When Harvesting Color came across my desk, there was no doubt in my mind that I would write a review about this timely book. Author Rebecca Burgess brings to light the devastating effects that dying fibers with synthetic chemicals has caused to our environment and to our health, and she urges us to rely on the natural resources around us in a mindful way.
The concept of this book may be new to some of you, but even if you’re a newbie to natural dyes, I think as you read my interview with the author, you’ll get excited about wanting to try this out for yourself.
Don’t forget to read all the way to the end to find out how you could win a free copy of Rebecca’s book!
Kara: Rebecca, you identify 36 plants that grow in the United States that are suitable for creating beautiful, natural dyes. How did you go about researching and testing various plants to discover such a variety of vibrant colors?
Rebecca: The research took place in my homeland of Northern California about 10 years ago, when I realized I lived in a region listed as one of the top 25 most biodiverse in the country. I expanded my interest beyond my region for the writing of the book—and for that process; I undertook a search for other natural dyers who had been doing what I’d been doing in different regions of the US. I found Rose Dedman in the Southwest, Carol Leigh in the Ozark mountains, and Carol Lee in the Rocky Mountains. All of these women carried rich and long histories with the ecosystems they lived within.
Kara: When did you become interested in natural dyes and relying on our natural resources for dying fibers? What was it in your life that led you to this path?
Rebecca: In college, I experienced what it was like to work with synthetic yarns and synthetic dyes—all of which were not to my liking. I did not like the smell, the texture, etc. I was driven toward natural dyes because of their gentleness, the connection that these colors provided between myself and the natural world and the rich tones and shades that you cannot go wrong with! Any and all combinations seem to work splendidy.
Kara: Working with natural dyes is a new concept for many knitters. What would be your best advice for someone just starting out? Do you offer special steps to begin the journey into working with natural dyes?
Rebecca: I would start with the Master Dye Bath Recipe—it is so easy and works so well for most plant life. If you live amongst plant life, you could harvest from your own garden, and give any plant a try. If you have a farmer’s market nearby, you could buy a bouquet and enjoy it for a couple of days, and then experiment with heating the flowers up on the stove in some water when the blooms are just past their prime. As long as your yarns are prepared with a mordant, the colors you create in your dye pot will bond nicely to your yarns.
Kara: Why did you feel that the time was right to write a book that encourages yarn enthusiasts to “hunt and gather” to dye their own wool?
Rebecca: When workshops became quite full, and my time seemed stretched like a rubber band at capacity, it felt like the time to disseminate the work through a book. I do recommend that gathering materials be done in one’s garden, first and foremost, and then through relationships you build with your neighbors, community gardens, land management agencies—you build your harvesting grounds slowly and in a way that always regenerates the plants that you are pruning. It is really important to remember you want to be able to come back the following year to your favored plants and be able to harvest them again—so treat them very kindly (unless you are using invasive plants, and in that case you don’t really want to see them the following year!).
Kara: When it comes to the seasons, it seems easy to harvest plants in the summer months, but is it also possible to find useful plants in the fall or winter? Are there plants that can be grown indoors?
Rebecca: Fall is certainly a great time to harvest—falling aspen leaves, black walnut husks and sheep sorrel seed heads are an example of this. In the winter, I suppose you could grow all of your favored plants in a greenhouse. They’d do quite well. You can also dry your spring, summer and fall harvest and save it for winter use.
Kara: When it comes to the kinds of yarns you choose to dye and work with, do you prefer to work with small, local fiber companies?
Rebecca: I prefer knowing the flock of sheep, alpaca or angora goats! All the yarns I currently dye are from farms in my region. I love having a relationship with the land in this way—going out during shearing time and collecting the fiber I will need. I mill my own yarns at our local wool co-op.
Kara: When it comes time to dye wool, is there a special process to preparing the yarn?
Rebecca: I highly recommend mordanting your yarns. This is a process of soaking and heating them in a substance like iron, alum, seawater or acorn water. The fiber needs a “middle man” that can negotiate the relationship with the dye. The dye and fiber by themselves don’t seem to get along so well.
Kara: Do some fibers dye better than others, and is it possible for the same color to result in a different color depending on the fiber choice? Are there certain fibers that are best to stay away from completely?
Rebecca: The fibers all dye differently, and the spin of the yarn also changes the effect of the color. Merino is like a sponge, whereas Wensleydale is a longer fiber, which is a tad less absorbent of the color. The tighter the twist, the more time it takes the dye to penetrate the yarn.
Kara: When it comes to the seasons of the year, can you give a few examples of the kinds of plants that are best for each season?
Rebecca: I love the soft mint green of summer black hollyhocks and the ocean-like blues of Japanese indigo. Pokeberry’s bright pink in the early fall are incredible. Toyon in the winter is a dream of deep red and fire-like oranges.
Kara: In your daily life as an author and designer, what is a typical work day like for you?
Rebecca: Typical is a funny concept for me. The routine I can sum up at the moment is defined seasonally. This morning I planted Kentucky beans, heirloom tomatoes and when I’m done typing, I’ll go weed the 3/4 of an acre of indigo. I stopped in at home to do an interview and host a filmmaker who videoed me with my hands deep in an indigo vat, squeezing out some local wool from the coyote brush dye pot. I keep thinking … must get back to weeding! Each season is so different. My life is defined by color, flowers, leaves, roots, weather patterns, wool, alpaca, soils, yarns and steamy dye vats—these are the things I love.
Kara: When did you first discover knitting and spinning? What was your first love, knitting, spinning or hand dyeing?
Rebecca: I started weaving first, then dyeing, then spinning and then knitting—weaving at 18, dyeing at 19, spinning at 22, and now I’m knitting! I love the transportability of knitting, I think the knitting needles and I are going to become good friends this winter.
Kara: I’m amazed at the vibrant colors that are produced from plants literally all around us. Out of all the natural colors that you’ve discovered, do you have a favorite? What is the plant that produces this shade and can you share some background about it?
Rebecca: I really love coreopsis. I don’t have a singular favorite, but this is such a beautiful plant and such an easy dye to make. It is Coreopsis Tinctorium. All species with the ‘tint’ in the species name are dye plants. It grows all over the country. You just pour boiling water over the flowers and voila! Or make sun tea out of it for your yarns. To me, its bright orange dye and beautiful yellow flowers are such an emblem of the sun and the summer.
Kara: Can you share some tidbits about the knitting patterns included at the end of each chapter?
Rebecca: The patterns are for everyone. They are for all levels of knitting and are really designed to be of use for the knitter in the season they are listed. The Madder Root Scarf and Hood is an example of how to make use of a beautiful red root and make a garment from its dyed yarns for a cozy winter experience.
Kara: Do you have any new projects on the burner to tell us about?
Rebecca: I am working on creating the first North American dye farm here in Northern California. I am also fundraising and working collaboratively to create the country’s first farm-based solar mill so we can grow, mill, dye, weave and knit our region’s own fibers. I am also working on a college level certificate for those wanting to get into the organic and regional fiber and color movement. These are all spinoffs of the Fibershed project I started in 2010 right after I finished the book.
Here’s your chance to win a free copy of this book! (Courtesy of Artisan Books)
The Rules: Leave a comment to this post telling me how you will use the resources around you in a more responsible and mindful way through your knitting. The most inventive idea wins!
Deadline: Send in your comments to this post by midnight June 18th. Good luck! The winner will be announced on Monday, June 20th.
Rebecca has also generously provided a free copy of her Summer Knit: Nap Mat from her book below!
Summer Knit: Nap Mat
This mat is a wonderfully useful size. It also makes a great small rug.
Finished Measurements: 38 inches wide, 39 inches long
Yarn: Chunky thick-n-thin 2-ply wool in eucalyptus, coyote bush, cliff rose, biden,
hollyhock, sagebrush, indigo, ironweed, rabbitbrush, elderberry, and goldenrod; use 4 oz. (114 g) each of your favorite 3 colors and 2 oz. (57 g) each of the rest, for a total of 28 oz. (794 g). This pattern was written to use 4 oz. of eucalyptus, indigo, and coyote bush.
Needles: U.S. size 19 (15.5 mm) 24-inch circular needle, or size needed to obtain gauge
Notions: Scissors, wool needle, small spray bottle of water
Gauge: 1 ½ sts per inch
With eucalyptus, cast on 60 sts using a long-tail cast-on. Knitted or cable cast-on works well also.
Work in garter st (knit every row) until you have about 12 inches of yarn left. Spit-splice this tail to the beginning of the skein of coyote bush and continue in garter st., changing colors in this order: cliff rose, biden, hollyhock, sagebrush, indigo, ironweed, rabbitbrush,
elderberry, goldenrod, eucalyptus, indigo, and coyote bush. When knitting the last skein of coyote bush, remember to save enough yarn to bind off. The knitted piece should measure roughly 24 by 41 inches.
Weave in ends with the wool needle. To finish the mat, steam block the fabric to measure 38 x 39 inches.
Spit splicing is a rustic technique to join yarn, one that complements the already slubbed texture of the yarn. It requires a spray bottle of water, not necessarily saliva. Take the working yarn and fray 2 to 3 inches of the tail. Take the next color and do the same. Overlap the two colors in a way to create a continuous strand across the palm of one
hand. Spray a small amount of water in that palm and rub both palms together rapidly. The friction created by your hands and the yarn, combined with the water, will cause the yarn to felt onto itself. Repeat until the yarn is ﬁrmly fused.