gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

I finally get to share with you something that I’ve been working on for the last couple of months. If you are a regular reader here, you’ve already probably noticed that my passion for natural dyes and local fiber has sort of taken over in my life. You may also remember that I opened a small Etsy shop to sell my stash of naturally dyed wool yarns. But that’s not all. I’ve been working towards a vision that’s more true to my values: sourcing only local and regional materials for my craft, and in so doing, being a part of restoring local and regional textile networks.

The pilot yarn line that I am now launching, the Gather & Grow “Carolina” yarn, is all domestic and regional wool, milled at an eco-friendly North Carolina fiber mill and hand-dyed with locally sourced natural plant dyes at my backyard dye studio here in Columbia, South Carolina.carolinayarns-2

I’m proud to collaborate with Echo View Fiber Mill in Weaverville, North Carolina, which produces luscious, high-quality yarns out of fiber produced by local fiber farmers and farmers across the country. I’ve come to really respect their ethics and integrity. I selected two yarn bases for my naturally dyed yarns: one is a wool-mohair-alpaca mix sourced entirely from North Carolina (the mohair and alpaca come from their own farm); the other is 100% US grown, soft Merino wool yarn.carolinayarns-3

And the dyes are natural plant dyes that I myself gather and grow (how appropriate, isn’t it…). The only exception is indigo, which I haven’t yet been able to source locally, but that will change, hopefully as soon as next year as indigo growing returns to South Carolina. The first colorway I launch are soft pastels: a sunny yellow and olive green from goldenrod, shell pink from madder, smoky purple and mint green from purple basil, and earthy straw and bark colors from Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan). This winter, I’m dyeing darker and brighter winter colors with indigo, madder, black walnut and staghorn sumac. These plants grew in our local soils, and I can tell you where each came from. Some grew in the dye garden I planted in the spring; others I’ve foraged wherever I found them — by roadside, on abandoned lots, by the Congaree River and even in the yards of friendly neighbors (with permission, of course). I am conscious of the environmental footprint of every step of the dye process, use only non-toxic dyes and mordants, and have built in systems to minimize waste and conserve water.carolinayarns

These yarns are my craft and my passion, and I’m happy to share them with the world. If you want to support locally based, ecologically responsible fiber culture, and get some colorful wool to keep you warm this winter — or give it to the knitter/weaver/crocheter in your life — head over to the Etsy shop where they are now available.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to lately…

I’m proud to announce that I’m again on the teaching and organizing team for the South Carolina Permaculture Design Course, taking place here in Columbia, SC, in Spring 2016.

Check out the 2016 course website!

Last spring’s pioneering course was a success — and for me as a facilitator, one of the most positive and empowering experiences I’ve ever had. I wrote about it here and here. In May, we sent out into the world 21 certified permaculture designers who have gone on to apply their learning to their incredibly diverse life situations and home sites.

We’re bringing the course back in Spring 2016, again at the fantastic City Roots urban farm — with the best of what worked last year and new improvements such as guest teachers who are experts in the area. October’s disastrous floods alone showed that our region — and the world — needs the tools to build resilience, regenerative ecosystems and human systems, and vibrant communities. That’s what permaculture has to offer. IMG_1088

P1030256IMG_9337IMG_0968It’s going to be good, folks. Help us spread the word or, if you are in South Carolina, come join us in the spring!

IMG_2669A year and a half ago, when we became a family of three, I promised myself that Gather & Grow wouldn’t become another mommy blog. Even another eco-friendly mommy blog. Not because I have anything against such blogs — I read some of them: high up on my list is, for example, SouleMama, which I was reading regularly long before I had kids or even thought I wanted to have kids. It’s just that I wanted this space to stay focused on the topics I’ve been focusing on from the start: home-made organic living, making from scratch, permaculture, simplicity, sustainability, crafts and among them natural dyes and fibers in particular. I wanted my readers to sort of know what they would find here. Toddler antics or discussions about nursing products might not be it.

But what this means is that there is a big part of my life that I don’t share here. Because of it, I don’t post as frequently, or ambitiously, as I otherwise might. Because of it, I probably also don’t get as many home-made projects finished (or started) in the first place as I otherwise might. Much of my day is spent playing, and singing, and reading the same story over and over, and running around in the park. Just being. (Something that my daughter is very good at and I am not.) I don’t blog about that. I don’t Instagram every moment. My days are very, very full — and not the least because I also have a full-time job — and sometimes intense and heart-breakingly amazing and I don’t share that here… but THAT is the true center of my life right now.

And yet I’ve come to realize that my attempt to keep Gather & Grow and my life with my daughter somehow separate is quite artificial. For all that I share in this space, all that I do — well, first of all, she participates in it. Bouncing in my backpack carrier while I go foraging for dye plants or wild edibles. Coming along on field trips to alpaca farms and permaculture events. Watering the garden and hanging up laundry with me. Some crafts I have to do after she’s gone to bed — candle-making or soap-making, or blogging, for that matter — but for others, I’ve worked out a system to get them done even when she’s in the same space. She finally lets me knit without obsessively pulling the yarn and getting it all tangled up. We’re working on the same with the spinning wheel, but it’s still far too fascinating to not touch while it’s going round and round.

And secondly, the truth is that I do it all for her. I want to be able to share with her the immensely gratifying arts of slow living and making from scratch and knowing how to grow that I write about here as she grows older. I want to instill in her the confidence that she can create and collaborate with nature to meet her needs. I want to be very deliberate about the kind of home environment Dan and I create for her, and all the aspects of Gather & Grow that I mentioned above — let’s see, what did I just say? home-made organic living, making from scratch, permaculture, simplicity, sustainability, crafts and among them natural dyes and fibers in particular — are the building blocks of that home.

No, I still don’t think this will become a space focused on motherhood and raising kids. But I wanted to come out and give you a slightly fuller, slightly truer, picture of my life beyond this particular virtual nook.

It’s been quite a ride, these last couple of weeks, with a 1,000-year rainstorm and flooding hitting our state and bringing this city to a halt for a few days… Preparing to teach a cheese-making workshop, twice (because one had to be cancelled due to the weather), and making about six-seven different cheeses in the course of a week… Taking some big steps towards a future I’ve been dreaming of for so long (you’ll hear about that soon enough)…

And in the midst of all this, opening my first yarn shop!

You can now find the Gather & Grow fiber shop on Etsy, with my wool yarns all dyed with natural dyes. It’s a modest collection at this point, but I’m proud and happy to be able to share my craft with knitters, crocheters and crafters who will put my yarns to a good use. For, at the rate I keep dyeing more fiber, I’ll never be able to knit it all myself! onionskinsOn the virtual shelves of the store, you’ll find both hand-spun yarns and mill-spun yarns. Everything is dyed with botanical colors, with no synthetic dyes or toxic materials whatsoever used in the process. At this point, some of the fiber is regionally sourced, but not all; and some of the dye materials are gathered and grown locally by me, but not all. My vision for what happens next is to focus on producing those locally sourced yarns. That’s what I want Gather & Grow to be about, and I’m presently doing the researching, gathering and growing that that involves. But in the meantime, I’m really excited to hang up my shingle and find these yarns a home.

Come visit my store and see what’s been keeping me busy!!!

I’m spinning into thread the nettle fibers that nature grew and I harvested this summer. (Head over here if you want to read Part I about harvesting and processing stinging nettle fiber.)

What I had at the end of the summer was a bundle of wispy fibers extracted from stinging nettle stalks. Because I was doing this for the first time and had not figured out the ideal length of retting time, there was definitely still a lot of green plant matter (cellulose) from the nettle stalks adhering to some of the fibers. In August, over the course of a few evenings, I carded this silvery green mass using hand carders, and managed to separate a lot more of the fibers from the chaff.nettlespinning2In the end I held in my hands fluffy tufts of spinnable fiber from plants that I’d collected myself from woods and meadows on our family’s land!!!

Those who know me know that that’s the sort of thing that makes me almost burst with excitement, my face beaming and my heart pounding and way too giddy to go to sleep.

The actual spinning of the nettle fibers, it turns out, takes some patience. It’s quite comparable to spinning flax, in that the fiber lacks the crimp of wool, so having that analogy helped me to get the hang of it. I actually tried combining the nettle fiber with some silk, but in the end I went ahead and spun pure nettle thread. Since I hadn’t been able to get rid of all the green matter, now my nettle thread has light green color mixed with its linen-like off-white. Maybe the purists wouldn’t approve, but I love how it looks.nettlespinning3

nettlespinningWhat will I make with my nettle fiber, you ask? I may be able to spin enough to then weave into a scarf once I get the small loom I’m dreaming of. Or I could make a crocheted bra. Doesn’t every girl need a crocheted nettle bra? But whatever I end up making, it’s literally going to be clothing that grew in a forest.

Last week, Gather and Grow journeyed to London to attend the International Permaculture Conference and Convergence.

The conference, in downtown London, was a two-day extravaganza of presentations, workshops, films, book launches, and butt-kicking keynote speeches. After the conference, the Convergence gathered in the huge Gilwell Park outside of London for five more days of workshops, talks, discussions, films, conversations, and hands-on demonstrations… Whew!

This year’s theme was “Designing the World We Want.” Although a sobering shared awareness of the dire global challenges was a constant subtext to all that was said and done, the prevailing tone was one of hope and can-do attitude. There were about 750 of us, representing a global movement now 1 million strong (if you count all the people who have by now done their Permaculture Design Certifications). There’s a lot that a million people can achieve together.IMG_1841

Some highlights:

Reuniting with friends and past teachers from five continents, and making new friends from at least that many.

Meeting in person a number of the formative figures of permaculture and Transition whose names have been on the backs of the books on my bookshelf for so long that I consider them my teachers, too — from Rosemary Morrow and Geoff Lawton to Pandora Thomas, Rob Hopkins, and Graham Bell.IMG_1774

Learning about all kinds of impressive projects from around the world (here Dave Boehnlein of Terra Phoenix presenting the design for a Native American healing center in the Peruvian Amazon).IMG_1812The films! The beautiful Inhabit by Costa Boutsikaris, and Design for Life featuring Graham and Annemarie Brookman of The Food Forest in Australia.

This sample book of natural dyes from the Worker’s Educational Association of England.IMG_1779

Finding in the Convergence Marketplace the ethical knitwear booth of The Snail of Happiness, whom I’ve only known through her blog until now. Most of the people whose blogs I regularly read are people whom I’ve never met. Similarly, most of my own readers (you!) live in other parts of the world, and we don’t get to meet face to face. It would be nice for that to happen more often. Just saying…

Accidentally happening upon one of the Convergence sessions that were arranged on-the-spot, because somebody had the skills and others had the interest. I decided to stay, and got a fantastic refresher on holistic grazing planning and keyline design.

All the spontaneous jamming sessions, conversations over meals, anonymous acts of kindness — and play dates that can only happen when you are traveling with a sixteen-month-old who is much less shy than her mother…IMG_1834

A little progress report of my #1year1outfit locally sourced wardrobe. I wrote earlier about my hunt for regionally grown and milled cotton here and finding local alpaca fiber here.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been busy dyeing my organic cotton jersey fabric with locally grown natural dyes. This has involved learning new things, because most of my dyeing work until now has been with wool. Plant fibers, like cotton, take dyes very differently, and require a different mordanting process. I feel the steep climb of the learning curve I’m on.

I chose purple basil dye for a part of the fabric that I was going to use for a skirt, to create pink or purple hues. The purple basil comes from the dye garden I planted at the Carolina Community Farm & Garden in the spring. Goodness! If you love basil as much as me, this is one of the most pleasurable natural dye plants imaginable. The fragrance of basil was wafting all around as I slowly simmered the leaves to prepare the dye… And I’m pretty happy with the end result, a subtle cool-toned pink for my skirt. Here’s a little sneak preview of the skirt I ended up making:IMG_2404

The rest of the fabric, which will become a shirt or a top, ended up being the shade of stormy gray I wanted — but entirely by accident! I collected comfrey leaves, knowing that they create yellow to green colors. But because the cotton had been pre-mordanted with tannin and alum, leaving it beige to begin with, in the comfrey dye pot that mixture of beige + yellow-green resulted in a not-so-distinct brownish beige. A little discouraged, and entirely in the spirit of experiment, I dunked the fabric into another dye pot I had going on at the same time: blackberry leaves with iron modifier. And right before my eyes, I saw it turn into a lovely, stormy gray, something that I think goes very well with the pink from the purple basil.blackberry iron

Lastly, I’ve been finally spinning the local alpaca fiber I got in the spring for a cardigan. I chose black alpaca fiber rather than the whites or browns I have. Somehow I like the idea of a dramatic and elegant midnight black to go with the softer hues of pink and gray. The first skein is done — and many more left to spin before I have enough for the cardigan I have in mind.IMG_2421

After another nomadic summer, it has felt very grounding to get back — not only to the space of our home, but also to the rhythm of tasks and activities that punctuate the everyday for us here. Bags unpacked. The whole house cleaned up and the pantry re-stocked with our favorite foods. Fresh sheets on the beds. Our calendars beginning to fill up with work, but also with names of friends to visit and reconnect with.

For me, what creates the sense of being home again more than anything else are the familiar, rhythmically repeated acts of making things. I pull out my tools and work with raw materials — whether it’s milk or vegetables or soil or textiles and dye plants — through movements that are soothing in their familiarity, to provide nourishment and color and joy for myself and my little family.

There’s a rhythm to putting sauerkraut to ferment in crocks until it’s done and gets moved to the fridge, to make space for the next batch. There’s a rhythm to filling warm jars of home-made yogurt and then enjoying it once a day, or twice, or even three times a day (there are two serious yogurt eaters in the household) until it’s time to use the last bit as a seed to make a new batch.

There’s also the rhythm of cheese-making: warming milk, ripening it, draining the curds, salting and cutting them.rhythm-4-2

Or how about this latest addition to my dairy fermentation repertoire, kefir, for which I got the grains from a friend. (“Milk champagne,” don’t you love the sound of that?)rhythm

Our fall garden has been planted in the beds outside, and there the cycle, the rhythm, is clear: seeds planted, germinating, growing, feeding us, going to seed again.rhythm-3-2

In my outdoor dyeing studio, too, pots started simmering almost as soon as we got back. As always, I have loved being immersed in the steady, methodical practice of collecting dye plants, scouring, washing, mordanting, simmering, and rinsing. I’m slowly making progress towards my One Year One Outfit goal (but that has to wait for a post of its own).rhythm-5-2

And then there’s the amazing bounty of ripe late-summer fruit to seize and enjoy. I spent Sunday afternoon with 10 people in the lovely kitchen of Columbia Homestead Alliance canning peaches and fig thyme jam, two of my favorite recipes from Ashley English’ Canning and Preserving. It was the first in this year’s series of urban homesteading classes, and well-timed since South Carolina peaches and figs are at the peak of perfect ripeness just now. The yellow and ruby jars are glowing like gems, with promise of sunny sweetness for the winter days.rhythm-2-2

It’s challenging enough, logistically, to leave one’s home to go traveling for three months (although at this point I’ve done that so many times in my life that I’m accustomed to it). But it takes it to a whole different level when you are invested in cultivating a particular piece of land.

In the spring, I was involved in caring for three different sites: our own home veggie garden, the community orchard down the street, and the new dye garden at Carolina Community Farm and Garden. And then — as you know, if you’ve been stopping by lately — we embarked on our epic tour of rural places in France, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland. While we were away, the merciless southern sun baked this city in 100-110 F temperatures. I let go of any expectations of what I’d find when I came back.

Actually, I knew that the orchard would be in good hands. A number of folks in our community are committed to working there regularly. I got email updates over the summer of work parties that took place, with photos and all. Coming back, I find this lovely, lush green space — with much work to do in the future, yes, but a defined space starting to take shape…


…with fruit, such as these figs, getting sweet and ripe.IMG_2341

Over at Carolina Community Farm and Garden, the capable manager Allie kept looking after the dye garden I planted in the spring. The dye plants fared remarkably well. Only the Black-eyed Susans really took a hit in the heat, and the Japanese indigo bed fell to a dodder infestation and had to be completely uprooted. The purple basil, madder root, lady’s bedstraw, marigolds, dyer’s chamomile, elecampane and hollyhock are all going strong. We’re now planning a dyeing demo for the students in a few weeks.


What I didn’t expect was coming home to find our own raised beds actually producing and doing well:


A guerrilla gardener friend had kept our garden watered and neatly maintained through the summer. We had fresh kale and basil ready to eat as soon as we got back home, and found a few interesting surprise additions, such as broad leaf plantain, sorrel, Red Thai roselle and narrow-leafed arugula thrown in. Thank you, Michael!

In other words, if you’re caring for a piece of land and have to leave town for three months… find your allies (and michaels) in the community!

We’re seven months into the One Year One Outfit challenge, and wow — I’m half impressed, half intimidated by the progress some of the other participants have already made towards their locally sourced wardrobes. I’m nowhere near having entire items of clothing finished at this point myself. But I will, I will…

Since finding locally grown organic cotton proved to be such a challenge, I decided to experiment this summer trying to make fiber out of something that grows wild in nature: the humble stinging nettle. Not that I’ll necessarily be using nettle fiber for my #1year1outfit wardrobe, but I wanted to get a sense of how it’s done.

Nettle, along with flax and hemp, used to be more important as fiber material for textiles than cotton in Europe; unlike cotton, they could be grown even in northern climates. Nettle fiber farming started in the 19th century, and during the World Wars, nettle was often promoted as a substitute for cotton.

Why is nettle fiber worth exploring for the organic, eco-textile minded folk? Consider:

  • whereas conventionally grown cotton requires intensive inputs, such as irrigation and weed killers, nettles grow everywhere, even in fairly poor soil, with zero effort from humans
  • many textiles are produced in Third World countries, whereas nettle is something that could be grown even in European and North American climates
  • regional production and processing of nettle would also involve less long-distance transport
  • nettle is a common weed that already grows everywhere, so why not make use of it?
  • it has many uses besides fiber, and many parts of the plant can be used (e.g. for food, tea, medicine, or dye), so the same piece of land can yield multiple benefits


So, this summer, I did some initial research into how nettle is processed into fiber, and processed a small batch myself. You can find lots of different instructions online, but I found this video really clear and easy to follow. The basic steps are:

  1. collect nettles: preferably from August onwards, cutting the stalks near the ground and removing the leaves (wear gloves and long sleeves!)
  2. soak the nettle stalks (which is called retting): some sources say 1 week, others longer. You have to experiment. The idea is to break down the cellulose surrounding the fibers so the fibers can be extracted
  3. dry the nettles: you can do this in the sun out in the garden, or in a greenhouse or (as I did, being in Finland) in the sauna
  4. split the bigger stalks
  5. break the dried-up stalks by hand to separate the fine fibers from the woody pith
  6. spin the fibers into yarn

Full disclosure: my process was far from perfect, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. Most sources recommend waiting until August before harvesting the nettle, but I couldn’t wait that long so I harvested the first batch already on July 10th and the second one in late July. Also, the soaking was not very effective the first time around since I did it outdoors in a wheelbarrow filled with water, and it was an unusually cold July so the water was cold too. The stalks in the second batch were much taller, so I decided to soak them in the lake the way flax plants have traditionally been retted: held in place by the lake sedges and kept submerged by a few pieces of wood.


This time, the retting seemed to work well, judging from the authentic, hmm, earthy smell when I pulled the plant matter out of the water one week later. Once the stalks had dried — which only took a couple of days in the sun and at night in a warm (not hot) sauna, I was able to extract some nice, soft and wispy fibers.


Processing wild nettle like this, I found, is definitely labor-intensive and not for the impatient. I’d work for a long stretch extracting fiber manually from the stalks, and only end up with a small bundle of fibers to show for it. I had fun because I’m generally a persistent person and I was able to do it outside on lovely summer days. But I think it’s a task that would go fast, and be most efficient, when done together with a group of people.

Having said that: being able to figure it out, and hold in my hand my first fibers harvested from the wild, from the forest, has been one of the highlights of this summer.


Nettle fiber does have a lot of potential in the eco-textile industry. Studies done in both Finland and Austria show that it’s entirely feasible to cultivate, harvest and process nettle on a larger scale too. Different fiber nettle clones were tested in the Austrian study in terms of their fiber yields and fiber quality. It was found that, through cultivation, the fiber content can be increased (from about 5% in wild nettles to 17% in cultivated fiber nettles). The extracted fibers can be spun into yarn, but need to be mixed with some other fiber, with a maximum 70% nettle content.

That’s what’s next for me: trying to spinning my nettle fibers. Let’s see if that works. More updates to come!

P.S. Just because I know some of you will be wondering… the only stings I got in this process were during the initial harvesting. Once the nettle stalks have been soaked and dried, the stinging hairs are gone. The fibers themselves are beautiful – light green to linen colored, and some of them very, very soft.

%d bloggers like this: