Seeds of Sky and Sea

September 29, 2009

Paige Green Photo

Paige Green Photo

My relationship with Japanese Indigo began when a humble package of seeds arrived in the mail sometime in the mid-winter.  Gently tended in my garage throughout the pre-frost days, the little seeds sprouted  quickly and seemed to enjoy their new home in California.  I moved them outside into a makeshift greenhouse in March, and let them adjust to natural light, until mid-April.


Here are the plants in the very early spring.  Adjusting to their place in the still cold soil.  Planted in a mound, about 8″ apart, I wasn’t sure if they would fill their surroundings…. I waited.

IMG_2432On the right side of this photo- the Indigo mound is seen emerging into a continuous plant.  It was shortly after it filled this space that I harvested my first crop, and began work on the first small vat.

Paige Green Photo

Paige Green Photo

The excitement of growing a natural shade of blue, was to date, the most exciting experience I have had in the realm of textile gardening.  The plants regenerated after each small harvest, creating a rather continuous supply of color throughout the summer.  It is now the end of that season.  Just several days ago, I harvested my plant for seed.


I am now busily trying to clean this seed- a rather long and time consuming process.  As I harvest and remove the chaff, I honor the plant  that brought me so much joy through out the last three seasons of the year.  Even in the death of its color yielding foliage, it continues to bring me happiness, with the promise that these tiny brown and black specks of life giving DNA, will, in time, bring another round of blue, both to me, and to a local community wanting to grow their own color.

If you would like seeds, I am in the process of cleaning them, and have sent off two packets already!

They are $5 a packet (enough for a nice mound of Indigo), and I will likely have 15 total (not a whole lot)

Leave a comment here (so I can track how many orders I have), and I’ll give you the address to send your self-addressed envelope to!

And here is a little photo documentary of a small portion of what I created with Indigo this year!  Thank you Polygonum Tinctorium.. Oh how I love you.


Handspun corriedale cross rovings individually dyed in layers of Indigo


Peace silk, and organic cotton and hemp Indigo dyed kimono booties


organic cotton and hemp fleece kimono dyed in Indigo

Natural Dyes for Herbalists

September 25, 2009

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

The California School of Herbal Studies, has been in existence since 1978, and was founded by Rosemary Gladstar.  The school was built on 80 acres, set in the aptly named, Emerald Valley, in Sonoma County.  Not far from the coast, settled amongst doug fir, redwood, and bay forest- the valley opens into the school’s half acre garden, that hosts over 400 species of medicinal plants.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

The class was amazing- as always, the school attracts some of the most inspirational, intelligent, and thoughtful students.  My brother Michael partook in the class as well- a talented professional photographer who kindly took all of these pictures. The colors were striking- the students had patience, and the their work illuminated their ability to work with a rather elongated process.  (Although a one-day dye workshop is about as expedited as it gets in the language of natural color!).

Michael Keefe Photo
Michael Keefe Photo

The Indigo Vat!  The fermentation indigo vat yielded some pretty nice results, considering it oxidized quite a bit on the one-hour drive to the school.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

The fermentation vat gathering…. the group was delicate with the solution, keeping it active and producing blues for the whole of the workshop.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

The iron bath almost produces prints within one day- optimally this would be a two day process.  Students pressed wormwood, salvia leaves, and maple into their cotton samples.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

Toyon produced a beautiful soft orange- the color was very harmonious with the native plant colors of coyote brush, walnut and horsetail.

Michael Keefe

Michael Keefe

Horsetail created soft pinks, the silk that came from the bath looked like a luminous cross between rose petals and abalone…

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

The power of the sun and flowers, produces some of the strongest, and most striking colors, especially on our raw silk samples.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

The coreopsis solar sample on the left- flower pounding on the right.  It was beautiful to watch the students meander through the garden looking for good blossoms for the process.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

Thank you to this amazing group!  I wish you success and bliss, in your journey as healers, educators, farmers, travelers, mothers, fathers, and all the many permutations in between and above.


September 21, 2009


The natural dye day for the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network was this Saturday- there was an incredibly interested and positively minded group of fiber artists, ecological restoration folks, a family, and many others with intersecting interests. We used both native species and some less favored invasives- such as the french broom,  pictured above.  The Network restores riparian habitat all along the 9 mile stretch of creek, that is home to the largest remaining coho salmon run in Northern California.  This collaboration between the functional arts, and ecosystem restoration, deepened my already abundant appreciation for the role of the native plants in our community.

IMG_3921This little dye sample, for me, is at the heart of the collaboration.  Elderberries collected for seed propagation for SPAWN’s native plant nursery, left a colorful,  juicy by-product that we used on raw silk samples.


A Tom’s shoe experiment was tried in the black walnut dye bath.  This is a great dye bath, for a great pair of shoes.  Black walnuts were traditionally used for tattoo material by Native people, and that tradition might soon get rekindled (details in a later blog post on that one).


The outcome was a nice deep brown.  The colors of the day seemed to celebrate the equinox.

IMG_3919A maple leaf, iron, and black walnut print…  I feel the autumn emerging into view.

IMG_3882Our silk, and wool on display, tied up between the Oak trees.


I enjoyed watching people go home with native plants for their gardens- a truly heartwarming thrill.  It was so great to see folks inspecting the dyed yarns, saying, ‘look at this sticky monkey flower color- I want that plant!’  And then, taking their new friends home.. where the will have dye material for years and years to come.

Ozark Foothills

September 18, 2009


East of the Mississippi is a new land altogether, that large body of water divides the continent in a way I can only describe through the biological diversity I was blessed to observe.  The water content in the air and soil is much greater, the rains continue year round, and the noises of the night seem tropical.  We travelled to the what is considered the Ozark foothills, part prairie, and part rolling hills.  The berries were plump, and dripping from their branches.


Pokeberry is a species I have become very fond of.  This rasberry red tone was quite a surprise.  Thanks to Carol Leigh, and her dye studio at Hillcreek, these berry colors are both light and color fast.  I also learned the spring shoots were as tender as asparagus, one woman at the workshop mentioned how much she liked eating the greens steamed.


I could imagine the first peoples in these prairie fields, harvesting seeds, roots, and greens.  It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to walk through grasses and wildflowers as tall as myself.  Just around the corner from the dye studio, we collected the most abundant species- goldenrod, ironweed, and biden


Bidens polylepis


With very few flowers, the most beautiful orange emerged from the dye vat.


Just outside the field, on a pebble lane, handcrafted pruning sheers, and a bouquet of ironweed


Ironweed- its purple blossoms are a signature of the prairie meadow.  Somehow this native has ended up in several ‘weed field guides’.  I always find it amusing how a native species, that has been on the continent longer than ourselves, becomes a ‘weed’.   I like these hardy self-sowing species, and appreciate the color they bring to the edge of the roads, and the ditches, where other species will not grow.

Creating Your Own Dye Garden

September 8, 2009


During a natural dye workshop in Point Reyes Station, I met Dr. Sara Gottfried and her daughter Maya- it was a busy day, and there was a lot of  information passed along, much of it focussing on how to work with already functioning dye vats.  To extend the learning experience and bring the process into the home in a lasting way-  Sara asked if I would do a dye garden consult for her home garden.


We spoke a bit about the amount of sun in the garden, and the kind of plants she was interested in working with.  I brought with me, a combination of Bay Area native species, and several horticultural varieties, including, sticky monkey flower, mugwort, tickseed coreopsis, and violas.  These plants encompass a range of function for the natural dyer.  Some are good for pounding, some better for immersion dyeing, and others for solar dyeing.


Mugwort makes a wonderful immersion dye vat- with colors of sage green, and gold. There was already a healthy stand of it growing in the yard.  The family’s garden and home are a model for green living.  Sara and her husband dreamed of re-modeling their craftsman home in an ecologically thoughtful manner- and they manifested this dream fully- it now includes rainwater catchment tanks, a grey water system, and an interior whose materials- from floor to ceiling, are all as low-impact as one could imagine.


Here is the immersion dye vat, I brought for Maya to enjoy.  This dye came from Toyon- another California native.  The dye took to her scarf well- it turned a strong shade of  earthy orange.  It was nice to be working in the garden, and have the dye activities occurring simultaneously.  It facilitated a deep, and playful connection to the landscape, one that lasted many hours.


Here is a solar-dye jar example- this is the lowest carbon footprint way of creating color for one’s clothing, and fiber arts activities. The dye garden as a whole, marks a big step towards greater ecological consciousness.  For one, many of the dye species are native, requiring little water, and extending habitat into the backyard- for a myriad of insects, and all those species who prey upon them.  Using natural dyes displaces the need for use of synthetic dyes, and in turn keeps a host of synthetic and carcinogenic chemicals out of our water supply.

One of the most interesting intersections between the use of natural dyes, and the work that Sara focuses on with her patients at the Gottfried Center for Integrative Medicine- has to do to with hormones.  At the Center, Sara works with her patients to help them find balance and vitality, through a medical understanding of hormone levels, and their fluctuation.  These fluctuations occur naturally as we age, yet they can, and are often exacerbated by environmental factors.  One of these factors include genotoxic chemicals, which are chemicals that can mimic, and thus disrupt our natural hormone balance.  In researching synthetic dyes, it came to my attention that they have within them, a chemical that mimics estrogen. So, it seems there is one more reason to make and use your own natural dyes, beyond the beauty, fun, and alchemical magic that they bring to life- they also support greater health for us all.

The best way to bring natural color into your life, is through building a relationship with the plants that yield the beautiful dyes.

If you are interested in creating your own natural dye garden, or would like to understand more about the process, leave a comment here.  I’d be happy to talk with you about your garden ideas and desire for color.