May 18, 2016 · Updated 1:30 AM
I am a backyard dyer. Plant a seed; give it water, warmth and light from the sun; a little compost for food; then watch. The day the first seed-leaves (cotyledans) push up from the soil is amazing. This is where I can sense the movements plants make, the life they have. Later in the summer when the flowers are full of bees and stalks grow tall, that is another satisfaction.
Dyeing with plants from my garden or collected from waysides and fields in our area is gratifying in a way that is both old and new. Reading about ancient and traditional ways connects me to my ancestors. My grandparents were Armenian immigrants from Eastern Turkey. My grandfather worked with carpets and could make an invisible repair. Boyaja means dyer in Turkish: Boyajian, my family name, is an Armenian dyer.
Experimenting with the plants connects me to this place, Vashon-Maury Island. I follow basic recipes that change based on what is in bloom, ready for harvest or preserved from previous years. Weather plays a big role as well. Hot, sunny days are perfect for solar dyeing and drying finished items. Temperatures in the low-to mid-70s are ideal for weeding, cooking vats outside on the propane stoves and for harvesting. Digging madder roots in the cool of autumn happens every three years, and our farmers market takes place no matter what the weather, so I have learned to dress appropriately, for hot sun or chilly winds.
My plant friends provide the colors for yarn and spinning or felting fibers: dyer's and common coreopsis, marigold, dyer's chamomile, black hollyhock, dyer's rocket/weld, common yarrow, madder, Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) and cherry prunings in my garden; dahlia blooms left over from my neighboring flower vendor at the farmers market; common tansy, madrona leaves, yellow dock and willow collected by the wayside. I've yet to try alder leaves and cones, birch bark, hawthorne, oak, or juniper. Subtle variations of color from batch to batch always surprise me, each dyepot unique.
It would be quite a challenge to produce all of one's clothing, let alone household textiles, using local materials. Four thousand yards of medium-weight wool yarn is about enough to make one sweater, one vest, two pairs of boot socks or slippers, one pair of mittens, one pair of fingerless gloves and two hats, more or less depending on size. That's about 40 skeins, or nearly a fleece. To dye this amount of yarn requires approximately a kilogram of dried plant material.
Different plants and different parts of plants yield various concentrations in a dye bath. Stuff a half-gallon canning jar with fresh coreopsis flowers, set it in the sun and it is almost immediately full of a saturated orange-golden color. In a more complex procedure, leaves of Japanese indigo must be steeped at no higher than 160 degrees Fahrenheit and the liquid then made alkaline with the addition of washing soda, calcium hydroxide or wood ash water. After that, it can be fermented or made into a sugary vat with ripe fruit or fructose crystals, which subsequently reduces the vat, necessary before submerging the fibers. A different process using ice water and distilled vinegar results in lighter and more turquoise colors.
I focus on creating truly local items by purchasing wool, alpaca and mohair from animals living on Vashon-Maury Island and counties bordering Puget Sound, though sometimes I venture as far as Eastern Washington, North Central Oregon, or even Western Montana for types of wool unavailable in our maritime region. Several very small woolen mills are available in the area that do custom processing of animal fibers. When I am carding and spinning yarn for my own projects, I have a few fleeces washed at a mill. For the market, I have dozens of skeins of yarn spun for me since I need more than I could produce by hand in a season. One year I grew a tiny field of flax and proceeded to learn about processing it into yarn. Alas, I lacked the proper hand tools to make the job less arduous and thus gave up with only a small bunch partially done. I hanker for a small commercial flax mill so I could also have linen yarn with which to work.
On any given Saturday at the farmers market, I might have 40 to 120 skeins on display, as well as spinning fiber and dyed locks for felting. Having a booth at the market is such a great way to connect with people. I enjoy talking with customers and seeing what they have made with my wares. It is inspiring to be in the space with so many enthusiastic vendors. And I especially love to see students at the market who recognize me from my artist residencies with first graders at Chautauqua Elementary School.
— Laurel Boyajian is a fiber
artist on Vashon and member of the Vashon Island Grower's Association (VIGA).
VIGA represents local
farmers and those who eat
and use their products.
This column is part of a series
by VIGA members.
Published in Vashon-Maury Beachcomber