On a hot July day, we stopped at a second hand book store called “the Odd Book,” tucked away by the old railway in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. It has a good selection of local material as well as rare books. Browsing among the old book scent wooden shelves and generally feeling like I was in heaven, I found a whole section dedicated to dyeing wool. Standing there with a pristine spine was “Country Colours: A Guide to Natural Dyeing in Nova Scotia” by Carolyn Lock, published in 1981. Replete with original illustrations, beautiful paper and typeset, I was smitten! So many of the things I’ve wanted to do simply lay forgotten while I lived on the island and finding this book renewed my interest in natural dyeing, especially with the natural plants, trees, fungi and lichen of Nova Scotia. The book itself has scant information but I still think it’s a neat early example of dyeing especially as it pertains to the environment I find myself. Something interesting too is that the writer notes what time of year she collected the plant and the different colour results based on the season. Although this particular mushroom (and no mushrooms for that matter) were left out of this publication, the book renewed my interest, reminding myself of the first experiment. How much fun it is to set out in nature and see what wonderful colours it can provide. A way that was once an integral part of the fabric of society. Natural dyes could speak volumes about where you were from, what was available in your area, anchoring you to land.
This summer was pretty insane in terms of getting our house settled and visits so dyeing was one of the last things on my mind. However, come October our life began to mellow and my mind began to slow down and look toward a creative flow. Finally being able to complete long overdue projects as well as revisiting ideas I’ve had for ages like foraging mushrooms.
Walking in the woods in early October, I spotted the unsuspecting brownish-orange mushroom among all of the seasonal fungi popping out of the ground. In fact, Jamie pointed it out to me and I turned it over curiously believing it would be anything else. Excited, I looked under the cap and cried with glee at the sight of the bright red gills. It feels like years since I have noticed red-gilled webcap!! Cortinarius Semisanguineus!! Immediately, I decided to begin a collection of the mushrooms in order to dye some unbleached cotton to quilt. Imagining a beautiful basket filled to the brim with mushrooms, I used what is often my most readily available vessel for foraging: a dog poop bag.
The first evening I filled a bag with the old friend Cortinarius Semisanguineus or “Surprise Webcap.” A few years ago, I dyed wool using this interesting and beautiful mushroom and posted about it here on my blog. I loved this whole process and have wanted to return to dyeing with fungi and lichen. I feel so rejuvenated having moved back to Nova Scotia. The forest near our home is so wonderful – we have met barred owls, 5 point bucks (as well as fawns) and an array of fungi right in our backyard.
The next couple of walks, I brought my pocket knife to not disturb the mycelium network too much and just picked a few here and there so not to decimate the precious population, bringing a dog poop bag into the house each day. Eventually I gathered enough that I thought would be sufficient for a dye bath.
I am not a very scientifically minded person. Generally, I find the whole art of dyeing intimidating because of the scientific nature. It’s like chemistry and I was terrible at chemistry. I wish I could be someone who was interested because chemistry is really cool but my brain just doesn’t work that way. I couldn’t help but think that our ancestors who dyed their own wool, their own woven fabric must not all have been scientifically minded. So, I decided in my own way to just tackle it as a fun experiment in order to engage with the surrounding eco system.
One important aspect of natural dying are mordants. A mordant is a chemical that binds the dye to the fabric (otherwise, washing will likely significantly fade the colour). The most common is Alum (potassium alum) today however in the past it was more likely that iron mordants were used. I actually created an iron mordant by going down to the Halifax harbour and collected giant rusty iron nails that are probably over 100 years old. I soaked them for weeks in water and vinegar. I only now have a mordant that I could use and will do an update on my attempt to use my own homemade iron mordant. I am really curious about what Mi’kmaq (the indigenous people of the Maritimes of Canada) would have used but I can’t seem to find any information about it so if anyone knows or any resources that could provide more information, I would be really grateful!
For this particular project, I used Alum in my spice cupboard. On a Sunny fall day (this October was beautiful!) I brewed the brilliant mushrooms on the stove in the kitchen with all of the windows open and the vent on to alleviate the fumes. You should never by any account eat surprise webcaps! The sun was streaming in and it was a lovely witchy time in our midcentury kitchen. I stewed the mushrooms on the stove for awhile, bringing the water to a boil and then lowered to a simmer until it appeared that all the colour has drained from the plant. Making sure that the fabric is not folded neatly but rather crumpled up (this decreases the chances of having uniform lines that are a lighter colour but rather form an organic colour discolouration), I placed the unbleached cotton in a large 2 qt mason jar, slowly pouring the brew over the fabric into the jar. I’ve read (specifically in the Country Colours) to allow the dye to cool overnight however I was a little too excited so completely ignored that rule. I let the cotton sit in the dyebath until the next morning, after which I hung it outside to dry and saved my existing dyebath to add the next days collection of mushrooms and let the fabric sit a second evening in the bath.
If you look up examples of dyeing wool with Surprise Webcap, you will find brilliant rusty oranges and reds. They are stunning. I’m wondering if I need to make a more potent dyebath to achieve this result. This time, I had a more salmon pink which I really am happy with. It s a very warm and natural colour that makes me happy! Next year when they begin to pop up again, I’ll do some more experimentation.
My idea is to create small quilted wall pieces (roughly 12″ x 12″) that reflect the colour under our feet in Nova Scotia. Our house is adorned with antlers, stones, plants, driftwood, sheepskin, skulls, quilts both on the walls and on the beds… pieces of the natural world and works created by friends and family. I feel so deeply connected to our planet and am always searching for creative ways to express it. Not only will these pieces honour the earth and infinite universe we are so lucky to be apart of but they will enrich personal space. Sacred space.
Ohio Stars speak to me. They are so simple but I love them for their geometric interaction. For their stark contrast. I created these patchwork Ohio Stars on my Mom’s vintage 50s metal sewing machine from the 1960s (It’s a “Domestic” and I love this machine!) in her small sewing room in rural North East Nova Scotia. While she worked on squares for a future quilt for Jamie and I, she showed me her method of pinning and sewing Ohio Stars. Over the course of a couple of fall evenings, I pinned and sewed with the warm mushroom dyed cotton, falling in love with the result. During the next visit with my mom, she will show me how she quilts and once I have completed them, they will be up in the shop as wall hangings and thus I will begin a new series of works to be in the shop. I want to carry on the tradition of quilting the same way my mom has for decades.
On a visit to my moms, I collected some lichen in the mossy spruce dominated woods – usnea as well as one that I’m not sure the name of – it is blue and found along usnea on the bottom dead branches of spruce. I boiled this down and created the creamy coffee colour. It’s a subtle difference from the unbleached cotton.
To compliment the dyeing, botanical drawings and paintings will be created! Painting is such a fun way to form connection with plants – teaching you about their tiny intricacies. On a walk, I collected a single mushroom with the moss to draw (and then discard it in our garden). This painting did sell but I will make some more because, I can’t help it. They are a lot of fun!
Dyeing with natural resources is a fun way to connect with your immediate environment. It teaches you about the colours in your landscape, stimulating thought about the soil, the trees, the rocks. Colour is everywhere and it may really surprise you. I feel at peace as soon as I step into a forest listening to the squirrels, the crows. Smelling the decaying leaves and pine needles. Any excuse to engage with the forest, with the seaside is so enriching. Whether it’s beachcombing or hiking under a canopy. Collecting mushrooms to sew a small ritual space quilt 🙂
I’ll share another post when the quilting is complete and they are up in the shop. It may sound strange to put quilts on the wall – the house growing up was covered with quilts. My hope is to create works of art that exhibit the unsuspecting natural colours of this beautiful place.
We are heading into winter so the dormant period and frozen ground will prevent more experimentation. We will see what I can find for I’m sure dyeing continued even into the frozen winter by the Atlantic. Perhaps I can collect seaweeds or bark? We shall see. In Country Colours, Carolyn collected lichens, maple bark and teaberry in the winter months.
I hope you have enjoyed exploring the world a little bit of dyeing with surprise webcap, painting and sewing! I really enjoyed this entire process from the beginning of looking in the woods, brewing a mushroom dyebath to finding myself in rural Nova Scotia sewing with my mom. I’ll post an update of the finished quilted pieces when they are ready to go up in the shop!
Peaceful Winter Blessings,