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Nature's kaleidoscope

Jan./Feb. 2009 California Country magazine

Some Californians are preserving the state's palette of colors through a simple, age-old tradition—the art of natural dyeing.



Colorful yarns to warm the soul

Mimi Luebbermann sits at her spinning wheel with un-spun, un0dyed wool from the sheep she raises on her farm. She reflects her garden's rich color palette by dying the wool with pigments from plants such as dahlias, tansies, red onionskins, black walnuts and marigolds.
Mimi Luebbermann sits at her spinning wheel with un-spun, un-dyed wool from the sheep she raises on her farm. She reflects her garden's rich color palette by dyeing the wool with pigments from plants such as dahlias, tansies, red onionskins, black walnuts and marigolds. (Photo by Paige Green)

As the cold of winter sets in and the rich beauty of fall fades away, some people in California are preserving the state's palette of colors through a simple, age-old tradition--the art of natural dyeing.

Mimi Luebbermann is one of those people.

When Luebbermann began Windrush Farm in Petaluma, she loved the idea of capturing the colors of her garden in the wool she collected from her sheep. Growing up on a farm and having spent time in Australia, a country known for its quality wool products, Luebbermann developed an appreciation for the soft fiber and its ability to display different shades using natural pigments.

"When you start in the wool world, you get sucked in and it's so much fun," she said. "Natural dyes have a depth and a look that synthetic dyes just can't compete with."

And there truly is no comparison. Natural dyes--defined as any dye created from animal, vegetable or mineral origin--often provide more vibrant and longer-lasting colors than their laboratory-created counterparts. Luebbermann also points out that natural dyes are unique because no one batch is the same as another; the variety of color options is endless.

Mimi Luebbermann places a skein of yarn in a simering dye pot, a process that yields colored yarns with a
Mimi Luebbermann places a skein of yarn in a simmering dye pot, a process that yields colored yarns with a "depth and a look that synthetics just can't compete with." (Photo by Paige Green)

"When you use natural dyes, you can't replicate the colors because the intensity is different every time," she said. "For instance, even if you use the same type of flower for a dye, there's no guarantee of an exact match the next time around."

The use of natural pigments dates back more than 15,000 years, as seen in millennia-old cave paintings and pottery. Recent archaeological finds indicate the use of natural dyes for textiles some 6,000 years ago when countries like India, China and parts of South America established the craft as part of their culture. Even the tombs of ancient Egyptian kings and queens contained garments dyed using various crops available at the time.

The preservation of the colors after so many centuries is attributed to the early dyers' use of mordants--naturally occurring elements such as aluminum, copper or iron. The element was applied to the textiles prior to dyeing to ensure the dye adhered to the materials, a practice that continues.

Today, Luebbermann's 26-acre Sonoma County farm boasts a bounty of native California plants that create breathtaking dyes. Among her crops are tansy and dahlia flowers, marigolds, black walnuts, cornhusks and even onionskins. And it doesn't stop there. Luebbermann says almost anything that can be put in a pot of boiling water and produce color can be used for dyeing.

"The yarns speak for themselves. They have a depth and a look that synthetics just can't compete with," she said, admiring a fresh batch of dark brown wool dyed from walnuts--her personal favorite.

Jennifer Muller revels in the feel of freshly sheared sheep's wool at the weekend retreat.
Jennifer Muller revels in the feel of freshly sheared sheep's wool at Warner Mountain Weavers' annual "Harvest Wool Gathering" event. (Photo by Vicky Sjoberg)

But no matter what crop is selected to create the dye, the finished product is only as good as the material it is applied to. At Luebbermann's farm, a flock of Lincoln Longwool and Corriedale sheep offers a perfect balance because of the superior quality of both their wool and their meat. The two breeds are even crossed to get a third variation of wool. A fully grown ewe will produce 10 to 17 pounds of wool annually.

"People have gotten in the habit of raising sheep for strictly meat purposes," Luebbermann said. "I believe a balance can exist between good meat and good wool."

Once Luebbermann's flock is sheared in mid-winter, the wool travels to a mill in nearby Yolo County to be washed, carded and plied. It is then sent back--ready to dye--in the form of yarn or roving (un-spun yarn).

Luebbermann says the dyeing process from start to finish is tiring, but something she enjoys doing as part of life on the farm. When she lived in Oakland, prior to moving to Petaluma, she missed the rural lifestyle and couldn't wait to start a farm of her own.

"I always knew I was meant to be on a farm," she said. "I love working with the animals and in my garden. I don't own a television, I don't even have to go to the gym. This is a very healthy lifestyle."

Luebbermann sells naturally dyed yarn out of her home and also travels weekly to the Point Reyes Station and Marin Civic Center farmers markets, where she has built a loyal customer base.

And Luebbermann's operation isn't the only business in California bustling with the art of creating natural dyes. At a recent "Harvest Wool Gathering" retreat at Warner Mountain Weavers in Cedarville, participants had the opportunity to follow the process of natural dyeing from the beginning step of shearing the wool to knitting with their finished wool product.

Janet Baldridge plans to use the wool she dyed at the event to knit a pair of socks.
Janet Baldridge plans to use the wool she dyed at the event to knit a pair of socks. (Photo by Vicky Sjoberg)

One participant, Janet Baldridge of the Lake Tahoe area, said the event gave her the opportunity to connect with nature and be part of a tradition that many people no longer appreciate. A banker by profession, Baldridge knits as a hobby and, until the retreat, used conventional synthetic dyes for her working materials. While she appreciates the colors that both natural and synthetic dyes produce, she says natural dyes provide a deeper connection to the things she knits.

Baldridge first read about Warner Mountain Weavers, a Modoc County workshop and showroom, in the January/February 2008 issue of California Country, which she receives as part of her California Farm Bureau membership. During the weekend, Baldridge dyed her wool using marigolds and then went home to blend it with natural gray wool for a pair of socks.

"I was like a little kid on a field trip. I was so excited," Baldridge said. "Finding pleasure in something that costs next to nothing makes for a truly special occasion. Natural dyeing is just so back to nature."

Brandon T. Souza is a reporter in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.

What colors does your garden grow?

These instructions from Mimi Luebbermann will help you enjoy the beauty of your own garden throughout the year.

Natural dye

Mordant bath:
2 ounces of alum crystals per pound of fiber (available online or where herb products are sold)
1 3/4 ounces of cream of tartar per pound of fiber
Cleaned and processed roving or yarn (available online or at your local wool mill)

Dye soup:
California dye product of your choosing, such as:

  • Marigold flowers (whole)
  • Tansy flowers (whole)
  • Dahlia flowers (whole)
  • Walnuts (whole)
  • Apple leaves (crushed) and branches
  • Oak leaves (crushed) and branches
  • Pomegranates (crushed)
  • Onionskins
  • Cornhusks

For mordant bath:
Fill a large stainless steel pot with cool water (4 gallons for every pound of fiber) and bring to a boil. Dissolve alum crystals in a small separate pot of boiling water and add to larger pot; stir. Dissolve cream of tartar in a small separate pot of boiling water and add to larger pot; stir. Remove mordant bath from heat and let cool. Place roving or yarn in cooled bath, return to heat and simmer for 1 hour. Again remove from heat and let cool. Remove fiber, rinse thoroughly with water and set aside.

For dye soup:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add dye product (no measuring necessary). Let simmer for 1 hour. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Place wet mordant-treated fiber in pot, return to heat and simmer for 1 more hour. Remove from heat and let cool. Remove fiber, rinse thoroughly with water and let dry.

A wine stain that rocks!

Since 2006, the Hill Family Estate winery in Yountville has featured a yearly wood product stained with--you guessed it--red wine!

Surfer Kyle Knox, winemaker Alison Green-Doran and sales director Ryan Hill teamed up to create a similar promotion featuring custom wine-stained surfboards.
Surfer Kyle Knox, winemaker Alison Green-Doran and sales director Ryan Hill teamed up to create a similar promotion featuring custom wine-stained surfboards. (Photo courtesy of the Hill Family)

What began as a sales pitch to an upscale restaurant has turned into a unique way to differentiate the Napa Valley family's wine from the competition. Doug and Darci Hill's son, Ryan, also their director of sales, came up with the idea--and it all started with guitars.

That first year, the Hills produced 100 60th-anniversary Fender Stratocaster guitars stained with Hill Harvest Red. Each guitar was paired with a six-pack of Hill Family Presidential Blend, resulting in a wildly popular promotion.

"Since then we have looked for a different business every year to gain appreciation for wine," Ryan Hill said. "Each wine is specifically crafted year to year to pair well with whatever product we're promoting."

Hill teamed up with professional surfer Kyle Knox in 2007 to create a custom surfboard and to pitch Barrel Blend wine. The following year, Montana-based Artisans Doors used Hill Harvest Red to stain the antique wood doors of the Hills' tasting room. Replica doors are still available for purchase and come with three magnums of Red Door Blend.

What's the process behind using red wine as a stain? Hill says it's a family secret, but he did hint that this year's project would be something involving pool tables.


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