Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

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Wild Edible: Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae )

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by MathKnight

It’s Bermuda buttercup season in Los Angeles. Burmuda buttercup, also known as sourgrass, soursop, African wood-sorrel and  many other names, is a member of the wood-sorrel family. It originated in the Cape region of South Africa and is now found all over California, parts of Australia and probably other places as well. Here, it comes with the rain and vanishes with the heat.

It’s a “weed” (Wikipedia describes it as a noxious weed and an invasive species) so if you look it up on the internet you’ll mostly find information on how to eradicate it. It’s true, it’s terribly persistent, because it spreads through underground bulbs. But I think its attractive–usually more attractive than whatever neglected patch of landscaping it has colonized. More importantly, it’s super tasty.

It packs a potent, lemony punch, like true sorrel, which makes it an excellent salad green, and that’s how I use it–raw, in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all tasty, but for salads I just use the flowers and leaves. They provide a bright, lemony note which is just wonderfully fresh and tasty with tender new lettuce–springtime in a bowl.

As its true name, Oxalis, indicates, it is high in oxalic acid (as are many more common greens, like spinach), and (mandatory warning) oxalic acid should not be consumed in enormous quantities or if your physician has warned against it for some reason. But its sour nature makes it unlikely that you could stomach enough to hurt you.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet. If this form of oxalis doesn’t grow near you, other edible wood sorrels– or naturalized true sorrel–might. Have a look around.

Note the structure: 3 hearts joined at the center, and the distinctive brown freckles on the leaves.

Oxalis pes-caprae has another use–as a dye. I’m experimenting with that this week, and will talk about the results in a future post.

Your Essential Oil Toolkit

A few bottles of essential oils are an important part of the DIY toolkit, but some people don’t ever try them because they are so expensive. I can’t deny that they are pricey, but once you start using them, and you see how far they stretch and how many uses they can be put to, you’ll start to understand why they’d be a bargain at twice the price. Best of all, the most useful oils (to my way of thinking) are the cheapest.

My picks are: lavender essential oil, peppermint essential oil and tea tree oil. These three would make a good starter set for anyone, and are also a good trio to take traveling with you. All of them are on the low end of the essential oil price scale.

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Deodorizing Wash

Deodorizing wash? Freshening wash? In Making It we called it cleansing spray. I’ve never been quite sure what to call this. It’s not a deodorant, in that it doesn’t really stay on you, deodorizing continuously. It’s not a body wash in that you don’t use it in the shower. This is a little mix I created, a simple blend of water, baking soda and essential oil. It’s something you can splash on and towel off real quick when you’re in a hurry. I use it when I don’t have time to shower, but suspect I’m a little too fragrant. I also bring it camping to help reduce the fugg. The baking soda cuts through body grease and deodorizes. The tea tree oil kills any stinky bacteria that remain.

To be clear, this is specifically used to cut sweat on the upper regions of the body–pits, chest, neck and back. I wouldn’t recommend using it “south of the equator.”

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A Mason Jar Camping Lantern

Okay, so this isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity (or craftsmanship!) but its easy and it works. I use this little jar and ones like it when we car camp. Barring high winds or rain, the tea light never goes out. The handle allows you to carry it around or hang it. Headlamps are all very convenient, but little candles make a campsite feel like home. And yep, it works well in the backyard too.

 There’s nothing to it, but just in case the picture makes it look more complicated than it is, all I do is wrap a piece of scrap wire around the mouth of the jar, twisting it closed. The ridges at the top of the jar hold it in place. Then I make a handle by twisting a second piece of wire around the first.

Indigo 101

Graham stirs the vat with his “witchy stick” –which is tinted many beautiful shades of blue.

One of the primary lessons of gleaned from my Shibori Challenge is that cotton is difficult to dye with natural dyes, whereas wool and silk take these colors beautifully. Know your materials!

Building on that, I’ve also figured out that the reason indigo dye is the favored dye for shibori techniques is because indigo gets along very well with cotton (and other plant fibers) and the dyeing characteristics of indigo are ideal for shibori. In fact, the idiosyncrasies of indigo probably led to the development of shibori, way back in the mists of time. So, if I want to make shibori patterned cotton cocktail napkins, as was my challenge to myself, I may as well fall in with thousands of years of tradition and dye with indigo.

Book reading and Internet surfing are all well and good for gathering knowledge, but to learn an unfamiliar process, nothing works better than to find someone who knows what they’re doing and go watch them. That way, you learn via a pleasant form of osmosis, rather than by frowning at at a glowing screen.

Our friend Graham Keegan dyes with indigo and sells his beautiful canvas and leather creations in his own Etsy shop. He kindly invited me to come to his studio and watch him dye some test swatches yesterday.

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Update: Citrus Vinegar for Cleaning

In a previous post we talked about soaking citrus peels in white vinegar to make scented vinegar for cleaning. I’ve been doing this for a while now, using a 50/50 water and vinegar blend in my spray bottle, and I like the scent, but I’ve realized that because the vinegar is tinted by the orange peel if it is left to dry on a white surface it will leave yellow marks behind.

This is not a big deal, because when using vinegar spray you are usually spraying and wiping at the same time, and I’ve never seen yellow streaks left behind from using this way. But a few times I’ve sprayed something and then forgot to wipe it down. When the spray dries, a pale yellow residue shows up. It doesn’t stain, you just have to go back and wipe it up. Unfortunately, though, it looks a lot like urine, leading to puzzling questions until you figure out what’s going on!

Shibori Challenge Proves Challenging

So it’s May 15 and I have not met the terms of the Shibori Challenge. I have been playing with both natural dyes and shibori techniques, but have not yet made anything worthy of being sewn up into a cocktail napkin.

I think I’ll have declare my challenge a little over-optimistic. As it when I start any new craft, I’m hitting various walls and spinning around trying to figure out what’s what. But that’s okay. Our motto around here is Go Forth, Embrace Failure, and give Her a Big Kiss.

The foraged, plant-based dyes I’ve been working with are only producing pale tones for me, even with mordants. I’ve made a sort of olive grey out of mint and a light sage out of artichoke and a beige out of coffee. These shades are fine in themselves, especially if you want to dress like a hobbit, but not really strong enough to show off shibori patterns. I know it’s possible to get strong colors out of common plants–it seems other people manage it–but I’m beginning to understand why indigo is the classic choice for shibori techniques.

Wanting to play with shibori and having no luck with local plants, I experimented with turmeric. Turmeric is a “fugitive dye” — a phrase I love — meaning it will fade fast. It fades especially fast in sunlight. Nonetheless, it’s nontoxic and makes a bright, deep yellow with no fuss. And I just happened to have a big container of stale turmeric just wasting away on the shelf. I tried some shibori techniques with that, with some okay first time results — though also with plenty of beginner mistakes.

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How to Prep Fabric for Dyeing: Scouring

Check out the water after boiling my supposedly clean sheet!

As usual, I’m taking my shibori challenge right to the deadline. One important preparatory step to dyeing is a cleansing process called “scouring.” I’d never heard of this before now, which may be why all my casual attempts at dyeing thus far have not turned out so great. I spent my weekend scouring so I can move on to dyeing. And then on to sewing! Yikes! I’m really behind.

Scouring is deep cleaning of fabric or fiber. Scouring helps assure even color and good penetration of the dye. Cotton in particular needs scouring, even if it is brand new from the fabric shop, because apparently it is full of hidden waxes and oils. In my case, I’ll be using an old top sheet for my experiments, so it certainly needs lots of help.

Cotton and wool are scoured differently. I’ve never scoured wool, so am not going to cover it here. I understand it is also a washing process, but done with cool-ish water, so as not to felt the wool, and gentle soap. Linen also needs scouring, but I know even less about that.

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3 things to do with citrus peels

Waste not, want not! Our  recent post on Candied Grapefruit Peel yielded some interesting comments, and at the same time Erik made a discovery about citrus. Thus, three things to to do with your rinds:

Idea #1
Readers Terry and Barb both commented that they soak citrus peel in vinegar to make citrus infused vinegar to use for cleaning, and in Barb’s case, as a deodorant. This is an excellent idea. Infusing vinegar with cleansing/disinfecting herbs, like lavender or sage, is something I’ve known about for a long time, but don’t do, in practice. I’m too lazy. Instead, I scent my cleaning vinegar with essential oil. But we always have citrus peels laying around in piles, and the simplicity of the citrus idea is so a peeling that I had to try it. (ouch! stop throwing things!)

I filled one jar with orange peels and covered it with vinegar. After only a couple of days it started smelling really nice. Now it’s about a week old and doesn’t seem to be getting any more potent, so   I’m going to strain it off. In a second jar I’m trying an experimental blend of orange and thyme. Like citrus, thyme has excellent disinfectant qualities, but I’m not sure how its scent will blend with the orange.

I suspect our cleaning vinegar is going to smell like citrus from now on out.

UPDATE: I’ve been using orange-peel vinegar for a while now and the only drawback is that it is tinted yellow. If you spray a light surface and forget to wipe afterward, it will leave yellow stains behind. Not true stains–they wipe up easily even if they’re long dry. This isn’t a big problem because generally I am spraying and wiping, but once in a while I’ll find yellow droplets in spot I forgot to wipe.

This, of course, disqualifies this spray for carpet cleaning. (And plain vinegar spray is a great thing to use to clean up pet accidents on carpet.)

Speaking of pet accidents, I realized this first when I found a yellow spray at the base of our bathroom sink and immediately though young Trout had taken to spraying. Cryeth the cat: “O! Unfair! I never did such thing!”

Idea #2
A reader named Chile sent us this link to an old Cuban recipe for candying grapefruit pith. As you know, grapefruit pith can be quite thick. If you have some separate use for the peel or zest, you can cut the leftover pith into cubes and candy it with cinnamon. She says it’s really good!

Idea #3
Erik has learned that you can make pectin out of citrus rinds and membranes. Like apples, citrus is quite rich in pectin. This is a really good use for under-ripe, not so tasty oranges. Here’s a how to link: Wedliny Domowe. The same link also has instructions for making pectin from apples. It’s all about local sourcing, after all. An oddity of living where we do is that it is much easier to come by citrus than apples. At least for now.

On a related note, we also know that you can make clear, citrus flavored jelly by boiling organic citrus rinds in water, then straining off the solids. The resulting liquid is citrus-flavored and pectin-rich. Add sugar and you have citrus flavored jelly. It’s tasty, we’ve tried it. But unfortunately, we don’t have a recipe. If you happen to have a recipe, please share!