Thursday, June 26, 2014

roots, leaves, and shawl

a.k.a. madder status! I've got a jarful of dried madder roots, tucked away on a shelf for the season ...

... and a barrel-ful of madder plants, which regrew so fast after the harvest that it's overtaken this corner of the garden once again ...

... and a madder-dyed shawl on my knitting needles. Not from my own madder, since this spring got away from me and I never managed to haul out the ol' dye kettle. But honestly this is even better: a vibrant semi-solid yarn from A Verb for Keeping Warm.

I'm using it to knit yet another Vermont Shawl.  And the most fabulous news of all is that I'll have a chance to finish it when I'm back in my beloved Vermont for the summer! Road trip to come ... 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Madder Part 2: root size experiment

My oh my, has it really been three months since I posted about digging up madder roots?   I had a whole series of blog posts planned where I'd test how different dyeing procedures affected the colors from the madder roots.  I haven't got to that yet, but what I did manage was a wee test of how root diameter affected the dye colors from fresh madder roots.  Here's where we left off ....

fresh madder roots, dug and washed

After digging up the roots and scrubbing off the soil, I let them dry overnight. The next morning, I went out to the shed and got out my dyeing equipment. I haven't touched it in a couple of years now, but it was wonderful to pull out the familiar gear and remember the good ol' glory days of dyeing.

dyeing thermometer, stained over the years by madder and cochineal

Next, I prepped yarn samples.  I have a cone of organic wool from Zen Sheep Farm that dyes beautifully, from which I cut a dozen lengths that were 10g in weight.  I mordanted these with alum and cream of tartar while I was getting the roots ready.

Step 1: cutting lengths of yarn to mordant

What I wanted to find out in this round of experimentation was how much of a difference the age/size of the roots makes in the dye color.  I sorted all the roots out into three categories: the largest roots were 3-4 years old, the medium roots were probably 2 years old (and a little thinner than a pencil), and the small roots were probably 1 year old.

Step 2: sorting root sizes

Then I chopped them up with a kitchen cleaver. The size differential is even clearer when the roots are sliced. The shadows in this snapshot make it hard to see, but hopefully it still gives you a sense of how much thicker and woodier the old roots are compared to the new roots. And also what rich, red colors came out of these roots!!  (FYI:  I haven't adjusted the color tone or saturation, so this is really what it looked like)

Step 3: slicing up the roots

For each category of roots, I measured out an even 350 g of the fresh madder roots. I read somewhere that the fresh weight is about 7 times the dry weight. So this would be equivalent to 50 g of dry roots, which would make for an incredibly saturated color on the 10 g yarn lengths. The whole point was to push the color to its max.

Step 4: weighing out the roots

Then it was time for dyeing!  For color tests, I use large mason jars in one pot of simmering water (see a photo from a few years ago here).  That way they all get the same temperature and timing.  In this case, I set up a jar for each root size category. I slowly brought them up to temperature (keeping it below 180 degrees so that the madder pigment doesn't turn brown). I plunked in the wet, mordanted yarn samples. I kept it at that slow simmer for an hour or two, then turned off the heat and let it soak overnight. Here's what I had the next morning:

Step 5: dyeing in mason jars

Ready to see the results? Drumroll please ...  and the result is that there was virtually no difference across the three root sizes. All of them turned this insane carrot color.

Step 6: shock and awe

If it looks like there's color variation in this photo it's just because the little yarn lumps have different angles that catch the sun a little differently.  In real life they're indistinguishable.

So there you have it: all my dye books said that madder roots must be at least 3 years old to get good color, but I didn't find a difference between the 1 year old roots and the 3-4 year old roots. I thought this was actually an interesting finding.

The only disappointment is that I'm really not into this crazy orange.  At least one of my dye books (can't remember which one now -- probably A Dyer's Garden) said that letting the roots age for at least a month will shift the colors, so I'm just letting the the roots dry and hang out for now.  Hopefully the next installment of this experiment won't take so long! 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

digging up fresh madder roots

Of all the natural dyes in the world, madder may be my favorite. I love its deep red-orange hues, its earthy aroma while simmering on the stove, even its finicky nature in the dye-pot.  It was natural that it would be one of the first plants I wanted to grow in my dye garden.

I planted the seeds in the spring of 2009.  Only one of the seeds germinated, but it turns out that's all it took.  In no time at all, it expanded to fill the whiskey barrel and then some! Every winter, I'd cut it down to the ground (if it hadn't already been killed down by a hard frost). In early spring, it would put out tons of fresh, green growth.

And by summer, it'd take over the rest of that corner of the garden with wild, scraggly, horridly scratchy stems several feet in length.  It was so aggressive, it overtook the barrel of mint next to it!  To be honest, it's always been a dreadful plant, but I kept it around because I was so darn excited about dyeing with the roots someday.

Well, dear readers, that someday has arrived!  I started out by burrowing my way down through this year's tangle of growth to peer into the roots ...

There they are. Not really so enticing when first encountered.  The vivid orange flesh of the roots isn't always visible from the outside. They just look like plain old roots until you scratch the surface a bit.

And digging them up turned out to be a delicate job. It turns out that the roots are quite brittle, quite brittle indeed.  Tugging on a root would cause it to break off an inch or two below, which meant that the rest of the root could get lost into the soil. So I ended up doing quite a lot of careful excavation, brushing away the soil with my hands and tracing out as much of the roots as possible before trying to lift them out of the barrel.

Here's that same root system after I dug it out. This one is the oldest plant in the barrel -- planted in May 2009, dug up in January 2014 -- and the center root was as thick as my thumb.  It snapped off from the rest of the root ball when I was digging it up, so I'm holding it here separately in my left hand (right side of the photo).  

After digging up the roots, it was time to give them a good scrub. Before their bath they were dirty and kind of dingy-looking ....

And after: gleamingly clean and beautifully orange. What a transformation!  I just plunged the whole pile in a bucket of water, grabbed a small handful of roots at a time, and rubbed them clean with my hands. They were beautiful in that late-afternoon Arizona sun.

As for the madder plant, it's going to bounce back in no time. I pulled out all the sizable roots in the center of the barrel, but I left plenty of small roots and shoots around the barrel's edge.  Madder sends out tons of runners, and there were little plants coming out through cracks at the bottom, too.  Since we had a mild winter here the plants are already getting ready to grow, grow, grow!

Next up, some initial dye tests with the roots! Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

winter colors

I'm home in Arizona for winter break. And -- ah!! -- it's such a breath of sunshine and bright color.   When my mom visited from Connecticut, we had such a laugh wandering around the citrus tree farm. Amidst the lemon and tangerine trees was a great flock of peacocks.  This is winter in Arizona! 

The next day, we went to the Desert Botanical Gardens to see the new Chihuly exhibit. It was magnificent: huge installations of brightly colored glass, some 5-10 feet tall, in the green desert foliage.

But best of all may have been the desert's own plants. 'Tis the season for blooming aloes here.  I can't get enough of them! Especially in the late angle afternoon sun, when they're lit up and aglow. 

I'm trying to drink it all in before I head back to California for the spring semester .... though I'll have a few fiber adventures to share with you before that time comes .... 

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

New hats on the Northwest road

Last week, Mountain Man and I drove north to spend Thanksgiving in Portland. We made a nice little roadtrip of it, splitting the drive each way into two civilized days on the road.  The first day we drove up to camp way up north on the California coast. We pitched our tent under a clear starry sky and awoke to a peaceful dawn along the Pacific ocean. 

Both of us had new hats to keep us warm. I had my Hoarfrost, and he had a new Cambridge Watchcap. Oh, yes, and a fuzzy dog to cuddle to keep warm, too! 

Along the way, we saw all kinds of wondrous woodland animals. Elk, owl, woodpecker.  Every time we spotted one of these creatures, it left me breathless with excitement.

Beautiful fauna as well. Ferns, moss, mushrooms EVERYWHERE. It was so wonderfully rich and earthy to walk in those Pacific Northwest woods.

Earthy ... and also chilly and damp. So those woolen hats were mighty necessary. Here's another picture of Mountain Man wearing his on a walk through Tryon Park in Portland. I love those biased, twisted ribs! The yarn is Quince & Co. Lark in a deep charcoal gray. 

Before we knew it, we had to head home to Berkeley. We spent one evening drive down to Ashland through farmland, bare trees, and a muted sunset. 

And on the last day, the last breath of freedom before heading back to the grind, were treated to beautiful views of Mount Shasta.

Thanks for coming along for the ride! And I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving, too. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

hoarfrost & moonrise

Quick note here to say: the hat, it is finished!  I've been wearing it every day this week. The mornings have been foggy, the evenings have a damp chill. It's the perfect Berkeley-in-November hat.

The pattern is hoarfrost. The yarn, a rustic DK wool that I bought some years ago. Deep stash. Damned if I can remember what it is.

Later that evening was the full moon rise. I don't have a tripod here, so it's just hand-held snapshots. A blurry glow behind the fig tree branches. But still sensational!

Thursday, November 07, 2013


I finally made it to Yosemite Valley. What glory to be there in early November, with the last glow of gold in the trees! The air was crisp. The bears were fat. The crowds were thin. It was heaven.

The funny thing was that the last time I wrote, I was on New Hampshire granite playing with a ball of gray wool. This time I'm on California granite doing the same!   Here I was on Saturday. As always, taking a sunny pause between climbs to get in a round of knitting. Looking here back at Half Dome (same rock as above). We climbed it the next day ...

But first, let's talk about the knitting! Remember that sweater I started this summer in Maine?  I'm still working on it. But it's boring. Real boring. So to give myself a break from that, I cast on for a slouchy hat in the same gray wool. 

The pattern is hoarfrost, which is a simple hat that starts in 1x1 ribbing and poofs out by transitioning to garter rib. It's rare that I buy a pattern this straightforward. Usually I just design my own hats. But it was kind of nice to dodder along following someone else's directions rather than having to think for myself.

This particular ball of yarn had already been knit up into a long shawl edging some years before.  The lace pattern is called Peri's Parasol. Quite a decorative stitch, as you can see. I'd cast on about six feet of it (!) but then abandoned the experiment.

So now it was being unraveled into my hat. Yes, I know I should have unraveled it and washed it ahead of time. No, I didn't care. I can't be bothered to do that sort of thing these days!  I just grabbed the edging and needles, downloaded the pattern on my iPhone, and headed into the mountains.

The big day of adventure (though less knitting) was on Sunday, when we headed up to Half Dome. The morning started with a few hours of hiking up to the base of the rounded southeast side of the dome.  Here's Mountain Man on the last push of the hike. You can see rock climbers as tiny dots on the rock face above to get a sense of the extreme scale of this landscape. 

The climb that we did was called "Snake Dike." It's a wild feature on the rock: a dramatic spine of harder rock that snakes its way upwards. Here's Mountain Man ahead of me on the climb ...

We got to the summit by the early afternoon -- and we had it all to ourselves.  It was unbelievable. Such peace to stand on the top of this incredible mountain, looking 5000 feet down into the valley, with no sounds except a peregrine falcon flying above. 

We descended off the steep northern slope. The Park Service has cables set up there. During the summer, they're turned into kind of a bannister with metal support poles. But this late in the season, the bars have been dissembled. The cables lay slack on the cold rock. It's definitely a bit harrowing to descend this way. 

But man, what a magnificent place to experience.  Here's my favorite shot of Half Dome, taken from Yosemite Valley in the last rays of sunset.