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Natural dyeing: Flag Iris root on linen

Dyeing with Iris pseudacorus

There are some dye stuffs that carry a little bit of legend with them, an inbuilt reminder of respect. Where we all happily pile on in collecting onion skins and picking nettles, we rightly hesitate when it involves digging up things.

Particularly native plants - we remember the Countryside Code and step aside - but always left with a little bit of wondering.

A long time ago, back when I was a costume historian, I read about how the roots of yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) could give a black dye - I think initially it was in a history of tartans and tweeds and I've subsequently seen it alluded to in other Scottish dye books - and I have always had it on my list as something to try.

Indeed I'd talked about it to my friend Kat at Gartur Stitch Farm whose old vegetable beds were infested with flag iris, but somehow those conversations were always over a cup of coffee in her warm Studio and never quite made it to slipping around in the mud digging up roots.

Then, last month I stayed for a few nights at the garden designer Arne Maynard's house Allt y Bela where the gardeners were busy digging out flag iris from the stream that borders the drive. The iris clumps had outgrown their space and needed to go. I spotted a chance and struck up conversation, a conversation that was rewarded with a great clump to take home in a compost bag and experiment with.

chopping up the roots

Step 1

I cut off the leaves and the fine wiggly roots the the top of the crown and then rinsed and chopped the thicker roots - making them into chunks about an inch cubed.

Step 2

I put the roots into a cheesecloth bag and then soaked the whole thing in a pan of water for a week. I was busy with other things so happy to have them just sitting on the hearth.

Step 3

I very gently simmered them for a couple of hours, and then heated the water gently and allowed it to cool over the next few days. My hope was to get the dye chemicals out of the root as gently as possible.

dyeing with flag iris root

You can see that the liquid is really not obviously full of dye.

Step 4

I added in a couple of pieces of linen which had been scoured and then mordanted with aluminium acetate. Left overnight it turned the palest of pale greys - you can see it as the top sample in my dye record book. The initial linen was a white so there is some colour change, but not much.

dyeing with Iris pseudacorus

Step 5.

The magic. I rinsed the linen and put one piece into an iron solution - a small amount of iron crystals in water in a jar, less than 2%. After about ten to fifteen minutes it had changed to a beautiful dark purplish navy.

I am now doing light fast samples - it certainly seems to be wash fast. I shall report back.

I'm currently dyeing larger bits - not very big as I now have my pans indoors and I'm not a neat person, but big enough to make some embroidered buttons in cream on navy.

EDIT - over a period of six months in daylight the blue faded back to a mid/dark grey.

How to dye linen with flag iris roots

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Stillness is such a difficult skill to acquire.  I suspect that so much of the rushing about that we do is simply an attempt to avoid being still.
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For if we stopped, paid attention to ourselves, to the world around us, let everything sink in - well that might be very scary.
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But I do think it is the most important skill - a five minute pause, a checking in.  I'm not talking about meditation here - nothing as formal as that - just a stilling and listening and paying attention. Appreciation, recognition, renewal.
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It is something that I am very bad at by nature - but I have been taking lessons from Dixie. 

For if a spaniel can relax into stillness, nosing into a shaft of sunshine, then I'm sure I can.
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Teasel isn't quite there yet.

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One thing that gardening teaches you year on year is that so much is beyond your control. Some things will thrive, others won’t, and mostly it will be nothing to do with anything you’ve done. 
Some years will be great for one crop, terrible for another. This is a great year for garlic here, awful for beans. 

It’s the same with business - a lot of things happen that are due to the ‘weather’ of the world. We can pivot and turn, change our tactics, Google ‘how to make reels’ and so on - but we can also choose to embrace and lean into what is working well. 

My Friday letter today is about social media and all the ways I’ve used to connect with people over the past 21 years - if you fancy a read you can sign up in my profile. 

And in the meantime I’d love to know what’s growing well for you. Or indeed, what has been a disaster! 

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Each year I have a personal project running.  Something just for me. Something that allows me to experiment and play. 
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The first year that I became obsessed with using the plants here to dye textiles - back in 2019 - it was twelve skeins of a raw slubby silk yarn that I  had been hoarding for decades. They became a patchwork cable blanket that now sits on the back of the sofa.
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In 2020 it was double knitting yarns, in dozens of colours, knitted into a stripy jumper to keep me cosy in the Studio.
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Last year I dyed linens and am gradually making them into patchworks and appliqués - many I am squirrelling away for a project that I may or may not ever begin.
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This year I am using mini skeins - in an attempt to keep it more manageable - and exploring the differences in colour caused by the pH of the original extraction. 
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There are four skeins for each plant, two for neutral extraction, two for alkali - with one of each pair being dipped in iron to 'sadden' the colour.
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If science had been like this at school I might have paid more attention . . . .

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This is a tomato salad that was inspired by one I ate a few years ago in a cafe in Mingun, Myanmar,
There it was mainly made with green tomatoes, sharp against the shrimp powder.
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In Myanmar the military junta have begun to execute activists arrested after the coup in February 2021. The brutality and violence continue, the quashing of democracy, the corruption. 

11,759 people, arrested after the coup, remain in detention, 78 people, including two children, have been sentenced to death.
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You won't usually find much out about Myanmar in the 'fed to you' media, but this week there has been reporting and a Dispatches programme about mass killings  was on Channel 4 on Monday.  The Guardian has consistently been the newspaper reporting most on the aftermath of the coup and you can also follow hashtags like #whatishappeninginmyamar here. 
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There may seem little we can actively do about the horrors in the world, but people involved always say that what matters is knowing that people care, bear witness and don’t simply forget when the news cycle moves on.
We always have a slight breeze here - a blessing as it stops the midges flying.
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It often gets up at night after a warm day, seeming to breathe its way round corners. 
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If you walk through the garden in the evening at the moment, the scent of Lilium regale drifts about you in eddies of spice.

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The more I travel down this road the more I realise that deciding how you live, which values you honour, what you will prioritise all have to be deliberately chosen. 
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You can’t just drift into a slower, more intentional life. 
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It is why I go to events like last weekend’s summer camp @thegoodlifesoc . 
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It is also why I surround myself with a supportive community where my choices don’t seem weird.

It is why my to do list today has sitting with a coffee taking in the swoony scent of the sweet peas on it. 

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This is the actual physical Studio.
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It is a little cabin between meadow and wood - a space for creativity and connection a space that I deliberately and intentionally worked towards for a number of years.  There is a sunny deck looking onto trees for the summer, a wood burning stove for the winter.
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The Studio is also another thing - it is a club of amazing people who are intentionally prioritising their creativity and connection to the natural world. 
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It is a community of great humour, support and inspiration - the best thing that I have ever had a hand in.
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The Studio Club is closed to new members at the moment and the doors will open to new members again on the Autumn Equinox. 

I'm currently working with @fbarrows, who is providing a gentle and encouraging outside eye, as I decide on what we will be doing in the club over the next six months.
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I've been surveying all the members to find out exactly what it is they enjoy most, what they feel I could do better. 

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If you get it, it would help me so much if you could take a minute to fill it out - there are only five questions and there is also a bribe . . . .

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The more we actively take time to pause, to sit still and watch, the more we see. 
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My Friday Letter this week is all about taking advantage of some unwanted early wakening and starting to use the binoculars which have been hanging on the coat rail for eighteen months.
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Twenty minutes with a cup of tea, the binoculars and a lawn full of early birds and their worms.

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In the Studio Club I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

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