This story happened on one of those rare summery fall days, September 5, 2013. Life runs far more smoothly now that I, daughter of Jamaica, have learned to never take fair weather for granted in the northern hemisphere. “Make hay while the sun shines” seriously resonates here.
When September 5th spoke, I listened. It said, “Grab Evil Michelle’s Black Walnut from this June, and have at it!”
Natural dyeing is not for everyone, I know. As Sasha (thecraftyrabbit) put it on Saturday at the Woodstock Fleece Festival, “It’s too much like cooking!” YES! And we laughed. N’s take is that I really did not get enough science in school. They are both correct.
Taking the jar on the left, i.e. 15 oz of “first soak,” I appraised mine stash. Turns out, I had lots of candidates to get in on this half of the Black Walnut gift.
It was a carefully weighed plan. The dry weight of fibre totaled 15 oz to equal the glorious Black Walnut dye. L→R we had variety: flax/wool blend; a silk hankie’s worth and; wool/mohair/alpaca blend handspun yarns. They all soaked in water for an hour.
It’s true that the (so not) Evil Michelle let me sail past the messy part of preparing the husks. Still, I heeded the words of Elizabeth Fahey in the Fall 2010 issue of Spin-Off:
…As we handle the fresh nuts and husks, our hands are stained dark brown and our fingernails are black. The substantive dye in the black walnut husk is ready to ooze out and stain anything it touches. This is the dye that is my delight…
Between the family wedding, and my formica counters, I decided the best plan was to dye outdoors for once. The aha! moment was when I realized the gas BBQ was my heat source!
Now, my patience has its limits. I needed something else to do outside while heating, dyeing and cooling was under way. That’s how I came to:
Add value to an eBay Purchase
Hidden deep in my stash was this 6.8 oz/ 192 g of vintage flax. You know when you make “just one bid” late at night on eBay? That.
Naturally, my ears perked up when Harriet Boon demonstrated how you improve on flax this June at the Ontario Handspinning Seminar. Putting not-great flax through a hackle helps immensely. Traditional processing involves 6 – 10 passes between finer & then finer hackles (The Intentional Spinner, p. 14). Did the Pennsylvanian farm have access to so much equipment before this flax got bundled and hung in an attic?
I came away from the Seminar understanding better than before these 2 important principles:
- Short of mold or fire, sound flax never dies – it is a timeless fibre; and
- Well prepared fibres offer a better spinning experience.
It was worth a try – this flax had not been through industrial equipment, and took a huge amount of labour over time to be produced. Plus, my Forsyth fine stationary comb looks a lot like a hackle.
Warning: don’t use a kitchen chair with any array of sharp, stainless steel tines. Really. That would be unsafe. I don’t recommend it at all – ever.
The how: I lashed each bundle of flax by hand, and pulled through the tines. The moving comb is just pinning that bundle down.
What happened was stunning. Each of 3 passes sent chaff, dust, and brittle pieces of stem flying. The fibres literally lightened and shone. The first pass gave the longest fibres, and yielded 4.9 oz/ 127g. The second pass gave 18 g, and the third 12g. Tow that didn’t fly away was 27 g, and I kept that too.
The Black Walnut dyeing was so fantastic that I decided to finally tackle the onion skins next. I soaked 160g of skins overnight. The 50 g of handspun merino, and 31g Tussah silk top got alum & cream of tartar mordant overnight as well.
The onion skins gave a surprisingly vibrant colour but spots of the silk top resisted the dye in its bundle.
The Horned Dorset skein (right, overhang) was 48g dry. I dyed it a few days later in the exhaust bath.
This was my first time dyeing commercially prepared fibre. The Tussah silk top looks a bit compacted but should be spinnable.
Dad brought me this bag of lovely yellow ginger. As long ago as August 2012, I worked with a small amount of this dye with really strong results.
It is first cured by boiling, dried for a week, chopped and then ground – a lot of work! I got a granite mortar & pestle from a local Home Goods store.
The Horned Dorset yarns are slowly making their way into a colourwork project! I started the dye process this Monday by curing the new batch of Jamaican Yellow Ginger.
The roots are so fragrant. Sasha’s right: this is like cooking. I am learning how to build the flavour of my yarn in different ways, that’s all.