Among our objectives as a non-profit are education and community building. We typically work toward these goals via outreach at the Denver Botanic Gardens, demonstrating at its free days and festivals, teaching sessions of its Kids Camps, and offering classes to members. We really love sharing our knowledge and passion for dye plants with fiber and horticulture groups, as well as with the casual garden visitor. Experiencing the wonder as people come to understand that plants can and do make color is its own reward! It’s always been our intention to branch out into the wider community and, last month, we had a remarkable opportunity to do just that.
On a cold, late February day the Mountains & Plains Fibershed sponsored Growing Good Fabric: A Community Roundtable on Soil Health, Fiber Farming and Natural Dyes. Are you familiar with Fibershed? Modeling it on the watershed concept, founder Rebecca Burgess coined the term to define a region providing all the resources needed to make an item of clothing. Fibershed is also a movement, promoting use of locally-produced, climate-beneficial textiles.
As its website states, “The goal was to illuminate that regionally grown fibers, natural dyes, and local talent was still in great enough existence to provide this most basic human necessity — our clothes.” The climate beneficial component is key, and a major concern of Fibershed is sustainability and environmental stewardship. Quoting its vision statement, “through strategic grazing, conservation tillage, and a host of scientifically vetted soil carbon enhancing practices, our supply chains will create ‘climate beneficial’ clothing that will become the new standard in a world looking to rapidly mitigate the effects of climate change. We see a nourishing tradition emerging that connects the wearer to the local field where the clothes were grown, building a system that can last for countless generations into the future.”
The mission of our local Mountains & Plains Fibershed is to “foster collaboration among textile artists, designers, fiber farmers, processing mills, suppliers, and retail businesses in and around Colorado.” Thus, the Growing Good Fabric event was an early step by this young organization to foster community among producers, artisans, and consumers. As a new member of Fibershed, we considered the day a great success! Engaging presenters included: Philip Taylor, Ph.D. an ecologist and fellow at the University of Colorado, who studies ecosystems and sustainability, with a focus on carbon farming. Phil is the founder of Mad Agriculture, a local nonprofit whose goal is to restore our relationship to the land; Katie Bell Miller, owner and operator of Heritage Belle Farms, a small, diversified, sustainable family farm and ranch operating on the high plains of Calhan, CO;
and our own Donna Brown, a Littleton, CO -based natural dyer with over 25 years of natural dyeing and teaching experience in venues across the US and abroad.
Along with other Mountains & Plains Fibershed members, the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden had an education table, loaded with samples and books, staffed by volunteers happy to chat — and chat we did!
We met fiber producers, spinners, knitters, weavers, and connected with other dyers in the Front Range area. We also took the opportunity to offer for sale our first Natural Dye Kits for Kids, stocked with French marigold and weld from last year’s harvest. The room was crackling with energy, good humor, communication, and connection. We’re glad to have participated, grateful to the Mountains & Plains Fibershed for making it possible … and can’t wait to see what comes next!
She also volunteers at DBG Chatfield Farms every Friday morning in the Market Garden. We wanted to get advice about some things we were noticing in the garden, and Jen was kind enough to come check things out and give her expert advice.
Some of the Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus ) leaves have lost their color, and spots of red to purple are showing up. Jen explained that the discoloration in the lowest leaves is from phosphorus deficiency resulting from colder temperatures, when the phosphorus is less available to the plants. The newer leaves are fine, and the problem should go away as the temperatures warm. There is adequate phosphorus in the soil — no need to supplement what is there. If we should decide to remove some of those less attractive leaves, we should take care not to remove more than 30% of the leaves on any individual plant. The red-to-purple color evident on those lower leaves is from the anthocyanin showing through where there is less chlorophyll present. The good news is small flower buds are starting to develop!
The Dyer’s rocket or Weld (Reseda luteola) and the Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) have areas of white, frothy material. This is protective material generated by spittlebugs (a type of aphid larvae). It is not particularly harmful, and that material can be hosed off with a strong spray of water. Needless to say, we will have hoses spraying during our work day on Thursday!
The hollyhock ( Alcea rosea) plants are growing well and have become a snack for beetles this early in the season. The plant on the bottom right of the picture below is a second-year hollyhock. According to Jen, we might get more dye substance from plants that have been fed on (hence stressed) by beetles. So, for now, we will share our hollyhock leaves with the beetles. That will NOT be the case when they start feeding on our precious flowers!
Thanks to Jen for her time and expertise to give the garden a check-up, and advice on how to better care for our dye garden plants.
Wisdom, grace, kindness, creativity … a strong back: these are things we admire and welcome when they enter our lives. Linda Luggenbill’s got this stuff down and, as a founding member of the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden, has been a welcome friend and guide to other gardeners, both new and seasoned. Well known for her beautiful basket designs and as a teacher of basketry, Linda’s been using our plants to dye her reeds to good effect. We wanted to know more, and so we asked!
Dye Garden: Welcome Linda, and thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about your life, work, and involvement with the garden. Many of us had formative childhood experiences that informed our love of craft. Where did you grow up, and how did the environments you encountered influence your art?
Linda: I was raised in Rochester, PA, a very rural town northwest of Pittsburgh, and was fortunate to grow up in a home built by my parents on property that had previously been part of my grandparents’ farm. My earliest memories are of times spent running freely outdoors or of tagging alongside my grandparents as they tended to the many tasks needing attention. I firmly believe that one learns by doing, but I also believe one can learn by watching. I absorbed so much from hanging around my grandparents! I attended Thiel College in Greenville, PA and the University of Pittsburgh, having majored in biology and physical therapy — so plants and working with my hands have been a part of my make up from my earliest years.
My husband and I met in college. He was drafted and entered the Army. Thirteen moves and 24 years later, what we had expected to be a 4-year commitment had become a military career. Life as a military family presented challenges and opportunities I could not have imagined. One learns to adapt quickly and take advantage of the circumstances presented. Our last military move brought us to Colorado Springs where we have lived for almost 25 years. Time flies when you are busy and involved!
Dye Garden: Were you a child who liked to make things? Were there adults who modeled a love of craft?
Linda: My youth was spent helping my father with his woodworking projects. He was a master at carpentry but this was not how I wanted to be spending my time. Looking back, I realize these sessions were the beginnings of my love of wood, sticks, and all things strange like knots, grain, and burls. I was unknowingly gaining an understanding of construction and of tool-handling skills. Several years ago, I worked at defining and describing my personal approach to basketmaking. I finally realized that the common thread in my one-of-a-kind sculptural ribbed pieces is my approach. I “build” baskets. First I establish a frame and then fill it in with weaving. It is that simple! This allows me to consider creating all sorts of shapes and sizes of vessels while incorporating a wide range of natural elements that I have collected on my journey. These skills and perspectives allow me to adapt the many materials and objects I collect, and find an appropriate place for them in my work.
My mother worked for the phone company for 45 years. She had always been a fine seamstress and enjoyed all sorts of handwork. In her “spare” time she did tailoring for local dress shops. She believed in clothes fitting properly, in very fine, neat hand stitching , and in finishing the sewing project with a lot more ironing than I ever thought necessary! So … life has a way of negatively influencing us. My friends know that I routinely joke that I am not your typical ‘needle and thread’ fiber enthusiast! In my basketry, I have adapted sewing needs using larger scale plant materials — never fine or neat! My way of adapting once again.
Upon reflection I have fond memories of my 4th grade teacher, Ida Mae Fisher. Somehow she saw in me a focused student and one with a creative side and would design very involved art projects that I could work on while my classmates were finishing their assignments.
Dye Garden: Your basket designs combine beauty and functionality, and the range of material you incorporate is decidedly impressive! You mentioned the connection to your father’s woodworking, but how did you become interested in basket making?
Linda: During an assignment to Fort Leavenworth, KS, when all 3 of our sons were finally in school, I enrolled in a 6-week basketry class. This was the start of my basketmaking journey. Soon after, my family moved to Virginia and, while awaiting the delivery of our household goods, I read about a basketmaker doing a demo at a nearby park. At this point I did not know there was an entire diverse world of basketry out there. I only knew how to make 6 specific baskets by following the pattern provided. The woman doing the demo that day featured some naturals in her pieces but the best surprise of all was what she carried her tools in — a stunningly gorgeous white oat egg basket! This was a ribbed basket made from white oak. I soon learned that she had taken a week-long class from a 4th generation white oak basketmaker in Tennessee. I did not even have furniture in my new home and did have 3 young sons, but that did not stop me from brainstorming how I would be able to take this workshop. Ultimately, I made enough cheap, little, cute baskets that holiday season to not only pay for my workshop but for my family to accompany me on a camping trip to Tennessee! I was able to work with Estel Youngblood, who not only became my mentor but my good friend. He shared his family’s basketmaking tradition with me — a great honor and responsibility. This relationship was the start of my learning how to gather, process, and incorporate plant materials that could be used in basket projects.
I greatly value the traditions of basketry around the world, but am mostly impressed and influenced by those anonymous basketmakers who preceded me. These earlier craftsmen garnered little respect, and even less compensation, but have shared their traditions to the benefit of people like myself. To this day I think the Appalachian white oak basketry traditions and white oak as a material, are my favorites. Most likely due to the individual basketmakers who mentored me with kindness, patience, and support.
As a military family with numerous moves, I had exposure to new traditions and unique materials. I would often leave a successful teaching and selling business to relocate and begin all over. So I adapted. I decided to seek out basketmakers and materials with each move, learning what I could to add to my foundations of skills and knowledge. I also documented my discoveries, as I realized few of my basketry colleagues would ever have such opportunities. This was the start of writing and speaking on the subject. Living several years in Germany and The Netherlands, I became acquainted with the German Federal Trade School for basketmakers. This is a 4-year trade school that prepares one to become an apprentice basketmaker. Four or more years later one might complete the requirements to become a master basketmaker. My association with this trade school, and relationship with the masters who taught there, reinforced my belief in the value of having a sound foundation of skills and understanding in a trade. These foundations allowed me to explore more artistic ways to highlight basketry and basketmakers.
Dye Garden: You’ve certainly found and made the most of opportunities, which could not have been easy with young children and frequent moves. You’ve become a respected teacher of basketry. Would you speak more about where you’ve taught and exhibited?
Linda: I’ve taught wherever I found myself living — after I had several years and hundreds of baskets under my belt. Teaching provided me a platform to share stories about the tradition. Teaching locally in shops or for guilds soon catapulted to teaching at regional and national conferences and conventions.
As mentioned earlier, I learned to adapt to my surroundings and to create opportunities — part of this is my upbringing, part is due to being a military family member. Upon moving to Colorado Springs, I visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where a project to analyze and catalog their collection of Native American baskets was starting up. So began my weekly trek to Denver to volunteer. This was similar to going to graduate school as a basketmaker. I was honored to be able to have a voice as/for a basketmaker on this project and was eventually hired to complete the conservation analysis on all of these pieces. None of this would have happened had I not first opted to volunteer.
My basketry has been selected for exhibition across the country and in Europe. I have several pieces in collections at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper, WY, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and in Germany and England to name a few locations. I must admit that I am honored by these purchases but I prefer the purchases by individuals with whom I have been able to personally relate stories of basketmakers and basketry traditions.
Dye Garden: You’re usually among the first to arrive and last to leave on dye garden work days and — particularly as most of us are weavers, spinners, knitters, crocheters or seamstresses — we’re always fascinated when you bring reeds to dye. How did your involvement in the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden take off?
Linda: Upon first learning of the possibility of a partnership between the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild and Denver Botanic Gardens to create a memorial dye garden, I knew this was something I wanted to contribute to. Settling in Colorado Springs I completed the Colorado State University Master Gardener Program so that I could more successfully garden in this setting. I also love recycling parts of my garden into my basketry, and color has always played a major role in my work. Being able to have input into the garden project’s development early on appealed greatly to me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about dye plants — from growing to harvesting, to creating dye baths and coloring potential basketry materials. I also strongly appreciated that this dye garden, as a memorial to Janice Ford, was also an attempt to impress garden visitors young and old while sharing the many stories we, as fiber enthusiasts, have.
The dye garden has provided me with opportunities to explore new colors on my materials and to refine the most successful methods to achieve those colors on my fibers of choice. The greatest benefit I have derived from participating in the dye garden project comes from getting to know guild members and botanic garden staff. We all come from different backgrounds with different experiences, but we come together and combine efforts and energies to make things happen. My colleagues have been extremely supportive of my specialized interests. Their encouragement and support make me very proud to be part of this group.
Dye Garden: And the future? What do you envision for the dye garden?
Linda: Anything great is possible. For now, just gearing up for the 2017 growing season is exciting. I see us interfacing with the public visitors on behalf of Denver Botanic Gardens and the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild as we participate in more public events. I look forward to gaining more knowledge and expertise as we grow, harvest, and process old standby dye plants and experiment with new varieties. Then there is the world of color mixing that we can dip in and out of. I think there are possibilities for some in-depth study and experimentation with publications and photos to follow. I look forward to being able to harvest from select plants that might be grown in other parts of the botanic gardens at York Street and Chatfield Farms … maybe zinnias and snapdragons!
Dye Garden: Snapdragons! We should add those to our repertoire just because.
Linda, thanks for sharing a bit of your life with us!
Linda Lugenbill will be teaching a 3-day workshop on ribbed antler basketry later this month at the Intermountain Weavers Conference in Fort Lewis, Colorado. For more information, click here.
We thought arriving at 8 am was early, but there they were: flats and flats and flats of seedlings, waiting for us outside the garden fence. Our partners from the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms had obviously been up with the sun to deliver them from the greenhouse. The mood was one of a particularly good birthday party — friends, fun, and presents! There was a definite anticipatory buzz, and one new dye gardener admitted to not sleeping the night before for pure excitement. Planting day at last!
This season’s roster includes:
Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium Guatemalan indigo, Indigo suffruticosa Dyer’s chamomile, Anthemis tinctoria African marigold, Tagetes erecta French marigold, Tagetes patula Mexican marigold, Tagetes lucida Madder, Rubia tinctorum Black hollyhock, Alcea rosea Black eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta Dyer’s broom, Genista tinctoria Yarrow, Achillea millefolium Dyer’s coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria Red dyer’s coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria Cosmic red cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus Cosmic orange cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus Cosmic yellow cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus Weld or, as our new sign calls it, Dyer’s rocket, Reseda luteola
After a spell of sunshine and heat resulted in droopy plants and equally droopy people, a good watering perked things right up. The forecast called for rain and, sure enough, late morning brought wind, clouds, and a drop in temperature. The plant babies responded well to the increased humidity and looked solid and strong by the time we broke for lunch and a discussion about The Irrigation System and how to install it. Cut it? Wrap it around? Knot it? Really? Well, yes, as it turns out, really.
Planting day 2017 is over, and what a good time we had with each other and our garden. Lots to look forward to this summer! We’ll be tending the plants, harvesting, and dyeing on Thursdays from June to September. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in and say hello.
We started things off with an interesting – if really disturbing — presentation by Chatfield Director Larry Vickerman titled, Sustainable Soils. Larry outlined the problems inherent in the overuse of inorganic, nitrogen-rich fertilizers and described how the Denver Botanic Gardens is working to create and support healthy soils with organic fertilization, minimal tilling, and use of ground cover.
With much to think about, we headed out to prepare the Janice Ford Memorial Garden for planting in May. Proving yet again that many hands make light work, we trimmed, thinned, weeded, raked, trenched, mounded, spread compost and mulch, caught up on all the news, and pulled up an obsolete irrigation system. It was great to see familiar faces and welcome new ones!
Baby Black Hollyhocks
Looking for Indigo
Some of us took a trip to the Chatfield greenhouse to check on the progress of our seedlings. Marigolds, hollyhocks, cosmos, coreopsis, cota – all very tiny – but we trust they’ll be ready for planting on May 25. Fingers crossed! We’re looking forward to another good, fun, and — inevitably — surprising growing season. Our new volunteers can anticipate the truly miraculous process of nurturing plants and then producing dyes from them; while our veterans (never immune to miracles!) look forward to sharing our knowledge and experience with them and botanic garden visitors. We even have a research project to look forward to, as our garden is one of several around the country participating in John Marshall’s Japanese indigo study — more on that in future blog posts!
One last thing: founding members Donna Brown and Jánet Bare have co-authored “Growing a Dye Garden,” an article in the Spring 2017 issue of Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot. If you’re a member of the Handweavers Guild of America, check it out! If you’re not, your local public library may have a copy, or be able to get you one via interlibrary loan.
Maintaining a dye garden is a loud and busy business, at least the way we do it is! Once the plants are up and established, there’s weeding, watering, gathering, drying and, eventually, dyeing. There’s also conversation and laughter — we are fortunate to be a group that likes and cares about each other — and exclamations over the quality of color our plants are producing. We have a good time. On several occasions over this past summer, our work days included the graceful, quiet presence of Leslie Boose, a student of botanical illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In the midst of activity, Leslie was a still point, silently sitting on the ground, pad in lap, pencil in hand, sketching. It was a pleasure to stop and peer over her shoulder as we moved between plants and drying racks, watching plants emerge on the page. Another facet of our garden was developing, one we’d not considered. At age three, the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden is attracting and bringing together people with interests beyond dyes, gardening, and fiber. As our community grows, we thought it would be fun to profile some of the people who enrich the experience. Allow us, then, to introduce you to Leslie Boose, botanical illustrator.
The main goal of botanical illustration is not art, but scientific accuracy. It must portray a plant with the precision and level of detail for it to be recognized and distinguished from another species.
Dye Garden: Hi Leslie! We really enjoyed having you with us this past summer, and watching your work develop. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. First off, would you tell us where you grew up and how long you’ve lived in the Denver area?
Leslie: I grew up in Louisiana. We moved to the Denver area 25 years ago, and we love it here.
Dye Garden: Did you like to draw as a child? If so, what or who influenced your desire to draw?
Leslie: As a child, I always liked to draw and color, and to make things. My mom was creative and she encouraged all of her three daughters with art supplies and craft projects. I had a few teachers who also noticed I liked art, and they encouraged me. I went on to earn bachelor’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico.
Dye Garden: How did your interest in botanical illustration develop? What do you enjoy about it?
Leslie: I first noticed contemporary botanical art when I saw an exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was the work of students in the botanical illustration program. I really liked it, and thought I would love to do that someday. About 15 years later, I began to take classes. I love illustrating plants and flowers. I like the combination of discipline and creativity to make beautiful art. I also like learning about the history of botanical illustration, which is centuries old.
The need for exactness differentiates botanical illustration from more general flower painting. Many great artists, from the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, to modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, portrayed flowers; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented botanical artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements.
Dye Garden: Can you tell us more about the botanical illustration program at Denver Botanic Gardens?
Leslie: The School of Botanical Art & Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens is really quite wonderful. It offers a curriculum leading to a Foundational Certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration, and a more advanced Diploma in Botanical Illustration. The catalog for Winter/Spring 2017 offers 68 classes with 11 instructors. Visiting instructors are invited from other states, and from other countries, such as England and Australia. Some of the classes offered are in areas outside of botanical illustration, such as calligraphy, book binding, and iconography. Many classes are open to anyone, not just students in the botanical illustration program. There are also classes for teens. Students are of all ages, though many are retirees. Some of us are artists, some are gardeners, and some are both. Some students have art backgrounds, and others don’t. I enjoy learning a variety of techniques (watercolor, graphite, colored pencil, pen and ink, etc.) from the talented staff of instructors. The camaraderie is wonderful. We all encourage and learn from each other. I have finished the Foundational Certificate and am working towards a Diploma.
Dye Garden: We really enjoyed your presence at the garden this past summer. How did you hear about us and … well … what do you think of it all?
Leslie: I learned about the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden from the Denver Botanical Garden website. I was working on a project about cotton, and I was interested in the indigo growing in the dye garden, because indigo is used to dye cotton. I visited the garden to sketch and photograph the indigo plants, and made an illustration (above). The dye garden is a beautiful, peaceful place, and I was drawn to illustrate more dye plants. With the encouragement of the School of Botanical Art & Illustration director, Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski, my diploma project will be about dye plants growing in the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden. This past summer, I was fortunate to be able to join the dye garden volunteers several times when they worked in the garden on Thursdays. They are a very friendly, creative, and dedicated group!
Dye Garden: Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! We’re delighted that you’ve chosen to do your diploma work on the plants in our garden and cannot wait to see the results. Best of luck to you!
So why can’t this job be done using photography?
Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform botanical work, there is certainly still a need for botanical illustration because it can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in a photograph. Outline drawings for example, distinguish elements that cannot easily be made out using reflected light alone. Also, the composition of the image can be manipulated more fully in illustration, and features displayed together which may not easily be shown simultaneously in nature.
Above: Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, from the summer, 2016 growing season at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden.
We love indigo. We are not alone in this. When you consider that indigo blue wasn’t chemically synthesized until the late 19th century, it’s not hard to understand how desirable a plant rendering blue dye would be among textile producers, and indigo certainly has a rich history of innovation and use across time and space.
Happily, we have a bumper crop of Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden this summer, and boy do we have plans! John Marshall is coming to visit, talk, and lead a few workshops in September, and we hope to supply his fresh indigo needs. We’ll also get a few vats going for colors resembling blue jeans, ranging from the dark, stiff, right-off-the-rack variety to that holey, comfy, faded pair you can’t bear to part with.
Our early bird volunteers got to work clipping branches before the day heated up and stripping leaves — about eight pounds in all. Many, many leaves, about four times the weight of goods to be dyed, are needed. The fresh leaves were put in a blender with ice and pulverized. A note on the “why’s” and “how’s” of it all: despite much animated discussion of what makes this process tick, we have no idea. At the end of the day, it comes down to the vague-if-obvious statement that it has to do with a chemical reaction precipitated by low temperature and agitation. (We’re not satisfied either.) Post-pulverization, the icy mixture was strained through a cloth into a container sitting in a bed of ice.
Pre-wet fiber — we used silk and wool — was submerged in the bowl and, with hands increasingly numb from cold, moved around for about ten minutes. The color’s quite green at this point but, once removed from the liquid and exposed to air, the blues arrived. Rinsing in cold water only made it better!
Linda, our extraordinary basket maker, took the opportunity to dye some reeds as well, with good results.
This was our second year of fresh-leaf dyeing with ice water, and the shine hasn’t begun to fade. Dyeing with plants is an adventure, with the dyer’s skill often contributing as much as the climate, soil, water, and genetics that produced them. We have fun and, to celebrate the arrival of our new picnic tables, we also have cake!