Willow Notes from Summer 2017

It’s been a while since I took time to write, so to catch up a bit I’ll focus on topics — starting with willow. I’ll write on indigo and other natural dye materials soon.

Willow bark natural dye on wool.

This season has been a good one for peeling willow bark. I was able to peel before and after going to the Willow Gathering at Luther College in June. With some of the early harvest it was easy to separate outer and inner bark, so in addition to natural dye material I got a basket full of inner bark dried for cordage.

Other bark was dried, but much was brewed fresh for natural dye. I tested some ideas for immersion dyes on wool. My preference for extracting a dyebath is still a slow simmer in Mom’s old aluminum jelly kettle, adjusting the pH so it is quite alkaline during extraction. I neutralize with vinegar for dyeing on alum-mordanted wool, using a Crock-Pot on the low setting and letting the yarn cool in the crock overnight. Alkaline and iron modifiers help extend the range of pink-browns I get. There still seems to be a lot of color potential in the exhaust, but in my tests that yarn is pretty blah.

Homegrown willow used for natural dye.

I’ve had very good success, however, with some new applications for cold, alkaline extraction of willow bark for surface design on fabric. This extraction method I first read about in Jenny Dean’s book A History of Colour, although I later found it mentioned in her older book Wild Colour and on her blog. 

Willow bark alkaline extraction for natural dye.

I simply cut up bark (fresh or dried) and put it in a jar with water and soda ash. As long as the pH stays high, it doesn’t get stinky (if it does, I add more soda ash). 

Student work with sun-activated willow bark dye.

This year, students have used this dye extraction in sun-activated techniques inspired by Japanese kakishibu, a tannic persimmon juice dye.

Sun-activated willow bark dye technique.

One is simply spraying the dye extract onto silk, scruncing the fabric, and exposing it to sun. 

Photograms made using sun-activated willow bark dye.

They also made photograms, placing plant materials on the wet dye before exposing. 

Thickened willow bark dye screen printed on silk.

They also thickened the dye extract with sodium alginate to screen print on silk or cotton before exposing to sun, then simmering in an immersion dyebath to remove the alginate.

Nansa fish trap makers at the 2017 Willow Gathering in Decorah, Iowa.

While much of my willow use these days centers on natural dye, I greatly enjoyed learning a new basketry technique at the Willow Gathering. Monica Guillera came from Spain this year to share Catalan techniques, including the Nansa fish trap. The shallow basket I made in Decorah is based on the shape used to gather fishing lines used for trolling. I’m using it now for drying staghorn sumac bobs.

Natural dye yarns by Donna Kallner from homegrown willow and indigo.

The season for harvesting, using and storing natural dye materials is in full swing right now. By the time snow flies, I’ll be set for winter dyeing. And the willow I split last fall will have seasoned a year and be ready for the next step in skeining. In the meantime, there is a comfortable rhythm in the studio — harvest, prepare, dye, wash. I’ll be spending a bit more time now adding natural dye products to my Etsy shop and getting ready for our November studio sale. But I think I have enough alkaline willow extract to do photograms on some rayon yardage for sewing this winter. If we get a nice, sunny day, watch out if you pull into my driveway!

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Donna Kallner

fiber artist, teacher and explorer, inspired by ancient fiber techniques and all the ways contemporary fiber artists give old ideas a new spin