Winter Wardrobe Reclamation

February 8, 2011

A cold and rainy winter morning blossomed like a meadow of wild color as we dipped and stirred our clothes into botanical brews.  Dr. Sara Gottfried hosted a fabulous wardrobe reclamation at her Oakland home.  The vats of steaming plant matter wafted like tea, and the hot water warmed our chilly fingers and hands.

The coffeeberry yielded a magical greenish yellow.  The branches and leaves came from a local ranch where a big pruning had just taken place.

We also made use of the Valley Oak’s renewable gifts.. the galls create an incredibly steely gray color.  At this time of year they can still be found dangling from the barren branches.  Known as ‘an apartment building’ for insect life, the galls host a plethora of tiny species in the larval stages during the autumn.

Toyon branches were collected from another pruning job.  Leaving the berries for bird food is normally best… but if they are trimmed from the tree for the reasons of a landowner, they can be used in a dye pot to add a little added orange hue to the color.

A lucky find of coreopsis was at the local farmer’s market, and was purchased just before the workshop began.  The flowers create a beautiful and very strong orange dye almost instantaneously.

Dr. Sara Gottfried dyes a pole-wrapped garment

Dr. Gottfried’s dye work is a small step in support of  her overall efforts to wear and eat organic this year.  Her organic experiment, as it is known, began January 1st of 2011.  I’ve loved reading her blog:  It is a journal that weaves together her life as a wearer and eater of organic, as well as a doctor, a hormone expert, a mother, and an astute barometer for inspiring and eye opening books.

Her evolving journey rings so true and resonant to experiences I’ve had in the Fibershed project.  I also completely adore her entries on female hormones, burnout, and thyroid malfunction and its causes…. all very pertinent for those of us who tend to burn the candle at both ends.  The entry that grabbed me recently was her description of receiving a garment in the depths of the winter temperatures.  The organic experiment took time to evolve, and winter was already here.  After a week or more of coldness…

All changed yesterday when my organic, fair-trade sweater showed up in the mail. The world brightened. Slipped it on at the UPS store. Fit gloriously and within seconds.” –Dr. Gottfried

Left: Rebecca Burgess wears Sally Fox cotton pants, fennel vest, toyon neck cowl, and an oak gall shirt. Right: Sara Gottfried wears a fully organic outfit, jacket was locally designed and sewn

Self-imposed limitation creates this kind of gratitude and joy.  I know this feeling so well.  It is a pleasure and a gift to be able to share this feeling with Sara.  I feel a sense of respect and total admiration for her efforts and journey.  It’s good work, not always easy but incredibly worthwhile.

This experiment means supporting the movement away from that which has the potential to disrupt our most sacred balance, and personal energy resources.  To remove the synthetic compounds from our diet and clothing is a process of giving ourselves those things we are intrinsically designed for–natural fibers, and clean food.  Good for the inside, good for the outside.

Thank you Sara for inspiring, illuminating, and teaching through what you know, and most importantly, what you do.

Thank you Madeleine Tilin for you amazing photography!

Toyon & Chromatography

January 9, 2011


Have you ever wanted to assess the plant species in your region for natural dye capability?  I certainly have! I also have had the interest to see if there are colors that I have not achieved in the dye vat that are secretly hiding out somewhere… waiting for the right protocol.  For these reasons I started collaborating with a local biology professor and doing some very basic chromatography experiments.

Through the harvest of just a handful of plant material you can conduct a simple experiment to see what colors lay beneath the surface.

Here lay three handspun toyon dyed skeins, and s sprig of the plant, along with a chromatography strip.    The definition of chromatography… ‘a process used for separating mixtures by virtue of differences in absorbency’…

The chromatography strips created with toyon leaves were representative of many of the colors that I have already discovered.  The bulk of the color on the strip is a rusty orange– which is a common color achieved with toyon dye.  Towards the end of the strip, there is a small area of pink— a very new and curious color!

I began to play with the water of cooked berries (which are edible if roasted or boiled), and achieved these colors (as seen below)..

These pinks were abundantly available from the berry water, and showed up on linen, silk, and cotton samples.  My question was if it was possible to achieve the pink tones without the use of berries, (I prefer not to use berries for dye– because they are such a nice food source for birds and people).

This experiment is being continued… and was further explored at the seaside day of dyes.  I brought toyon leaves and stems that had soaked on slow heat for days..and within a copper pot.  Something about the copper, ocean water, and leaves, all combined– yielded some exquisite results, far beyond a simple orange or pink.. the color lived somewhere between the two.  If I had not experimented with the chromatography I’d have had no sense that these colors were possible… the beauty of the scientific process, is that it shows you what might be available to you in the dye pot.  You are, of course, then left with how to achieve those results, and that is often where the fun begins.

The experimenting continues.. and if you’d like to try your own chromatography experiment:

Grind 5 or 6 leaves in mortar and pestle

Cover the leaves in alcohol (medical grade)

Let sit for 24 hours or longer

Pour liquid into a test tube

Place chromatography paper into the test tube, cover, and wait

I recommend several days, even a week of absorption before removing the paper

Its a bit cold, and as you can see from this picture.. it’s dark too!  The winter has moved many dye processes inside.  As it started to rain a few moments ago, I pulled everything off the dry line and moved into the studio/garage.  The wool has just come from a dye bath of vinegar and my frozen pokeberry harvest.  (My gorgeous 7 ft. tall plant, was dripping with berries this last autumn), I froze them and was waiting for the perfect wool to dye them in.  These skeins are from Reba, a lovely merino sheep who lives in Mendocino County, CA.

The letter K is a screen print that my brother and I created for my mother (Kerry), for Christmas.  I made a glorious ink with galls from a very manganese rich soil.  This ink has become a silk screen dream. I am very happy with the outcome.  It can undergo all kinds of washing and still hold a solid slate gray tone.

As you can see here the pokeberry wasn’t the only dye color I used.  As I began to exhaust the bath, the pink turned lighter and lighter, so I quickly dipped a few of these into my indigo vat– giving a modeled and violet hue to the wool.  I can’t wait to see this wool turn into the designer dress that its being created for!  More on that later..


Feast of Green Fennel

July 1, 2009


Fennel is a plant with a sordid reputation. Known for being high end real estate for several of the Lepidoptera species butterflies, ladybird beetles, white and golden crown sparrows, garter snakes and rodents.. It is also viewed as the godzilla, of invasive species, displacing native wildflowers, and homogenizing ecosystems. All of this appears to be true of the plant, and to add to its many functions- I recently discovered that with the use of an iron mordant, this plant makes the most excellent green dye!


In viewing many roadside stands today, I observed fennel growing in every nook of available turf, even pushing out some of the more hardy natives- commonly known as bee plant, and mugwort. The native flower- Perideridia kelloggii, that once hosted the Lepidoptera butterflies, was no where to be seen. There are so many factors contributing to the success of fennel, that I have no distaste for the plant itself, it is only responding to the conditions it has come to grow in.


California soils have dried, due to the loss of perennial grasses, that once blanketed the landscape, keeping in water, and holding back the effects of erosion. These perennials have been replaced by annual grasses that dry out only weeks after the last rainfall- hence, the golden hills of California. Our waterways have been re-routed, and drained to make way for roads, homes, and agriculture. The changes we have made, and the level of disruption caused to the ecosystem, it seems only natural that a plant as virulent as fennel would take root, a plant so hardy it can grow in almost any soil. While it can act as a band-aid, it can also function to take over diverse ecosystems, whose soils and water are still in tact.


I am still wondering a bit about the impact of harvesting fennel. While I would very much like to see less of it, and have it replaced with native wildflowers and bunchgrasses, I know that it’s existence plays a role in the life of many insects, and for this reason, I am unable to commit to wholesale destruction with my harvesting. Yet, I will never propagate this plant in my garden, like I do the native dye plants. I will remain a roadside harvester of fennel. My follow-up harvest will include clay balls filled with perennial native grass and wildflower seed- so where ever I remove fennel, I will leave a gift behind.. I’ll keep you posted on
this process!

Escapades with Poke

May 19, 2009
















Pokeberry is a native to the Northeast of the United States. It is, for most land tenders- a most easy plant to grow. Here in California, I found one good source of Pokeberry at the California School of Herbal Studies. Last July, I scooped up all the berries I could, and brought them home to make dye. I got a range of extraordinary oranges in a mid-summer dye vat. I saved hundreds of seeds from this vat, and planted them in the fall in small peat pots. I waited, and waited. Nothing. I tried again, and planted many more seeds, and waited and waited. After researching numerous protocols- I found out, one must poke pokeberry seeds, with a needle or pin, prior to planting.  I sat down, attempting to get my needle through the slick and rounded hard shells of the 2mm length seeds, they shot themselves all over the floor.  I did have several successes.  And, now- in the heart of May, I’m admiring my baby Pokeberrie plants, adorning my outdoor sewing studio.  I am looking forward to this years dye vat. 


Pokeberry from last summer’s berry vat. on corriedale cross roving from West Marin, and two-ply organic yarn from the same ranch.

Indigo, one of two plant species I know of that can create rich blues, unlike any blues I know, other than those hues I see in the sky and sea. In my garden there is a a 10ft. long mound of rich soil, covered in rice straw, that now houses the Indigo starts.  They’ve made there way to the outside, now that the risk of frost has past.  










This crop should provide several dye vats this summer.  I will likely use a fermentation vat, as I have in the past.  A traditional recipe, that can last for many months of dyeing. Japanese Indigo while native to Japan, seems to be enjoying the misty Spring we are having.  The humidity of recent weather, has sent large leaves into the sky, and a few pink flowers are beginning to emerge.












The organic wool for these skeins, is from West Marin.  The raw wool was dyed in fermentation indigo, and some of it overdyed in the native coyote brush.  The blend that I spun together, reminds me of the changing blues and greens of Tomales Bay.  I call this set of skeins, Natural Sea.  










Indigo applied to animal fibers is exquisite.  Wool and silk, are both accepting takers of the plant dye.  These silk kimono booties, were made with peace silk from India, and then dyed in my fermentation indigo vat.  This silk is created from the cocoons of silk worms that have been allowed to escape.  Traditional silk practice is to boil the cocoon with the worm still alive. These booties are lined with an organic hemp and cotton fleece.


Grassy Undertones

March 18, 2009

img_2994As I study the grasses, I find more than green.  In visioning my spring yarn, I am drawn to include an unexpected color- orange.  Normally apart of the fall color scheme, I am seeing it everywhere.  As the grasses mature, and seed, a band of orange appears in the wetland fields.  I thought today would be about blues, and rain filled cloud colors- and I thought I’d be using my fermentation indigo vat.  But before I move onto the colors of the sky, I am held by the colors of earth for one more day.

img_17111Today was toyon branches, and cochineal bugs, these two dye vats together helped me achieve this lovely orange on combed wool, or roving.   An honest interpretation of the grasses I am observing in the wetlands.  Yesterday it was powder pink (cochineal), and a soft mustard flower yellow (sage), I am using plant dyes to describe every jaw-dropping color scheme I see as I drive down the country roads, and even the I-80 freeway.