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!