Random thoughts of a fiber enthusiast - mostly fiber related, sometimes coherent

Month: May 2008 Page 1 of 2

Psst…Wanna See My Dye Notebook?

Dye Book - left side Dye Book - right side

This is my dye notebook from the natural dye workshop that we did in Italy. Pretty, isn’t it? It’s amazing the range of colors we got from just an hour or so of plant collections. Except for madder and cochineal, everything was collected on the property. Well, and olive leaves. Ildiko wasn’t sure if Gianni had already pruned his olives or not, so she grabbed some olive branches from her place. But we could have collected from the property, if we chose.

And for those of you who think that the color is off on the right side photo, let me assure you that it really is less saturated than the left. Different fabrics take up dye differently.

IldikoWait. Let’s back up. Here’s Ildiko. Master dyer extraordinaire. She lives somewhere south of Perugia, and came up to give us a 2 day natural dye workshop.

Upon start of the first day, she took us for a walk along the driveway and talked to us about plant collections, seasons, time of day, etc. As we walked, we collected the plants that were appropriate for the season, or at least, close to the season, since spring is late this year in Italy. The bonus? Poppies are at their peak while we were there. In a normal year, we would have missed it.

So, what did we collect? Apple, walnut, olive and poplar leaves; poppy blossoms; and something she called vita alba. I haven’t figured out what vita alba is yet, or even if I’m spelling it correctly. It is some sort of soft vine. The closest I can figure out is that it’s similar to morning glory. But since it wasn’t in bloom, I couldn’t tell. (For those botanists or garden enthusiasts, you can see a photo of it here.) We only picked the soft tips — the new growth.

We also talked about the other plant materials available: scotch broom — it wasn’t in bloom yet, but the blossoms, when using a copper modifier, produce a nice light yellow. Less stem, the purer the color will be. (Yes, Grace, we all dosed up on our allergy meds and nose sprays.) The leaves from the Sambuco tree, or European Elderberry, produces a beautiful violet, but it’s not a stable color (not colorfast). Yellows tend to be weak colors, and will fade over time. This is the reason that many old tapestries have blue where green should have been. The yellows have faded out over the course of the years, decades, centuries.

So, you want to know how this is done? The following is a series of steps to follow.

1. Collect plant material.

You can use both dry or fresh plant material. You will need more fresh material than dried, but the color will be more luminescent and brilliant than the dry material will produce.

Collecting Poppies

The above photo shows us collecting poppy blossoms in the field below the house. We just the blossoms, so we beheaded 1 kilo worth of poppies.

Collecting Olive Leaves

And, here, Ildiko is showing us how to strip the leaves off of the olive branches. So, be forewarned — any olive branch I’m likely to offer will have all the leaves stripped off of it. It makes a beautiful yellow gold.

2. Soak the plant materials for a few hours for soft plant materials (poppy blossoms, vita alba, very fresh young leaves), or overnight for tougher plant materials (mature tree leaves, branches).

Soaking Poppies Soaking Plant Materials
L: poppy blossom.
R: (from left to right) poplar leaves, vita alba, olive leaves.

3. Premordant your fiber.

We used alum as our primary mordant. Cotton requires a second mordant — tannic acid. We use powdered oak galls (tannic acid) for this step. You could use oak galls, but the powder will provide you with more precise control.

4. Simmer the plant material in the soak water. The soaking will already have started breaking down the cellular structure, thus releasing the dye, but simmering it will move the process right along and extract all the remaining dye material.

Simmering Poppies

How long? Again, it depends on the plant material. For the poppies (above), we simmered it for 45 minutes, but typically, you would simmer for 2 hours or so.

5. Strain the dye liquid. You don’t really want the plant materials sticking to your fiber, do you? (Well, you could if you want to fast track for a test batch for new plant material that you just happen to have collected while you were out walking the dog. You know, helping your neighbors prune that plant. Cough. Cough. Honest, Penny, I wouldn’t do that to your garden.)

Straining Olive Solution

Here’s Ildiko and Toni straining out the olive leaves. You can dump the used plant material in your compost pile, if you wish. There is nothing in there except water and plant material.

As for straining devices. Cheap colanders from yard sales. If you want to be really particular, use cheese cloth, but it’s really not necessary. And if the dye material is even remotely acidic, don’t use anything that might react to the acid and thus throw your color off.

Me? I had Martin make me a strainer from a 3 gallon paint bucket (unused) from the hardware store by drilling lots and lots of holes in it. This way, I can nest it in a 5 gallon paint bucket, and pour my liquid in.

6. Simmer your fiber in the dye liquid.

How hot? It depends on your fiber. If you are dyeing silk, don’t go above 70C (or 158F). You will damage the silk protein above that temperature. But generally, you want a low simmer (about 50C, or 120F) for about 2 hours. (For the poppies, we only simmered the fiber for 45 minutes because the dye is so delicate.)

Fiber In Olive Bath
Toni checking on the fiber in olive bath.

Also, for madder, the temperature is crucial. As long as it stays below 80C, it will produce a beautiful deep red. But if it goes above 80C, it will turn to a brick red — orange tones will appear.

7. Rinse and dry your fiber.

If you are dyeing wool, be careful that you don’t shock the fiber. Put the fiber in same temperature rinse water, and gradually cool it down. Of course, if you aren’t trying to do everything, including reusing the same dye pots, drying the fiber and putting samples in your dye notebook, you could just let the fiber cool in the dye bath overnight.

Dye Samples -- PoppiesThis is the page for the poppy. (Click to see larger picture.) I’m having problems showing the true colors, even with Photoshop. I’ll have to keep working at it, but there is a green cast, as well as a red cast to this. The silk is a beautiful blue grey with red tones. The wool is a pale soft green with some blue tones. The alpaca is pale pale blue, and the sheep wool is greenish yellow.

There are 2 samples of silk and wool. The smaller sample on top is because after the 1st batch, we realized that we still had a lot of dye in the dye bath, and decided to throw some more fiber in for a second bath. As you can see, the 2nd batch is similar, but the color is just “less” all the way around. There is less red tones to the silk, so I think the red exhausted much faster. I also think the the red “struck” fast on the silk. Would the wool get more blue tones if we let it simmer longer than 45 minutes? I don’t know. Maybe.

The reason that it didn’t exhaust the first time was likely due to the fact that we didn’t use a full 4:1 weight of fiber (wof) ratio. It was probably closer to 6:1 or higher.

Oh, and I want to return and take another class with Ildiko in the fall (maybe 2009, to spread the costs out a bit). Different plant materials will be available then. We also talked about how you can produce a whole series of like colors from a single plant (e.g. walnut), based on the season that you collected the plant material, the part used (fresh leaves, bark, nuts), the fiber, and the temperature at which you simmered the fiber at. Can’t you see it now?

My head is still spinning with ideas. Last night, one of the ladies that I play cards with each week says that her yard is going crazy. She can’t keep up with all the new growth. I offered my services…Can you say “fresh dye material”?

Incidentally, I wonder if California Poppies will produce the same colors?

SOP Summary:

  1. soak plant material overnight; mordant your fiber
  2. simmer plant material @ 50C for 2 hours
  3. strain and add fiber
  4. simmer in dye bath @ 50C for 2 hours


I returned from Italy with a very, very torqued lower back. Sitting, laying down, standing, everything and anything for any duration of time is painful. So, I won’t be going through my hundreds of Italy pictures anytime soon. In lieu of that, I will post the e-Post Cards that I sent home each day, in chronological order.

Day 1

We arrived in Umbria this afternoon for a late lunch, after stopping off at a store selling fresh truffles and a small museum in Monterchi, home of “Madonna del parto” — a fresco of the pregnant Madonna by Piero della Francesca.

We spent the afternoon sitting on the patio, and dozing. We start a 2 day natural dye workshop tomorrow morning.

Farmhouse at Meridiana The farmhouse where we are staying.
View of the Valley The view from the farmhouse — that’s Tuscany at the other end of the valley (7km away); olive grove on the hillside, and alpacas down below.
The lovelorn peacock and peahen who are honking to each other all day. Thankfully, they’ve stopped for the night, so we should be able to get some sleep. But I hear they start up really early in the morning again.

Day 3

We finished the dye workshop. The range of colors we produced is absolutely amazing. Each day of the workshop, we had lunch “across the street.” But the street is about 1-2 km straight down a small gravel drive, through some pastures, vineyards, and olives. Last night, we went to dinner at a little restaurant in Montone. It was in the part of the external infrastructure of the walled city — a series of rooms with beautiful domed ceilings.

Lunch Table Lunch table. The starter course of bruschetta with all different types of spreads: olive, boar, fish…I can’t remember it all. Wine comes more readily than water.
Bella at the Dye Workshop Bella (Linda’s Bolognese) on our dye work table with fiber dyed with madder (the bright orange). The 2 samples of fabric in Toni’s sample book were dyed with poppies that we collected on Saturday afternoon. The color of the poppy is exactly like the color of the madder dyed fiber (orange red), but the dyed fiber is a very beautiful blue that leans toward red on silk, but green that leans toward blue on wool. Both extremely lovely and elegant. Too bad the poppy is not colorfast.
Montone Before dinner last night, we took a walk around the town of Montone. The streets are incredibly narrow and steep.

Day 4

Yesterday, we went to the city of Perugia, which is the capital of Umbria. It’s another walled city with Etruscan roots. At the bottom of the wall city is a small weaving studio that has been run by the same family for many (4?) generations. The woman that runs it now just moved to the current location (an old Abbey) a few years ago. It was the first time that many of these looms were moved in over a century. This is the last hand woven jacquard loom studio in Italy (and possibly the world). Jacquard is typically done by machines now. (We’ll be visiting a linen weaving studio today with machine jacquard looms).


Etruscan Gate in Perugia Etruscan gate at the bottom of the city center
Weaving Studio in Perugia Abbey full of looms — all jacquards in this picture
Jacquard Samples Samples of jacquard weavings

Day 5

We spent most of the day in Tuscany. We started the day off in Anghiari, were we visited a small linen factory, Bussatti. They have a wool carding machine in the basement, not because they wove with it, but because the family has always carded wool, so they are continuing the tradition. We then proceeded to the linen room. Believe it or not, the room is not much larger than Ian & Sandy’s LR/DR area, with about 4 or 5 looms. But since they are mechanized, they can make bolts of fabric daily — very different from the weaving studio from the previous day, where she was only able to produce 50 cm of damask a day.

We then went to a small local olive oil producer who produces olive oil in small batches with the ancient stone mills. They not only presses their own, but other small farmers can bring their own olives in to press. Francesco is very passionate about the old process. The only “new” equipment is a centrifuge for extracting the water from the oil. “These people today have no patience for sitting around the vat for 2 days drinking coffee, smoking, and talking. They want their oil today.” We ended the tour with a small tasting of olive oils and light lunch.

Next, it was on to Sansepolcro, to visit Museo Civicca, to see some more of Piero della Francesca. Sansepolcro lay claim as his home town. In the museum, we bumped into a Stanford Alumni tour group (small world!). There was also a fascinating collection of medieval keys and locks.

Not done yet!

We then headed to Citta di Castello to a lace museum, where they not only wove huck lace, but also handmade lace edgings. We caught them as they were closing, although that was what our appointed time was. These Italians. What can you do?

After the lace museum, we stopped at a small truffle place, run by a husband and wife team. The truffle hunters come each morning around 10 with their day’s bounty. They buy, grade, and sort the truffles. By 2-3 PM, they have shipped the fresh truffles around the EU for the restaurants. They pride themselves in having the truffles to their EU clients within 24 hours of the truffles coming out of the ground. US clients in 48 hours. Of course, we can’t end the tour without more tastings and a glass of prosecco.


Basinette Bassinette in linen shop.
Olive Mill Francesca describing his olive oil processes.
Olive Oil Tasting Olive Oil tasting (and drinking and eating).

Day 6

Wednesday is market day in the villages. We started off the day with the market in Umbertide. It’s like every other village market day (just think Saturday Market in Portland, but larger). There was only one picture I took that seemed share worthy — a baby carriage (very fashionable!) with stalks of artichokes underneath.

We then headed over to Gianni’s knitting factory (Gianni is the owner of the farm we are staying at). It’s a mid quality knitting factory that creates knitted garments for a variety of people, from blankets, to cashmere gloves, to sweaters.

We spent the afternoon on Isola Maggiore in Lago Trasimone, the 4th largest lake in Italy (water taxi outbound, and ferry inbound). It’s an old medieval fishing island. At the turn of the century, Elena (aristocracy) decided to revive the town by creating a cooperative for crocheted lace, building on the netting experience from the fishing nets.

Afterwards, we stopped at a roadside bar and had wine and caffe while watching the storm clouds build over the lake. We had a thunderstorm for about an hour, and this morning, there is a beautiful fog over the entire valley, with the sun coming through.


Shopper\'s Baby Carriage Baby Carriage as a Shopping Carriage. Check out the fresh artichokes, still on the stalk under the carriage!
Fishing Nets Fishing Nets on Isola Maggiore.
Crocheted Lace Doily Sample of Crocheted Doily
Lago Trasimeno Lago Trasimone. Isola Maggiore is the large island on the right.

Day 7

Short post because we are leaving early for a long day.

We stayed close to home yesterday and visited several local artists and producers: glass artist, ceramics/pottery shed, bee farm (truffle honey!) and winery, as well as a quick trip to an Abbey. We found the ultimate necessity for Shelton at the back of the Abbey…a BYOJug Wine for a euro per liter! *And* it was decent wine — Montepulciano.

We then had a wine tasting at the winery. The spread was incredible. After the wine tasting, Alice had her first taste of grappa. Her expression says it all.


Abbey Abbey
Jug Wine Jugs being filled with wine
Donini Winery Tasting Table Wine tasting table at Donini Winery.
Alice Alice after her first taste of grappa

Day 8

We spent the entire day in and around Cortona. We did a little shopping, and visited a small shop owned by a friend. Ivan started out with a small tabaccheri (sp? tobacco shops here sell everything). He then started digging in the “basement” and excavated 3 more levels of rooms, and turned the lower levels into an art gallery and shop that specializes in hand made goods by local artisans. He welcomed us in with wine, fresh foccacia, cheese, meats and variety of warm spreads. Yum!

We had lunch at a friend of Linda’s — Brigitte and Luc’s olive farm on the Tuscany hillside. Since Linda can’t drive directly over (narrow, steep, and rutted gravel road), we parked at Le Celle, where St. Francis of Assisi spent 12 years in solitary. There is a hiking trail that we took to Brigitte & Luc’s farm. It was about a 30 minute walk through the hills and forest. Luc made us a wonderful lunch of fresh vegetables (fava bean salad, carrot salad, roasted asparagus, and braised leeks), followed by vegetable lasagne and salad.  After the salad was a cheese course.  Luc also brought out some of Brigitte’s canned figs to put on top of the cheese. The dessert was a wonderful chocolate mouse. We then followed it up with coffee/tea and Belgium chocolates. And this was a light lunch. We needed the hike back to the car to work all that off.

We ended the day back in Cortona before driving home.


Le Celle Le Celle
Outdoor Dining Brigitte’s outdoor dining room — wisteria covered; cut into the hillside with a beautiful view of the entire valley

Day 9

Just a quick note because we are leaving the farm today. I am bereft.

We opted to break from the schedule yesterday and just have a lazy day around the farm. It meant that I couldn’t see the shoe maker for him to measure me for some nice Italian boots. Oh, well, my bank account is probably better for it. Instead, we did our farewell lunch at Monte Santa Maria — the highest peak in Umbria. Oscaria is this little place in the middle of nowhere with a view to die for — and the food! Our lunch lasted over 3 hours.

On the way back, the Fix It Again Tony van/bus’ passenger door was stuck (off the tracks and stuck in latched position). Have you ever tried to find a service station on a Saturday afternoon in Italy? We finally stopped at a gas station with a bar. There were 3 men sitting on the porch, and they put themselves into the project. The first (young) guy said, “Impossible!” Of course, the 2 older men had to then prove to the young guy (and the 5 women in the van) that it wasn’t. They then roped in a few passers by who came in for a fill. Then the young guy’s very pregnant wife also jumped in. Quite a scene.

At the end, while we were thanking them, I *think* I got my first indecent proposal — one of the older guys wouldn’t let go of my hand and held it to his chest. Thank goodness I couldn’t speak Italian. (Even if I did, I would have pretended otherwise.) I got out of there pronto.

Today, we head back to Florence, and then to the airport at 5AM. Next missive will likely be from stateside.


View from Monte Santa Maria

Day 10

It was with deep, deep sorrow that we said goodbye to the farm, alpacas, and dogs at the farm — not so much with the peacocks though.

Linda took us to the Chianti Cashmere Farm on our way back to Florence. Nora escaped from Long Island 25-35 years ago and started the Cashmere business in the 90s. She also breeds Bolognese as a sideline, before the cashmere business took off. She had 2 5 week old puppies, both sold, thankfully. Adorable. But so were the kids on the farm.

It was also unfortunate that I didn’t escape the boot maker. We stopped in the town with the boot maker for lunch. I never knew ragu could be so good. (And, yes, I bought a pair of boots that he custom fitted for me.)

Now, we are back in Florence. I will see if the hard bed at the hotel will fix my back. At this point, I can’t lift any of my bags. I think my sitting bone is bruised from sitting in a van/bus that has little or no shocks on rutted gravel roads. I’m not looking forward to 12+ hours on planes tomorrow. They might need a stretcher to pull me out of the plane.

Good night!

Frederico, the bootmaker Frederico, the boot maker. Doesn’t he look just like Giuseppe, Pinocchio’s father?

Okay. I’m done now. Forgive the typos. This post took hours longer than I expected, and even with the breaks in between, I’m sore. Forgive me while I go and pass out on the floor. In the meantime, I’ll go and catch up with my Tivo and blog reading. Preferably from a prone position.


Sunday, 11 May, 2008 07:11

View of the Valley

Yesterday was our first full day in Umbria, and was the start of our 2 day workshop on natural dyes. This is our view from the house, my room, and the dye shed. Gorgeous, isn’t it. Down the valley, less than 7 km away, is Tuscany. We are sitting right on the border in Umbria.

Ildika, our natural dye instructor, took us on a little walk along the road, and we gathered fresh dye materials. We did a little cutting of chestnut leaves, apple leaves, and some sort of vine growing along the road side. In the afternoon, we collected bright orange red poppies, while Ildika gathered poplar leaves. She also brought along some olive prunings to dye with.

Rest of the day, we talked about the dyeing process, color stability of various dye plants, mordents, and fibers. We washed some wool and alpaca, mordented them along with some silk, cotton, and wool fabrics. The poppy dye bath was ready to dye by late afternoon. Wow! What a gorgeous, gorgeous color. Too bad it’s not color fast, but wow! (Pictures later, since the camera cable is upstairs in the room.)

Last night, we decided to stay in for dinner instead of going out to a local restaurant. Ildika made dessert from the sambucus flower (elderberry) fritters we found growing along the driveway. Yum, yum, yum.

Pictures later.

More dyeing today. We prepared cochineal and madder for dyeing, in addition to the fresh matters.

Ed. Note: I can’t figure out how to change the timezone for the blog without screwing too many things up on the server, so I’ll be including the actual date/time of the post in the post

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