Local Color

Many years ago, when I was just entering the world of spinning and dyeing, I hosted a dye workshop for my local guild. We set up Coleman stoves all over our rural backyard and cooked up everything from indigo to cochineal to rabbit brush to elderberries (not light fast!). There was so much joy in pulling those skeins and bags of fleece from the steaming pots – rainbows on the clothesline!

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Plain-looking rock lichens yield vivid orange and magenta dyes (that smell great, too).  

At the end of the day, we not only had many pounds of colored wool, but also a gallon or so of indigo vat leftover that we didn’t want to put into the septic system. What to do? Oh, just dump it in that big puddle back there by the chicken house, I said. Well, our white Peking ducks couldn’t resist. We learned that indigo is quite colorfast on duck feathers, and our flock waddled around for months in two-toned splendor.

Today, I would know that you never throw away an indigo vat. You can keep perking it up until every last bit of pigment is gone. But that’s not even the beginning of everything I didn’t know then. I used to go for walks down our country road in the evening, and I remember pinching the tops of the giant ragweed before it came into bloom. It stained my fingers red! That was so exciting. Surely there was some wonderful dye lurking in those ragweed tops. All the experimenting and fermenting and boiling I could muster never gave me anything but beige, though. On the other hand, I could pinch the webby little beetles that lived on the prickly pear cacti, and there was the crimson stain of cochineal. Why from a bug, but not from a plant?

I had to drive a few hours south to find cacti that hosted the bugs, back in the 1970s. Today I can practically walk out the back door and find them. That is one small legacy of global warming. The dye bugs are on the march. Maybe I’ll be able to grow my own indigo one of these years, if it ever rains enough.

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When you know what to look for, natural color lurks in the most unexpected places.


My point, beyond the reminiscing: Natural colors are often where you least expect them. Rust and magenta from rock lichens. Red from bugs. Brassy gold from Osage Orange wood chips. Even blue on a duck’s belly, if you’re not careful. I love that we have been able to publish so much content on this subject over the years, from magazine articles to books to videos to handy kits – insights into the wonderful treasures the natural world gives us. It’s magic. (Or it’s chemistry.)



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