Wednesday, September 10, 2014

there and back again: a summer story

Well. It's autumn now, far past the time when I should be telling my summer stories. But I've clearly gotten off the blogging wagon these days -- so I guess it's better late than never.  And what a summer it was, criss-crossing the country!

We started off in Santa Fe ...




 Magical Santa Fe, where we picked bundles of sagebrush and headed east. 

Through the Oklahoma panhandle, with big horizons and a stunning sunset. 



Into the green fields of corn country


And finally up the Northeast corridor 


To the Green Mountains of Vermont. Our happy place. 




Actually, Isis's happy place! 
Nothing she likes better than to cruise around the lake in the evening


It was a working vacation -- lots of writing during the day. 
But punctuated by hiking and wild blueberries



Turtle-catching in the canoe



Excursions up to the beaver pond (can you spot the little critter?)






And, yes, there was knitting
(I think I'll leave the story of that for another post, though)


But all too soon, there was a chill in the air 
telling us that summer was turning into fall.


So it was time to head home.
First down to DC, to visit family and stretch our legs at Great Falls.


Southward through the rolling hills of Virginia and Tennessee



Out through the small towns of Arkansas, 
on the hunt for legendary pie



And then, just like the like, the green hills gave way to rangeland
Big skies, dry fields, train tracks. 




(And a night in a haunted hotel in New Mexico!)


 On the last day, we made one last stop -- again for pie. 
Pie Town, NM


And then we were home in the desert.


So there you have it -- the last few months laid out in photos. I've got projects to share.  Knitting, whittling, mending, kombucha-brewing. Hopefully I'll get to them in the coming weeks. I do miss blogging in some ways, miss the connection with the community here. It's just that I've so much to do with work these days that taking the time to reflect with photos and words ends up feeling like another item on the to-do list sometimes. Will try to get the spirit back! 

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.