Winter Willow Leaves For Natural Dye

There were still leaves clinging to my willow when wet, heavy snow knocked them off. That was more than a month ago, and those leaves have been on the ground under snow ever since.

Willow leaves for natural dye gathered during a brief thaw.

Over the weekend, we had a bit of a thaw and saw some bare ground. Some of it was littered with damp willow leaves.

Natural dye materials gathered during winter thaw.

I scooped up a basket full of those willow leaves. Some went into bundles, some went into a dyepot.

Willow leaf natural dye.

The results have to stay shrouded in mystery until after Christmas. But wow! I’m looking forward to cold brewed willow-leaf dye in the spring. But willow leaves picked up damp from snow are pretty sweet.

Cranesbill leaves gathered in December.

While I was out gathering, I checked the cranesbill in my front yard. Even after a month of snow cover, there were some green leaves. I gathered a few of those and some that were dried and brown, and got lovely prints off both. In the future, though, I might dunk those leaves in some water before using them. The leaf litter clinging to a couple left spots on the contact prints. Minor distractions, but one that would be easy to avoid.

We’ve had more snow again, and it might be months before we see the ground again. In the meantime, I have plenty of dried and frozen willow leaves, and lots of other materials. But if there’s another thaw, I might even rake.

Seasonal Effective Order

With the winter solstice still 12 days away (but who’s counting), the short hours of daylight are pretty precious. I get outside — to walk with the dogs, get the mail, grab stuff from my studio. But now that I’m working in the basement (I moved my studio for the winter to save on heating costs), I was concerned that I might start feeling like a root vegetable.

Basement studio for the winter.

So far, though, it’s working pretty well. With less space, I’m trying very hard to keep from starting piles. I’m getting some exercise going up and down the stairs to let the dogs in and out, and going out to my shop to find things that didn’t make the migration into the winter studio. But mostly I’m just getting work done.

There was one uncomfortable moment today, when I realized I had turned on the tap just to rinse off my gloves. That never happens out in my studio, where there’s no running water. I dunk my gloves in the same rinse water many times when each bucket is hauled in by hand, then eventually dump that water on the compost pile. When I realized what I was doing today, I grabbed a bucket and resolved to use water more conservatively.

Something else I don’t do while working in my regular studio is dovetail hands-on work with virtual work. Our WiFi router doesn’t reach the other building, so I have a perfect excuse for putting off certain online marketing tasks. Today, though, I managed to manage a dyepot and an email newsletter at the same time.

In short, it feels like I’m being effective during this season, and all is in order.

P.S. If you’re still shopping for holiday gifts, click the images below to go to products featured in today’s email newsletter.

Natural dye scarves by Donna Kallner.

Indigo scarves by Donna Kallner.

Hand-dyed fabric for quilter gifts from Donna Kallner.

Wringer Washer For Water Conservation

Automatic washing machines are a convenience I’m not anxious to give up. But for the quilting fabrics I dye to sell, the wringer washer does a great job of removing unfixed fiber reactive dye but with a reduced overall volume of water.

As you can see, there’s not a lot of space in our basement utility room (and no running water in my studio). The video is dark, but I figured if I waited until we got the lighting improved in there the video would never get done. “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

My grandmother did laundry in a wringer washer: First the whites, then the colors, then barn clothes (the dirtiest stuff) in the last load. I do lighter colors, then darker colors, and finally the old sheets I use to cover tables and rags I use for mopping up spills while dyeing.

We don’t get most of our clothes barn-dirty. So I could hold off on washing the dye table coverings and rags and do our whole household laundry in the same tub as the second wash of quilting fabric. That would really reduce the wastewater going into our septic system.

In the past, I’ve been cautious about dyeing during the winter, not wanting to flood our septic system — especially in the extreme cold like we had last winter, when the frost went so deep. A frozen septic is not a small problem. Now, with the wringer washer, I’m much more comfortable with the volume of water I use — and ready to dye year-round.



Stocking The Online Store

Messy dye processes seem more interesting to share than the business end of what I do. But I had a ton of new scarves to get added to my Etsy store, and the sooner the better since people might do a bit of online shopping over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Natural dye scarves in Donna Kallner's etsy shop.

It seems to take almost as much time to tag, photograph, wrap, bin, describe and list things as it does to make them. But I was closing in on the last few yesterday.

Photographing scarves for listing in Donna Kallner's Etsy shop.

That’s when the volunteer fire department pager went off. By the time Bill and I got home, I had learned that my new car handles OK on wet, heavy snow and that the windshield defogger will not be rushed. I was cold and wet so I turned off the lights in my studio and called it a day.

This morning, other un-photogenic businessy things that had rolled over from yesterday had to be dealt with. Now it’s back to finish shooting scarves, so I can start dyeing more.

Mental Sorting

When Bill and I had our whitewater canoe and kayak business, we packed a lot of retail product into the building that is now my studio. We knew our whitewater customers really well, and counted on them for ideas about what products to sell.

Naturally dyed scarves by Donna Kallner.


Nowadays, we don’t have those daily face-to-face encounters with customers. So our annual studio sale, which was Saturday, and the farmers market are really, really important. We listen to what people ask and what they don’t say, and pay attention to what they buy and what they don’t buy.

Bill Kallner's rustic furniture and Donna Kallner's naturally dyed scarves.


We had a great turnout from our community on Saturday and were so busy I didn’t have a moment to snap any pictures once people started coming. The local paper ran an article about us, which was very kind and brought in some people we hadn’t met before.

Naturally dyed yarns by Donna Kallner.


It’s amazing how much impact a chance comment can have. At the farmers market last summer, someone asked me if my naturally dyed scarves were table runners. Duh! So I made some eco-dyed raw silk and wool table runners. Guess what sold on Saturday? Guess what I’ll make more of now?

Naturally dyed scarves by Donna Kallner on Etsy.


Customers are brilliant. This week as I photograph scarves to put in my Etsy shop, I’m mentally sorting out several ideas we got on Saturday.

Laundry drying rack transformed into scarf merchandising area.

Now that I’m taking stuff down from the weekend, the only place that looks tidy in my studio is the wall where I’m shooting pictures. Once I get pictures done, I’ll take down the laundry drying rack I hung to display scarves.

Big work table transformed into false wall.

Then I can get my big work table back in place. For the weekend, it was a room divider (actually, it was hiding the mess in the back of the studio).

For the winter, I’ll be moving from my studio into the basement in the house. The cost of heating a leaky building through the winter is too painful. The basement is a mess right now from all the stuff I piled there so it wouldn’t be in the way in the studio during the sale. And the basement lacks the charming-but-drafty windows in my studio. But it will work.

Basement studio for winter.

Bill just finished installing more lighting for me down there, so it will be much better than last winter, when the bitter cold and a propane shortage forced me down there without time to plan or prepare. This time, I’ve had a chance to mentally sort through what I want to get done this winter and what I’ll need to do it.

I need to put “mental sorting” on my to-do list more often.

Studio Sale Preparation

Bill and I are at the point of cleaning where everything looks worse before it looks better. No way am I posting a picture of that, but here’s the card we sent out to folks in our community.

2014 holiday sale.

And this is pretty neat. I got a free card reader from Etsy. I can use it with my Android tablet and the Sell On Etsy app to swipe credit cards for in-person sales.
Etsy card reader for taking credit card sales in person.

When we were at Sievers for the willow harvest, my friends had to hear me rant about why we had just canceled the service we used to use to handle credit card sales. I feel much better now.

Once we get past the chaos phase of open house preparations, I’ll try to get pictures where everything looks lovely and effortless. In the meantime, I’ll keep posting some of the messy studio life snapshots on Instagram, where I’m donnastitches.

Scattered Thoughts and Half-Done Tasks

October was going to be my month to make lots of things for our annual studio open house and holiday sale, which is November 15. Then I was gone two weeks (it was all good), and things feel a bit hectic now. Since my plans are usually over-ambitious anyway, it always feels like I haven’t got enough done. My rational mind knows that’s not the case. But until everything is washed, ironed, folded, priced, tagged and ready to display, it’s not done done.

Work in progress for studio sale.

And I keep going off on tangents. I’m absolutely in love with the alkaline extraction method for barks that I learned from Jenny Dean’s book A Heritage of Colour. I’ve been moving too fast to photograph my haphazard sampling of applications, but I promise I will — later.

Alkaline extraction of willow bark for natural dye.

While I was in Iowa I found some windfall walnuts. They’re soaking now so I can start brewing more dye.

Cold-brewed willow leaf natural dye in November.

The four buckets of willow leaf cold-brew I started for spring dyeing thawed out enough this morning for me to get out the weights holding the leaves down.

Fresh willow leaves soaking for natural dye.

I also have a bucket of fresh willow leaves soaking inside. They may not look pretty, but I love that liquid for “cooking” ecoprint bundle silk scarves.

Willow-dyed wool-silk hand-knit scarf.

My intention was to also have a bunch of willow-dyed hand-knit scarves and cowls ready for the sale. I have two. And they’re not blocked yet. And that wool-silk yarn is so luscious I’m tempted to keep them for myself.

Naturally dyed fabric jewelry by Donna Kallner.

I’m hoping to finish more the jewelry pieces before the sale. That should be doable, since I can work on those in the evenings.

The big job before the sale is cleaning my studio, which will involve moving a bunch of things to the house for the winter. After last winter, I’ve decided I can work in the basement during the coldest months instead of paying higher propane bills. I love my studio, but it leaks like a sieve. We’ve done all we can afford to do to insulate it, but it’s an old building that was never intended to hold heat inside.

Siberian iris moved off between the willow beds.

The big job after the sale is the willow harvest. A wet, heavy snow last night knocked down most of the remaining leaves. I finished cutting the Siberian iris leaves I want to dry last weekend. Then while I was dithering about something else, Bill, bless his heart, mowed off the rest of the Siberians in between the willow beds. That will make willow harvest much easier.

But first, there are lots of things to get done done before the sale. I would say the clock is ticking, but I haven’t had time since the time to figure out how to change the clock in the new car. Does that give me an extra hour?


Siberian Iris Harvest

Right now, it’s impossible to walk through my studio without stepping on some kind of leaves. Part of the floor is covered with willow leaves from the Sievers harvest. In addition to the four buckets of cold-brew willow leaf natural dye sitting outside now, other leaves are drying for winter dyepots.

Siberian iris leaves drying in my studio.

The majority of floorspace, though, is covered with Siberian iris leaves. Last week we also cleaned off the flower bed by the Walter Studio. When these leaves are dry enough to bundle, I have a lot more here at home that need to be harvested.

Siberian iris grown between willow beds.

In case you missed it, this short video shows how I teach people to twist Siberian iris leaves into cordage friendship bracelets.

In case you try to find it again, the video lives on one of my Students resources pages, along with other videos about thready things you might find useful or interesting. There are more videos on the looping and dyeing pages.

Next on my to-do list is bundling Siberian leaves for storage and transferring dried willow leaves into paper bags. In the meantime, there will be no boy dogs in my studio.

Natural Materials Harvest Social

Think of harvest traditions where friends and family would come together to shuck corn, shock wheat, bale hay and visit while getting a job done. That’s what this week was like.

Willow harvest at Sievers.

On Sunday, I headed to Washington Island to meet some friends and get the willow bed cut at Sievers.

Cutting the willow bed at Sievers.

Being surrounded by the waters of Lake Michigan makes conditions on Washington Island generally milder than where I live (pretty much due west, but an hour inland). So the island’s first hard frost came just before we arrived, and there were still leaves on the willow. Normally, willow growers wait for leaves to fall before harvesting. But everyone knew I would be happy to have the leaves for natural dye.

At The Ridges on Washington Island, Wisconsin.

On Monday we got the patch cut and a good start on stripping leaves (and had a lovely soup supper with the rag rug weaving class). So on Tuesday, we spent a little time enjoying the island as well as processing the willow. We walked at The Ridges before we started working that day.

Lee's batik scarf made by Anne Landre.

At lunch we took some time to shop at Sievers. Lee bought a beautiful batik scarf made by my friend Anne Landre.

Schoolhouse Beach on Washington Island, Wisconsin.

In the afternoon we quit early to visit Schoolhouse Beach and the Stavkirke.

The Stavkirke on Washington Island.

After burgers at Karly’s and a short stop at Nelsen’s Hall, we headed back to the studio to finish stripping leaves and sorting willow.

Willow leaf natural dye brewing in buckets outside my studio.

On Wednesday, I got home with plenty of material for the cold-brewed willow-leaf natural dye like I made last winter. It’s now in buckets outside my studio. Other leaves are drying inside.

Willow leaf cold-brewed natural dye on merino wool-silk yarn.

The merino wool-silk yarn in this knitting WIP was dyed with that willow leaf cold brew.

It was a whirlwind trip, but at the end it’s nice to see a job well done and to have had a chance to spend time working with friends at a special place like Sievers.





Fun With Fermentation – Natural Dye Experiments

It’s a good thing Bill started his autumn homebrewing this week. The aroma of soon-to-be beer helped mask the clinging odor of fermented walnut hull dye on yarn while it soaked out in the the bathroom.

Yarns naturally dyed with black walnut hulls and other local materials.

The smell washes out of the yarn and the color is lovely. But the odor in the bathroom is nothing compared to how my studio smelled while that yarn was simmering. Peeeuw.

Fermentation experiments with staghorn sumac drupes and hop vines.

I’ve had a couple more stinky fermentation experiments going lately. Staghorn sumac drupes (berries) counted as a success, both from color on the yarn and general lack of nastiness. Hops, on the other hand, counted as double peeeuw. On top of the smell, I have to be extra careful with hops disposal because of our dogs. Anything truly odiferous is irresistible to them. Rolling in it would be bad, but hops are poisonous to dogs so ingesting it would be worse. I won’t be fermenting hops again, especially if I won’t be home and reliable enough to check and stir them every day.

Natural dye fermentation extraction experiments.

I just started a couple more fermentation experiments — one with willow leaves and another with Siberian iris leaves (covered with paper bags). I hereby resolve to attend to them every day, but I still expect them to stink. What may not stink is the other experiment in the big jars — an alkaline bark extraction technique. One jar is willow bark, the other birch bark. This technique is from Jenny Dean’s new book, A Heritage of Colour.

Jenny Dean's book A Heritage Of Colour.

To get a red color in the basswood bark I use for looping, I boil it with wood ashes to make the bath alkaline. So I have high hopes for these extractions. Stay tuned. But maybe if you visit soon you’ll want to take a whiff before the hello hugs!