Friday, November 9, 2012

Late harvest

Mullein in late summer

The leaves are gone from the trees, only the brussel sprouts remain in the garden, cold nights freeze the ponds. Fall is well settled and winter is creeping closer. This morning I picked fresh green mullein in our pastures. The sheep don’t particularly like the fuzzy oval leaves, but I love them – for dyeing.

Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is my favorite dye plant. With copper sulfate as a mordant, I can produce a beautiful mossy green fiber from a handful of leaves and a skein of my favorite yarn. To dye with mullein, the wool must first be mordanted. A mordant is a metal salt that helps the dye color attach to the wool fiber. Without a mordant, most natural dyes yield beige.

I simmer two pounds of fresh leaves in a big dye pot for thirty minutes (you can also use dried leaves). Then I strain out the leaves and add copper sulfate to the dye pot. I stir until the blue crystals are completely dissolved and then submerge 2 pounds of freshly washed wool. I then simmer the wool for thirty minutes, turning the mass occasionally to expose all the wool fibers to the mordant and to the dye liquor. For more information on dyeing with natural dyes, see From Sheep to Shawl: Stories and Patterns for Fiber Lovers.

There is something deeply pleasing about dyeing wool our sheep have produced with a plant that grows naturally on our land. This morning as I walked the fields in search of mullein, I appreciated the scent of the manure Dave spread on the fields yesterday, the cool autumnal breeze on my face, and the sight of our sheep lying in the sunshine, the colors of their patched coats blending into the brown grasses.

I haven’t stepped back in time – I’m wearing a polar fleece jacket and carrying the mullein in a plastic bag, but I did leave my cell phone in the house and I’m not rushing off in the car. Today I am fully at home on the farm, appreciating and using one of the last green plants we harvest in the fall.

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