Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Meditative Dyeing of Cellulose Fibers

When I was in college I dyed wool all the time. Wool yarn, wool roving, wool fleece, wool fabric... I used it for weavings and knitting, and I even sold it on ebay for a while. I had access to the dye lab at the university I was attending and it was a gorgeous facility complete with stoves and ventilation. My college roommate can attest to this, as she was very irritated by the drying skeins of yarn in my closet and the overall permeating wet-sheep-smell. Bwahaha.

Wool was the first fiber I dyed, apart from the tedious cotton/rayon dye swatches I did with my dye class. Because it was my fiber of choice even before joining the textiles program, and because I'm a stubborn ox, I clung to it religiously and learned all I could about dying wool with acid dyes as well as a few natural dyes. Basically dye+acid+heat=colored wool... Aren't protein fibers cool?

So years later I decided to play with cellulose fibers (after graduating and without access to a dye lab) and discovered the process was far more time intensive than dyeing wool. Each time a cellulose fiber (made from plants such as cotton, linen, hemp, etc) is dyed, it must first be prepared using a mordant or fixative. Then after this chemical is applied it is ready to be exposed to the dye molecules. It's like prepping a petri dish, almost. You have to create the perfect environment for the dye molecules to saturate and fix to the fibers. I totally understood it, but I found the process tedious and the results uninspiring.

This spring, however, I began to notice other bloggers discussing natural dyeing, using various plants from their yards... The idea of using natural dyes wasn't new for me, but the idea of using weeds and invasive plants to create color on fabric was instantly inspiring.

The thing with dyeing cellulose fibers with natural dyes is that each natural dye source is different. Some plants that are high in tannin, such as oak galls, sumac and walnut hulls, will fix to a cellulose fiber easily and fast. Others, such as certain leaves producing golds and greens dye well on cellulose that has been treated with a mordant, or fixative (usually alum, but sometimes iron or other metals). Still other dyes, such as berry juices and many flower-based solutions, must be applied to a cellulose fiber that has been tannin-treated as well as mordanted... and some dyers even swear by treating with tannin a second time after the mordant.

When I was younger and in college I found myself tantalized by the quick and vibrant colors of acid dyes on wool, but now that I am older I am able to see the beauty in the lengthy process and ecological soundness of dyeing naturally.

This morning, I found myself in an almost meditative calm while preparing the cloth for the tannin bath that I'd made out of sumac leaves. The cloth has to be soaked in water to allow for even tannin uptake before it is immersed. The pot of sumac leaves was boiled for two hours and then allowed to sit for three days simply because I didn't have time to fuss with it. I feel like dyeing protein fibers with synthetic dyes is akin to baking - you have a very specific set of directions and as long as you are careful you can produce quick and even results that remain predictable.

With natural dyeing you are bound not by "directions", but by concepts... You should never expect a specific result; you simply hope and observe.

Something as simple as an increase of iron in your tap water can change the colors, and something as complex as the sun exposure that a plant had access to over the span of an entire growing season can affect the colors as well as the light-fastness.

You are at the disposal of the elements - a sort of terroir within fiber and cloth. As with all things inevitable, it's best to just relax and go with the flow, embracing the results with wonder and awe, and know that what you see in your finished cloth is a complex compound of so many incomprehensible factors that it is truly a glimpse of chaos. Float, as a leaf, down the river.

(photos coming soon... having some technical difficulties...)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Another Spring, Another Sproing!

I woke this morning to my German Shepherd Dog, Connor, freaking out. I mean completely. He was barking and tearing around the living room, pausing to howl... it was unlike anything he's ever done. I stumbled down the stairs to see what was up and he immediately began running around me in circles, barking and barking. I even shooshed him (which always works) and he ignored me. This dog wanted to be heard. Something was up.

I pulled on DH's muck boots and ran out to the barn... as I approached I heard the usual Baas. Low Baa from the ram, nasal baa from brighid, higher pitched baa from Gretel, gruff baa from Blair... and then a short, quiet baa from Nance? That wasn't right. Nance is a loud mouth... this was the baa of a new mother!

Moments later, a teeny little high pitched baa cut through the night. My heart leapt as I dashed into the barn. There they were... two perfect little lambs, a ram and a ewe, both black-gray (with "sugar lips") and both standing, getting flustered and divided attention from their mother.

This is the ewe lamb. She has "flashing" and likely carries the spotting gene.

They're dry and warm now, and napping in the straw in the sun. They figured out how to suckle with a little help, and Nance (who is normally my skeptical hands-off ewe) allowed me to handle her in order to get them latched on. It was such a wonderful thing to wake up to, even if it was 4AM!

This is the ram lamb. He has a teensy bit of silvering on his shoulder and little "sugar lips" which indicates he will grey as he matures. 

These are just the first photos; I'm sure I'll post more... There are still three pregnant ewes to go, and everybody looks like they're going to explode! Fingers crossed the other ewes will lamb as easily as Nance did.

Life Changes and Living with Endometriosis

It seems like I just haven't had the urge to blog in months. Honestly, a lot of changes have occurred between the last time I was blogging regularly and now. The biggest hurdle for me this past year has been learning to live with endometriosis. Now, I know I don't get into the personal stuff much, but I've found that pretending that everything is a-OK is really not the way to deal with endo.

Queue "dramatic sad photo"

So, in case you're curious about the specifics of endometriosis (mind you, this has to do with internal lady-bits) here is a link to the wikipedia page about it:

Last fall I started to have intense pains occasionally and started to think maybe I had ovarian cysts. Before long, however, the pains became unbearable and my symptoms started to look more like those from endometriosis. The hard thing about endo is that you can't prove that it's there without surgery and according to modern medicine you can't treat it without hormones and/or surgery. So, being the kind of gal to "just-say-no" to drugs I don't understand, I basically spent the winter in and out of the hospital for possible ovarian and/or intestinal torsions connected to the spasming of my abdominal muscles, in more pain than I ever believed possible...We're talking in-and-out-of-consciousness pain - like something out of a George R. R. Martin novel. The aftereffects of an "episode" would last for roughly two weeks, after which I'd have to prepare for the next one. What's worse, I began to have endometrial pain in other areas like my bladder, intestine and even (this is a new one) affecting my sciatic nerve!

It drained my energy and my enthusiasm for life, and it put stress on my relationships, my business... heck, even my horses would react to the differences when I rode them! Living in constant pain and fear of pain for those months definitely gave me a new perspective on Dr. House and his grumpy antics. I kind of hated everything and it brought my active life to a screeching halt.

So I started doing some blog-readin'... I tore through anything that gave me hope of managing my pain without modern meds. It wasn't until I found an article about endometriosis in cattle that I started thinking about the one vitamin we supplement ALL of our livestock with. Selenium. In cattle that are struggling with endometriosis, farmers will load them with selenium and send them on their merry way. So I started taking a low-dose selenium supplement to give it a shot.

At the same time, my chiropractor/kinesiologist suggested I may want to cut all processed sugar from my diet as it can lead to inflammatory response. I found several endo blogs where women found that eating processed sugars guaranteed they'd have a bad spell, so I figured why not. It's only SUGAR. Remember folks - I'm a serious sweet tooth... or at least I was. After two seriously grumpy weeks I found myself completely over sugar. I replaced refined sugar with local honey and an occasional coconut sugar (though I'm not a fan, honestly). I've worked out recipes for all of my favorite gluten free cakes, ice creams, candies and sauces using honey in place of refined sugar (even a honey-based caramel sauce!)

It's been a learning process, but I can say that since cutting sugar and supplementing with selenium I have not had a single bad spell. I've come close and I've had to take a dose or two of ibuprofen to fend it off, but in the past even multiple doses of 800mg of ibuprofen wasn't enough to cut the pain.

The thing that is most interesting about all of this is that the foods that most exacerbate my endo are all foods that are dried and processed with glyphosate including wheat, sugar beets, soy, cane sugar and oats. Glyphosate is used as an herbicide and is designed for use as a weed killer (it's the big monsanto chemical in Round-Up).

The problem is, farmers are using it to kill crops at their peak to speed their harvest. Normally the shortened days and crisp nights are what signal plants like wheat to die off. By using glyphosate, however, farmers are able to kill these crops and dry them faster... and we all know faster is better. Right? This use as a drying aid leaves a higher glyphosate residue on crops. Ick. So I avoid anything that is commonly dried chemically.

Well, since switching to sugar-free+selenium I have gotten things turned around again. I can ride four horses in a single morning without pain. I can muck my sheep barn and stack hay bales. I can garden. I can go running. I can enjoy life. I'm not a psycho-B, anymore either... Well, not often...

I highly recommend trying normal doses of selenium for anyone searching for alternatives to hormones and surgeries, and cutting processed sugar really couldn't hurt as long as you're still balancing your diet correctly. It has helped me get back on track, and hopefully I'll be able to get back into blogging about all of the awesome adventures ahead of me!

Stay tuned for a backlog of my adventures in starting an Etsy store, natural dyeing, and the 2014 lambing season!

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Week "OFF" and Self Inflicted Tea

Today marks the beginning of my week of "staycation". I am taking a week off of teaching (though I'll still be riding the two client horses I have in training) to try to relax and unwind a bit, as well as to hopefully figure something out about the fabulous health issues I've been battling (atypical ovarian cysts, or something quite like them).

So. Anyone who really knows me knows that I am prone to some serious bouts of mania.

I rarely sit still, and when I do I find myself either planning the next 8 things I'm about to do or feeling guilty for not getting anything done. I'm convinced that this is a genetically transferred affliction... just ask my brother and/or father. :)

Anyway, this week I plan to perfect the art of sitting still. Hahaha. Yeah right.

Okay, not really, but I got an idea while talking to a good friend of mine the other night. She was talking about her mother and how she regularly, daily, finds time for tea. Tea for her includes a somewhat meticulous ritual of paper-reading, tea making and possibly even some post-tea crafting. We all took turns marveling aloud at the fact that someone could find time for an activity like that...

It wasn't until later that it struck me... People are always asking me how I find time to do things like fix fences, feed horses, shear sheep, plant gardens, build projects... most of my daily activities. The answer to that is that I don't exactly Find Time; I Make Time. Those things are my daily life and because they are part of the things I have labeled as necessary, I do them.

So, isn't my friend's mom's tea like that, for her?

My life is so full of activities that require physical exertion that often times by nine PM I am half in tears from exhaustion. It's a great way to live life, and I love it immensely, but I am also learning to recognize that it isn't necessarily a healthy life as far as the stresses it puts on my body. Everything in life should be in moderation - food, sleep, work and rest.


That's the sound of my brain going "huh, no wonder I feel more and more tired each day until my day off when I sit around exhausted and beating myself up for not working more..."

So this week I intend to take tea. I have cleared a table on the front porch (which is heavily windowed and currently covered in insulating plastic for winter) and each day this week I intend to make myself a cup of tea and sit down with a book for at least thirty minutes. I'm thinking eleven AM sounds like a good time for this, as when I am working that tends to be right around when I am between morning chores/training and afternoon chores/teaching, but of course as soon as I start giving myself a time-associated schedule I find myself struck down with anxiety.

I've mentioned my aversion to time in the past, and this is just another case of that. I have a hard time keeping time and often find myself arm-deep in something precisely when I am supposed to be starting something else (often more important - like teaching...) Alarms make me doubly anxious, as I'm always dreading that alarm (or the first of many that I set since I am scatterbrained and I often turn them off without thinking). This is probably connected to my unwillingness to grow-the-hell-up and my current state of self employment, in which I design my own schedule.

So really what I'm thinking is ... I will make and drink tea and be still each day between morning and afternoon obligations. Even if this entails slurping down a piping hot cup while sitting, antsy as I prepare to run out the door, I really think I need something like this to become part of my daily activities.

Ideally I would like this to be a chance to read and be untethered to technology. My phone will go on "Do Not Disturb", my computer will be switched off, and the television will sit and stare blankly... Stillness is certainly an art, I just never realized how vital it was until I noticed its absence in my life.

Do you ever struggle with stillness?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Daydreaming of Medlars

I have never eaten a Medlar, but I really want to! I stumbled across this graphic while looking up medlar scionwood online and couldn't help but be intrigued. I planted a medlar tree this past spring in my container garden and it is thriving, so who knows... in a couple of years I may be enjoying my very own bletted medlars! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Fun Fall Activities

Today we'll be driving across the state to pick up our ram from our friends' farm in Olivet. He's be staying there because we didn't breed last year (due to the England trip) and we didn't want any accidents. In fact, the day they came to pick him up for us I watched him jump a four-foot tall fence (granted it wasn't tensioned well) to escape being caught! Rams are... special.

Anyway, he'll be spending some time down in the brambly new pasture I just finished fencing and then in December he (as well as one other possible loaner ram) will get to finally spend some time with the ladies. I'm sure he'll be relieved. I'm hoping the ample grass and raspberry leaves will keep him occupied for now, so that he restrains himself from hopping any fences. At least if he gets out, I know where he'll go! The ewes haven't seen a boy in almost a year so I'm sure they'll be torturing him fairly regularly until it's his time. Poor lad.

Before that, however, I plan to make the last two batches of apple cider from the apples that I gleaned from my student's house. Their apples have been spectacular so far, and I can't wait to surprise them with a big jar of home-pressed apple cider next time I see them!

My cider press is an antique press made in Lansing, Michigan. It has a pressed-tin label on it, but thus far I haven't been able to find any information on the company that made it. Ah well. I made a new platform to sit atop the old one since the old one was pretty grungy. I know presses are supposed to have a certain amount of grunge to them, but this one sat unused for several years and I just don't know what kind of moldspore it's been exposed to. Anyway, you can see my awesomely lame carpentry skills in the photo. I have all sorts of improvements planned for next year's press, but I at least wanted to use it this season before getting into all of that.

So far I've pressed nearly eight gallons of apple cider, and an additional three of pear. The pear cider turned out amazingly, thanks to the bitter/sour wild pears I found a week or so back.

These "perry" pears added tannin and tart flavor to the pear cider to keep it from becoming too syrupy sweet. The pears I was using were awfully soft, as well, so I got to experiment with using hard fruits and soft fruits together to create "channels" between bits of pomace to allow for cider to flow. All in all, I got a nice dry cheese at the end and the cider was/is delicious!

I've been canning it to keep it for the winter. I can't wait to crack it open in the winter doldrums for some nice hot, spiced cider! YUM!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Apple Mania!

So with the launching of my new project, "The Accidental Orchardist" I have gone full out fruit-crazy. It's like everywhere I drive, I'm watching the silhouettes of trees and I have learned to recognize a fruit tree simply by the shape of it's growth or the degree to which it has shed it's fall leaves. No joke, people. I've lost it.

The thing is, there are thousands of pounds of apples and pears sitting underneath these trees and in most cases, nobody even notices! The wildlife can't even keep up, and while the rotting fruit does offer nutrients back into the ground, it also carries fungal spore, larval pests and viruses/bacteria that will further deteriorate the health of the trees.

The tree above was pretty much half-choked, entire sections tethered to the ground by grape vines. It's also so densely branched and plagued by powdery mildew that I mistook the powder for dust from the road I was on... and then realized the road I was on doesn't get dusty, and the leaves on the far side of the tree were as evenly coated.  

So, back to my obsession... Yesterday, alone, I spotted six different trees; some were in yards and some feral on the side of the road. Of course I had to stop and grab a few fruits from each of the feral trees, just in case they're really something special.

Is this fruit stalking?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Being an Accidental Orchardist

When we moved to this house (four years ago?) I had no idea how involved I would get with the property. Sure, I saw there was potential for farming. I saw the run-down barn and the creepy gnarled apple tree silhouettes "way out" in the old orchard.

Now I feel as though I am not only living in this beautiful little stone cottage; I am living on the land as well. From the sheep, ducks and chickens ranging, to the haphazard rotational grazing of the horses... from the miserably crowded melons in the glasshouse, to the rare strawberry breeds fighting for existence in their beds... I am part of the little bit of land that surrounds this place. I've set down some serious roots. (and doing so in a rented home is kind of nervewracking if you let yourself think about it too much!)

This home has come with lots of responsibilities and lots of work to keep up on, and it wasn't until last year that I really realized the potential for the land surrounding our cottage. Of course, last year was a miserable year for apples, and we didn't get a single one (though I did manage to get one single lonely pear, which might have cried while eating.) This year has been intensely bountiful for the apple trees and I am finally able to see just how stressed a beautiful orchard can get.

On windy days you can hear cracks coming from the orchards where branches are breaking free, tumbling dramatically to the ground and scattering apples in their wake. In this area of Michigan, apple trees are experiencing a bumper crop this year. Even the orchards with trees that have been well tended and have had fruit thinned have had to be drastically pruned to be saved.

The trees in our antique orchard are old and diseased, though not so horribly as to make their fruit inedible. This fall has really showed me that I need to step it up with these trees to keep them healthy. In fact, I need to step it up with the entire orchard. It's no coincidence that the trees where the sheep have grazed for the past few years are the healthiest in the orchard.

So I have spent the past few weeks reading and researching antique orchard restoration. This winter our trees will get severely pruned and I hope to attend a grafting class (or two) so that in the spring I can start replacing some of the dead trees. I know my new, young trees will have to grow up in an orchard with established disease and pests, but this is where I live and I intend to nurse them carefully into adolescence.

I didn't intend to become an orchardist when I moved in here, but now I think that I can't go back to seeing trees in need, seeing trees heavy with unharvested bounty... and not doing anything about it.

This is where my Accidental Orchardist idea started to emerge from my imagination (I think of my imagination as being a sort of disorganized, overstuffed filing cabinet... this idea definitely came from the "harebrained" folder).

Want to read more about my adventures as an Accidental Orchardist? Check this out here!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Apple-gleaning on an Autumn Evening

Some people are just so incredibly generous it's enough to make a gal smile from ear to ear. Yesterday, armed with bushel baskets, a pole harvester, my brother and my friend Andi, I drove out to a local farm where one of my students lives with her parents, dogs and three gorgeous grey horses (Trust me, I see a lot of horses... these three are exceptional!) Their place is set back from the road a bit and it's a beautiful home horse farm, just far enough off the road to feel secluded and peaceful, and not so far from town as to be a hassle. On part of the front acre of their property lies an old orchard, planted by the original owner in the 1970's, with eight remaining apple trees, three pear trees and a very gnarly (mildly unhappy looking) apricot tree. 

The trees are perfectly spaced, and while they are incredibly overgrown, they are unsprayed and they produce apples with minimal sooty blotch, scab and pests. Every organically grown apple is bound to have some spots, and these wear their spots beautifully and with pride! 

My student and her mother had offered to let me pick their apples (and I made sure to repeatedly say "Are you sure you don't mind if I pick LOTS of apples?") since they don't do a whole lot with them and have to rake them up at the end of the year to keep the pasture healthy for the horses' rotational grazing.

So we started the afternoon off with some lively irish jigs and reels played on someone's iPhone and skillfully amplified by placing said phone in a galvanized bucket (it works, guys!) and picking was easy. 

This year's bumper crop of apples has provided people with such an overabundance of apples that it would be impossible to keep up with even the smallest of home orchards. I'm not even sure we made a dent in the trees' ample boughs. 

The sun was shining and the air was breezy and everyone was smiling for hours as we picked from the trees. Of course I had envisioned it a lot like this, with everyone happy and singing songs, but I never expected it to turn out like that! Generally it starts out like that and after an hour everyone is bored and looking for other things to do. 

Except for a quick game of apple-baseball (played to the tunes of the Andrews Sisters and the Glenn Miller Orchestra), we worked diligently for over three hours, finishing with a bit of an exhausted flop back into the gator (which my student's father graciously offered to let us use to transport apples from the orchard). 

Our haul? Over five bushels of a variety of different mystery apples (which I am currently working on identifying). They range from large, juicy and sweet dessert apples to cider apples, and some are definitely winter storage apples, similar to Winesap! 

My favorite was definitely the yellow russeted variety that I suspect is a cider apple. It has incredibly complex flavor and there were so many of them we couldn't help but pick almost a bushel and a half of them, alone!

Did I mention we got a little slap happy toward the end? What a great day!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

From the Kitchen: Pan-fried Duck Fat Fries for wusses like me who are afraid of deep frying

I don't think there is much on earth that is as simply tasteful as duck fat fries, except perhaps when you sprinkle a bit of truffle-infused salt on said fries. 

There is a crispness to them that doesn't come from pan frying in vegetable-based oils, or even from frying in other animal fats. It's divine. Imagine the way a pie crust made with shortening compares to one made with lard. That, my friends, is the amount of better-ness you'll find in duck fat fries. (Yes, better-ness is a made up word. Is there a word for made up words? There should be. Someone should make one up!)

So, when I was wandering around the Ann Arbor farmers market this past Wednesday it suddenly hit me. I needed to make my own duck fat fries! I snatched up some nameless potatoes that ended up being a bit buttery in texture and headed home, determined to make it work. 

Now, when I looked for recipes for these babies I found lots of different ones. Some said to deep fry them, but I have yet to cross that (scary, scary) bridge so I was looking for a pan-fried version. I found several that suggested various techniques but every one had time consuming steps and I wanted them omgASAP so eventually I decided to just experiment. (This would later work to my advantage because I could munch on my failed experiments while I attempted new, less-faily methods - again, a made up word.)

For my first batch, I just sliced fries and tossed them in the pan with some fat and crossed my fingers. They took forever to cook (ah, duh...) and ended up very dark and oily. 

The second batch, however, was perfect (if I do say so myself)! I precut the fries, tossed them in a bowl and microwaved them for 60-120 seconds on high. This kind of pre-cooked the potatoes. I assumed this was going to make them super fragile, but they weren't too hard to manage. 

I turned the stove to medium-high heat and then tossed these into the pan with the hot, melted duck fat (you can get duck fat at some specialty grocers and butcher shops, did I mention? Or render your own - I'll post about this in a couple weeks when I take a few of the mature farm ducks to freezer camp) and let the fries sit for a few minutes before disturbing. As they develop a light brown crust, move them around the pan.


When they're finished, simply pull them out and place them on something to absorb the excess oil. As they drain, sprinkle them with your favorite salt. The flavor imparted by the duck fat is deep and earthy (an almost terroir effect) but it remains neutral enough to showcase a special salt if you have one. I am a huge fan of truffle salt, and the deep musky mushroom flavor compliments the existing flavor seamlessly. 

You can then pour off the excess fat into a heat-resistant container to use again! Or, if you've used an iron pan, you can leave a bit of oil in there to sit if you plan to use your pan again soon. I have yet to have duck fat go rancid on me, and it should be relatively stable as long as there isn't a bunch of potato crud in your pan. I'll be making eggs in that mess for breakfast!

Anyway, these fries ended up just as delicious and crispy as the fries we've had at restaurants that have been deep fried in fat, but this method is quick and easy for a deep-fry-fearer like myself!

Do you have a favorite animal fat to use in cooking?