March-Month

It's March month, the time of year when I start to shift my mindscape toward the upcoming fire season, packing up and heading into the bush for a six month stretch, transition. Which means I take time off from producing new wovens. This year I, decidedly, took too much time off - I'm craving my loom. I've got lots of ideas in the works and will get on them in April month! I really can't wait. I'm having weaving dreams, feel my feet moving across night treadles.

In the meantime, I'm headed to Calgary to offer a talk about weaving, natural dye, Canadian textiles, sustainable textiles and of course a little mention of Custom Woolen Mills and the work we do together, at the Heritage Weavers and Spinners Guild. I'll be speaking at their monthly meeting on Tuesday, March 28th at 1900. For more details, please contact the guild.

Happy Spring! 

Reflection on Being in Residence

Folks! Once again, I had the opportunity to publish an article in the Guild of Canadian Weavers Bulletin. It's out in the world in print form now, but for those of you who are not members but are interested in reading... Read on.

This autumn, I had the opportunity to be the inaugural Artist in Residence at Custom Woolen Mills Ltd (CWM), near Carstairs, Alberta. A month long residency provided me an amazing opportunity to get to know the local community, the staff that run the operation and the family behind it, who are as involved in the day to day operations as the staff. I also had the opportunity to observe the inner workings of this heritage wool mill and it’s fibre processing, meet the neighbours, friends of the mill and a few of the fibre farmers.

While I stayed at CWM I achieved further plant dye sampling and wove two traditional coverlets. I dyed with plants from the mills garden, dyestuff that I foraged from within walking distance, as well as dyestuff from my own garden and plant extracts. I came home with about 60 new colours. The mill stay was a great venue to focus, learn and to expand my colour recipe book.

Custom Woolen Mills is a special place. A working museum, much of their equipment dates back to 1886, the newest piece hails from 1927. The people of CWM work hard to produce heirloom quality woollen products. The mill has a supportive family feel, and cares deeply about their community, their environmental choices, the farmers they work with, the products they put out into the world as well as the consumer at the end of the line. This shows. They make socks, wool duvets, felting batts, roping (roving), log home insulation and of course, beautiful yarns. Not only this, they support their local fibre artists - felters, hand weavers, dyers, spinners, pattern writers -  selling their hand knitted goods in their showroom, showcasing knitting patterns, etc. A very inspiring environment indeed.

Custom Woolen Mill produces my favourite wool yarn. I knit with it, dye it and weave with it. It’s a beautiful product with a fully transparent process from farmer to finished cone of yarn, I feel good using it. In this world of fast fashion, fast production, fast life, many mills go through thousands of pounds of wool a day and process it into worsted, and commonly super washed yarn. CWM goes through a couple hundred pounds a day and manages to stay away from many of the toxic chemicals that are so ubiquitous in the textile industry. They have also planted an organic dye garden with the intention of moving away from acid dyes in the future and in the process, becoming a true fibre shed. From sorting, washing, carding and intended final use of the fibre, there are hands and eyes on the wool every step of the way. Their yarns are a z twist, woolen spun, fine craft of their own.

Spending a month at the mill allowed me to further explore queries, doubts and thoughts I have about the textile industry. This opportunity also enabled me to ask questions and engage people who have been involved in the Canadian wool world since the 70’s, regarding some of the things I had been considering. 

Does the ethics of a textile mill matter to me as a textiles artist? 

Yes. Absolutely, yes. As a very small player in the textile world, I still think it matters to make educated choices as to where my equipment, tools and medium comes from. Also to demand unconcealed operations from suppliers. That is, using my modest efforts to grow the world up, one weave at a time, by making informed choices throughout my own decision making and creative process.

Sourcing out transparency and personal connection to the makers of tools, yarns, etc, is very important to my textile practice. Ultimately, I feel that I have an intimate relationship with the work, which I’m able to pass on to the final owner of the piece. Maybe choosing from such a small selection of producers leaves me vulnerable - they might run out of their products quicker, there can be a noticeable difference from batch to batch in the dyes and therefore I may not ever be able to reproduce a specific piece. But isn’t that what cloth and craft and art is all about?! Relationship, connection, expression, challenge, intimacy and sometimes, vulnerability. 

Attending an artist in residence program at a wool mill has undoubtedly deepened my textiles practice. I’ve always had an interest in the production of ‘string’. Getting to experience the hard work and hand work that goes into something often taken for granted really exhibits how precious the common thread is. The threads with which we weave our cloth, like the ones we spin our lives with, are no simple thing. Monetarily inexpensive but so crucial to our everyday shelter systems, social structure, expression and simple comfort, are in fact, highly valuable. Having the skill and intense desire to create textiles coupled with a fully considered process, lives deep within me. I feel very lucky to be able to spend time each day in pursuit of cloth. 

If you’re a wool enthusiast, please check out Custom Woolen Mills at www.customwoolenmills.com. If you’re in Southern Alberta drop in and view the mill in full operation.

 

Galium Boreale - A retrospective article

Folks! Some of you may know, many won't, that I have been regularly contributing the Guild of Canadian Weavers quarterly publication - The Bulletin. In the Autumn edition I wrote an article under the title, Dyer's Corner. I spoke about Galium Boreale, one of my favourite plants in the Boreal, often not for dyeing, as I keep a madder patch going, but sometimes for dyeing and often harvested (and propagated) to hang about my home, stuff in my pillow or to just run my hands through. It's a magical, beautiful plant in many ways. But! I wanted to put the article out for anyone to take a look at. Here goes...

Autumn, toq'aq, The time of year when gardeners, foragers and natural dyers celebrate. Certainly our gardens, lands and natural dyes give ample gifts all around the year but it is this time that is rich. It is this fact, the chilled air, long nights and the particular magic of wool that make autumn, toq’aq in Mi’kmaq, my favourite time of year. A great time of year for strong, warm colour, wool and not to mention, dyeing yarns is a great way to warm oneself. 

Numerous tones and shades of natural colour are available at this time: goldenrod, tannin from different cambium layers of your local fallen trees, for those living near the nut trees - walnut, butternut. On and on. I’m going to talk about Northern Bedstraw, of the madders and native to Canada. Galium boreale. Alizarin. Red.  

Photo from http://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/collections/individual/index.php?occid=686559

Photo from http://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/collections/individual/index.php?occid=686559

Galium boreale is available across much of Canada especially in the Boreal Forest. Recognizable by her lacy white flowers, sort of prickly-rough leaves - elongate, obtuse, forming whorls of 4. So named Bedstraw for her sweet smell, hay like, even like vanilla. At one time, people lined their sleeping place with this plant and slept with the scent.

To use the alizarin gift in this plant, harvest the roots. Give a little gratitude. However, be mindful, do not harvest all of them and wait until late autumn, after the fruiting period is passed to ensure the livelihood of bedstraw and that they’ll grow back and hopefully, grow thicker. Since bedstraw spreads by rhizome, or root cuttings, and you're harvesting anyway, place a 2" piece of root nearby in the ground to help the plant grow and to put plant matter in place of plant stuff which you have gleaned. Scrub the roots to clean the soil off, the roots are quite small. Chop or grind them as small as possible, the smaller they are the more the pigment can be released and add this to a pot of water. All madder plants love hard water and calcium, in fact, they grow and produce higher quality in soil that is high in calcium. They will give more red in hard water. So, if you have naturally hard water, great! If not, just crush and add a tums tablet to the pot. Leave your dye pot for 12 - 24 hours for a short fermentation period. 

When you are ready to dye, heat the pot for an hour or two to 60 degrees celsius, much higher than this will brown out the red. At this point you may either leave the roots in the pot or strain the liquid off to dye with and repeat the fermentation process with the roots for lighter shades. Be aware that you may have spots of a deeper red on your yarns if you leave the the roots in the pot. Rinse your pre-mordanted fibre with warm water and enter them to the dye pot, simmer until you achieve your desired depth of shade or until the fibres will not take up any more colour. At this point you can remove them to wash and dry or leave them to cool in the dye pot overnight. When you do remove the fibre, wash with a pH neutral soap, if you’re dyeing wool, a natural shampoo works well. Hang in a warm place to dry. Admire for a while. Weave it up.

A couple of things to note when using natural dye - the type of pot you use will affect your final colour, for purity of colour use stainless steel. Iron, copper and aluminum will all affect your colour and are worth experimenting with, the colour shifts they provide are very interesting. When you’re sampling or experimenting to find colour, a good rule is to begin with 100% dyestuff to weight of your fibre. That is, if you are dyeing 20 grams of fibre, dye with 20 grams of dyestuff, 10 grams of fibre - 10 grams of dyestuff. 

To use the whole plant, put the green tops inside your pillow case. The scent of bedstraw is indeed a beautiful scent to fall asleep with!