Like many others who used to blog, my instagram account, Amber_Dusick, has been fulfilling the role of sharing so all of these old projects have already been posted there.
However, I plan to start using this space again. Not really as a blog, I think we're well beyond the days of blogs being places of community where people interact and have conversations in the comments. Who has time these days? Social media fulfills that role so much more efficiently. No, I'll be using this space to keep records on projects. An archive of where I was and what I did there. What worked and what didn't. (After all, who knows what will happen to instagram when the next thing comes along?)
In 2016 I started dabbling with natural plant dyes from my own suburban Los Angeles yard. No heat, just tap water + plant materials + a bit of alum mordanted wool yarn in each glass jar. I didn't think it would work. It worked! I wove my tiny, precious samples into a strap for a bag that never got made. It has sat now for four years in a chest, protected from light.
From the blue on the very bottom going up: Scarlet flax petals, CA poppy leaves, Ceanothus blossoms, purple African daisies, White sage, Oxalis petals, Apple tree leaves, black sage, rosemary, apple tree bark, orange peels, brown onion skins, CA poppy roots and yarrow leaves.
I played around with more dyes that same summer, mostly from my own yard but also experimenting with the eucalyptus from down the street.
And then, six months later in autumn of 2016...we moved! New state, new yard, new climate, new plants.
I went from a tiny suburban Los Angeles yard where I knew every inch to over 26 acres of woods, prairie, marsh, a seasonal stream and a river in rural Wisconsin. What WERE all these plants? It was overwhelming.
In the midst of house renovating and getting to know the area and trying to find community (as if any one of these things doesn't take up enough time) I committed to getting to know my new land and the plants within it.
That first year (2017) I dyed and I dyed and I dyed. In the process, I identified hundreds of plants that were formerly unfamiliar to me. I learned about them too. So many are medicinal that it fueled my interest in herbalism at the same time. I also began planting some specific dye plants and put in a madder bed which will finally be ready for a first tiny harvest this summer!
All those hundreds of samples were woven into a blanket. A record of how I learned the language of plants on this land I call home.
Every single color was from a plant on my land. All of the wool samples were mordanted with alum. The wool used was from 12 different small Wisconsin farms. Wool from Wisconsin, plant dyes from Wisconsin.
This blanket is heavily used in our house, it is one of our sofa throw blankets and at this very moment is on top of my youngest son who has a cold. The sofa is directly under two skylights and the room gets a lot of indirect sunlight. In looking at these photos from early 2018 and now, two years later, it is still just as beautiful, cat snags and all. The most noticeable fading is in some of the vibrant yellows (though not the goldenrod, which is still just as alarmingly yellow) however, it's hard to tell since there are so many different colors going on. I never expected this to be colorfast and honestly, that wasn't the point. This was purely a process project for me and certainly not something I was intending to sell.
I was a little sad I took no notes though, some of these colors I wanted to replicate, so in the summers of 2018 and 2019 I redid this "dye with all the plants" project, but this time kept a dye journal and took notes.
So now I have hundreds of samples tucked away in my dye book, which itself became an ongoing project. I also have been including food and medicinal recipes, drawings and other notes among the pages.
Then in late 2018 I couldn't get this idea of "what if I only could use items from my land, exclusively" out of my head and since I don't raise sheep I switched to working with linen. Which of course led to growing my own flax to make linen which I did in 2019 (couple photos below) but more on this later.
Except there is that tricky part of needing mordant for cellulose fibers, like linen. I've got the tannin covered thanks to staghorn sumac that lines one whole side of my land along the road but what about alum? No symplocos growing around here. Hmmmm
Well then I figured I could skip true mordanting and do the soy milk assist instead. So I grew soybeans, though nearly all of the seedlings were eaten in spring by sandhill cranes so I didn't get to use any for dyes.
Then I wondered if acorn milk could do the same thing. Oaks are everywhere in my woods and acorns are abundant. I remembered processing acorns back in 2010 and how I had to leach out the tannins. So what would an acorn milk do that is both high in tannins and has protein? Acorns aren't nearly as high in protein as soybeans though, soybeans have about 6 times more protein than acorns. Still, would it work to help capture more color?
It did work! The comparison samples (not shown but they are on instagram) of plain linen versus acorn milk assisted linen were vastly different with the acorn linen being much more vibrant and saturated in color. By the way, the linen above is not my own homegrown linen, at this point my flax was still just growing but more on my flax to linen project later.
That same summer (2019) I grew Japanese indigo for the first time.
I also explored a bit more with making things using the plant dyed yarn and linen, rather than just creating materials.
This bag was all plant colored. Even the leather straps were rubbed with vinegar and since I make my own apple cider vinegar this still counts, but who's counting, right?
I used this as my main purse for many months. Most of the stripes (indigo is fine as well as the goldenrod with indigo over it - those look the same) have faded considerably! They are still beautiful, but much paler versions of themselves. I knew it would fade as will most anything I make with my plant dye experiments and this is completely fine for personal use.
Nobody should mess about like I do and then try to sell textiles without doing their own lightfastness tests. In my own testing, other than the indigo, goldenrod, walnut and sumac/iron I've dyed with, NONE of my many, many beautiful colors I've made would be suitable for selling items.
I cringe when I see items like clothing or bags selling using plant dyes that will fade. I mean, I get it, plant dyes are like no other, the colors seem "alive" when you see them on textiles so they are intoxicating. The popularity of natural plant dyes is still growing and will continue to grow until their reputation is ruined, which is something that concerns me and I predict will start to happen. That pretty blue organic black bean onesie ("so natural against baby's skin" I imagine the copy to read) will turn a dingy grey within a month. Would the customer be happy and still singing the praise of plant dyes then?
It's hard to accept, but there really are only a handful of "classic" plant dyes that are worth using in items meant to last. For personal use, for "get to know the land and plants" projects? It's all open. There is beauty in the ephemeral colors too.
As for me, I'll continue to explore with the classics a bit. My first madder harvest will be this summer and I have plenty of homegrown indigo pigment (and even bags of dried leaves still) to play with.
I've closed comments on this blog as I don't have time to check them and was getting slammed with spam comments. You can connect with me via instagram Amber_Dusick and I'm happy to answer questions there.