petal-dyed yarn

petal-dyed yarn

A couple weeks ago, my mom drove up from Houston with a paper bag of freshly-picked blossoms and a jar of alum, and told me we were going to dye with flowers. Although I color things occasionally with fiber-reactive dyes, I have pretty limited experience with the natural variety. Usually, plants are used to create a dye bath that tints fibers one color, but we decided to used a variety of different petals to produce a multicolor-speckled yarn. It’s a great project to try if you want to dye something without investing in a lot of materials or equipment. Here’s what you need:

Fibers: This process can be used to dye any kind of natural fibers, but animal fibers (wool and silk) produce much darker and more vibrant colors than plant fibers (cotton, hemp, etc). You can over-dye fibers that have already been colored, but usually get better results when you start with a lighter base color. Synthetic fibers (or blends containing them) will not hold dye well. I used a couple skeins of undyed, 100% alpaca yarn.

Dyes: We used the petals from a variety of flowers, but there are a ton of plants you can use to naturally dye yarn or fabric. Onion skins, cabbage, beets and fennel fronds are all great options that you can pick up from the grocery store. My mom brought up some flowers from her garden (marigolds, zinnias, salvia, dianthus, rock rose, begonias, and penta), but we also gathered some from around my backyard (mexican hat, coreopsis, turk’s cap, roses, dandelions, trompillo, and retama blossoms).

flowers for dyeing

Mordant: To get the pigments in your dyes to bind to fibers, you need to introduce a mordant. Without it, you may get similar results initially, but any color the fibers picked up would fade quickly. The mordant we used was alum, which you can find in the spice section of most grocery stores. We also added a little cream of tartar, which helps brighten colors.

Heat: Another important step that locks in the color from your dyes is heating the fibers. One method is to steam the yarn in a basket above simmering water, but this method requires a little active participation. If you’re lucky enough to own an immersion circulator, you can put your yarn in a plastic bag and hold it at the perfect temperature in a water bath, sous-vide style. Alternatively, you could create a similar set up in a slow-cooker set on “low”. Whatever method you use, be careful with wool: heat and agitation leads to felting, and it won’t matter how lovely your dye is if you end up with one giant blob of wool.

To petal-dye yarn, the first step is to create a mordant bath. There’s a lot of differing information out there about the best mordant to fiber ratio, but here’s what we used:

1 1/2 tbsp alum
1/2 tbsp cream of tartar
1 liter water

Combine the above, and mix until the powders are dissolved. This makes enough mordant to soak a 50gr ball of yarn at a time. We let our yarn soak in the bath for about half an hour, but you can leave it for up to a day. If your yarn is wound in a skein, be sure to get out as much air as possible, so all of the fibers are well saturated with mordant. While the yarn soaks, prepare your petals. Because winding the yarn is pretty tedious, I try to get everything ready to use so that step goes a little quicker. Remove stems and leaves from your flowers and separate individual petals. Put them all in one spot so you can grab them easily.

petals on a plateAfter the yarn is done soaking, remove from the bath, squeezing out excess liquid. The yarn should be damp as you wind it, so reserve the mordant liquid in case it starts to dry out. Start winding the yarn into a ball, tucking petals in as you go. We found this process was easiest if the skein was in a deep bowl, so it couldn’t move around too much. The number of petals you use is up to you– I wound the yarn a few times around the ball between each addition.

petals and yarn

When you’ve finally finished winding, wrap the yarn ball in foil to keep the petals and yarn in place. If you’re steaming the yarn, put the foil ball straight into a steaming basket above a simmering pan of water, making sure that it never reaches a full boil. Cover with a lid, and refill the pan with water as necessary. To heat in a slow-cooker or with an immersion circulator, put the foil ball in a ziplock bag, releasing as much air as possible. I added a couple of butter knives to my bag to weigh it down and prevent it from floating. If using a slow-cooker, add enough water to the basin to cover the yarn, and set it on low. If you’re sous vide-ing your yarn, the ideal temperature to set the immersion circulator is around 180 degrees Fahrenheit (we already had a lamb shank going at 167, and that worked just fine). Heat the yarn for at least a couple hours, and up to 6.

When you’ve finished heating the yarn, remove the foil and allow it to cool some before unraveling it. I wound my yarn around forearm to keep it neat as I removed petals. When all the petals have been separated, rinse the yarn under cool water for a couple minutes. Blot with a clean towel and dry flat. Marvel at the beautiful, funfetti spots!

Note about flowers: Because we were just experimenting, we used a variety of flower petals without any real expectation. Not all of the flowers we picked dyed our yarn, and some just left brown spots. If you want to test a particular blossom before you permanently color your yarn, crush a petal on a piece of yarn or cotton muslin that has soaked in the mordant bath. If it’s got a good amount of dye in it, it should leave a mark. We found marigolds and coreopsis left the best yellow and orangey spots; turk’s cap, salvia, and pink penta left peachy to hot pink marks; dianthus, mexican hats, and purple penta ranged from purple to denim-blue.

petal-dyed yarn swatch

I’m so pleased with how this yarn came out! I wasn’t expecting such vibrant, varied color from natural dyes. Although we used a lot of wildflowers and garden plants, this would also be a great way to preserve a special bouquet. Now I’ve just got to find a knitting project worthy of this lovely yarn.

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts | Leave a comment

five things

Winifred

 

5things_2

 

mulberries in a basket

 

homemade yogurt

 

giant leopard moth
A few weeks ago, this three-toed box turtle walked right up to our back door. Although her species is native to the area and her shell is scuffed and weathered, she seems too tame to be a wild turtle. There’s no way to tell her exact age, but she looks like a wizened old lady, so we named her accordingly– Winifred (or Winnie for short). She always seems to be smiling, and it does not bother her at all that both the cats and the chickens approach her with suspicious interest. I’m really glad she’s low maintenance, because this house is at full pet capacity.

I once tried to cultivate my own sourdough starter, and when it developed streaky orange mold on the second day, I dumped it out and gave up for seven years. Happily, my second go at it worked out just fine. I used this guide, and after trying a few different sourdough recipes, decided I like a low-hydration loaf (similar to this one) because of its regular crumb structure and sturdy slices. I can’t wait to experiment with different flours and incorporate wild yeast into other types of bread recipes. It feels like magic to create something as substantial as bread from just flour, water, and salt. I’ve been eating it every morning with a thick schmear of homemade cultured butter and a drizzle of mesquite honey.

Our mulberry tree really went crazy this year, so last week I spent some time picking berries while the chickens foraged on the fallen, over-ripe fruits on the ground. Red mulberries are pretty underwhelming in the flavor department, but they have a lovely, delicate texture and you can dress them up with a little lemon juice. I made a cobbler and some compote, and next I’ll whip up a batch of muffins with the buttermilk leftover from that cultured butter.

Recently, I’ve gotten back in the habit of making weekly batches of yogurt. It’s a little bit of work, but somehow the homemade kind tastes infinitely better than grocery store yogurt. The leftover whey makes an excellent fertilizer (especially for low-ph-loving plants), and a very welcome chicken treat. And because I will find any excuse to use up eggs, I’ve also been making orange curd to spoon into the bottom of each jar of yogurt (this batch got some of that mulberry compote, too).

Back in April, I found a spiky woolly bear caterpillar while doing yard work. I put him in a jar with a stick and some dirt, and fed him a steady diet of dandelion greens and thistle leaves. A couple weeks later, he formed a shiny black cocoon, and after what seemed like forever, he emerged as a giant leopard moth. We set him free by the back door, and after hanging around for a day, he took off into the world. I was kind of relieved to have one less creature to take care of, but I’ve just found ten black swallowtail caterpillars on my fennel, so the process begins again.

Other things:

This is a great way to use up six whole eggs and is like a weird and delicious amalgam of brownies and chocolate mousse.

– I binge-listened to this entire podcast in under 24 hours, and I wish I’d never heard it so I could listen to it again.

– After a series of mishaps and setbacks, my garden is finally on its way.

Posted on by Jessica in Chickens, Food, Gardening, Home, Life | Leave a comment

covers and wraps

covers and wraps
Somewhere on the list of things I worry about is my personal contribution of trash to the world. I try not get too fixated on it, but I can’t help feeling a tinge of guilt every time I throw away a piece of plastic. In an effort to curb my reliance on disposables, I spent a few hours recently making some reusable bowl covers and waxed cloth. They take the place of non-recyclable plastic wrap and aluminum foil, and they’re much more stylish than obsessively rinsing out lightly-used ziplocks like a depression-era grandmother.

The fabric bowl covers were pretty straightforward. I pulled some leftover linen from my fabric stash to use as the outer fabric, and some cotton broadcloth became the lining. I mostly followed these instructions (but without the vinyl) and added one step: I made sure the outer fabric was inset slightly when I sewed the pieces together. When the cover is turned right-side-out, the outer fabric overlaps the lining just a skosh, so you don’t have to worry about it peeking out.

My waxed cloth research led me to this tutorial, but I ended up changing things a bit. I found the jojoba oil didn’t contribute much, so I nixed it after the first test piece. Using that proportion of powdered pine rosin made my cloth kind of crunchy and stiff, so I scaled it way back and just went with a light sprinkling on subsequent pieces. I also thought trying to spread the wax with a paint brush was a little fiddly, and ended up using my fingers– but I’d advise against that method unless you’ve also built up a tolerance to high temperatures after years of burning your hands while cooking.

I made a couple eight inch squares, and three circles: twelve, eight, and six inches. I used about a half an ounce of beeswax and maybe a couple tablespoons of powdered pine rosin in total. The pine rosin lends a tackiness and flexibility that helps the waxed cloth cling well, but I’m not sure it’s worth the cost of buying outright– especially because it’s not usually sold in smaller than one pound units. Using just beeswax shouldn’t compromise much functionality, and it’s way simpler and cheaper.

waxed fabric process
So, to make waxed cloth:

– Cut some pieces of cloth with pinking shears (this helps prevent fraying).
– Preheat oven to 200ish degrees fahrenheit and cover a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
– Place one piece of fabric on the pan and sprinkle liberally with grated beeswax and lightly with powdered pine rosin, if using.
– Heat in oven until wax is melted, and use a brush or your fingers to distribute wax over the cloth. If necessary, sprinkle more wax and heat it again until you’ve got the coverage you like.
– Set aside to cool and repeat with remaining cloth.

In the end, my waxed cloth turned out fantastic. At room temperature it’s fairly rigid, but the heat from my hands softens it into something more malleable. It’s easy to shape it over the top of a bowl or form it into a parcel, and because it’s made of beeswax, it’s got that same sweet scent. So far, the fabric covers have been used on bowls of rising bread dough, and the waxed cloth has mostly enclosed leftover baked goods. The covers can be tossed right in with the wash, and the waxed cloth can be rinsed with soap and cold water and used again and again.

brownie in waxed fabric

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts, Home | Leave a comment

plants, etc.

air plant blossoming

 

seedlings

 

thai pepper seeds and chamomile

 

dewberry brambles

 

fig tree

I picked up a new air plant while on vacation last month, and as soon as I got home, it sprouted a dozen tiny purple blossoms. This is the best kind of souvenir.

We have finally started making some improvements to our sad, neglected yard, which means the planters Nick finished ages ago have finally been filled with soil and compost and are ready for planting. I went a little crazy ordering seeds, and got broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, and a few varieties of tomatoes and peppers. I have no idea what I’m doing, but my mom has near-magical levels of gardening abilities, so I’m hoping I passively acquired some of those skills in the same way I inherited hypertension and freckles. So far, my little seedlings are growing nicely in one of these. If everything works out, I’ll keep you updated on the state of my garden (and if not, I’ll never mention it again).

I thought I got a pack of duds when none of my thai pepper seeds sprouted, but after a little googling, it turns out that peppers are notoriously difficult to sprout from seeds. A couple sites suggested soaking the seeds in a weak glass of chamomile tea, so I’m giving that a try before I give up and buy a plant.

I found some wild dewberry brambles near my house, in the same place where honeysuckle grows in late spring and sunflowers sprout in the summer. I don’t think they’ll produce enough berries for jam, but you can bet I’ll be snacking on them as fast as they ripen. I might try to transplant one of the smaller plants to an empty corner of the backyard (I’ll just have to keep the chickens away from it).

Although I love cold weather and feel particularly cheated out of winter this year, I’ll always have a soft spot for spring. My fig tree is sprouting new leaves and the wee little beginnings of figs, my strawberry plants are loaded with blossoms and slow-growing berries, and my whole yard is verdant and lush.

More things:
– Saw this movie recently and it was devastating and beautiful.
– As per usual, finished knitting this tea cosy just in time for warm weather.
– Made this pie on national pie day, but I have no photos because we ate it so fast.

Posted on by Jessica in Gardening, Home, Life | Leave a comment

chickens

Something happened in the interim between my last two posts, and that is that finally, at long last, we have chickens. The chicken plan has been in the works for quite a while, and like most of our home projects, happened piecemeal over a long period of time at a pace not suited to my charging ambitions.

the coop

Nick, in his limited free time, built me a beautiful chicken coop with a solar-powered, light-sensing door. Although it required a little fine-tuning and calibration, it is a life saver for two people that are not good at mornings. After the coop was complete, we ordered some easter egger chicks, and a short while later received a cheeping box full of five floofy baby birds. They’re named Charlotte, Matilda, Margaret, Petunia, and Leslie.

Although we got chickens for egg production, they are definitely pets first and livestock second. This is my first time owning birds, and I was surprised how goofy, sweet, and distinctly individual they are. They love to sit in my lap or on my shoulder, and Charlotte leaps up to perch on my arm every time I hold it up– like a falcon, only slightly less noble. They lay eggs in pastel shades of beige, blue, and green, which constantly reminds me of this easter candy. In short, I am pretty smitten with chickens, and here are the head shots to prove it:

Charlotte

 

Margaret

 

Petunia

 

Leslie

 

Matilda

Posted on by Jessica in Chickens, Life | Leave a comment

7

wool comicAugust was our seventh wedding anniversary. Although I started this yearly project with the intention of hand-making each gift, a lack of things like woodworking skills or access to a blacksmithing forge forced me to rethink that objective, and I opted to buy a few presents. But when you kind of specialize in fiber art and the traditional seventh anniversary gift is wool, you’ve really got no excuses left.

Nick has recently gotten back into comic book collecting, and keeps stacks upon stacks of those jewel-toned tomes in a long cardboard box in our closet (along with the handful of Wonder Woman comics that survived my childhood). His favorites tend toward the horror genre, and I’m sure he thought I wasn’t paying attention when he expounded on the difference in color quality between the 1950s Tales from the Crypt comics and the inferior early 90s reprints, but I was! A short time later, I had a copy of this in my hand, and a plan to remake it in wool.

wool comicIn theory, this plan was simple enough. The majority of the comic book would be constructed from wool felt, with small details embroidered in wool thread. You can meld two pieces of wool together with a process called needle felting, which involves stabbing the wool three thousand times with a tiny, hooked needle. The hook pulls together fibers from each piece of felt, and they become pretty securely attached without a single stitch or drop of glue. If you are really skilled, you may be able to complete an entire project without stabbing yourself once.

werewolf detail

 

text detailI’d always planned on making a felt version on the front cover, but when I saw the old-timey muscle man advertisement on the back, I couldn’t resist remaking that too. I ordered a giant stack of multi-colored felt and some wool embroidery thread from the only person on the internet selling it (and paid her exorbitant shipping fee). After many hours spent cutting out tiny bits of felt and embroidering minuscule stitches, I had a 100% wool comic book. It’s almost comical how often I manage to underestimate the scope and complexity of whatever project I’m working on, but this one really takes the cake. I’m not sure how many hours I spent on it, but it was worth all the effort for my favorite human.

For past anniversaries, click: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts, Life | 2 Comments

white soap

white soap

I wanted to make this batch of soap as close to the archetype as possible: bright white, dense, and extremely cleansing. Most of the soap I’ve made has largely been comprised of liquid oils, which makes for a soft, silky bar without much longevity. Because the color of soap depends primarily on the color of the fats and oils used, the lightest I’d been able to achieve before now was a dull beige. Turns out if you want white soap, you can’t do much better than lard and coconut oil.

fats and oils

It’s certainly possible to make soap from just lard and coconut oil, but I decided to compromise some whiteness for a little extra moisturizing power by sneaking in a little castor oil. It made up for the coconut oil’s tendency to be drying, and contributed a super luxurious lather. This batch got a couple tablespoons of zinc oxide added at trace in an attempt to coax it a little whiter, but I always have trouble blending it in thoroughly and I’m not sure it did much. Of course, if I’m striving for exemplary soap, I gotta go with the most classic scent of all– so this batch got the last of my shaving cream fragrance oil.

This is the formula I went with:

34 oz lard
10.75 oz coconut oil
5.5 oz castor oil
19.10 oz water
7.10 oz sodium hydroxide
2 Tbsp zinc oxide

Because this was an experimental batch to begin with, this seemed like a good opportunity to test out a soap stamp. I sketched up a design and Nick 3D-printed it for me. After the soap cured for a day, it was sliced into 16 bars and each one got “childerhouse” pressed into the center of it. I’m really happy with this batch! Apart from the creamy, off-white color, it turned out exactly as I’d hoped. It’s less sumptuous than the soaps I’ve made in the past, but each bar lasts nearly twice as long, and the lather is just as rich.

Posted on by Jessica in Experiments, Soap | 1 Comment

recent developments

future strawberries

 

kombucha flavors

 

chocolate/matcha bundt

 

yellow silk moth

 

cat buds

In the fall, my mom gifted me several pots of strawberry plants, and because they do okay with little to no intervention, I have managed to keep them alive. They have started to produce tiny white blossoms, and if all goes well, in a month or so, they’ll be laden with strawberries. Apart from some herbs and a sad looking fennel plant, this will be the first edible thing I’ve grown, and a suitable test of my green thumb. I’m a halfway-decent plant caretaker, but I still do best with the ones that thrive on neglect, like succulents and peace lilies.

Recently, Nick and I have started brewing kombucha. It’s much less involved than I imagined, and all it requires is sweetened tea, a scoby, and a little time. A friend gave us our scoby and we it named Eunice, because that seemed fitting for something so languid and strange. We still need to tweak our recipe a bit, but our first few batches have been pretty close to perfect. I’ve been experimenting with the addition of different fruit purees, and I think the winner (by a slim margin) is raspberry.

Last week I made what was supposed to be a marbled chocolate and matcha bundt cake. In my haste to get it in the oven, I forgot to drag a butter knife through the batter– which meant it turned out more like a color-block bundt cake. I followed this recipe, stirring a few tablespoons of matcha into the white cake batter before spooning it into the pan. It’s not super sweet, which made the leftovers excellent for breakfast. If I were to make it again, it would definitely benefit from a drizzle of chocolate ganache.

I’ve started a new project which involves the use of butterflies, beetles, and moths. It turns out dead bugs are relatively inexpensive, which has made me pretty regretful about all the time I’ve wasted not having a collection of cool insects. The guy above is a yellow silk moth– and can you believe those antennae?! This project will be the closest to art-making I’ve come since graduating from college and I am really excited about it!

Lately I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that my beautiful green sofa is on its last leg. The corners are worn and frayed (no thanks to a certain orange cat), its striped velvet cushions have borne the brunt of several spills, and certain spots have become faded and discolored by years of sunlight. I’ll always remember how ecstatic I was to find it, and how lucky it seemed that it fit perfectly in the impossibly small living room of our second apartment. Because it’s handmade and likely one of a kind, there is little hope of finding a similar replacement (although I’ve spent a lot of time fruitlessly googling “green striped velvet upholstery fabric”). The plan is to dismantle it and refashion the usable pieces of fabric into some chair cushions, but I’ll always miss its first iteration.

Posted on by Jessica in Food, Home, Life | 2 Comments

spoon butter

spoon butter

I’ve amassed a decent collection of wooden kitchen implements– spoons, cutting boards, and a bowl or two– and as you can imagine, they receive a lot of use. When I’m in cooking mode, I’m not always mindful of how I treat them. My spoons see the worst abuse– they’re often left soaking in water, stained yellow with turmeric, their finish worn away with time and dish soap. Most are the ubiquitous bamboo spoons you can pick up at any grocery store, but my favorites were hand-carved by Nick out of fancy hardwoods, and they are the most-used and best-loved of the bunch. Luckily, I had everything I needed for some spoon butter on hand: a neutral, flavorless oil (I used sunflower oil), and beeswax.

beeswax

To make spoon butter, combine one ounce of beeswax and 4 oz by weight of a neutral oil in a double-boiler over some simmering water and heat until the beeswax is just melted. Alternatively, you can microwave in 30-second bursts until you achieve the same result. Pour the melted wax and oil into whatever container you’ll store it in (I used an old half-pint jar) and stir occasionally as it cools, until it’s creamy and semi-solid. It should keep for at least six months. To use, apply generously and buff off the excess with a clean cloth. Repeat once a month.

Here’s a dramatic before and after:

before and after

Also:

– Nothing quite like finding out your favorite living author has written three books under a pen name while you weren’t paying attention. I’m all caught up and dreading the long wait until the next one.
– I’ve got a bunch of bananas aging on the counter, awaiting their fate in a loaf of this.
– Re-watched this old favorite recently.

Posted on by Jessica in Home, Links | Leave a comment

hand bags

hand bag

Last month, I gave my mom and sisters some hand bags. I was only thinking about how much I like hand motifs when I decided to make these, and the pun was a bonus. They’re identical in construction to the potato-printed bags from a few years ago, but were printed with hand-carved rubber stamps instead of the root vegetable variety. I used a heavy canvas so they’re extra durable, and each bag was decked out with its own zipper pocket, complete with a tiny hand charm:

zipper detailInside each pocket was a jar of skin balm made by my lovely friend Eleanor. It’s magic for dry skin, and you can pick some up here.

Posted on by Jessica in Crafts, Sewing | 1 Comment