Local Mordant

November 28, 2009

With acorns raining on the rooftops–I felt inspired to see how I could put this abundant resource to use in the dye process.  Tan oak bark and shavings have long been known for their role in tanning hides, they were harvested almost to the point of complete decimation in our area.  My intention was to use the renewable part of the tree–the acorn, and make the most of the acorn meat in the process.  Tannin is a non-metallic mordant- and the only mordant that I have found locally available.  It can also be used as a dye–creating shades of light brown when used on its own.

After pounding the acorns with a rock and peeling them, I added them to a food processor to blend them into smaller chunks.  The chunks were placed in a cloth bag.   I let the faucet water drain through them.  I squeezed the bag occasionally to see thick brown water leaching from the acorn meal.  The tannic acid comes out of the acorn in the form of a thick starchy like substance.  At one point after several hours of leaching, the acorns were done- and the water ran clear.  I dehydrated the meal- and saved that for a future batch of acorn cookies.

I had also experimented some time ago with making a mordant from rusty objects– by soaking them in water and vinegar.  Tannins and iron produce lovely shades of gray.

Paige Green Photography

After creating the tannin and rust waters, I put a strip of hemp/cotton fabric into the tannins for a day. I then rolled up the wet tannin mordanted fabric with several maple leaves and put it into the rust water, after a day and a half I unravelled it.

The finished fabric is gray/blue color, and the maple leaf prints turned a very light green.  The joy of making a mordant out of a wild food by-product was such a wonderful revelation.  I will continue with acorn tannin experiments to see the effects on wool with native plant dye colors.  I’ll keep you posted!

Farming Color

November 22, 2009

A yellow cosmos from the Urban Eagle Herb farm in Youngsville New Mexico

The first yarns that I ever dipped into dye baths, were immersed in madder root, weld, and Indigo—India, Central America and Europe were the landscapes of origin for my dye stuffs.  So much importing for a natural dye seemed paradoxical.  I read, I researched, and eventually, over the years I figured out new ways of localizing my process.  I grow many of my own colors now, and am always looking for a more local source when I do need to purchase a dye stuff.  I was so excited when I discovered Katy Blanchard, and her natural dye and herb farm– Urban Eagle Herb Co., in Youngsville, New Mexico.

Madder Root at the Urban Eagle Farm can yield strong reds

Blanchard was apart of a collaborative project between New Mexico State University, Becky Thorp of Sunstar Herb Farm, and Luz Hernandez of Las Cruces. In 2006 the project was awarded a Western SARE grant to explore the viability of raising dye crops.  They were required to grow cota, Hopi dye sunflower, tansy and weld, plus four other species of their own choice for the particular growing conditions of their area.  Blanchard introduced madder–other plants being grown included woad, coreopsis, cosmos, yellow yarrow, holly hocks, black-eyed Susans, safflower, marigold, alkanet and Mexican sunflower.  Blanchard’s excitement for this project was in part due to her knowledge of the overlapping uses of many of these species–cota for instance is known as Navajo tea (on the Navajo reservation), and is a wonderful digestive aid, and immune system tonic, as well as creating a brilliant yellow and sometimes orange in the dye vat.

Tansy at Urban Eagle Farm- yields yellows

If you go to Blanchard’s Urban Eagle Herb Farm  Website, you can see more pictures of the farm, and the list of available dye materials.  Currently listed dye stuffs are, cota, coreopsis, cosmos, tansy, and madder root.  This year Blanchard sold out of many of her dyes already, so email her directly at info@urbaneagle.com to see what she has available.  She also sells her dyes at the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center, in Espanola, New Mexico

Cota at Urban Eagle Farm

I am grateful to Katy Blanchard’s pioneering spirit– and that she is able to offer both her local and greater Western United States community some wonderful home grown dye stuffs.  I hope to see more kindred-dye-growing souls like her in the future.  All these lovely pictures were taken by Blanchard, among her many talents she is also an experienced weaver and knitter.

Mullen- common species that can yield soft greens

Blanchard's mullen dyed skeins

Footprint of a Fiber

November 12, 2009


It was not long ago, just in my parent’s own childhood when chronicling the carbon footprint of an item of clothing might not have taken very long.  A cotton farm in Texas, a sheep ranch in Wyoming–these raw materials would have been sent to any number of mills across the country and then been sold at  working class stores such Wards and Sears–this small production cycle was not a design concept from a sustainability think-tank, it was simply the way things were done.  With very little discussion or fanfare this supply chain underwent a radical transition.  In 1965, 95% of America’s clothing was made in America, and today less than 5% of our clothing is made here.  Along with the export of farming, milling, and sewing- so went jobs- environmental regulations, and in many cases quality.   Some of the more enlightened transnational clothing companies are in the process of cleaning up their supply chain and are looking deeply into the above issues.  However, this still leaves us with a question of carbon footprint, and might I say jobs?


Our carbon footprint is most simply reduced by making use of what is local.  This is Kenny, an all around sustainability expert, who feeds the grid daily with his solar panels, watches the neighbors deposit their compost for his chickens, and collects oil from local restaurants for his veggie-oil Volkswagon.  He raises food for himself, and shares his garden with others in the community.  Our lives intersected, when I found out from a friend that he was raising sheep just around the corner from my town, in Mill Valley of all places– 10 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.  Kenny’s farm has been in the family since 1867  the old house is still lived in by his mother.  Kenny primarily harvests meat from his flock, however, being an open-minded man of many trades–he wants to make the most of the wool that he shears.


At the moment, the process of turning Kenny’s wool into a hat, sweater, or pair of gloves– is still around the corner.  What we have established is a relationship.  And that, is the cornerstone of the localization process.  As we seek out resources within our towns and cities we meet people, we hear their stories, and become increasingly more in synch with our modern village.  This community building is one of many benefits of doing good for our planet.  I’m just now on the path to turn the above fleece into something a bit more palatable for my local textile creation project.


This is an example of a roving ball–just ripe for spinning.  This lovely wool is from a rancher living 20 miles from my home (just over double the distance I travel to Kenny’s suburban farm).  I will send Kenny’s wool off to a mill for processing, if all goes well, it will return to me as a very spin-able ball of roving like the one pictured above.


From this ball of roving, I will spin away on my little wheel, and create skeins of ready to dye yarn.  Once the yarn is spun I will partake in the process that I often highlight in this blog- the creation of local natural color. If all goes according to plan, I will become one step closer to my local clothing vision.  I’m estimating the CO2 footprint of my finished yarn, and knit clothing will net far beneath the weight of the yarn itself.


Handspun Yarns dyed in summer blooming plants

This is a huge reduction in carbon, if compared to even the best case scenario for industrially produced clothing.  Patagonia- my favorite and most transparent clothing company has recently created the Carbon Chronicles. If you click on the link, you’ll see that their wool merino undershirt produces 47 pounds of carbon before it even gets to your door.  That is just one shirt!  And yet, I applaud Patagonia for their ongoing commitment to preserving the earth’s last wild places– they are a fabulous company with a wonderful mission.  It’s going to take more than a village to clean up textile production– and in my personal and small way I’m committed to doing so, one ball of yarn at a time.

Time for Toyon

November 8, 2009


Toyon is a year-round favorite at dye workshops, yet it is truly the fall and winter prunings that make the strongest vats.  This tall shrub produces bright red berries at this time of year, that last well into the late winter.  They are hard, loved by birds, and with some roasting can be eaten by humans too.  The plant appears to have more pigment within its stems in the colder months.  Pruning back the suckers, and gangly stems is one method of collecting for the dye pot, without taking the berries (these aren’t needed to make dye.)


Here is the plants hearty autumn leaves, and if you look closely you can see the red pigment that is traveling up through the stems and through veins.  This pigment is what yields these rusty orange tones on the wool.


This color was produced in a stainless steel vat, and is perfect for the season.  It would make a lovely neck cowl, or cozy hat.  The longer the leaves and stems soak for, the stronger the color seems to be.  Because of the heartiness of many of the native species, it requires time, and some periodic heat to release the desired color.  Without this long processing time, Toyon produces a range of yellows.