Lily of the Valley

The house I grew up in had a big patch of lily of the valley (and lots of other perennials) next to the front door, which we never used. I don’t even remember if there were steps going to that door, though I may be confusing it with my mother’s current front door, which doesn’t have steps. I suppose porch doors that open into the kitchen get used the most in old farmhouses.

Lily of the valley is one of my favorite flowers, as are most of the other flowers that grew around that house. When Mr. Q and I moved into our current house (a bland, pseudo-reproduction in a suburban northern Virginia neighborhood), I set about planting all my childhood favorites. After several failed attempts (I blame the unamended clay topsoil for the failures), I now have two thriving patches of lily of the valley on either side of my doorstep. I like lily of the valley so much that I named one of our dogs (the only one who came to us without a name) Lily.

This time of year, the lily of the valley are in decline. They bloom here in late April, early May. Their leaves start to look a little tattered and worn out by mid-June. See what I mean? They’re the leaves in the foreground; japanese iris is in the background:


Usually, I leave the leaves alone so the plants can collect as much energy as possible and put it into getting larger or making seeds. But this year, I used some in a natural dye experiment.

The sources I’ve read all say that lily of the valley should produce a yellow-green color on wool, which I assume would veer more toward yellow or brown the closer we get to fall. I collected a bucketful of leaves, which turned out to be over a pound. Most of the leaves were still green but a few were brown. I made a dye liquor with them in my trusty enameled lobster pot and kept it just below a simmer until the leaves look wilted/cooked & the green parts looked more yellow/brown. In went my samples, which cooked at roughly the same temp for another hour and then I let them cool overnight. And the next day. And overnight again. These are the colors I got:

Lilly Of The Valley Yarn Samples

I’m trying to do a little better with the pictures; I used “the big camera” for these – the Nikon D90 – instead of my iPhone. And then I made some adjustments in PhotoShop to get closer to the actual color. (No, my monitor isn’t calibrated. No, I don’t know what all the settings are on the camera and yes, in that respect, I might as well be using the iPhone.)

So. I suppose these are a deep yellow – brown, almost beige in the alum- and copper-mordanted samples on the left. The iron-mordanted sample, on the far right, is the most interesting to me because it didn’t come out looking gray. It’s definitely more of a deep khaki color.

Today I revived the indigo vat that I shared with some of my Loudoun Needleworker buddies and am fooling around with it. The next post will probably be about that and my hands smelling like rubber gloves.


Day 6-7 Avocado Dye Experiment

Well, I couldn’t wait any more. With the butterfly bush dye experiment, I admit I also dyed some samples in the avocado dye baths. See?

avocado-dyed samples

Imagine the yarn is layed out in a circle. Starting with the top-most bunch of samples going counter-clockwise, we have:

    Pre-mordanted samples – alum, copper, iron 
    Pit-dyed samples – alum, copper, iron 
    Peel-dyed samples – alum, copper, iron

I realize now that there’s a better way to display these, but bear with me as I fool around.

I couldn’t wait any more to try dying with the avocado dye liquors. Plus, I needed one of the pots for the butterfly bush experiment. So Saturday, I put both of the avocado liquors into separate containers and then, because I’m not the best estimator or planner, I did some switching around to get all of the peel liquor into the biggest container. And by then – after rinsing and transferring, I just decided to try the liquors.

I cooked the pit dye bath (with sample) for a little over an hour and then let them cool in the pot overnight. I rinsed, dried them, and when I twisted them into skeins, they were dusty/sandy with starch from the pits – ugh. But otherwise, okay. They are, as Mr. Q noted, pretty peachy, except for the iron-mordanted sample, which is a pinkish gray. I wonder if a sample can be mordanted with iron but at a lesser concentration to get a lighter gray? Probably not – it probably doesn’t work that way, right? But maybe. (Anyone with experience/chemistry to back them up, please chime in.)

The peel dye bath is in a large clear plastic container sitting in full-sun on the deck. I put the samples in Saturday afternoon and left them in until this morning. Really, they only had 1 day cooking in the sun. The results are … brown. I’ll check them again in a day or two – it’s been consistently in the 90s with lows in the mid-70s, which should be plenty warm to get some more saturated results. I hope.

In addition to all that activity yesterday, I cook the rest of the butterfly bush blooms in the liquor that I used Saturday for about 2 hrs, let the liquid cool for a few hours, and then strained &  decanted it into 2 1-gallon jugs (milk & OJ jugs). The second just is 3/4 filled, so it’s not quite 2 gallons. I meant to cook it down some first, but … eh. Oh well. Hopefully it will keep.

And last, today I trimmed most of my lily of the valleys (convallaria majalis) and started a dye bath with them. They’re supposed to produce something from light green to a gold color, according to Natural Dyes and Home Dying, depending on what time of year the leaves are picked. Of course, this same book talks about using chrome as a mordant (a no-no these days), so we’ll see what color I get. Lily of the Valley leaves (and flowers and berries) are also toxic, so this may be the most dangerous thing I’ve dyed with so far. (Or maybe not; I am being careful & using goggles & gloves when handling the dye liquids.)

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia Davidii) Natural Dye

I’ve planted lots of butterfly bushes in my yard. By lots I mean more than 10. I started with two – a white one and a purple one – ordered online as bare roots; all the rest are children of those plants. I got them originally because I love lilacs but still don’t have a lilac that’s old enough to flower and because butterfly bushes attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. They flower from July until frost, generally late October/early November here in Northern Virginia, which is far longer than the spring bloom-time for lilacs. The blooms do not smell at all like lilacs, nor are they as powerful smelling as lilac blooms.

I read somewhere (online, probably) that all parts of the plant can be used as a natural dye to produce greens/greenish-blues/teals. I also know that if you dead-head the blooms (trim the spent blooms), a butterfly bush will put more of it’s energy into making even more blooms. Yesterday I dead-headed all but 2 butterfly bushes (the untouched ones are too big for me to get all the spent blooms off of), which when weighed, was 3lbs 6oz of spent blooms with a few leaves, active flowers, and lots of insects.

Butterfly bush spent blossoms

At 2:30, I put 1lb of the spent blooms in my enamaled lobster pot with enough tap water to cover the plant material. I have an electric buffet stove with 2 burners that I set up on my screened-in porch and started the pot over medium heat. I should have turned the heat up to medium high or high – about 3 hours later, the green parts of the plant material had faded to a mustard yellow, the blooms that were still purple turned kind of a translucent white-gray, and many spiders had escaped the pot aided by a giant chopstick between the pot rim and a potted plant.

I strained most of the plant material from the dye liquor, but didn’t use a strainer fine enough to catch the individual shriveled brown flowers. Into the pot went:

10yd sample skein of pre-mordanted yarn (alum)
10yd sample skein of pre-mordanted yarn (copper)
10yd sample skein of pre-mordanted yarn (iron)
4oz pre-mordanted merino (copper)
48g of the same merino previously mordanted and dyed with mint

An hour & a half later, I turned the heat off and left the fiber in the dye pot overnight. Here are the sample skeins after 30mins:

Preliminary results - 30min mark
(small because the focus is off and I’m sparing you some eyestrain)

Rinsed and dried, here are the results:
butterfly bush dye: skeins &nbsp &nbsp butterfly bush dye: roving

I’m surprised that I’ve got what’s essentially a deep yellow with a hint of green in the alum & copper-mordanted fibers (the iron became that deep khaki color). I wonder now if the leaves and stems alone would yield a different color.

Brilliant Visualizations


Lovely little flowers, right? Nope – it’s much more than that: it’s data.

In college, I took a class in Discourse Analysis, which is kind of like diagramming sentences but more so, with much looser rules. That class was one of two that convinced me to ditch my Creative Writing major and switch to Rhetoric. What Walter Benjamin has done is essentially perform a type of discourse analysis on various texts and then charted the results in a unique (to me) way. Very cool. Please click through (on the picture) and look at a more magnified version of this; it’s well worth the trip/extra window/extra tab.

This picture also reminds me of Edward Tufte’s work, particularly Envisioning Information because it’s the only one of his that I have; though the others look equally good & interesting, I just never got around to getting them.

Also: this pic came to me by way of Jen Beckman’s 20×200 Project, who’s tag line is “Great Artists. Affordable Prices. New Prints Every Week.” I haven’t gotten anything yet; still waiting to fall completely in love.

It’s all about the visuals …

First, an update on the avocado dye experiment:

Avocado Dye Experiment, Day 5

Day 5 after adding water this morning to bring the water level back up over the materials. Mr. Q. called the one on the left a peach color and I reluctantly concede that he’s right. While it’s only day 5 of what I envisioned being a long dye experiment, I’m starting to get impatient, but not enough to dye some of my samples. Maybe tomorrow.

And now for something completely different.

I started a micro blog on tumblr. But do I really need another account? I just started account for Hurl Madgesty (email and on facebook) to keep potty-mouthed derby me separate from potty-mouthed regular me. And how many people do I know that actually use tumblr and would see the stuff that I want to share? And also: I’m thinking about switching to WordPress so that I have more control over the design (which I’m going to start futzing with on blogger first) and so I can respond to comments in-line (if I can do it on blogger, I’ve missed it so far).

Where was I?

Oh, yes – posts on tumblr. Or rather, posts here instead of on tumblr, i.e., I’m going to start posting more often and the posts are going to be smaller and probably pictures or links to pictures or … you know, small stuff. Not epically long cathartic posts (thanks for sticking with me through that), though I’m not promising there won’t be more of those. Are you ready?

Day 3 Avocado Dye Experiment

I forgot to take pictures yesterday, but not so today:

On the left is a sample from the pit dye bath and, on the right, one from the peel dye bath. I may have forgotten to take pictures, but I have been heating both baths up to a steaming point twice a day, which is probably excessive but I’m impatient with these things and heat can only help a chemical process, right? Particularly if it’s a gently heat?

Anyway. I’m surprised at the huge color difference between the two. I expected some color difference, but this is kind of extreme. They are similar – same hue? (I don’t know the right words to talk about this, pardon me.) But different saturations/intensities. (I should really get a color theory book so I can talk about this intelligently instead of winging it.)

In case you were wondering, the pit bath still smells spicy, almost like cinnamon, and the peel bath is starting to smell similarly, with no remaining hints of avocado fruit.

In addition, I failed to mention that I’ve used Hass avocados, which were cultivated by a mail carrier and amateur horticulturalist named Rudolph Hass in La Habra Heights, CA in 1926. Call me crazy, but I’d say he wasn’t an amateur, considering that it is the most popular avocado cultivar in the world.

Edited to add link to Hass avocado link on Wikipedia. As with all wikipedia entries, take it as a starting point with a grain of salt.

Avocado Dye Experiment

I’ve been hesitant to get into dying just as I was hesitant to start spinning my own yarn – I thought “Really. Why bother? Why not just buy yarn?” But … well, I caved in to the peer pressure of Loudoun Needleworkers and now I know why – it’s a way to work with my hands differently from when I knit, it’s a form of meditation, it’s a way to feel connected to the land via the farms that supply fiber. Spinning lead to buying raw fleece, with little further encouragement from my LNW friends, and buying raw fleece has lead to dying.

I’ve drooled over and bought my share of yarn and fiber dyed by independent artists – the color combinations and variations are fascinating, sometimes all the more fascinating because I don’t think I have a great sense of color, which is another reason I stayed away from dying so long. I did try dying with KoolAid a few years ago, which is essentially dying with food coloring. My results were less than stellar (but definitely great-smelling). Acid dyes – chemical dyes – have to be handling very carefully since they are toxic and by careful handling, I mean gloves & goggles & a respirator & plenty of ventilation. I’m not quite ready for that, so I’ve been reading up on dying with natural materials since mid-winter.

This spring, I took a natural dye class with two friends. The class was taught by Sylvia De Mar through The Art League of Alexandria over the course of 3 Sundays. We learned about mordants, which prepare fiber for accepting dyes and help dye bond chemically with the fiber, how to dye using natural materials, and after baths, which can affect just-dyed fiber. I really like the idea of using materials already available to me to dye and have tried dying samples with mint, lichen, and several different weeds. I wish I’d blogged about them or at least kept better notes because I managed to lose track of some of the results – that won’t happen again.

Over the past 2 months I’ve been saving avocado pits and skins in a bag in my freezer to dye with them – they should yield red-brownish red-reddish brown. I got the idea from the dye class; Sylvia mentioned it & one of the other students brought in some avocado she’d been saving. The time we had in class wasn’t enough to get good results (or any results? I don’t remember now). So, using a thread in the plants to dye for group on Ravelry and Carol Lee’s generously shared instructions & observations as guidelines, I’m trying my own experiment which will hopefully get better results.

Mr. Q. has gone along with my avocado-saving swimmingly – we both like avocados and have used this as an excuse to eat them more than usual. We’ve even rooted a few of the pits, which is interesting for us all to see as we now have a small tree in a pot on the porch. This morning, I thawed the other pits & skins we’ve saved, and scrubbed off the remaining avocado with an old toothbrush. I put the pits in my thrifted small dye pot, covered them with water, and brought them to a simmer. While that was cooking, I cut the skins into strips and popped them into an enamelware lobster pot, adding in the remaining stumps of stem (probably 4 or 5 pieces), and starting bringing that to a simmer over medium low heat. Even with this initial simmer, I can already see some color in both pots:

Carol recommends cutting everything into pieces as small as possible to extract as much dye as possible; as you can see, I started chopping the pits with a knife while they were cooling down. I do have a spare blender I could use, though I’m not sure I want to strain what will essentially be an avocado smoothie. By the way, the pits smelled pleasantly spicy as they simmered, almost like cinnamon, while the skins smelled like avocado soup.

I plan to simmer the dye materials every day for at least a week, adding more water as necessary. I doubt that I’ll be blogging about it each of those 7 days but I will take pictures so I can document the progress.

Notes on avocado prep for next time:

  • Clean the skins and pits of any remaining fruit before freezing them. It was a huge PIA to clean the skins and pits of (probably) 15 avocados all at once.
  • Take all the produce stickers off before freezing too. I thought I pulled them all off while I was cleaning them, but a few snuck into the dye bath anyway. I have a new hatred of these stickers since I find them all over the house, where the fruit eaters stick them instead of putting them in the garbage (or on a napkin or tissue or anything but the furniture, FFS).
  • Count the avocado pits before cutting them up. (Duh.)