get me to finally try it.

There are a few ways to dye eggs with vegetable dyes, but I found these instructions easy and the results really satisfying. I used red beets, red cabbage, turmeric powder, yellow onion skins, red onion skins, and red Thai roselle tea from a friend’s garden.

IMG_0118What I didn’t know is that you can also use brown eggs, not only whites — the results will be a little different, but that only adds to the range of vibrant colors you can eventually harvest in your basket.

Frankly, my daughter is still too young to participate in or marvel at the transformation of plain white and brown eggs into bright colorful ones. She is mostly interested in grabbing, then smashing, the eggs. But I myself got a bit hooked, so we will surely be doing this again in the future.

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And so it was that one sunny Saturday morning in March, after months of planning and preparing, I woke up to the first day of our Permaculture Design Course. The weeks and days leading up to it were intensely busy (in case you’ve been wondering about my absence from this space) but in the end, all the details came together perfectly. A full course of 24 participants, a curriculum we facilitators were feeling really excited and solid about, and a venue so perfect we couldn’t have dreamed anything better: City Roots urban farm just down the street from me and my co-facilitator Matt.

Our course’s “home site” is the farm’s brand new events greenhouse, where we are appropriately surrounded by kale and tomato seedlings, and just across the way from the tilapias in the aquaponics system and the new chicks in their brooder. In the afternoons, if the glare in the greenhouse gets too intense, we move to a covered outdoor classroom right next to the farm’s no-till rye fields. Standing there that first afternoon teaching the session on natural patterns, I could point to nature’s patterns right there around us — a tree, a cloud, the movement of the wind — to illustrate my point. IMG_1023

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With two weekends behind us now, the course is in full swing. The participants are an inspiring bunch — coming from diverse backgrounds and interests and bringing to the course such good energy and enthusiasm and unique talents.

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One of the highlights of the course so far has been our natural building session, with four hands-on stations for learning different natural building techniques: cob wall and garden bench building led by our tireless Emily McCravy, natural paints beautifully taught by Kelley Adair, as well as slip straw wall insulation and clay plastering. Music was playing, the sun was shining, everyone got their hands and feet dirty. In other words, a good time.IMG_4334

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As a co-facilitator of the course, I have the great pleasure of sitting in on the sessions taught by Nick Tittle and Matt Kip, and I always find myself learning something new. One of my favorite new concepts lately has been the idea of “zones of brilliance” that Nick introduced, drawing on Javan Bernakevitch of Permaculture BC. The idea is to take the notion of zones used in permaculture land design and use it as a tool for life design: finding the “zones” in your life where you shine, by asking the questions:

What are my inherent natural gifts?
What am I perennially passionate about?
What pattern of problem do I see that needs solving in my community?

I have long been curious about the applicability of permaculture principles to our inner lives, and this seems to me one of the more compelling approaches. You can catch Javan himself talking about it here and here. I myself need to let it sink in some more, but I dare say this entire course experience is one grand opportunity to explore my zones of brilliance.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

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