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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A New Season Of Experiments

The more I learn, the more I want to know. So here is my latest willow bark natural dye experiment.

Willow bark alkaline extraction natural dye experiment.

Last year I wrote about the alkaline extraction method I’ve been using. This year, I want to see how shredding the bark changes the results I get.

Willow bark alkaline extract natural dye experiment -- broken versus shredded.

So this afternoon I started two jars. The jar on the left is filled with bark broken by hand the way I’ve been doing it. For the jar on the right, I took the added step of shredding the bark in the coffee grinder.

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Plotting The 2016 Indigo Crop

Last year was my first effort at growing Japanese indigo in northern Wisconsin. That’s if you don’t count the year before, when I threw a few seeds at a small patch of bare dirt sometime in June. Nothing Jack And The Beanstalk-y happened then. But a little more effort produced magic in 2015. So it’s normal to want more in 2016, right?

Japanese indigo container-grown in northern Wisconsin.

Since the seed is a bit pricey, I was hoping to save seed from the plants I grew last summer. But they got a late start (are you sensing a theme here), and we have a short growing season.

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Regrouping For The New Year

“Make hay while the sun shines.” We actually did make hay when I was a kid, and I still live pretty well tuned to the season.  So back in mid-November, I was taking advantage of the lack of snow to gather material and do natural dyeing with fresh materials before winter set in. I thought the sun would shine, metaphorically, long enough for me to dye and get a bunch of new scarves photographed and listed in my Etsy shop for holiday sales before a short trip to visit my parents. Of course, you know what happens to a plan like that.

Wool yarn plant-dyed with mullein leaves.

Good thing I blogged about it so I knew what that yarn was dyed with when I found it again six weeks later.

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Tool Tips For Natural Dyeing

Lately, I’ve moved a few underused appliances out of the kitchen and into the studio. And I’m kicking myself for waiting this long.

Dehydrating willow leaves to grind.

The dehydrator won’t be missed in the kitchen. I just never got in the habit of using it there. But in the studio, it didn’t take long to decide it’s invaluable. I’ve been using it to dry willow leaves, which I then use an old coffee grinder to turn into a coarse powder. And that’s just the start. Continue reading Tool Tips For Natural Dyeing

Sievers Natural Dye Retreat

If there’s something even better than having a burner for everyone and a floor where spills don’t matter, it’s a big patch of dye materials right out the back door and great companions while harvesting, brewing and learning.

Students in Sievers 2015 Natural Dye Retreat with willow harvest.

Students in the Natural Dye Retreat at Sievers started their week by cutting material from the willow patch on campus. It’s beautiful material for dyeing as well as for basketmaking. I’ll write more about the specifics of willow dyeing soon (I haven’t forgotten, Frances!). But for now, here’s a picture of a wool-silk yarn dyed with willow leaves (salix alba vitellina) and modifiers from a demo I did while the fresh-leaf Japanese indigo pot was heating.

Yarn naturally dyed with willow leaves, and a modifier sample set.
From left: Dyed with leaves of Salix Alba Vitellina, baking soda modifier (no heat), copper liquor modifier (heated), willow/iron liquor modifier with COT (brief low heat), white pine bark alkaline extract modifier (no heat)

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On Invasives And Plant Dyes

At what point are invaders considered naturalized? That’s been a central topic in a class I’m taking this fall on the ethnobotany of Central Wisconsin. A recurring theme has been how one person’s weed is another’s food or medicinal plant — or natural dye.

Buckthorn -- invasive weed and natural dye plant.

It wasn’t on the syllabus, but buckthorn came into the discussion early in the class. We’ve all tried and failed to stop the spread of this European invader. Buckthorn leafs out early and holds its leaves late, often shading native plants. And it produces a huge amount of fruit, making it easy for birds that eat the fruit to disperse the seed where they poop, making more buckthorn. It has spread so widely now in our area that it seems likely here to stay. Which led to the question, “What will people think of it in 400 years?”

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