Local Color At Sievers

One warm, sunny October day in the mid-1990’s, I fell in love with Washington Island. I was in Jo Campbell-Amsler’s willow backpack class at Sievers, and we left the studio to weave at what is now called Percy Johnson Park. 

Now I take my own students there when I teach a Sievers class called Local Color. The class combines field trips, natural dyeing, photography and digital imaging, and printing and embellishing images on fabric and transfers.

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Japanese Indigo In Containers

Last year I grew Japanese indigo successfully in a recycled horse trough with the bottom cut out. This year, to plant my expanded crop, I’m also trying three more container growing options.


Each year, Bill and I try a few new container experiments for growing vegetables. Last year we raised potatoes, sunchokes and basil in wire cages made from hardware cloth. We lined the cages with a thick layer of dry leaves. (We found a ring of plastic cut from an old barrel makes it easy to pack leaves up the sides of the container.) Then we fill the center with a mix of soil and compost. This year, one of those bins is planted with indigo seedlings.

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Japanese Indigo Under Cloches

My Japanese indigo seedlings got transplanted over the weekend. Or at least, some of them did. With scattered frost possible for tonight (yes, that would be June 7), I have the rest safely in the dining room in case I need to replant. Frost into early June is not unheard of here, and nights tend to be cool anyway well into June or July. So I try to protect these tender plants after I set them out. My system relies on recycled translucent plastic jugs.


We buy our milk in glass containers, but neighbors save plastic ones for us. And I go through a lot of vinegar for natural dyeing and household cleaning, so I save those jugs, too. When I transplant indigo, tomato or other tender seedlings, I cut the bottom out of a jug, push it into the soil over the seedling, and remove the cap.

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Homegrown Indigo Season 2

Last year’s crop of polygonum tinctoria — Japanese Indigo — produced more than leaves for dyeing: My plants also produced more viable seed than I hoped for in my short northern growing season. So in Season 2, I’m growing plants from seed I saved last year.


This is only possible because my friend Julie started the seeds for me. I knew this spring would be challenging, and starting plants indoors was not in the cards. So I asked Julie for help.

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Wrecking Willow

Over Memorial Day weekend, a small group gathered at my home to wreck some willow. That’s what Dawn Walden calls the process of splitting and resplitting seasoned white (peeled) willow until what remains is a lustrous ribbon of wood and exciting possibilities.

Skeins made from the outer layer of seasoned peeled willow.

Dawn and I met last summer when we both taught at the biennial NBO conference. We sort of knew each other from Facebook, but had no idea that we live just two hours apart — practically next door. At the conference, we had adjacent rooms and kept having to tear ourselves away from conversations in the hall to go teach our workshops. It was there that she offered to teach me to make willow skeins. She graciously extended the offer to two mutual friends from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and two more friends with special interests in willow skeining. And that’s when it turned into a party!

The willow wrecking crew -- Beth Hester, Dawn Walden, Karen Tembreull, Poppy Hatinger, Jo Campbell-Amsler and Donna Kallner.

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Peeling For White Willow

Finding white willow to cleave for an upcoming project was not as simple as it sounds. So I’ve had plenty of incentive to start peeling my own for future use. Bill shot this short video last week to help remind me of what I learned about peeling willow with a brake. That’s the tool in the video that looks like a giant bobby pin.

My best results came from when I made several passes through the brake of just the butt, then from mid-rod, and finally from the tip of the rod.

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Cleaving White Willow

In the U.S., it’s not easy to buy white willow (willow that has had the bark peeled off). You just about have to grow it and peel it yourself. This spring I’m doing just that for future needs. But for an upcoming project this spring, it’s been a scramble to find enough white willow. Joanna Schanz gave us some she had ordered from (I think) Belgium. And I was able to purchase some from Dunbar Gardens. After a day of soaking and mellowing overnight wrapped in a damp beach towel, the cleave went through that U.S.-grown willow like a hot knife through butter.

white willow split with a cleave.

A cleave is that egg-shaped wooden object in the photo. To use it, you make a couple of starter cuts in the butt end of a willow rod, then slip the sharp edges of the cleave into the starter cuts. Then you guide the rod toward the cleave, which acts sort of like a woodsplitting wedge. My cleave splits a rod into three pieces.
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An Old Tub For Soaking Willow

Having no close neighbors and an indulgent husband, I’m able to keep an old bathtub in the back yard. I don’t use it every year, but for soaking willow or retting bark it’s sure comes in handy. This time, I’m using it to soak some peeled willow I need to get split.


I use weights from an old barbell set to keep the willow submerged. Otherwise, the willow floats. Continue reading An Old Tub For Soaking Willow

Getting Loopy At Vesterheim

Earlier this month, Vesterheim was the site of a fun weekend gathering of nalbinders. The event was the brainchild of Kate Martinson, who teaches the looping technique and other fiber art workshops at the Norwegian-American museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Nalbinding rug at Vesterheim.

It was a great weekend for learning and connecting with other nalbinders, and another chance to visit the museum’s textile collection.

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