Artemisfolk's Blog

Artisan Crafting, Traditional Folk Skills, and Urban Homesteading

An Old Fashioned Easter April 19, 2010

Filed under: Food,Natural Dye,Uncategorized — artemisfolk @ 11:37 pm
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“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.”

Henry David Throeau, Walden

I am gazing in wonder at the gorgeously colored Easter eggs lined up in cartons on our counter. Scents of warm wine, spicy turmeric, and tangy onion skins waft around the kitchen in the breeze from the open back door. We are drinking wine and dyeing eggs with natural, household ingredients. And I am wondering why we ever did it differently, why we ever substituted chemical, neon powders and plastic dipping sticks for the rich, evocative colors and engaging practice of dyeing eggs with wine, onion skins, turmeric, beets, and cabbage.

Perhaps I’m just tipsy, but the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by this wasteful commodity masquerading as an essential Easter tradition.  Take the massive, dye-kit company PAAS for example. PAAS had humble beginnings in the late 1800s when a New Jersey drug store owner, William Townley, began making and selling dye tablets that tinted eggs. Today, Americans purchase more than 10 million PAAS Easter Egg Color Kits during the Easter season. The PAAS website proudly states that, “If you lay all of the PAAS wire dippers end-to-end, they would equal the height of 6, 628 Washington Monuments.” Well, that’s a bizarre way to put it, considering those wire dippers and the other dye kit materials are now in landfills across the nation. 

PAAS also tells us that people have been dyeing eggs in China and Persia for 3000 years. Whatever did they do before PAAS came along with packaged kits? A common element of our wasteful, consumerist culture is that we don’t know we need something until the company that produces it tells us we do. And they tell us in such a compelling, glittery way that we feel like our lives were empty and difficult before they invented this new luxury. And then we spend a few dollars on something we already have or could easily make ourselves. Finally, we throw away half or all of what we bought because the packaging or even the entire product is disposable. Though all egg dye kits are labeled non toxic, many are also made from coal tar and petroleum products and contribute to the global petroleum addiction and oncoming crisis.

What I’m talking about here is an issue of consumerism, advertising aimed at children, cheap products made in foreign factories for abominably low wages, toxicity, and plain old wastefulness.

Here’s how we can take back this tradition and provide a solid example for children while having a good old fashioned time.

The Ethics of Easter Egg Dyeing

  1. Buy local eggs from farms where chickens are free-range. This makes a healthier, tastier egg for you and better treatment for animals who spend their lives producing food for humans.
  2. Use dyes from household ingredients. This is more fun, less expensive, and creates far less wastes. It teaches little people and big people alike how to be independent and creative. We see that we don’t need store-bought kits manufactured far away and shipped to us in pristine packaging.
  3. Have an egg hunt! This is the best part and not to be missed. Adults enjoy this just as much as children. Seven of my adult friends spent more than an hour hiding and finding eggs in the park next to our house.

Here’s how to dye eggs using natural ingredients:

Red wine creates a lovely purple  egg. Boil eggs in wine with a few teaspoons of vinegar for 15 minutes. If you want a darker color, let the eggs soak in the hot wine after you remove them from heat.

Turmeric makes a gorgeous, gold egg. Add two tablespoons of turmeric and a few teaspoons of vinegar to water and boil eggs in the mix for 15 minutes.  Let soak after cooking for darker color.

Yellow onion skins make another shade of lovely gold. We added orangey shallot skins for the deep red tone. Save the papery parts of onion skins until you have about a cup. Put them in the boiling water with the eggs and a few teaspoons of vinegar.

Purple cabbage creates a soft blue or lavender. Boil the eggs with vinegar and chopped purple cabbage. Let the eggs soak in the cabbage skin water until cool for a more vibrant color.

For a green egg, take an egg boiled blue from purple cabbage and dip it in the turmeric water for a few minutes.

Grated, raw beets, boiled with the eggs and vinegar produce a lighter pink color.

Note: vinegar acts as a mordant, securing the dye to the egg shell. Don’t skip it.

How to Keep it Fun with Kids:

Kids have to be careful around boiling water, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take part in the fun of egg dyeing. Younger children can draw on eggs with crayons or oil pastels before the egg is boiled. Using a white crayon will create an egg-white design that remains on the egg because the dye won’t stick to the wax in the crayon. If the child is old enough they can help prepare or stir the mixtures with supervision. And of course they can help hide and hunt the eggs.

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Cottage Industries Revived and the Extraordinary Qualities of Felted Wool April 3, 2010

Filed under: Wool — artemisfolk @ 11:21 pm

“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?

-Henry David Thoreau in a letter to Harrison Blake

(16 November, 1857)

Welcome to Cottage Corner!

This is a virtual cottage-diary where I, Artemis Folk, artisan crafter and urban homesteader, delve into the trials and travails of learning cottage skills and making a living from them. It will include my projects, reflections, questions, and DIY tools for curious people.

I started seriously crafting last fall (2009) when I was finally able take time off from the usual grind and devote my energy to learning the skills I find intriguing and practical, a kind of self-reeducation. Here are some examples of what I’m doing/learning/practicing/studying in no particular order:

  • Wool felting
  • Carpentry, wood working, and household repairs
  • Sewing, clothing alterations, following a pattern, making a pattern, by hand and machine
  • Food production/gardening/small scale farming
  • Food preservation: storing, canning, dehydrating, freezing, fermenting
  • Seed saving, preserving genetic diversity
  • Cooking and baking
  • Bicycle building and maintenance
  • Silk screening
  • Wild plant identification and gathering
  • Natural medicine and herbalism
  • Metalsmithing and jewelry making
  • Dyeing fabrics with natural dyes
  • Book binding
  • Paper making
  • Ceramic pottery
  • Block printing
  • Just about anything else that I would normally purchase from a corporation

The name Cottage Corner refers to cottage crafts, or cottage industries. When I say cottage crafts, I am talking about small scale, independent, skilled production of goods and services in a home-based environment. Cottage industries preceded factories. It was a way for small scale crafters to contract with a distributor. In the 1400s this distributor was often just a marketplace, a way to centralize trades and sales. Overtime, this changed from contracting to factory labor to the industrial revolution. Now, I’m not here to knock the industrial revolution. But I am here to knock cheap, corporate controlled labor that strips communities of both natural and human resources while stockpiling profits with CEOs and investors.

Cottage crafting goes by many other names. Other terms I’ve heard for what I’m doing include: traditional folk arts, primitive skills, survival skills, and homesteading. I refer to myself as an artisan crafter and urban homesteader. My project, the subject of this blog, involves both learning skills and profiting from my products/services.

Making my own stuff is a political choice, as well as a spiritual, ethical, economic, and idealistic choice. I would rather make something, learn a skill, nourish my creative mind, conserve resources, and undercut Target at the same time. Efficiency is very important to me because homesteading and hand-crafting are by nature gloriously slow.

Before I buy anything, I ask myself where it came from and how it was made. Unfortunately, the thing in question is often produced in a factory by underpaid labor and distributed by a corporation. Then I ask myself if I there’s something else I could use that I already have, or if I could make the item myself with a reasonable amount of labor and materials, and finally if I will learn a new skill or practice an old one while creating the desired object. If I can’t make the object, I look for an option that was made locally and is being sold by an independent person or business.

After many years of asking the question, “How would I make this?” I decided to devote some time in my life to learning how to be more self-sufficient. I wanted to know how to build, sew, and grow. This move is married to my efforts to defy corporate greed and carnivorous marketing schemes by putting my money where my mouth is and not supporting corporations. Now I am not only buying locally made cottage products, I am a crafter contributing to the cottage market and hoping people will buy my handmade wool mittens instead of the pair from the L.L. Bean catalog.

Enough philosophizing, let’s get to this post’s topic:

Felted Wool Stuff

I love clothes and accessories and I’m not ashamed to say it. (I’m also not ashamed to quote Walden.) But how do I satisfy my desire for cute sweaters and tall boots while maintaining my political integrity and homesteader street cred? Two words: felted wool. Not just any felted wool either. We’re talking wool from sweaters reclaimed from the local thrift store where clothes are sold in bulk for 50 cents per pound.

I buy used, 100% wool, merino, and cashmere sweaters for about 30 cents a sweater. I felt them at home in the washing machine. Then I cut out whatever pattern I want, sew the seams, and voila! We have hand-crafted, felted wool mittens with cashmere lining and quirky embroidery.

This winter I designed wool mittens for my sweetheart who bikes through the winter. I made them double layered to keep out wind. The inside layer is cashmere and the outside is a rougher, thicker, felted wool. Both layers used to be the sleeves of sweaters. I added bike tube palm pads for waterproofing. Bicycle shops throw out used bike tubes and give them away for free. I take the larger ones, slice them down the middle, and wash them inside.

I sew with heavy duty, cotton embroidery thread and a big needle with a large eye. I make colorful, visible stitches that add to the aesthetic and advertise the handmade quality. I want people to see that I made this neat thing and think, “How would I make those?” And if they ask me, I’ll tell them.

Why is wool awesome?

Wool is a natural, renewable fiber from sheep and goats. Animals do not need to be harmed to harvest wool (but beware: industrialized practices sometimes do harm the animals).  Wool is very warm in the cold and stays warm even if it gets wet. It also breaths when you’re hot. It can be thick for sweaters, or woven thin and smooth for undergarments. Wool can be torn apart and felted back together. Wool does not absorb odors like other materials. Wool is very easy to work with and can be dyed with natural, plant dyes. High quality wool is available inexpensively in resale stores and bulk thrift stores. It is adaptable and will form to a mold when felted.

Felting is the process of wool fibers being knitted more closely together. This can be done with small barbed needles (needle felting), or with hot water and soap. When you shrink a wool sweater accidently in the wash, you’ve felted it. It’s not fun to wear anymore, but it is now a stronger, more durable material with infinite potential futures as mittens, boots, vests, patches, shoes, hats, headbands, wallets, soap pockets, potholders, belts, legwarmers, bags, purses, funky jewelry, tea cozies and more.

In a future post I will feature the dozens of handmade wool items in my household.

DIY Felted Wool Mittens with optional bike tube palm:

  1. Get an old wool sweater, preferably cashmere or something not too scratchy. If it is scratchy you can make a softer lining using the same pattern you used for the boots.
  2. Felt the sweater. Put it in a washing machine on hot with detergent. Dry it in the dryer.
  3. Make a pattern on paper (I use paper bags or newspaper) or right on the fabric.
  4. Lay your hand flat on the material and trace around it. Remember to add ½ inch for the seam.
  5. Cut out the wool material.
  6. Sew the edges together using just about any stitch. (I use a backstitch if the seam is inside and invisible, or a whipstitch if the seam is outside and visible. For info on stitches use the internet or your public library.) I use thick cotton embroidery thread. Make sure you sew the mittens inside out so the seam will be on the inside when your turn them right side in.
  7. There are some decent instructional clips on youtube. Search for DIY mittens.  I especially like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBO0hNEChl8

Optional Bike Tube Palm Pads:

  1. Get an old, used bike tube, large size. Wash the inside of dust.
  2. Trace your pattern, palm, or mitten on the inside of the bike tube.
  3. Cut out the bike tube palm in the size of your choice.
  4. Sew it to the palm of your mittens using a whipstitch and cotton embroidery thread.