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Guest Post: The Dyers' Garden with Dagmar Klos

Guest Post: The Dyers' Garden with Dagmar Klos

Jun 24th 2014

Have you ever wanted to explore the world of natural dyeing? In today's guest post, expert Dagmar Klos shares her own dyers' garden with you! 

Well, the garden is finally planted. It was a long, cold, snowy winter here in Chicago. Spring was also rather chilly with no temptation to plant early. Then off to Kentucky for the Sheep and Fiber Festival, a fun event (I just love going to sheep festivals). Before heading back to Chicago, I stopped at the Woolery in Frankfort - what a treat, wish I lived closer. Upon returning home, it was time for spring cleaning in the garden. I live in Chicago, and although my property is twice the size of a normal city lot, I do have a lot of shade due to the amount of trees including a large, old willow. I have a small space in the front that has sunshine daily which is where I plant my marigolds along with some coreopsis planted right by the marigolds. Unfortunately, some of the coreopsis took a hit with the cold winter and I will need to get new ones for the bare spots; This is the extent of my dyer’s garden - for the time being.

Marigolds Marigolds

I love dyeing with marigolds; they are happy little yellow/orange flowers. I prefer the French marigolds over the African variety, but I did just learn from my neighbor who is a horticulturist that the African variety has a dwarf version. I’ll need to look into that. The area in which I grow the marigolds is limited in size (about 9’ x 4’) and I think that the regular African marigolds would look too big. Years ago, in the backyard I planted Rudbeckia, black-eyed-Susans, but they are not thriving and are slowly disappearing due to too much shade. On the other hand, the sweet woodruff that I planted (I only bought one flat) has multiplied over and over. I should really plan to harvest the roots sometime this summer as I get them out of the areas where they shouldn’t be. Sweet woodruff is in the madder family. The roots yield a light red and the leaves, a light brown.

Sweet Woodruff Sweet Woodruff

When I look at my beautiful, old black willow (one reason why we bought this house), I am sad knowing that one day it will be gone. It’s 60 years old and showing signs of decline. The dynamics of the back yard will change significantly which will mean more sunlight. And I think - oh, I will be able to expand my dye garden! One plant at the top of the list is weld also known as dyer’s mignonette or dyer’s weed, or dyer’s rocket. Weld yields a wonderful, lightfast, washfast yellow. It’s a cool yellow and when over-dyed with indigo gives a fabulous green. It’s not the prettiest plant, which explains one of its names - dyer’s weed - but the color is wonderful. Since I love black-eyed-Susans, I will plant more of them. My list would also include dahlia, daisy, dyer’s chamomile, dyer’s greenweed, golden rod, golden marguerite, queen Anne’s lace, yarrow, and zinnia. If I had more land, the list would be longer.

Weld, also known as Dyers' Rocket or Dyers' Mignonette Weld, also known as Dyers' Rocket or Dyers' Mignonette

Another thought pops into my head - I will need to buy a second refrigerator. I don’t always use up all my flowers for dyeing during the growing season. In fact, I need to collect and keep some of them for when I teach marigold dyeing. In the past I have dried the flowers; dying primarily with only the flower heads for the purest color the plant can give me, adding the leaves and stems will desaturate the color which is perfectly fine at times. But drying requires forethought. With a hectic schedule I find that right before a predicted frost, I am in my flower bed, cutting off the flower heads and putting them into freezer bags. Needless to say that looking into my freezer may surprise some, but it always brings a smile to my face remembering the sunshine of the summer and the fun that lies ahead while I’m dyeing in the dead of winter with that bit of sunshine.

Zinnia Zinnia

Dagmar Klos is a dye master, fiber artist, and teacher. Author of the Dyer's Companion, co-publisher and coeditor of the Turkey Red Journal from 1995-2006 (newsletter dedicated to natural dyes), recipient of the Handweavers Guild of America's Certificate of Excellence in Dyeing. She also teaches at the Fine Line Creative Arts Center in St. Charles, Illinois. She lives with her husband and two big dogs in Chicago, Illinois.

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