Coffeeberry & Copper

October 30, 2009

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Coffeeberry  is a late autumn and winter bloomer, providing food for the birds, and dye material for the natural dye vat.  Without the presence of copper, Coffeeberry produces a very pale yellow.  Yet, there was something about the quality of the yellow that did inspire me– and I felt that with the influence of a copper vessel, I could easily green the tone.  I experimented with this several years ago in a borrowed pot- and was very pleased with the results.

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An old farm sale out in the Valley last weekend provided me with these two exquisite copper pots.  In some ways I am still in awe of this find, I’ve been waiting many years to source just the right copper pot, at just the right price– and voila– it finally arrived into my life.

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Here is a picture of the skeins amongst my little coffeeberry plant.  It has grown in the shadiest part of the garden with success.  I have four coffeeberry plants in the native garden, they will likely reach 10-12 feet if I allow them to grow that height.  I can keep them small and shrub like, by pruning for my dye vat.

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The handspun corriedale cross yarn comes across vibrantly in the morning sun.  In true life color– they are much greener than this.

Viable Indigo

October 27, 2009

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I’ve sent out and distributed to at least 30 seed packets to a range of those interested in starting their own dye gardens.  One pertinent question came in from a reader in New York- regarding seed viability.  She had experienced many unsuccessful Indigo seed germinating trials.  I realized it would be a good idea to do a more in depth viability study on my seed, so that I could be very clear with people about what I was sending them!  One other important bit to understand in relation to germination of this seed, is that you must use it when it is fresh- within the year that you receive it is best.

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The good news- that I am so happy to share, is that after taking samples of seed from a range of the plants (both pink and white flowering), and testing in them in various conditions (under a heat lamp + seed heat mat, as well as using the kitchen window sill), the seed germinated with approximately 90% viability.  If you received seed– keep it in your refrigerator until it is planting  time (this is regionally specific).  In my area I plant my annuals indoors in the late winter, and early spring for a summer harvest.

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I received the most lovely cards, letters, handmade paper, and envelopes from some of the seed buyers– I must thank you all for the creativity and beauty that you shared with me.  I will keep them forever, as a testament to the beginning of this journey I have begun as a harvester and disperser.  The other wonderful news, is that there is so much more than I expected. My plants went into real production mode this last summer, and I have enough seed it seems to dye the entirety of my neighborhood’s clothing blue.  If you would like seed-there is more!

Native Seed

October 23, 2009

Judith Larner Lowry: Paige Green Photography

Judith Larner Lowry: Paige Green Photography

I took a visit to the source of my emerging home dye garden– Larner Seed Company in Bolinas California.  A place so ecologically stimulating it requires repeat visits at different times of the year to begin to understand the beauty of the indigenous landscape that has been lovingly created and tended. Upon entering, Paige Green the wonderful photographer– asked, ‘is this what it would look like in the wild? it is so perfect.’  The answer to that question emerged later on, when we met up with Judith Larner Lowry– author, restoration gardener, and native seed purveyor.

Local Poppy Variety: Paige Green Photo

Local Poppy Variety: Paige Green Photo

As we walked past the sculpted coyote brush, ceanothus, and California sagebrush in our tour with Judith, the answer to Paige’s question surprised us– ‘no, it was not pruned that way, that is the way it grows,’ Judith explained.  There were of course varying degrees of tending that went on in various parts of the garden.  I had just missed the figwort pruning- (a wonderful dye plant). While we were there we helped cut back some native hazelnut.  Human’s intervening and tending native flora is not an invention of the restoration gardener– in fact the restoration gardener seeks to mimic the tending practices of old– the work of those who tended with fire, digging sticks, knocking sticks, seed beating baskets, and of course hands.  In our area these are the people we know as the Coast Miwok, and the Kashaya Pomo– the original stewards.

Native   Paige Green Photography

Paige Green Photography

As a natural dyer– I made a conscious choice to work with and use the native plants as my source of color.  I knew that using them for dyes would inevitably bring me closer to understanding their intricacies, and the ecosystem for which they are essential members. Coyote brush, sage, and sticky monkey flower have been planted in every garden I’ve had a hand in making.  The native plants grow vigorously, and yet harmoniously, this is a perfect blend for the natural dye maker.  We rely on an abundance of growth to fill our dye vats, and the variety of species is important to achieve a range of color.

Native Plant Starts: Paige Green Photo

Native Plant Starts: Paige Green Photo

I grew and am growing many of my dye plants from seed. Having Larner Seed Company practically in my backyard is a blessing. If you live in the bay area, I highly recommend a visit.  The demonstration garden is open Tuesday and Thursday 10-2, and Saturday 12-4. The onsite seed cottage has a collection of native seed that is a true feast to behold. There are some lovely books and various well chosen garden tools as well.  If you live a bit farther away you can click here for the website- Larner Seed Company

The Bolinas Variety of Coyote Brush

The Bolinas Variety of Coyote Brush


Growing Color

October 18, 2009

Paige Green Photography: Gospel Flat Farm Bolinas

Paige Green Photography: Gospel Flat Farm Bolinas

The cultivation of natural color, is a process that I feel committed to take part in for all of my living days.  Making color from renewable, natural materials leads me deeper into the ecosystem with each new dye-yielding plant that I discover.  I made a new discovery rather recently– (new to me), using Zinnia’s.  This colorful favorite of gardeners never attracted my focus before, until I ventured to Gospel Flat Farm in Bolinas, California.  It was at this beautiful creekside organic farm, that I became inspired to give Zinnias some attention.

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Although we are well into October, this coastal farm was growing Zinnias, while simultaneously harvesting pumpkins and butternut squash.  The young farmers allowed me to harvest my own bouquets, giving me a chance to spend some time in the beautiful rows of vibrant color– where marigold, zinnias, and foxgloves abounded.  I used predominantly red zinnias- the bouquet was enjoyed in my kitchen before entering the dye vat.

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The beauty of Zinnia’s in the dye pot, inspired the instantaneous question, ‘why would you make color any other way?’  Natural dye making is just so incredibly beautiful– every nook and cranny of the process brings joy.

Paige Green Photography

Paige Green Photography

The outcome was  like butter cream, with a gentle luster to it.  While it is well known how many yellow tones are in the world of natural dyes- what I find so astonishing, is how well trained my eye has become for ‘yellow’.  I’ve become a connoisseur of yellows, and very discerning over what plant will give me just the right shade for the job.  I am very appreciative of the Zinnia flower, it is now one more plant to add to the dye garden.  At this point I am actively looking for more ground to tend- my dye garden would like to expand!

Michael Keefe Photo

Working with appropriate technology- the stovetech stove- the best heat source; Michael Keefe Photo

All my dyeing days up to this point have included heat sources that leave quite a carbon footprint.  I’ve used gas stoves and electric hot plates- the energy required to heat these tools was inefficiently and unsustainably pumped, mined, or extracted in some way. ‘Plugging-in’, may feel very convenient, but the process is hugely inconvenient for the planet.

Paige Green Photography

Paige Green Photography

I worked over open flames at both the Navajo reservation, and in Wyoming this year- to find that while I loved the quick heat generated from the fire, I had challenges with the physical feelings induced by smoke inhalation.  The carbon foot-print of open flame work also seemed quite large– with smoke rising into the air in big plumes.  An unexpected solution to my heat source issues arrived when my friend Brock Dolman introduced me to Fred Colgan– a designer, carpenter, and humanitarian who works with the stovetech company.

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

The StoveTech stove was the brainchild of an appropriate technology company in Oregon- whose goals are first and foremost humanitarian.  This stove was originally designed for the 3 billion people on the planet who cook over open flame fires daily.  It uses 40-50% less fuel, and reduces emissions by 50-75% compared to open fire cooking.  This eliminates 60% or 1-2 tons per year of green house gas emissions.  My stove was $40- a very fair price.  I can boil 1 gallon of water in 20 minutes using just three bits of wood- if kindling isn’t available, I can use any biomass from my garden- roots, dried grass, etc.  For natural dyes, the quick boiling time is wonderful, and temperature can be modulated by simply adding less fuel.

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Michael Keefe Photography

My black walnut dye was ready in 30 minutes, and the pot stayed warm enough for me to add more skeins.  I used a total of 6, 1.5″  in diameter and 10″ long pieces of kindling for a great color outcome.

Berkeley Botanic Garden

October 6, 2009

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Michael Keefe Photography

The story begins with a snapshot of the end of the day.  A walk in the dye garden, gave us all the opportunity to see the alive and growing source of natural color in such species as- calliopsis, alkanet, indigo, and madder.  These are the reds, blues, yellows- that we can all plant in our gardens.

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Michael Keefe Photography

A pleasure and an honor- these are the words that express my experience at the Berkeley Botanic Garden. The class of 19 was composed of an array of talented individuals- some longtime fiber lovers, professionals, students, mothers, teachers- and the very welcome participation of Maya, who is four I believe, and had already had her hand in a few dye vats before this workshop.  The group explored possibility, and moved through moments of creative mystery- and doubt, to compose what became true natural dye triumphs.

Michael Keefe Photo

Michael Keefe Photo

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Michael Keefe Photography

I did somehow have faith, that yes, the fermentation indigo vat would travel- and make it to the workshop without oxidizing… This scarf is a testament to the little blue vat that could, all the way up Marin Street- one of the steepest hills outside of San Francisco.

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

The class community was so delicate with the vat, and so appreciative of its offering, I think it might have made a comeback based on all the love it received.  Fermentation is yes, a science, and also, a process that is totally alive and responsive.

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

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Michael Keefe Photography

The newest addition in my search for appropriate technology- brought me serendipitously into contact with the incredible Stovetech company. With the use of small bits of wood, this lightweight stove heats water faster than my hotplates, or my gas stove, with a lower carbon footprint than both of my traditional heat sources.  This stove makes natural dyeing an even greater pleasure.  I will be writing more about this in a later post, but wanted to introduce it to you here!

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

The re-visiting of the solar vat, such a gentle and lovely way to make flower dye

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

The botanic garden visitors are seen taking photos of the class’s work- the dry lines were a soft and fluttering gallery of color.  The pink silk in the foreground came from the stalks of horsetail.

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

Another way to create color- the flower pound.  A process aptly named Hapa-zome, by India Flint..  This is the human-powered approach.

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Michael Keefe Photography

The pounders at work

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

The horsetail bath was saturated with wool, silk, and hemp.  Dr. Sara Gottfried and her daughter Maya stand by to check on their work.

Michael Keefe Photography

Michael Keefe Photography

A multiple color layer sample emerges.  The creativity progresses as the day moves on, and the comfort level with experimentation increases..

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michael Keefe Photography

End of the day outcomes. Using what we call stars and stripes shibori patterns, with color provided by black walnut, and I believe horsetail, maybe toyon…

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Michael Keefe Photography

A big thank you to Deepa Natarajan whose vision, and hard-work brought this event into being, to my brother whose professional photography always amazes me, to Sara and Maya for coming again, and to all the participants who came from near, and some very far, to make it to this all-day process.  If you have questions, or want any dye tips, or support please email me when needed!

For more pictures of your dye day you can go to Michael’s Smug Mug Site.