A Season of Color — Week Two — Stinging Nettle

I had read in two different natural dyeing books** that Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) could be used for dyeing and would produce a green yellow. On June 2nd, the Stinging Nettle behind the barn and along the rock wall were about 12 -15 inches tall. I collected leaves and stems (wearing protective gloves to avoid the sting). In Jenny Dean’s book (referenced below), she mentions that the spring and early summer nettle gives a deeper color than the late summer and fall plants.

Stinging Nettle

I chopped the leaves and stems into pieces about 1 inch long, placed them in a fine mesh bag and soaked them overnight.  I had 220 grams of dye material. Again, this week, I used four small skeins of yarn weighing 110 grams. I created the dye bath by simmering the materials for one hour. The dye bath was then separated into three batches. The neutral dye bath had one skein of Alum/Cream of Tarter mordanted yarn and one skein of Copper Sulfate mordanted yarn. The acidic dye bath with the 2 Tablespoons of Lime Juice and the alkaline dye bath with the 1/2 teaspoon of Soda Ash, each had one skein of Alum/Cream of Tarter mordanted yarn. The results are pictured below.

Nettle yarn

I expected similar results to last week but was surprised when the acidic bath produced a darker shade than the alkaline bath. A reverse of last week’s results. I really liked the lovely shades of green-yellow and mossy green. Stinging Nettle will become a staple in my natural dyeing process beginning next year.

**Using Stinging Nettle as a dye source is mentioned in “Wild Color, The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes” by Jenny Dean and Karen Diadick Casselman, 1999 and in “Dye Plants and Dyeing, Plants and Gardens, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record” 1980.

A Season of Color — Week One — Dandelion

For many years, I have been following the blog of a natural dyer, Leena Riihelä, in Finland. This winter she decided to experiment with new dye materials found in her back yard. I have been following her results with great interest and it has inspired me to try a similar process here on the farm.

During the 2018 Gallery season, I will be doing a weekly natural dyeing experiment using plants, mushrooms and lichens found here on the farm. I have chosen Saturday as the “Dyeing Day”. I will be using white wool yarn from our wonderful Corriedale sheep. The yarn is spun for us at Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill in Mt. Horeb, WI. Prior to dyeing, the yarn has been mordanted using 10% weight of fiber (WOF) alum and 5% weight of fiber (WOF) Cream of Tarter. Some yarn has also been mordanted using a Copper Sulfate liquor. Mordanting allows the dye materials to adhere to the fiber.

Each week I will prepare three separate dye baths — a neutral dye bath, an acidic dye bath (adding 2 Tablespoons Lime Juice) and an alkaline dye bath (adding 1/2 teaspoon Soda Ash). A small skein of yarn will be placed in each dye bath. The neutral dye bath will also have the small skein mordanted with Copper Sulfate. Each dye bath will be simmered for one hour, the yarn removed, and then washed and rinsed until the water is clear. Based on experience, I am anticipating that many of these experiments will yield shades in the yellow to yellow-green colorways.

To create a dye bath, we will need to collect at least twice the weight of fiber in plant materials. More plant material means darker colors. Once collected, the plant material is placed in a fine mesh bag and soaked in water overnight. Plants with large leaves will need to have the leaves cut up into smaller pieces before placing in the mesh bag. The next morning, the soaked plant material is placed in the dye pot with additional water. The pot is brought to a simmer and the plant material is simmered for an hour. At this point, the dye bath is ready for dyeing. However, this season we will be taking the dye bath and dividing it into three equal batches so that we can create the neutral, acidic and alkaline baths described above.

The first experiment of the season, May 26th, was Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale). Dandelions have been used as a dye material since the Middle Ages. They have also been used medicinally and the leaves as a food source since early times.The source of the Dandelions was the lawn in front of the large barn. Dandelions blooming next to the barn The weight of the four small skeins to be dyed was 110 grams. I collected 220 grams of dandelion flower heads and proceeded to create the dye baths as described above. Pictured below are the results. The neutral dye bath produced a bright yellow as expected with the Alum/Cream of Tarter mordant and a lovely bronze color with the Copper Sulfate. The Lime Juice acidic dye bath produced a soft buttery yellow and the alkaline Soda Ash dye bath produced an orange-yellow. All the colors are lovely.

It’s a Slow Start, but We Made it

Tuesday, May 22nd, 6:30 AM. It is foggy and very damp. Overnight it rained lightly, adding to the moisture. Yesterday the waterline to the pastures was pressurized (successfully) for the first time in 2018. The previous day the four pastures closest to the barn finally passed their electrical tests in flying colors. The perimeter fence lines are carrying over 9000 volts of “pop”, hopefully enough to deter intruders and potential escapees (not to mention awakening careless, sleepy shepherds!). Yesterday the rams were moved out of their winter quarters next to the ewes and back into the addition of the “new barn”. There is now plenty of room in the addition as we are down to the last 6 round bales. Hopefully the temperatures in the addition will not be cold enough any longer for the lads.

Yesterday the flock knew that it was coming, one could sense their excitement. This morning they made their first exit from the barn in 2018 with good speed and no serious accidents. By 7:00AM they had, for the most part, settled down from flights of joy and excitement. Instead they were busy grazing their first lush green pasture for the year. It was safe to say that everyone of us (except the rams) were very happy! The first moments on pasture in 2018It was truly amazing to look back to a month ago when this scene was buried in 30 some inches of snow and cooled by the coldest April on record. Spring has been delayed, but finally there are hints of green in the maple grove and the pastures are starting to grown nicely.

Bianca was happy with the first grass of the season; she was too busy to pose for a picture. Bianca on pastureRuby has been here before, in fact. She celebrated her 14th birthday last month. She is now the oldest member of the flock. She has lost all of her front teeth which means that eating is a bit more of a challenge. (She gets extra treats at dinner each evening!) In addition, she lost the sight in her left eye this winter. Despite these set backs she managed quite well today. Here’s to you Ruby! Ruby at 14The grazing up along side the western hillside always seems to be the tastiest, I do not know why. But this area is always popular on the first day of grazing. First day of grazing - up the hilside.

There is still more work to be done to get the last three pastures ready to be grazed. There is a tree down in #2 to be cut up and removed. Fence lines in all three of the remaining pastures need some clean-up, including smaller downed branches in both #2 and #3. But with four pastures ready to go I do have a bit of a time before the sheep get to them. However, it is also that time of year when the flock expects visits from our B&B guests. Also sometime in the not too distant future it will be time to start making hay for next winter. Nevertheless this is the time to enjoy the peaceful scene of the flock on fresh pasture. The flock on spring pasture.

Fleeces, Blizzards and Barn Swallows

The last ten days have been exciting, to say the very least. Gretchen and I had planned to hold our annual online fleece sale this last Wednesday. All of our preparations went smoothly, until we discovered a computer error in all of the advanced notices which we had sent out. Luckily, that discovery was early enough that we managed to get an updated email sent in time to everyone concerned. This was also to be the first time that we had held the sale since we had redesigned our website. We were not certain how well the site would work and had no way of knowing until the moment that the sale began. Thankfully, the website functioned flawlessly. As usual, the first hour and a half of the sale was totally chaotic for the two of us. I am sure that many of our customers were frustrated by their inability to get through on the phone and the slow email response times. Nevertheless, virtually all of the fleeces were sold in the first two hours. And, as of Friday afternoon the very last fleece was sold. It has been a long time since we sold out that quickly. We thank all of our customers for their loyalty and their patience!

What many fleece customers did not know was that the fleece sale was sandwiched between a record breaking blizzard and long hours of subsequent snow removal. The storm did not sneak up on us. On Thursday, the 12th of April, nearly all of our winter’s snow had melted and the third wave of migratory birds had just arrived in force. The arrivals, loads of Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Flickers, and Eastern Phoebes are all insect eaters. Robins had arrived earlier, but they too are dependent upon bugs, worms and fruit. Snow was predicted to begin over Friday night and build into a blizzard Saturday through Monday morning. The prediction for Friday night snow fall was 3″. This is what 3 inches looked like early Saturday morning. Pre-blizzard snow fall Needless to say, the 3″ was closer to 12″. As indicated by the snow cone on the bird feeder, the wind had not yet started to blow in earnest. The snow came in waves on Saturday, again on Sunday and early into Monday, but once the winds started they did not let up. Wind speeds were up to 40 mph, out of the northeast. Sunday morning this was the view from our kitchen toward the barn. Snow drift next to the barnThe drift in front of the barn door was already over 4 feet tall and growing. Yet, right next to the drift the ground was blown clear. The trips to and from the barn were true adventures. We had to shovel through a deep drift outside the back door and then shovel a path around the cedar tree to get to the small clear area. Then we had to shovel a path through the drift in front of the door to the barn. I never was able to dig all the way down to ground level, but at least we could get to the door and into the barn. Luckily the lower level of the barn held up well in terms of little snow penetrating the sheep quarters. The flock at least seemed comfortable and we managed to get them well fed. In an hour after getting to the barn, chores were finished. It was now time to return to the house. All of our excavations from an hour earlier had disappeared completely. So we just re-shoveled, knowing that this would repeat itself over and over again.

Sunday the snow and wind did not let up. This was the view out the back door Sunday morning before we headed to the barn. Our previous path was gone, completely! Path out the back door drifted over From part way to the barn, the view back to the house was telling. There was lots of snow, and this is the side of the house that was relatively drifted clear! View of the B&B from the barnBy this time the drift next to the barn had grown further. It is going to be a long while before this mass of snow disappears. Snow drift next to barnThe space behind the drift was by then a drop of at least 3 feet. There would be another 2 feet of snow to get to ground level. Behind the large driftOur disappearing pathway into the barn had now evolved into a series of snow steps. It was strange having to walk up and then down to get to the barn door level. By the time this picture was taken the snow had let up enough that the path would not have to be completely re-dug, but there was still enough to remove (once again!)."Steps" into the barnThen, of course. there was always the return trip to the house. The walkway to the door actually curves far to the right. Our temporary path is a couple of feet of snow on top of one of the flower beds. Pathway to back doorEventually the storm abated. It was reported that we had about 30″ in total snow fall. There is now going to be a lot of melting before spring planting can begin and green grass appears in the pastures.

Over the last couple of days the weather has warmed up significantly. Our large flock of Robins had subsisted for a week by eating the old apples left on our crab apple trees. There are now enough exposed patches of ground that they are able to do better food wise. I have seem very few of the warblers that were here so recently. One wonders what the bird mortality was due to this storm.

Yesterday (Friday the 20th) I finally managed to remove all of the snow from our driveway and walks. It is nice to once more have more than one door accessible into the house. Yesterday I also shoveled out the last of the snow steps into the barn; all that is left is a three foot deep path. The weather forecast is for more sunshine and warmth. As strange as it seems, out barn swallows returned yesterday afternoon when three flew into and through the barn. It was luckily warm enough that the upper doors to the barn were open. This morning the numbers of swallow had increased. It is obvious that these are returning swallows as they are immediately landing on last year’s nests and carrying on long conversations about the state of everything. Besides sunshine and warmth, these characters make you hope and believe that spring might soon be here.



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Upcoming Events

* We are open year round for the sale of yarn. Before May 18th we are open by happenstance or by appointment

* Sheep shearing, early March

* Online Fleece Sale, mid-April. Contact us to be on the mailing list for immediate updates

* May 1st – the Bed and Breakfast opens for 2018

* Whitefish Bay Farm Gallery opens for its regular exhibition season Friday, May 18th. Open every day except Tuesdays, from Noon to 5 PM

* Special Gallery exhibits. Check here throughout the season for special events and shows. The fiber dyeing will occur (weather permitting) into early October

The current dyeing projects are scheduled as follows: May 12th – Cosmos, May 15 – Cochineal, May 18th – Indigo Blue, May 19th – Indigo Green, May 20th Indigo Purple.

* Gallery closes for the season after Sunday, October 21, 2018

* The Bed and Breakfast closes for the year October 21, 2018