Friday, June 5, 2015

Spring plant dye: Horsetail

Now that spring is well underway, I have a steadily increasing amount of different plants to try as dyes.  There is a shallow ditch running along the road frontage of my family’s acreage that is filling in with horsetails.  By horsetails, I ‘m not talking about the last part of Secretariat to cross the finish line, these horsetails are Equisetum arvense, a bright green, stiff, spindly, primitive plant.  The Equisetums are fascinating plants, “closely allied to the prehistoric order of the Calamitales, large and abundant treelike plants of the Carboniferous period nearly three hundred million years ago.”  (Boughton Cobb, A Field Guide to Ferns and their Related Families, Houghton Mifflin, 1963, p. 194)  Horsetails may be used for dyeing, here is the result:


A nice light tint of yellow green on the cottons, a bit darker on the silk.  I added a bit of alkaline modifier in the form of wood ash solution to one pot, and it seemed to lighten the color.  I’ve given up on weighing and measuring like most of my sources suggest.  Rough visual estimates are working fine for me, and if a batch of fabric doesn’t turn out, I’ll just try it again with a new dyebath. 
The sprigs in the picture that look like pine needles are the horsetail plant.

I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the natural world, I spent summers as a youngster tagging along with my mother to her job at a natural history museum.  Now that I am living on rural acreage, I am reacquainting myself with the wild flora and fauna.  While I was harvesting horsetails for dyeing, I was reminded of Albrecht Durer’s Great Piece of Turf watercolor from 1503.  The longer I concentrated on a square foot of meadow edge, I found more and more different plants.  Tip of the day: Never completely strip an area of a plant you are collecting, only take a fraction of what is there, and collect only if there is an abundance of what you seek.  Of course, don’t trespass either!

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