Snap out of it

This Mary Englebright illustration hung over my kitchen sink for years, as a reminder!

If I was paying attention to my body, it would have whispered to me “You are holding a lot of tension – relax!” I would have also noticed impatience – not the floral kind.

It was a workshop on nature dyes at the Etobicoke Handweavers & Spinners Guild. I had already created a vision in my head of how things were going to unfold. Do you see where I’m going? The bigger the gap between what was happening in the moment and what I wanted, the more I felt my cranky, inner child.

I gave myself a time out and sat on the floor with some books from our guild library and this is where things turned around. The workshop leader joined me. We talked and she shared some insights into who she is, which most importantly helped me to understand and appreciate her ways. It reminded me to let my child play.

I laugh to think I was in a situation that, at best, has random and unpredictable results. That is part of the magic of natural dying. In addition to mordant and after bath, colours are affected by the ph of the water (Are you using tap water, well water, rain water?) and so much more.  If there is ever a time to relax and enjoy the process, just to see how things unfold… this is it! Once I allowed myself to do exactly that my day transformed… along with my attitude!

It amazes me to think of our ancestors dying fabric in much the same way thousands of years ago. The oldest known record of dyed flax fibres came from a cave in the Republic of Georgia dating back to 36,000 BC. Astounding! This simple act shared by humans over centuries gives me pause. More so that we let fibres swim in the dye pot on the Solstice!

Coreopsis, plant, tincture

If looking to plant a dye garden, you can buy Coreopsis at garden centres.

Coreopsis, dye pot

Coreopsis dye pot simmering away.

Which of the three dye pots captivated me the most? I would have expected to say indigo but that wasn’t the case. It was Brazilwood! My roving went into the pot as a soft grey and came out  the colour of a pecan shell. Our delightful leader surprised me at the end of the day with a jar of Brazilwood pieces steeped in alcohol. These can be dried and reused. I plan to experiment…

Brazilwood, dyepot

Fibre swimming in Brazilwood dyebath mordanted with 15% alum

shibori, tansy, indigo

Shibori: tansy overdyed with indigo

I discovered superwash wool takes the dye too readily for my taste. It looks like commercially dyed yarn (which in itself is pretty amazing!)

Roberta used tansy to dye a piece of wool fabric then tied a resist and overdyed it with indigo for a beautiful shibori effect.

I have to admit, when it comes to indigo, the thought of a traditionally fermented dyebath nurtured slowly is what makes my heart beat faster.

Plans are afoot…

Brazilwood, Indigo, Coreopsis, Natural Dye

Brazilwood on grey roving, indigo and coreopsis on superwash wool.

Peonies in the darkI was working at my dining room table, re-purposing some old garments. I had a pile of old clothing, rotary cutter, a mat… and an inspiration. I worked in silence, a simple repetitive task, when a thought popped into my head. It flew in and took root. Now I think about it a lot.

I thought about all I do to nurture my physical health. I try to eat well, get enough rest, exercise, visit the doctor to get the stamp of approval, etcetera. You know the drill. Then I thought about the other aspects of my health. My being is more than just a physical body. Am I nurturing my emotional, spiritual and mental health?

It’s never an issue when things are going well but that is not how life works. When difficult times come… and they do, it’s necessary to have developed the inner fortitude to come out the other end with psyche intact.

Lots of questions have burbled up and I’m glad to have plenty of quiet time to explore this. It’s a personal journey but I’m sharing because I suspect others may relate.

I am starting to look at mental health as a precious resource that can be squandered and lost. We must be aware of our inner life and some unnameable essence that has to be minded, topped up.

I’m struck by the number of people who are “broken” for lack of a better word. Some do terrible, desperate things. We all see them on the edge of society, some taking meds, some not and I ask myself could this be prevented? Can we teach people how to cultivate their spiritual and mental health?

If I think of my inner health as a flower in a garden. How should I tend it?

Oriental Poppy, flower

The dazzling, but delicate poppy: Beware of wind and rain!

Every flower has its own nature. A native wild flower needs very little care and before long takes over in the right conditions. Not all of us have that strength built into our constitutions!

Some of us bloom only under specific conditions, requiring lots of care and feeding.

I think I’m a pretty resilient flower in a healthy garden.

So what do I do to cultivate my inner garden? Here are a few things:

  1. Set some time every day for quiet, reflective time.
  2. Find time to be in nature.
  3. Move my body – Go for a walk, a swim, a belly dance class!
  4. Turn off the news – It just causes me stress!
  5. Be social – Quality time with like minded people is a good thing  for me.
  6. Weave, spin, knit, sew, embroider – Creating with fibre is water for my garden. I can’t go very long without or I wilt!
Ecinacea, Coneflower, bee

Echinacea, or Coneflower has medicinal properties.

Here’s a challenge! Ask yourself what you need.

Is there something in your life you are ready to let go of? Gardens have seasons and with seasons come change.

It is my hope that more people take an interest in preserving and improving their mental and spiritual health.


"From Geisha to Diva: The Kimonos of Ichimaru" courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada

“From Geisha to Diva: The Kimonos of Ichimaru” courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada

The adventure with Helen and Sorlie continues.

My friend Elizabeth was going to visit their studio for tea and I was invited to join them as Helen was going to demonstrate how to wear a kimono. I had never seen anyone go through the long and complicated process of dressing in a kimono. We aren’t talking about whipping on a bathrobe, folks!

First, I learned the difference between yukata and kimono.

Yukata was originally worn as we would wear a bath robe. Now it is fashionable to wear them out in public but only during the summer months! They are made from thin cotton and adjusted to end at the ankle bone.

Kimono are worn year round and can cost more than a luxury car, which can be problematic since you can’t wear the same one year round. There are traditional colours, patterns and motifs for every season. If you wear your cherry blossom kimono in December… well, you just wouldn’t! This would be a good time to have a talk with your bank manager about a loan.

Helen demonstrated how to put a plastic stay through the collar before donning her undergarment. By pulling down an elastic at the back of the collar she can decide how much of the nape of her neck she wants to show.

Geisha, neck

A young maiko, as distinguished by the red collar. She will wear a pink collar when she becomes a geiko.

I was fascinated to see the number of cheats: clips, ties, padding. The goal is to create a flat shape: no bust, no hips, no waist. The kimono is always closed left over right. Right over left is only to dress the dead. I looked down at my kimono styled sweater – it was right over left… big oops!

A lot of care was taken to make sure every seam, every edge was straight and perfect.

Then comes the obi! Helen demonstrated both a formal obi to wear with kimono and a casual one for yukata. She tied the obi in a formal bow shape then jazzed it up with a contrasting colour and fabric: a green gauzy bow draped over top. Fabulous!

obi, yukata

Once Helen finished tying her obi she shifted it to the back.

obi, yukata

She adjusts the front. A younger wearer will wear the green band towards the top, an older wearer towards the bottom and those who are sitting on the fence will leave it in the middle.

The art of dressing was followed by a traditional tea ceremony. We talked for ages about being makers of things, appreciating the craft and skill and appreciating one another. I’m tempted to make a return visit to the studio to make own tea bowl.  A bowl that fits my hand just so…

That thought makes me happy!

Helen Serving Tea


Peter PanOn one of the first summery days this spring I joined a small group of adventurers for Tea with Peter Pan, celebrated in a local park, under a tree and by a sculpture of Peter Pan. The sculpture is cast from the same mould as the original in Kensington Gardens in London. Incidentally, Kensington was the setting for one of J.M. Barrie’s earlier books about Peter Pan and if you examine the back of the statue you can find his signature. But I digress…

Japanese tea ceremony

Everything placed just so. Perfect, but not too perfect!

Helen and Sorlie arrived and got to the business of setting up: laying down a tarp, unpacking the travelling tea box and greeting guests. In our group of four, I was the honoured guest so was served first.

The Cleansing Ritual

English trifle

Beautifully presented in handmade tea cups & saucers. Garnished with fresh fruit & mint leaves.

Instead of the usual Japanese sweet that normally precedes the tea ceremony, Helen and Sorlie chose to serve perfect miniature servings of English Trifle. They were made from scratch (No store bought sponge, cream from a can or powdered custard!) They were beautifully presented in little tea bowls. Did I mention the girls are talented potters, too?

The tea ceremony is a formal ritual that requires years of study under the tutelage of a Tea Master. Sorlie explained as Helen “did”. Every detail, every movement, precise and beautiful. What makes it so special for me is that the ceremony invites us to slow down and really be in the moment. I felt the weight of the cup, the heat of the tea, the smell, the taste, the texture…and the sound. When I finished my tea I was supposed to make a loud slurping sound to indicate I was finished. There were too many background sounds in this city park so I just said “slurp!”

I won’t explain every detail. It’s much nicer to experience than read about. Our little tea “flash mob” came and went quickly. In less than an hour I was on my way again, feeling very peaceful, very blessed.

Is there a Secret Teatime in your future? Stay tuned, tomorrow I’ll tell you about a visit to Helen and Sorlie’s secret abode and learning to wear kimono.

You can visit Helen and Sorlie on their website:

Japanese tea ceremony, matcha

The ritual is repeated for each guest resulting in a perfect cup of tea & a perfect moment.


weaving, wool

JUST cut off the loom in time for the guild meeting.

In an earlier post I was fretting over a looming deadline and a skein of yarn.

Once I had chosen a palette and yarns from my stash I had to decide what I would weave… a shawl, a scarf, a blanket? I decided a large shawl would be a safe bet and an interesting project. I was pretty sure I had enough yarn.

I used my warping board instead of the mill, winding three small warps of varying sizes. It was my intention to create a harmonious blend without being totally symmetrical. There are lots of subtle shifts of colour.

I pre-sleyed a 6 dent reed and intended to use a jerry rigged trapeze to wind the warp on to the back beam but discovered to my amusement, my clever gizmo was at the wrong end of my loom! Sometimes I just crack me up!

Winding it on, I was falling in love with the colour and pattern but a thought was niggling at me. I felt I wanted a twill, nothing too complicated to overpower the warp, especially since my weft was a deep, rich brown. What to choose?

I decided on a 2/2 twill on 4 shafts. It was a simple straight draft. Great! But did I do that? Nope. I threaded the treadling. It wasn’t on purpose but it was a happy accident because I treadled the threading which made the tie up MUCH simpler. Side Note: The tie up is my least favourite task. The simpler it is, the less time I spend in contortions under my loom!

weave structure

A twill with a difference. I reversed the threading and treadling

The last step prior to weaving was to sley my intended reed and tie on the front beam. I did the math and decided on a 10 dent reed as the appropriate choice. When I was approximately half way across I could see the reed was too coarse. I tried to cheat by shifting its’ position in the beater, but who was I kidding? After threading a few more dents I could see I solved exactly nothing and pulled out the reed. Rather than go with a 12 DPI reed, I used my 6 DPI again, sleying 2 ends per dent. I felt the 6 would be kinder on the hand spun. It was a good decision as my warp was now running in a straight line from back to front beam and only one thread broke at the end of my weaving.

detecting weaving errors

After transferring the cross from front to back I could see a few threads that were not captured in the cross. Fixing them now saves heart ache later.

And that looming deadline? Did I make it? Just by the skin of my teeth!

I cut the fabric off the loom at 6:03 PM. Elizabeth picked me up at 6:05 PM and I proudly arrived at the guild pot luck with my project… but left my contribution in the fridge.

*slaps forehead with hand*

What’s my take away from this project?

  1. When working to a deadline, keep things simple. I put the complex part in the warp, not the weaving.
  2. Don’t cut corners. I fixed the problems prior to weaving.
  3. I really enjoy improvising!

The first step in making slow cloth is getting the wool off the sheep. Geraldine Heffernan came out to Riverdale Farm to work her magic as part of the Spring Sheep Celebration on Saturday. She explained, in her heavy Scottish brogue, how the sheep relax when they are in certain positions. It’s all about pressure points. They certainly looked relaxed as she worked.

A good sized crowd gathered around to watch the performance. In a matter of minutes she had deftly removed a years worth of growth with nary a nick on the lamb and the coat in one piece. Geraldine’s assistant had the hard job of winding the hand cranked mechanism. It must be the only way when out back and beyond with no access to electricity. The duo switched up to electric as you will see in the second video but it wasn’t much faster.

Shearing the sheep at Riverdale Farm – click on the link to see the second video.

I was grateful to see the care she took, especially around the tail and other tender bits. We all had a laugh to see shorn sheep jumping up at the door to watch the current customer getting a “do”. I think they felt much better without their heavy coats.

Happily Shorn Supervising the sheep shearing

The fleeces are bagged individually. Each one will be processed the same way. First, skirted; which means all the really dirty bits (or as I like to say “poopy bits”) are cut off and thrown out. Occasionally a spinner will talk about “spinning in the grease” when you spin from an unprocessed fleece straight off the sheep. It’s not for everyone as there is a decidedly “sheepy” smell and it is messier but oh, the wonderful feeling of lanolin on fibre and skin. It’s silky!

When washing, care is taken not to felt the fibre while removing the dirt and excess lanolin. This can be a BIG job! Some fleeces need repeated washing. It doesn’t remove the vegetable matter so then it’s time to pick and card the fleece. It can be done with hand carders but goes a lot faster with a drum carder.

I like to create big batts of fibre that I can tear off in strips. And now it’s almost time to spin!

I had planned to write about other things today but with Thailand’s military announcing the country is now under martial law, my thoughts are with the wonderful people I met only a few short months ago.

On my second day in Bangkok, I made my way to The Jim Thompson House, hidden at the end of a quiet soi in the heart of Bangkok. I had heard the story: he came to Thailand as a GI, fell in love with the people and culture but most importantly, saw an opportunity to bring Thai silk to the western world.

The compound consists of six traditional Thai houses cobbled together without a single nail! The garden is more a jungle with paths – the scale of the foliage is huge.

The tour guides took us through his living quarters, beautifully decorated with Asian antiquities he discovered during his travels. Unfortunately, he mysteriously disappeared in 1967 on a trip to the Cameroon Highlands; went out for a walk and was never seen again.

Eight families wove the silk for Jim Thompson. They lived on the other side of the canal in a small Muslim community called Ban Krua. I was interested to learn the community still exists on a much smaller scale.Following the signs to Ban Krua

The reality is that hand weaving in Thailand is a dwindling business. I spoke to a few women who previously worked as weavers but could earn more money doing other things.

Luck was on my side, however. I made it back to the area on my last day in Thailand. This time crossing the footbridge to Ban Krua and following the signs to the weaving community. As far as I can tell, the “community” is now one family with two looms in a crowded back room.

I walked in the open door to find an elderly, shirtless gentleman asleep while a young child watched television. Where were the weavers? I was horrified that I had just barged into their personal space!  It didn’t matter. They welcomed me and showed me pictures of the family with Jim Thompson, led me to a room filled with silk scarves and shawls  but best of all, I got to meet the weaver and see her in action!

It’s a humbling experience to watch her weave. She is working with two shafts and the finest silk thread, creating simple, beautiful fabric. And at lightening speed!

I think simplicity is where it’s at.Saying goodbye to my host

Sheep Shearing cartoonIt’s that time of year again. The sheep at Riverdale Farm have full winter coats that must be shorn for the summer. Sheep Shearer, Geraldine Heffernan will be working in the Lower Francey Barn at 11:30AM and 1:30PM

There will be farmer demos in the same location: Goats @ 10:30AM and horses at 12:30PM

Enjoy live demonstrations of the steps to turn fleece into yarn & fabric: from skirting and washing, picking and carding to spinning and weaving, all in the Meeting House.

Children can try their hands at lots of activities including felt making and hand sewing projects. It’s a great opportunity for families to experience an aspect of farm life and see ancient fibre techniques still in use today.

And it’s FREE! Call 416-392-6794 for more information.



Last night I enjoyed Harriet Boon’s presentation on natural dyeing at the Toronto Guild of Spinners & Weavers. Harriet told us about a number of workshops she attended in far flung places around the globe. I’m going to add travel to Chang Mai, Thailand and a dye workshop with Patricia Cheesman to my bucket list. Perhaps it’s more realistic to continue my own research and experimentation here at home. I have every intention of creating an indigo vat this summer.

What were my “take aways” from this presentation? There are many natural mordants to play with. How about oxalic acid from rhubarb leaves? It’s the perfect season for that… and a pie or two!

I also remind myself not to be in a hurry. Let each step take the time it requires. We live very scheduled lives and it is tempting to impose our schedules on a process that nature controls. I’m going to let my intuition guide me. Fibre will swim in mordant and dye pot until it whispers to me “I’m ready!”

Apropos of nothing, this was on the blackboard at the Etobicoke Guild yesterday and made me laugh out loud!

This was on the chalkboard

Japanese Calligraphy


Some experiences loom large in my life and stay with me a long time. Last night was one of those magical experiences. I went to  “Kigami and Kami-ito: A slide lecture and paper thread-making demonstration by Hiroko Karuno” at the Japan Foundation. Social magic happened, from the moment I entered the door I ran into friends and acquaintances. A bunch of us happily scooped up front row seats!

I have always had an affection for and attraction to Japanese culture. A few years ago I took a workshop to learn the basics involved to spin paper into fibre. It attracted me on a number of levels. First of all, I was intrigued to learn what else I could spin on my little spinning wheel. Secondly, I liked the idea of creating fabric from paper in a way that could be cut and sewn into wearable garments. The idea of taking something that would otherwise have to be recycled or end up in landfill and give it a new life is very attractive to me. But interestingly, I had no knowledge of the long history of traditional Japanese paper making – Kigami, Kami-ito, Japanese paper spinning or Shifu – Japanese paper weaving. And so my education began!

As we watched Hiroko’s beautiful slide presentation we learned the 6 rules of traditionally made Japanese paper. In order to be called Kigami the fibre must be locally grown. Kozo is typically used. They use only one of the three layers, the white inner bark. Traditional bleaching methods are used. The fibre is cooked in a mixture of wood ash and water to soften and a root called nevi (sp) is added. I didn’t catch exactly what function it serves.

The paper is only made during the winter months of January to March after which layers of paper are left to dry on a board and then aged for two years!

Traditional Japanese paper differs dramatically from pulp paper as it doesn’t dissolve in water. Hiroko recounted that as recent as the Meiji period people would throw their account books down the well when cities were threatened by fire!

We all leaned in to learn how Hiroko prepares the paper  for spinning. She made it look so easy as she went through the many steps. Having taken a workshop, I know it’s not as easy as it looks. You can see my attempt next to Hiroko’s for comparison. Fine paper thread spun by HirokoNot so fine paper spun by me

My senses were truly blown when we were able to handle the finished skeins and woven cloth. Hiroko used natural dyes to infuse colour to the fine threads. My brain had a hard time registering “paper” when holding such finely woven fabric.

If I were to use only one word to describe last nights experience I would choose “Zen”.


Hiroko Karuno demonstrates paper spinning