Follow Your Curiosity: Natural Fibers, Dyeing, and More with Linda Ligon

Oh, the places an inquisitive mind can take you! The latest issue of Spin Off, Summer 2018, includes two essays on the unexpected colors available from natural dyes by Interweave’s founder Linda Ligon. Over the years, Linda’s infectious curiosity has shone through in her musings on natural fibers, dyeing, and more, and sparked many a reader’s desire for further investigation.

From “Thigh Spinning, A Living Tradition,” in Spin Off, Summer 2014:

“Some types of maguey [a member of the genus Agave] yield coarse fibers suitable only for ropes and cordage. The type most commonly harvested in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico is fine and silky, spun using a primitive but surprisingly efficient method that requires nothing more than two hands and a leg. Its best and highest use is for a type of looped bag that is ubiquitous for carrying almost anything.

“Before you can make a bag, though, you must spin the fibers. And before you spin, the fibers must be separated from the huge, fleshy leaves. This can be done by burying the leaves, rotting them in still water, scorching them, or any other method that causes the pulp to disintegrate but leaves the sturdy fibers intact. In Chiapas, it’s done by hand with a machete.”

natural fibers

Maguey bags from Chiapas are made with fibers prepared and spun by hand. Photo by Joe Coca

From “ How to Make a Dab of Lanolin Hand Cream,” in Spin Off, Winter 2015:

“You have this gorgeous, greasy, smelly fleece. You think of how wonderful lanolin is for your hands. So you go online and look for some know-how. It’s simple! Just cook your fleece, skim off the lanolin, mix it up with some beeswax, almond oil, witch hazel, and borax. Easy as making a pot of soup.

“So you put a pound of fleece in your biggest stock pot and put it on the stove to cook. The recipe says to boil it, but lanolin (which is a wax) melts at a mere 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so you are careful to keep it at a slow simmer. Soon the aroma is permeating your home. And while raw fleece itself (suint, dung residue, and all) may have a pleasant smell, cooking fleece is decidedly stinky.”

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A pound of scoured fleece makes a half cup of the best homemade hand cream you can imagine. Photo by Linda Ligon

From “Sermons in Stone?” Spin Off, Summer 2018:

“I like to go out with a plastic bag and pocketknife to harvest these unassuming little crusts [lichens], especially after a rain, when they release their hold on the rocks easily. Once I have a little bagful—enough to half fill a quart jar—the real fun begins. My experience is that lichens are pretty iffy to dye with; it’s hard to know just what you’ll get. If I’m working with a lichen I haven’t used before, I usually soak a teaspoonful in nonsudsy household ammonia for a few hours or more, giving it an occasional stir. If it tends to run pink, then it’s an orchil-producing lichen and promises pretty pink-to-purple hues on wool. If the color runs brown, I soak some in plain water for a few days and compare the results.”

Although now the publisher of Thrums Books and a partner at ClothRoads, Linda’s guiding voice can still be heard in the pages of the spinning, weaving, and needlework magazines she created. Reading Linda’s reflections inspires curiosity and exploration of the possibilities when doing something as basic as introducing twist to natural fibers.

What handspinning adventure will you embark on next? Tell us in the comments below.

—Elizabeth

Featured Image: These rust and pink hues were dyed with lichens from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Photo by Joe Coca


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2 Comments

  1. Amit L at 5:07 am July 4, 2018

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  2. Cheryl C at 9:10 pm July 5, 2018

    Hi I am interested in natural dyeing with lichens. I had to laugh when I read your article because I thought that I was the only one who has gone out with a plastic bag and a pocket knife to harvest the lichen. . I learned something too. I will now hunt after it rains.

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