It’s been a wonderful tour. I’m waiting for my flight home (via Los Angeles) from cozy, foggy Eureka and so have a little time to tell you about an unexpected and delightful adventure last week in Washington during the Men’s Fall Knitting Retreat.
WonderMike, host of the popular Fiber Beat podcast, is the driving force behind the gathering; and one of his many strengths is finding unique outings for us. Last year, we visited the Moonshadow Alpaca Ranch in Auburn. This year, he arranged for us to try our hands at indigo dyeing at Earthues in the Ballard section of town.
Now, I have a confession to make. I went to Earthues with only the mildest curiosity about what I might see. I love to knit, obviously. I enjoy spinning, when I can get to it. But though dyeing seemed interesting in theory–I certainly have enjoyed my visits to Lorna’s Laces and admire my friend Carol’s work at Black Bunny Fibers–I had very little desire to get my own fingers into the pot.
We were advised to bring along fiber to dip, so at the last minute I casually tossed a few odd hanks of blah stash wool into the suitcase. Word was that the neighborhood around Earthues is full of interesting shops, and I figured I could prowl through them if the dye studio turned out to be a snorefest.
Once through the door, it took all of fifteen seconds for me to lose my mind and begin fantasizing about planting a guerilla dye garden in the park near my apartment.
Calling Earthues a dye studio is like calling Disneyland a kiddie pool. The company was founded by Michele Wipplinger, a visionary dyer with almost a quarter-century of experience, as a home base for her mission of promoting and supporting the worldwide use of natural dyes.
There is a retail space (as of this writing, open Monday–Friday from 1o am to 5 pm), gorgeous and beautifully stocked with naturally-dyed fiber products from around the world, including a selection of yarns and beautifully printed cottons in fat quarters. They also offer gift items, objéts d’arts, and even some notions–I lucked into a beautifully carved wooden needle case and crochet hook I’ll photograph when I get home.
Beautiful light and sources of inspiration are everywhere.
We spent most of our time in the educational area with Michele’s passionate, charismatic business partner, Kathy Hattori. While Michele travels a great deal to consult and teach, Kathy keeps things buzzing in Washington State–managing the shop, fulfilling commissions, teaching classes, and–during our visit–deftly guiding 30 guy knitters through the ABCs of natural dye in one short afternoon.
I learned a lot in a hurry, including that indigo (above) looks a lot like basil and marigolds (a flower I have always detested) produce a lovely yellow dye.
It was like finding out the smelly, annoying kid across the street is secretly a concert violinist.
After our introduction, we moved into the yard where four big pots of indigo awaited. Since this was, of course, a group of guys, we were interested (and perhaps slightly disappointed) to hear that our own indigo experience would not require the use of pee.
One by one, we dipped and watched as our yarns turned from white
At the end of the day I had two skeins of yarn and one shin that were dyed several exceedingly fetching shades of deeps blue.
My assumptions that the natural palette would be limited, muddy and fugitive turned out to be utterly incorrect. Turns out you can, in fact, make brilliant and lightfast colors without recourse to petrochemicals; nor does Earthues use heavy metal mordants of any kind.
I was so impressed I went back later in the week on a free afternoon to hang out with Kathy some more. When I told her about my budding interest in quilting she showed me a fascinating project undertaken a few years back by another dyer at the shop. She had subjected a rather insipid selection of quilting cottons to systematic overdyeing in a series of natural hues.
The word "magic" is as overused these days as Lindsay Lohan's prescription drug plan, but it's the only word that seems appropriate.
Since my dream of of planting an indigo patch is likely to remain a dream, I was particularly interested to learn that in the 1990s Michele pioneered extract forms of natural dyes; they allow you to play with the process even if you aren’t ready to grind your own cochineal bugs or grow your own woad. Earthues sells the extracts in little kits and pots, and I know with fatal certainty that I’m going to have to try them out. Happily, they already sell some products online and there are plans to expand the range of Web site offerings in the near future.
If you find yourself in the Seattle area, for goodness' sake head over the Ballard Bridge (the Number 17 bus will take you there from downtown) and knock on the door at Earthues. If you care about fiber in any form, you really ought not to miss it.