Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Blue Goes For Down (With Some Thoughts on Yarn Twist)

Summer either came to an abrupt end on the weekend or it went into a bit of a lull.  We're hoping for the latter, but the weekend was wet, cold, windy and, oh yes, did I mention it was wet?  And cold? And windy? Apart from teaching a yoga class, I stayed inside, sorting out my fibre room and tagging my dyeing experiments of the past two months. It was also a good time to knit, so I worked away on a new version of my Prairie Sunset Shawl, using the handspun I made from my Wacky Windmill purchases. I spun the yarn very firmly, more than you would expect for a knitting yarn made of BFL, but I know that my knitting style removes a bit of twist as I work, so I wanted to compensate for that. I'm pretty tough on my knitting and am not fond of wools which pill. Extra twist in the spinning and plying helps mitigate that. Washing in Eucalan and blocking tends to soften up the fibres.  I considered all these factors when spinning up the preparation, but if you handled the wrap now, you'd think I've overdone it with the extra twist. I may have done just that, but I'm looking for the upper limits on twist as it relates to comfort in this wrap.

The expectation these days is that yarn should be soft; that's true for next to the skin items, but softness comes with a cost, which usually means sacrificing some durability. Historically, yarns intended for daily duty were firmly spun and plied.  This included sweaters, hats, socks and gloves. Tight twist is common in weaving yarns, but if you ever have the opportunity to handle historical every day textiles, especially from countries as Peru, you may be surprised at the amount of twist and the tight knitting in the garments, which could block cold and wind and shed water. If you were making yarns for bags, there might be so much twist in the spinning and plying that a wool yarn could feel like barbed wire. The amount of twist might also be a design element, causing tracking or puckering in the weaving and deliberate skewing in the knitting.

The above photo shows the shawl in progress.  (I apologize for the slight blurriness of the pictures and the shift in the colours, which are far deeper and richer than I was able to capture today.  My photo skills this afternoon consisted of yelling at Morris to get out of the shot.) The stripes created by fractal spinning are working quite well.  The wrap will have a sideways knitted on border, so the striping should continue along the bottom edge. I'm knitting in garter stitch, so I expect the shawl to block out to nearly twice the size on the needles.

The small bag holding my shawl yarn is an experiment in working with overtwisted yarns.  I spun and plied Romney singles several times over to produce a yarn which is unwearable, but which wears well, so it's perfect for bags or rugs.  It's knitted in a twisted stitch to accentuate the yarn twist and it will not felt, despite several trips through washer and dryer. Unlike many of my other experiments, I expect this bag to outlast me.  By the way, it's dyed with indigo, lichen (the pink) and marigold in an iron pot (I think).  

Above the bag is my basket of yarns I dyed using the indigo vat.  With the shift in the weather, the vat has remained blue, even with the addition of more chemicals.  That usually means that the vat is too cold and since I can't bring it into the house or keep it warm outside, it may mean that I'm done with indigo dyeing for the year.  This is likely a good thing, since in addition to the yarns shown, I've dyed about 2 kilos of raw fleece and several metres of cotton and silk fabric. 

The lighter blue yarns in the next photo are the skein of commercial silk noil singles, commercial wool yarn and a commercial 2 ply alpaca.  The rest are skeins of hand spun singles and plied yarns, including wools, llama and alpaca, most of which have more twist than other spinners add, for the reasons listed above and the fact that some of them will go into tapestries.  Tapestry weaving produces a lot of wear and tear on the yarns, both in warp and weft.  You do not want your warp to break and, while tapestry wefts don't require as much twist, they do need to be able to withstand passing through the sheds and being packed into place. 

There's been a lot of buzz in the spinning community these days about the proper amount of twist required in hand spun yarns and the ways to accurately measure that twist once it's in there. Some spinners don't worry about twist control at all; they prefer to judge a yarn by sight and feel and skip the math all together.  Others concern themselves with precise details as to how much twist is required for any given yarn and cite all kinds of mathematical formulae and theories to support their claims to precision.  In between are most spinners, who may want to know a bit of twist theory, but don't want to get too bogged down in details.  It's a good idea to know the basics of twist calculation and yarn measurement (TPI, WPI, Angle of Twist, etc.), but the best way to determine what twist is required for which yarn is to experiment in the fibre preparation, spinning, fabric construction and finishing.  

My closest spinning friend (my closest friend in all things, really) tells her students to, "Assume nothing; Believe no one and Check everything."  That's excellent advice-you can read all you want about spinning, but in order to be a spinner, you must spin.  In order to know how to produce the yarns you want, you must practice and test every theory and assertion, no matter what you may have heard from any other spinner, including the masters.  Don't get caught by your own assumptions, either.  What you think you know is not always so. 

In the end, spin for joy and practice for the pleasure of the practice, then apply what you've learned.  Once you're comfortable with what you know, challenge that knowledge.  It's easy to become comfortable with our own certainty, but as Pema Chodron tells us, the trick is to be comfortable in uncertainty. The truth is out there, maybe, but it may not be what you think it is.


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Indra's Net, Reaching Higher: Practical Ethics in Textiles

My last post talked about one author's attempts to align her ethics with her passion for fashion. For many years, looking stylish has been very far down on my list of priorities; ethical sourcing, comfort and durability are the things I look for when buying clothing. (I hope those who know me were sitting down when they read that, because I realize a statement like that from me comes as a horrible shock.) I'm all about wearing natural fibres, as close to the source of the plant as I can get. I'm fortunate, in that I can spin those fibres and shape them into cloth, but for most people, this is not an option and, even for me, wearing only what I've made myself would leave me very scantily clothed indeed. No one wants that. Although I am not given to wearing runway fashion, I do like to to be presentable and wear attractive, casual clothing which meets the higher priorities on my purchasing list.

With current economies structured the way they are, it's virtually impossible to "do no harm;" every choice we make as textile consumers has a cost.  Sometimes, the best we can do is aim for "least harm." As I continue to research textile fibres, I've come to believe, for the moment at least, that hemp fibres and textiles are among the best sources for ethically produced clothing. You can click on the italicized links for more information, but here's a good summary (with a bit of advertising adornment thrown in) of why people might want to consider wearing hemp:

Hemp, the first and strongest natural fibre to be cultivated, is considered to be nature's most valuable, versatile and reusable natural resource. Unlike cotton, hemp can be grown in most any conditions without chemicals and pesticides for uses such as clothing, paper, food, medicine and cosmetics. It has long been known that hemp fabrics provide many distinct advantages such as comfort and feel, easy care and excellent durability. Hemp's resistance to mildew and bacteria as well as its high protection performance against UV rays means wearing hemp benefits both skin and health. ("Why Hemp?" Clothing Label, Effort Industries Inc., Toronto, Canada)

Unfortunately for many of us, hemp products can be difficult and expensive to find, so it's wonderful to find local shops which specialize in ethically chosen and sourced goods with products you like. One of these is Hemp Haven. Not only does this small shop supply hemp clothing, fabric, yarn and other products, Travis, the owner, is also a fibre craftsperson who specializes in crocheting hemp hats for sale in the store. While the hats are made from 100% hemp yarn, pure hemp clothing is rare, so most consumer can only buy hemp/cotton blends. (Look for blends made from organic cotton.) The clothing sold in this store is made from heavy, closely woven or knitted fabric, at very reasonable prices.  (A bunny hug/hoody costs around $40; prices for T-shirts range from $25 for short sleeves to $30 for longer sleeves, comparable to what women pay in many retail chain stores for often shoddy goods.) The fabric is extremely durable-pants and T-shirts I bought 3 years ago, wear regularly and launder without particular care still look good.

Travis doesn't maintain a website and told me he has no plans to start one. He prefers to keep his shop small and local, so you'll have to do a bit of homework to buy from him. There are shops like Hemp Haven across the country and you'll find hemp products in unusual places-the first hemp clothing I bought was in a yarn shop in Revelstoke-so if you're looking for casual, durable and ethically sourced products, do some research and you'll be pleasantly surprised at the growing number of suppliers. If you're interested in high end style, hemp fabrics are increasingly used by fashion designers, although the farther away you move from the retailer and supplier, the more difficult it becomes to determine whether or not your products are ethically produced, so keep that in mind when you make your purchases.

The world has lost several respected and admired people in the last few days; yesterday, one more was added to the list: the great guru of yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar died at the age of 96. These spirits came from disparate paths in life and worked in vastly different fields, but I see some important connections among all of them. Each of them, Spirits Living in a Material World, lived Life to the fullest, explored their interests to their highest potential and took their practice out into the world for the benefit of others. I've paid personal tribute to one of them; none of the others need my words added to the outpouring of respect and love heard round the world, but it is from people such as these (and many more who are close to me) that I build my own practice and make an effort to apply it for a larger purpose, although I will never be more than a shadow following in the shadow of Great Spirits. All of us can walk in the footsteps of giants and we can begin by taking our best baby steps towards an ethical approach to our daily choices.

Washcloth knitted from hand spun 100% hemp fibres.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Indra's Net: The Ethics of Fashion and Textiles, A Book Review of Greta Eagan's "Wear No Evil" was passed on in wills,...or used in political power plays between rival rulers.
Living as we do in a post-industrialized world, fabric has become ubiquitous and inexpensive. Most of us are very distant from its production, and the magic of cloth-making has thus for the most part become invisible; few who have not witnessed the laborious processes and multiple steps that go into making even the simplest cloth realize what treasures they be wearing or hold in their hands. ("Why Textiles Matter," in Textiles: The Whole Story, by Beverly Gordon, preface, p. 6)

One of the joys in my yoga practice is discovering ways to take that practice out into the world.  (That's how this blog came into being-as an exploration in combining the things I love into a cohesive, if somewhat inconsistent, way of living.)  One of the joys in practising at my yoga studio is that there is a focus on teaching and practising yoga as more than asana/poses and exercise.  This philosophy and the connections it brings pop up in unexpected, often delightful ways. You might think that it would be quite a leap to connect my love of textiles and yoga, but yoga philosophy is full of textile imagery.  We speak of the sutras, literally, threads, most familiar to us in Patanjali's works of yoga philosophy. In Vedic traditions, there is the metaphor of Indra's Net which expresses the interconnection of the universe.

The other evening, as I was wrapping myself up in my stay-away-from-the-sun garb, Scott, a teacher at Bodhi Tree Yoga, and I discovered that we shared some common interests in textiles, namely, a love for the master of draped design in fashion, Mariano Fortuny, and the artist/fashion designer, Erte. We chatted a bit about Fortuny's passion for pleats and the Erte paper doll books we both had, but had never had the heart to cut out of the books.

Those who know me now may be surprised (and very amused) about my hidden passion for fashion.  My current style is, ahem, casual, bordering on sloppy a good part of the time. People sometimes comment on my clothing, but it's usually to point out that my skirt is tucked up in my underwear or that I seem a bit overdressed when the weather's hot.  (The sun and I have an agreement.  He can shine as intensely as he wishes; I will either stay inside or cover up in a tent when I go walk about during the days he feels like displaying his glory.)  Once upon a time, being fashionable mattered to me.  Now, not so much.

A few things happened to bring this about: I had children.  It was somehow sadder to scrape poop and baby puke off silk clothing than it is to launder cotton T-shirts. I switched jobs to work in an art centre, where dressing up was not only not necessary, it could be downright hazardous. One should not wear long, flowing outfits when working around hot stoves and with moving equipment. Keeping up to date costs money; as a stay-at-home mom working as an artist, I had lots of creative opportunities, but no money.  I was making cloth or string every day and the more I delved into the history of the textiles I was shaping and decorating, the more my conscience began to poke at me about the way we undervalue and waste the fabrics we wear and use.

Because of the intense labour required to produce them, textiles have always had an ugly underbelly lurking below their glorious surfaces.  Textile production has supplied employment for much of humanity. While in many cases, such as tapestry weaving, the technical and design skills required to make cloth were honoured and respected and a skilled weaver could command decent compensation, unfortunately, so many people were needed to spin and weave in order to keep the world supplied with the materials required for every facet of life from clothing to sails, that yarn and cloth production did and does rely heavily on slave and child labour, low wages and hazardous working conditions. The demand for cheap cloth has resulted in a loss of land for food production and the heavy use of pesticides and water.  (Cotton requires some of the most voluminous use of pesticides and water known to humankind.)  We have to wear clothing, especially in climates like mine, so what do we do when our consciences, our yoga practice, conflicts with our desire to look stylish, or if not stylish, at least presentable?

Greta Eagan thinks she has found part of the answer to that question.  Her 2014 book, Wear No Evil: How to Change the World with Your Wardrobe, provides a guide to ethical practice in buying clothing.  By using the ethical guidelines most important to the reader, Eagan helps you to set up what she calls the Diamond System of choosing fabrics and clothing to transform you from an unmindful clothing consumer to an "Eco-Citizen" to an "Eco-Warrior," into an "Eco-Guru." The book is basic, written in that familiar self-help style found in bookstores everywhere; if you're looking for a place to start practising ethical fashion, Eagan's system can help.

What I like about this guide:

  • The first chapters in which Eagan discusses the shift from cloth and fashion as luxury for the rich into mass production of cheap, disposable fabrics provide a lot of information on how the clothing and fashion industry exploits labour for profit. She also provides statistics on pesticide use and water waste in textile production.  
  • Eagan's Integrity Index compares fibres and processes in order to help the reader develop an understanding of the various factors competing for our attention in choosing ethical clothing.  She isn't afraid to challenge assumptions-her discussion of animal leather versus vegan leather/pleather is in itself worth a read.
  • Her applied system for buying clothing ethically can be personalized to the buyer's priorities.  The system is simple enough to apply as you buy.  There's no need to flip through pages of choices when something catches your eye in a shop or online. 
There are a few problems with the information presented in Wear No Evil, including the implication that textiles made from bamboo, soy, corn and milk are "natural" products. While these products may have originated from plants or animals, the chemicals and processes used to transform them into cloth leave them with no resemblance to their original sources. The textile industry played so fast and loose with labelling bamboo products as green and natural that many countries now require labels specifying that bamboo cloth is "rayon/viscose produced from bamboo."  There is much debate about the ethics of moving products which supply much of the world's population with food into clothing and fuel production.  Currently, soy, corn and milk "fibres" don't make particularly good fabrics; corn dissolves under fairly low heat and both soy and milk products break down quickly, which may help out in landfills, but which encourages more waste.

Eagan's statement about Ahimsa/ethical silk is downright silly: " Regular silk production kills the silkworms in the process. Look for Peace Silk to ensure that the garment you are purchasing is made without harming the silkworms so they can go on producing more gorgeous fabric for you (p. 52)."  While it's true that the chrysalis inside a silk cocoon is stifled to prevent the moth from breaking the silk filaments, only some of the hatching moths go on to mate before they starve to death because they have reduced or no mouth parts and do not feed. It's also debatable whether or not the ethical silk you're buying is actually that; as is sometimes the case with "Green" labelled products, some manufacturers have been known to call their silk "ethically produced" when what they're selling is regular silk with value added by the addition of that ethical description. 

As a natural dyer, one of my pet peeves is the use of some food products for dyeing. Eagan does a good job of explaining the processes involved in using natural products as colouring agents; however, she promotes designers who use such things as berries for colour on their textiles.  Berries produce stains, not dyes which bond to the fabrics; as such, they are better used as food.

Aside from these issues, Eagan's book gives great advice, listing forward thinking designers and fashion brands working towards ethical practices and style advice for both men and women.  Eagan also has a website: Wear No Evil, with updated newsletters.

Yoga teaches us that everything is linked, that the choices we make affect all that is in this world and beyond.  It can be a daunting, if not impossible task, to take the steps which allow us to move our yoga into the world, to mindfully choose the threads which bind us to each other and the universe. We don't have to do it all at once; our thoughtful choices, woven together one by one, can work to weave a beautiful cloth of harmony and ethical practice. Through our practice,  Indra's Net links us all; Wear No Evil can help us get there.   

Eagan's book is available in bookstores or at your local public library.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

When Great Spirits Soar: In Memory of Edward Tabachek

I met Edward Tabachek decades ago when a package with an unfamiliar name and return address arrived at my house.  Inside, was a small wooden bowl and a brief, very polite note from the sender who was beginning to make spinning equipment.  Would I please test this bowl for him and let him know if it worked for supported spinning?  It was a lovely bowl. I wrote the maker a return post thanking him for the gift and asking him to let me know if he had more fibre equipment to test and/or sell.

Some time after that, I was at a spinning conference in Alberta when a container of toy wheel spindles at one of the vendor booths caught my eye.  "Chatterworks" spindles were pretty and selling at the remarkable price of $10 each.  I bought one.  (One! Only one!)  I asked the vendor to tell me more about the spindle maker, but she was reluctant to do so.
She preferred to keep her supply source to herself-fair enough. For a long time, this spindle was my "go-to" portable spinning tool.  I sometimes wondered about the maker, but added him or her to the list of mystery spindle makers who did fine work, but remained anonymous.

A few years after that, at another Alberta conference, a different vendor had some lovely spindles for sale. The whorls were ebonized oak; the shafts were short, so that each spindle could fit into a pencil case, perfect for travelling. Once I tested that spindle, it stuck to my hand, so I bought one.  (One! Only one!)  This time, the spindle had a tag listing the name of the maker, Edward Tabachek, the same person who had sent me the spindle bowl several years back.

So began what turned out to be, for me, a significant, if mostly long distance, friendship. For many years, Edward and I communicated via snail mail, sending letters and packages back and forth, with brief notes about tools and function and spinning.  He would sometimes send me bowls at no charge and would never accept payment. Instead, he said that I could pay him in cookies, but since I didn't bake, I never did fill that request and opted to send him fibre for his own spinning.  I began collecting Edward's spindles at conferences or from Edward himself.  Although all of them were similar in style, every one of them was a thing of beauty. His wife, Jo-Anne, a Master Spinner, tested all his spindles for him, so that every spindle sold was a work of functional perfection.

We met in person at Olds Fibre Week when Jo-Anne was studying for her Master Spinners' Certificate. Edward would accompany her and they would pack spinning equipment in the back of their vehicle.  If you were lucky, Edward would invite you out to his vehicle or back to his townhouse for an opportunity to buy some spindles. Some years, I would forgo classes at Olds in favour of bringing my tapestry loom and hanging out in the Land Sciences Cafeteria, with Edward and several others who spun and chatted while their family members slaved over their levels.  Edward would spin and fix tools and assess the tools I used for my weaving.  He repaired one of my tiny finishing combs and commented that, "Next time, buy a better comb." He was passionate about making and using fine tools and never understood why women expressed guilt about the money they spent on fibres and equipment.  "You women are always worrying about what you spend on tools," he said to me one day. "I don't get that. You are professionals, doing what you love. You deserve the best fibres and the best equipment you can afford. Stop feeling guilty."  I took his words to heart and realized that money spent on good equipment, Edward's spinning equipment, was always money well spent. Edward was quietly confident in his work; when people compared his spindles to those made by others, his response was simply, "I'm not worried." Over the years, I've collected quite a few spindles, plain and fancy, by various excellent makers, but Edward's pieces are the ones I treasure and use the most.

A few years back, I heard that Edward had been diagnosed with cancer.  I sent him an email expressing my concern and we began a new chapter of our friendship, chatting back and forth about cancer, treatments and moving through the process of healing. We wrote about using yoga, meditation and spinning in healing and music, too.  Edward loved the cello, loved to play it and returned to it as he recovered his strength from surgery, chemo and radiation. He began making spindles again.

I phoned him a few weeks ago and Jo-Anne answered; Edward was out cruising Lee Valley Tools.  When he called me back, we talked about his plans for the summer and about one of his new Tibetan spindles which I had purchased at a retreat-would he make a matching bowl?  Of course, he would and, along with that, he would make some Tibetan spindles with shorter shafts for travelling. Soon after that, he sent an email telling me that his chemo was over. The doctors were optimistic and he was looking forward to getting back to his workshop, so I was happy to see his name pop up in my email this morning.  The message wasn't from Edward. It was from Jo-Anne, telling me that "her best friend and soulmate" had taken a turn for the worse.

Edward Tabachek died early yesterday morning. There will be no more bowls, no more spindles, no more cello playing, except in memory.  For Edward, there will be no more pain. I will miss him something fierce. My thoughts and best wishes go out to Jo-Anne in her sorrow.

I hope your Spirit soars high, Edward, where spindles are forever balanced and cellos sing in harmony. Thank you for your generosity, your encouragement and your talent.  Safe journey, my friend.  I hold you and Jo-Anne close to my heart.  I'll eat a cookie in your honour. Safe journey.

The first bowl and the last spindle

Edward modelling his and Jo-Anne's fibre work at Fibre Week 2013. Edward spun the wool; Jo-Anne knit the hat and Edward knit the scarf.

If you'd like to read more about Edward's spindles, click the link here for a previous post.


Monday, 11 August 2014

Indigo Blues: The Finale

Dyeing won out over the Folk Festival yesterday, although not completely, because I could hear the music from my house and was able to have a bit of the best of both worlds. This afternoon's dippings were an eclectic mix of cotton and silk fabrics, pre-dyed Corriedale fleece, naturally coloured Gotland lamb fleece and some Finn wool top:

I played with the immersions, dipping parts of the fabric and the top while leaving other parts either undyed or with fewer dips.  The cotton had a total of 5 dips, including some partial immersions; the silk had a total of 4 dips:

I immersed the previously dyed Corriedale twice.  The Gotland fleece at the top left of the above photo shows its natural colours.  After 3 dips, the blues were like midnight:

Left to Right: Corriedale, darker Gotland in the middle, Corriedale, Finn wool top and the two pieces of cloth.

After the final dip and oxidation, I neutralized the protein fibres in vinegar and water and washed the fabrics in hot water and Sacred Earth bar soap.  (This locally made soap is fantastic; click on the link to learn more about it.)  The rinse water for the cloth ran clear in a couple of rinses, but the wool required washing in Synthrapol and hot water to stop the dye from running. The amount of colour in the water was amazing, but the rinse water ran clear. Because of that, I decided to re-wash the fleece which I'd dyed several days ago because I could not get the darker colours to stop crocking.  This time, I used Synthrapol (used for removing excess dye) in the wash water and it made all the difference.  The rinse waters cleared quickly and the crocking, if not completely gone, is at least minimized enough that I should be able to spin the fibres without turning into a Smurf. 

The overall effect on the cloth is a bit "old hippie," but parts of the fabrics are spectacular.  (I have nothing against hippies, old or new. It's just not a look I should revisit any time soon.)  

This small section of the cotton is a work of art in itself.  I'd like to say I planned it.  I'd like to say that, but I can't.  Well, I could, but it would be a lie. The piece reminds me of Kate Bush's lines in An Architect's Dream, "That bit there-it was an accident, but he's so pleased.  It was the best mistake he could make. It's my favourite piece; it's just great.":

The indigo kit stated that it should be used for dyeing cotton, linen, rayon and silk and it certainly dyed these fibres easily.  It works on wool, but with any indigo dye recipe I've used, the wool has crocked and continued to do so until the fibre has been stored away for some time.  As I mentioned before, crocking is not considered a flaw in traditional indigo cultures; however, where indigo was indigenous, the primary fibres dyed were usually cotton, linen and silks, so it's not surprising to get more light and wash fast colours on these materials. I'm pleased with the richness of the colours I dyed over the past 5 days and I will certainly use this kit again because the ease of use and the safety of the bath more than compensates for the extra work required in finishing the fibres.  This is everything I dyed since I first tested the bath:

The vat is still active and I'll continue to use it for the rest of the summer, but it's time to write about something else.  If another happy accident arises, I'll be sure to let you know. Another weekend over, another week begins and it's back to yoga, teaching, spinning and knitting. There are dogs to walk, cats to feed. Life is good.

Late last night, I looked for the Perseid Meteor Shower and wondered at the marvel of the sky. Blue Goes for Down everywhere we look.  Blue Goes for Down.


Sunday, 10 August 2014

Indigo Blues: The Dyeing Continues

We had wild thunderstorms on Friday evening and through the night.  Rain pounded the roof and the thunder rolled like tanks through my sleep. In the morning, there were bits of fir tree on the back deck, branches from the trees in the front yard.  All down the block, large limbs had snapped off trees and a couple of trees had toppled completely.  People posted amazing photos of the storm rolling in from the west; the skies were dark, dark, ominous indigo, set off by thick bolts of lightning.  Some areas of the city sustained heavy damage to their roofs, water in their basements and other misfortunes. Apart from some interrupted sleep, we were lucky.

It rained most of the morning yesterday, so I didn't wander down to the annual Folk Festival until noon.  The Festival is free all day, with paid admission to headliner events in the evening. The Farmers' Market and various food and merchandise vendors are there; I bought a gorgeous bag from Guatemala. (Have I ever met a bag I didn't like? Not many.)

I hoped to see the Indigo Girls in a workshop in the afternoon, but for reasons unannounced, they weren't there.  Instead, we heard Indigo Joseph (close enough) and a treat of Latin fusion groups, including Mexican Institute of Sound, Quique Escamilla, Andino Suns, along with Mo Kenney, Clinton St. John, and Leonard Sumner. Apart from Mo Kenney and Indigo Joseph, I hadn't heard of any of these people, let alone heard them play live, but I'm never disappointed with the music at Folk Festival and I wasn't yesterday.

I've attended Folk Festival for many of the years since it began; sometimes, I don't stay long because the crowds overwhelm me. People pack into the park, shoulder to shoulder, sometimes stacked one on top of the other (literally).  Often, I'm lucky to find standing room anywhere near the stages.  Here's what makes me check things out every year-in my experience, it's one of the few, if not only, times in this city when thousands of people come together and everyone is happy. People are kind.  Street people mix with suburbanites. Generations from a single family listen to music and dance together.  People see old friends and make new ones.  You can chat while the music is playing or you can listen attentively. Unlike sports events where opposition is required or other concerts where people can be utterly inconsiderate, Folk Festival is not like that. Much as I dislike the expression, "It's all good," it really is. I go to Folk Festival, despite the crowds and the rain or the beating sun and the mosquitoes-the swarms of dragonflies took care of that for us nicely-just to be among that community.  The Festival gives me hope for humanity, which is a rather sappy sentiment, but it's true.

What does any of this have to do with indigo dyeing? Well, after seeing all the brightly coloured tie-dyed pieces and fluid clothing yesterday, along with hearing a group called Indigo Joseph, I feel inspired to get back to my indigo pot.  I may head to the Festival later, but yesterday wore me out, so I've spent the morning binding cloth for dyeing.  I have an assortment of cotton and silk fabrics; some of it was naturally dyed several years ago and some of it is washed, but untouched.  The tied pink cloth in the photo is silk dyed with cochineal and the multicoloured fabrics are cotton. I've stitched some of it with nylon thread and tied off other sections with cotton string. To the left is the indigo dyed cotton from last week:

Everything is now soaking in hot water, along with a small batch of Corriedale fleece I dyed in the juice left over from a jar of sweet pickled beets.  The day will tell whether it is time for more folk music or time to shift from hearing music of the folk to working with cloth using a process with its roots grounded in folk history. Either way, I'll be among my people.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Blue Goes For Down Part 2: The Fun Begins!

I was out early this morning, checking the indigo vat.  The forecast was for thunderstorms, then wicked heat, then more storms later today; since I didn't want water pouring into my vat and adding oxygen, I thought it wise to do a test run with some fibres I had soaked for a few days. The vat was much darker than I expected, but I had done everything according to the instructions, so away I went. I skimmed the bloom from the vat, set that aside and began to dip:

Skeins of hand spun Churro singles soaking with washed Corriedale.

With an indigo vat, you do everything possible not to introduce oxygen into the mix.  You work slowly, introducing the fibres gently, holding them below the surface of the vat as you work the solution through your yarns and fibres. I was working alone, so I had no one to record the magic which happens as I pull fibre from the vat: the fibres are a sickly yellow green as they come out, but as soon as they hit the air, they begin to turn blue:

Churro singles after 1 dip and 5 minutes of oxidation.

I find that short, but not rushed, repeated dips are much better for the wool than fewer, longer soakings. (Various sources disagree on this; check the "crocking" link below.) Even though I'm not using lye in the bath, washing soda is not protein fibres' friend. Too many dips or too long in a dip and wool can get brittle very quickly.  Unless you are looking for light colours, you do need several dips because much of the dye is deposited on the surface of the fibres.  That surface dye doesn't bond, so washing can remove an incredible amount of colour. This bath seemed very strong:

Churro after 3 dips.

Corriedale fleece after a single dip.  The lighter colour on the right was the solar dyed goldenrod fibre, which was a disaster. Not enough dyestuff and too long a soak gave nothing but a stinky mess.

The fleece after 3 dips.
Next up was some cotton fabric which I had stitched with nylon thread for Shibori/resist dyeing (commonly known as "tie dyeing").  The cotton shows the colour shifts which happen with oxidation.  This is a single dip; I immersed the cotton 5 times as the chemicals do not harm cellulose fibres:

The dye won't penetrate where the fabric is stitched.
Since everything was going so well, I put more fibres to soak, including a skein of commercial alpaca yarn, 2 skeins of commercial wool yarn, a skein of hand spun Romney which had been dyed with marigolds, some white Romney locks, white Gotland lamb fleece and some commercial wool top. The commercial skeins and the marigold Romney were dipped twice, as was the fibre.  I barely wetted the wool top, which should give a resist effect to the fibres.

After everything is dipped for the final time, protein fibres go into a neutralizing bath of vinegar and water. Everything gets repeated washes with soap and countless rinses until the water runs clear.  It takes more time to remove the excess dye than it does to do the dyeing and I'm not done yet.  The dye still rubs off on my hands (crocking).  While this is considered an attractive feature in countries where indigo is indigenous, it doesn't look so lovely on my skin, nor will I be happy if I turn blue every time I weave or knit or spin with the stuff. The fibres must be finished with a simmering bath of water and Synthrapol. Either that, or I can follow Michele Wipplinger's advice and put everything in a dark closet for a year before using it, which actually works quite well and may happen yet.

This is today's work. (The Gotland, Romney and wool top are still soaking in the neutralizing bath.) The fabric is quite lovely and the darker colours are a true, deep, rich indigo blue, although my limited photography skills don't do them justice:

On the left is the goldenrod soaked Corriedale, with the white Corriedale to the right.
As long as the bath is well-maintained, it can last a very long time, so I added more thiourea dioxide, returned the bloom to the vat and sealed it up for another day.

Just as I finished cleaning up this morning, the skies opened with a thunderous, flashing downpour of rain.  I tell myself that it was Sky Spirit, weeping at the beauty of the colours she had given to the people of the Earth.  For that, I am most grateful.


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Blue Goes For Down: Working with Indigo

In the long ago and far away when High God left the earth, he went to live in the sky. The sky was close to earth in those days, so close it rested on the hills and mountains and sagged into the valleys.. . . The sky did more for man in those days than to shade him and to house the spirits.  Bits of sky could be eaten.  This was different from other foods. Rice and palm oil fill the belly. Sky fills the heart.. . . It was dangerous business, this eating of cloud. One had to come to cloud-food pure in thought and body.  Even so, one could become cloud-drunk, sweetly drunk and unknowing.  This is what happened to Asi, the seeress of Foya Kamara.
Asi came to the banks of the stream that flows past the town.  She came with her girl child tied on her back under a pure white lappa of country cloth. Asi walked calmly, her head high and straight as she neared the altar because one does not rush with unseemly haste to a sacred place.. . . After she had spread her lappa on the earth and made a cushion of leaves under it to soften the place for her child, she walked without clothes to the bank of the stream.. . . One could look down into the deep pools and see the beautiful blue color of the sky lying there in the sacred wetness.   
Asi had eyes and heart that were hungry for color.. . . "Perhaps," thought Asi, "if I eat enough sky, the blue will come to my skin from within me.  With luck, my hair will be thunder-blue." . . . Asi shuddered then because she knew that a seeress must not beg anything for herself at the holy pools; one must ask only for the entire people of the village.. . .Fear shook her body as she carried water for the rice.. . ."I will eat some sky now to make my heart lie down and be still," Asi told herself. Reaching up, she broke off a strip of sky as long as a plantain leaf and began to feed her lonely heart.  With the first swallow of sky, beautiful thoughts filled Asi.. . . She saw that her baby was asleep on the white lappa.  Asi was free to eat just one more bit of sky while the rice cooked.  (Esther Warner Dendel, Blue Goes For Down: How indigo dye came to Liberia-a folk tale)
Asi pays a high price for her longing for blue. Drunk from sky-eating, she falls asleep; her sacred offering burns and as punishment, her baby dies and wets the white lappa, which turns blue at that spot. As Asi cries and covers herself in ashes of mourning, the water spirit tells her that the blue spot comes from the leaves Asi laid down for her baby's comfort. In order for the blue to stay, it must be mixed with urine, salt and ashes. This, the spirit explains, is why the baby's spirit had to leave her body; without the salt of Asi's tears and the ashes of mourning, blue could not stay on the earth. Water spirit sends Asi away with the secret of blue, telling her that it is a sacred duty to guard the indigo.  Only women too old to bear children should handle the indigo pots. (EWD, in Natural Plant Dyeing, Blue Goes For Down, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, l973)

The mystery of who first discovered how to release that rich, deep blue from the green leaves of the Indigofera tintoria plant is lost to us, but we know that indigo is one of the oldest dye plants.  It was used in ancient India, Greece, Rome and Africa, in Japan, Britain and Peru and can be tracked back to Mesopotamia in 7 BCE. The mystery of indigo deepens because, not only must the colour be released through fermentation of the leaves with oxygen kept out of the vat, the colour develops upon exposure to air. Dip your fibre or fabric into the clear blue-green liquid and the colour changes magically from greeny yellow to a rich blue. Darker blues require repeated dips.

I set up my indigo vat last night.  Most modern dyers use indigo in powered form; my vat is made from a partially pre-reduced indigo powder which requires fewer, less harsh chemicals. After mixing the liquid, the colour in the vat is a dark blue, which should change into a clear mixture as the vat sits overnight.  That coppery blue shine in the centre of the vat is the "flower," or "bloom," concentrated indigo which is scooped from the vat and set aside during dyeing, then added back to the vat to keep it working:



This morning, the vat has a full flower on it, but it's a deeper blue than I had hoped.  I'll check it again once the day has warmed; indigo works better with some heat.  If the dye liquid hasn't shifted to a clear green, I'll add more chemicals and do a test dip. I will be patient, for as Asi knew, "One does not rush with unseemly haste to a sacred place." 
 High God, after having let women have the secret of blue for their clothes, pulled the sky up higher where no one could reach up to break off a piece for food.  People look on the blue of fine cloth and have less need of a near sky, even though in their hearts they will always remain lonely for God. (EWD, Blue Goes For Down)


Monday, 4 August 2014

I Lichen Like That, II: The Results

It's a cool, misty morning. Our annual Exhibition is over and in typical Prairie tradition, there's a hint of fall in the air.  Officially, there are weeks of summer to come, but August means that those remaining warm days can be matched by night frosts any time now. It seems like a good time to empty the dye pots and shift gears.

I managed to get two dyebaths from the boiling lichen experiments.  The first, on washed Corriedale fleece in a stainless steel pot without additional mordants, produced a green-yellow, which will be a good counterpoint to some of the brighter colours I uncovered this summer:

When I was finished with the first bath, I poured the liquid into a cast iron pot with the lichens, boiled the water several times, added a small amount of washed Corriedale fleece and simmered that a couple of times. The second colour has a brown cast to it:

The colours would be more intense had I used more lichen or less fleece, but I wanted to reserve my remaining lichens for future experiments with ammonia baths or different fibres.  These subtle colours can be blended with brighter ones, used for contrast or overdyed.

My plan now is to set up the grand finale of dye pots: an indigo vat.  Indigo is not soluble in water; the plant must be processed and the dye extracted in a reduction bath, which involves working with chemicals such as lye. Traditionally, stale urine, preferably from males, was used in place of the lye.  I've used a urine bath a couple of times-it's a long, slow process waiting for the urine to ferment and the males in my household were not overly cooperative about supplying their services.  It's much easier to use other chemicals and I have some pre-reduced indigo on hand, which means that much of the work has been done for me, so I can set up a bath in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks.  Whatever the process, an indigo vat is worth the wait. No other dyestuff gives the spectacular blues obtained from working with indigo:

Some samples of indigo dyed wools from previous baths-the colours are richer and more vibrant than shown here.  The skein is a 2 ply hand spun yarn after 6 to 10 dips in the vat.  The middle singles took fewer dips, while the singles in the bottom row were onion skin and marigold dyed, then over-dyed with indigo.
That's the plan, but indigo vats are best kept outdoors, so I have to wait until the weather warms and I have time to work the pot. I noticed that the goldenrod in the front yard is blooming; while I'm waiting, I may set up another pot with the flowers from that.  Perhaps I'm not ready for my final act of dyeing after all.


Saturday, 2 August 2014


If I dare not speak
Who will listen?
If I do not break my silence, the Silence
Who will break?
If I do not speak, who will listen
To the cries of children, screaming, weeping?
Who will speak to this horror?
You, in anger, bullets flying, hatred flashing?
You, in ignorance, sunning yourself 
In your garden, as the fires beat and walls crumble
In a child’s garden, in a faraway land?
Ssh!  Say nothing.
Cover your ears as the whistle calls an awful silence
Just before the lights flash
Just before the bombs strike
Cover your eyes, cover your mouth
Before the dust and ashes rise
Before the blood runs.
Talk is cheap; this war is just
One among many 
Who will speak if not for me?  

(M E 2014)