Dyeing and Those Blue Sugar Loaf Wrappers

This interesting article was posted a few months back and is of relevance to all fiber artists.

History Myths Debunked

sugars2

A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no actual instances of this practice are known in America’s colonial era. Apart from lack of evidence, it is illogical. Refined sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthiest could afford. Not the sort who are scrimping and recycling their wrapping paper or dying their own fabric. (If the family budget couldn’t stretch to include sugar, what did folks back then use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or muscovado sugar. Or nothing.)

But lo and behold, several household management books published in the mid-nineteenth century do mention this practice. In one of them, The American Frugal Housewife (1835), author Lydia Childs tells how to make various cheap dyes, including “a fine purple slate color” by boiling sugar wrapping paper in vinegar with alum and boiling it in an iron kettle. In another, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s Frugal House-Book; a…

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Plants for Dyeing: Comfrey

I’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.

Plants for Dyeing: Wild Aster

Here in Connecticut, asters in several pale colors  grow wild in just about any uncultivated space, blooming in late summer and early fall. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning “star”. Another of its names is starwort. An amazing number varieties have developed, but where I live, the New England Aster, with small light lavender flowers, is probably the most prevalent. Collecting enough for dyeing small amounts of wool is no problem. Its stems, flowers, and leaves will provide a range of yellow based shades, depending upon mordant:

Alum – Yellow-green

Chrome – Gold, brass

Tin – Yellow-gold

Iron – Grayish green, muted

No mordant – yellow-green, pale

The color of the flower is immaterial for dyeing purposes, so don’t hold out hope for lavender! Aster is poisonous in large doses, but was used in the past for bleeding, lung disorders, dysentery, and malaria. Some Native American tribes smoked the dried root, ate the cooked plant and also brewed a tea from the leaves. Take care not to confuse asters with daisy fleabane, which blossoms earlier. Also beware of bees – the pink New England asters in my garden are abuzz with them. They tend to settle for a while in the yellow center.

This is the treacherous month when autumn days

With summer’s voice come bearing summer’s gifts.

Beguiled, the down-trodden aster lifts

Her head and blooms again.

Helen Hunt Jackson, Autumn Sonnet

Needlework in Folk Magic

I’ve come to dislike those women’s novels that revolve around the characters’ involvement in a knitting circle or quilting group or the like. They tend to be a bit too emotional for my taste, long on sentiment and romance and short on good writing. Recently, however, I completed several historical novels in which knitting or another of the fiber arts played key roles in moving the plots along. I generally post my book reviews on my other blog, You’re History, but I’ve decided to publish the special fiber arts novels here.

The first title is Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier, which I reviewed here.

In this story, women living in late 18th century London are adding to their incomes by Burning Bright by Tracy Chevaliermaking buttons out of metal rings, which they wrap with thread in intricate designs and colors. This was a genuine cottage industry for about 100 years, and the buttons were known as Dorset buttons because the practice originated in that shire. In Burning Bright, the buttons serve as the vehicle through which two women and their families become intertwined with each other. I recently wrote a short article about Dorset buttons and posted it here.

 Another fascinating novel in which knitting, crochet, and sewing are central to the story is Solstice Wood, by Patricia A. McKillip. This  is the sequel to Winter Rose, a love story about a human woman who fell in love with a “fay” man. Solstice Wood is set in the same American town, and the same house, but in modern times. Sylvia Lynn comes from a family that has lived in Lynn Hall for generations. Several years back, she left home rather abruptly, moving across the country, but now she must return for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. Sylvia is stunned to learn that Lynn Hall is now hers, according to her grandfather’s will. She plans to stay only a few days, and on her last evening, attends the Fiber Guild, a women’s club that has met at Lynn Hall for a century. It becomes more and more clear that something peculiar is going on, for the guild members seem unusually intent upon their designs and stitches.

I won’t set down any spoilers about what happens to Syl and her family. This is a terrific story, part reality, part fantasy, with more than a touch of magic. It incorporates many classic folkloric motifs and themes, but the one that most interested me is the needlework connection. In mythology and folklore, spinning, sewing, and threads play an important role. In story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur, for example, a thread is laid so the hero can find his way back out. The 3 Fates, spinning, weaving, and finally cutting the thread, represent the cycle of life. Fairy tale heroines prick their fingers on needles or spindles, or are forced into a life of endless spinning.

In Solstice Wood, the Fiber Guild’s creations are designed to protect one world from another, using age old methods known to wise women everywhere. Today all us fiber artists recognize and appreciate the stress relieving properties of needlework. By reading such books as Solstice Wood, and by studying the magical properties of women’s work and women’s powers in folklore, I’ve come to appreciate the fiber arts in another way.

Another favorite is A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce. Categorized as a novel for young adults, this first novel goes beyond age limits. A retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, it brings rich characters, modern themes, and a touch of magic and romance to the process of spinning wool and dyeing cloth. Not to be missed. You can find my review here.

 

 

 

In  August, I read The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen, and am just getting around Cover artto listing it here. This is set in Sleepy Hollow, NY, a town that sets the stage for all things eerie. The novel’s about a family that has run a knitting shop for generations, where not only great yarns and patterns are sold, but also offers a service knitting magical spells into garments as a bonus. Now the shop is threatened by redevelopment, and the family gathers to determine what to do, if anything, to save the business. Reviewed here .

Wool Dyeing: Copper Penny Blue

This dye substance is not a plant, but it would have been available in one form or other to many colonial home dyers. Known as “Copper Penny Blue”, this is a dye that does not need a separate mordant or even heat. The recipe is simple but it does take from 2-4 weeks for the process to complete itself. Fill a gallon jar to about three inches from the top with non-sudsing ammonia and put in: either 2 cups of pennies, OR a length of copper pipe OR a coil of copper wire. Screw the lid on tightly. Let this mixture sit for a week and watch it become a beautiful blue. At this point remove the copper , with rubber gloves, and put in the pre-wetted fleece to soak; varying the time gives different color effects. It is also possible to do this with white vinegar instead of ammonia. Some recipes say to add a few teaspoons of salt to fix the color.

I’ve used this method several times with different results. One was a pale aqua, and the others various shades of icy green. I think it might be more reliable to use wire or pipe as the amount of copper in pennies these days is so small. Dyeing times, once the dye is made, have ranged from 1 day to 3 weeks of soaking the wool fiber. If you leave the jar in the sun it speeds the process somewhat. I would NOT try heating the mixture on a stove or fire, however.

The Versatile Blogger Award

 versatileblogger111
I just found out that the amazing Erin  from kniterly nominated me for a Versatile Blogger award. The best recognition is the kind you get from your peers. Plus it’s nice to know that there are people enjoying what you’re writing 🙂
So this is what I have to do:
If you have been nominated, nominate 15 fellow bloggers that you love and who are relatively (fair warning, I am taking “relatively” and running with it) new to blogging. Let them know that you have nominated them. Share 7 random facts about yourself. Thank the blogger who has nominated you. Then add the Versatile Blogger Award picture to your post.
Because I follow only nine blogs, I’m nominating nine rather than fifteen.
Here are 7 random facts about me… I am going to attempt to make them non-knitting/cat/library related. This is going to be HARD
1. I have lived in Connecticut most, but not all, of my life..
2. I love to travel, especially to England, Italy, and France, but it’s getting so expensive.
3. I have naturally curly hair that I have only recently come to appreciate.
4. I am a psychologist.
5. History is my avocation, something that travel stimulates.
6. I love cats, dogs, goats and animals in general.
7.I’m most proud of my long marriage, my two kids, and my two grandchildren.
The blogs I would like to nominate are:
These are great blogs, always interesting, timely, and, well, versatile. Check them out and add some quality to your RSS.

Fiber Arts: A Little Poetry

Autumn — overlooked my Knitting —

1482 Leber de Natura Rer

Dyes — said He — have I —
Could disparage a Flamingo —
Show Me them — said I —

Cochineal — I chose — for deeming
It resemble Thee —
And the little Border — Dusker —
For resembling Me —

Emily Dickinson

O, fellow! come, the song we had last night.

Mark it, Cesario; it is old and plain;

The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,

And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,

Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,

And dallies with the innocence of love,

Like the old age.

Shakespeare
Twelfth Night. Act ii. Sc. 4

Quilts

(for Sally Sellers)

Like a fading piece of cloth

I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter

My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able

To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days

When just woven I could keep water

From seeping through

Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave

Dazzled the sunlight with my

Reflection

I grow old though pleased with my memories

The tasks I can no longer complete

Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only

this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end

Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt

That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to

Will hear my whispers

And cuddle

near

by Nicki Giovanni