June 2022 Studio Hours Recap: Rita Kompst and Zoe McDonell on Their Natural Dyeing Collaborations

6 July 2022
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By Sarah Thornton
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In recognition of Indigenous History Month, our June Studio Hours session featured the partnership between Rita Kompst and Zoe McDonell (also featured in a recent D&T article). Rita is a Musqueam cedar weaver and Zoe is a wildlife biologist. Together, they teach classes about natural dyeing, each bringing their own experiences and perspectives. Western science is great for cataloging and organizing information and examining when nature gets out of balance. Traditional ecological knowledge provides experience in managing habitats and landscapes to keep things in balance.

When Rita and Zoe first met, they didn’t think about reconciliation but were just enjoying learning to work together and learning what each could offer and share. Quickly they realized that what they were doing was actually reconciliation in action. Rita shared a beautiful story of how her Aunt Donna came back to traditional cedar weaving and dyeing after seeing Rita grow and thrive in her art practice, and she is now Rita’s class assistant.

Both Zoe and Rita emphasized the importance of connection to nature—that working with our hands ties us to the land. They work together to forage mushrooms, lichens, and plants that give rich colours to use in their classes and also trade and barter their dyestuffs with others. They shared beautiful photos of colours from goldenrod (yellows), lobster mushrooms (pinks, peaches, purples), lungwort lichen (gwilahl gana’w or frog blanket, which provides rufus brown), and some species of Cortinarius mushrooms (vibrant true reds). They showed us results on both wool and cedar bark, and warned us that cedar is tricky to dye!

Rita shared a recent experience teaching Indigenous youth from across BC at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. She loved seeing the amazement on their faces at the colours they achieved and their recognition of this activity that their ancestors had practiced before colonization.

Zoe shared that they will be attending the International Fungi and Fiber Symposium (IFFS) in October 2022 in Port Townsend, WA, foraging and taking classes. Rita and Zoe both offer workshops around the lower mainland of B.C. Zoe’s website, https://www.historysciencefiber.com, contains many posts of her experiments with different dyestuffs and links to her YouTube channel.

After this great introduction to their partnership, we moved into a Q&A session.

Rita shared some of her cedar weaving projects – she uses natural coloured cedar strips accented with dyed cedar to make roses, headbands, hats, baskets, and more. Recently she has been making graduation caps! Rita harvests the cedar bark and spends two to three weeks cleaning and preparing the fibres before being ready to weave. From time immemorial, the Musqueam people have been working with cedar, mountain goat, and woolly dog fibres to produce clothing and blankets.

A member from eastern Canada asked if Zoe and Rita would offer workshops in her region and Zoe encouraged her to look into grant support to bring them out to teach.

We then started discussing achieving the colour red when dyeing, as a member had heard that reds are hard to find in nature. True reds can be obtained from three mushrooms: Cortinarius smithii, C. sanguineus, and C. semisanguineus using an alum mordant, though with an iron mordant, the colour pushes to maroon. In a broader sense, reds are also obtainable from madder (at pH 8) which can be grown in Canada.

Earlier in the session, Zoe had suggested that we stick to working with wool rather than cedar, and a member asked why. This brought us to a discussion of dyeing plant vs. animal fibres and the related challenges! Working with wool is more predictable; many plant fibres are more reluctant to take dyes (except indigo). Interestingly, dyes can take quite differently on the two fibres, for example, hollyhock flowers can give greenish dyes with animal fibres and pinks with plant fibres! Preparing cedar bark for weaving is a lot of work, and Zoe recommends not experimenting too much with it. She suggested that perhaps commercial acid dyes (rather than natural/foraged dyes) are the more prudent option. Zoe and Rita experimented with yellow dyes using an alum mordant with added cream of tartar. On wool, the cream of tartar can slow the uptake of dyes allowing for a more even result, but with the cedar strips, there was no uptake at all!

We then talked about foraging for lichen dyes. Zoe shared knowledge on how to collect these delicate crumbly substances and how much is ecologically safe to take. Boreal lichens (on trees) are generally faster growing and can often be found on the ground after windstorms. One suggestion is Evernia prunastri (oakmoss) which is common in Vancouver, B.C. Rock lichens, however, are slower growing and more sensitive to disturbance. Generally, you should avoid harvesting these from the rocks unless the land is slated for clearing! With all foraging, you should take less than five per cent of any patch and check for conservation status before harvesting. That said, some of the rock lichens, when fermented, can give amazing pink and purple dyes!

Zoe motioned a few specific lichens. Xanthoria parietina (maritime sunburst lichen) grows on hardwood but is also often found in abundance under highway overpasses as it likes air pollution. This lichen, when fermented, leads to pink colours on wool, but if you dry the fibre in the sun, the colour will shift to baby blue. Rita mentioned that some old Salish blankets have small bits of baby blue fibre but they have not yet been studied to see if the colour was obtained from that lichen.

Rita suggested dyeing with backyard plants and invasive species. Horsetail, dandelions, and tansy can give beautiful colours.

Resources

Rita shared that a favourite resource is a Facebook group called Mushroom and Lichen Dyers United and recommended checking the Files section where people share notes and methods. Zoe recommended the book The Rainbow Beneath My Feet by Arleen and Alan Bessette, although she mentioned that a limitation of the book is that is doesn’t consider pH shifts, which can lead to many more colours. Another great resource is Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book  by Karen Diadick Casselman.

For dyes and supplies, both Maiwa (Vancouver, B.C.) and Dekel Dyes (Israel) were recommended as companies with good social conscience.

One member recommended Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and shared that the book contains a beautiful explanation of Indigenous views of the world. Other members recommended the audio book version as well.

We gave Rita and Zoe our hearty thanks for being so generous with their resources and knowledge!

Show and Tell

A member shared a traditional tam that she designed for a 90-year-old family friend. She used motifs and colours specifically for her friend, including the traditional wheel at the crown and a pyramidal orchid, the national flower of the Isle of Wight, her friend’s home.

The next project surprised some members who had never heard of reverse or backward knitting. The member shared her Harlequin Jacket (pattern by Jane Slicer-Smith) (Ravelry link), made up of modular mitred squares and using a reverse knitting technique. This technique is a fun challenge for the brain and hands and is tremendously handy for entrelac and bobbles.

We then delved into questions about laundering different fibres, after a member found her recycled linen/cotton yarn didn’t fare well with a Eucalan wash as the colours ran and the washed fabric looked dull. We were reminded that Eucalan does contain lanolin which isn’t needed for plant fibres. Soak could be a better choice here (or even just shampoo). (Did you know that both Soak and Eucalan are Canadian companies?) We also talked about colour catchers—sheets that resemble dryer sheets (remember those?) that you put into the wash water to catch any dye particles that are released. One brand mentioned in the chat is Dr. Beckmann Colour and Dirt Collector (available in many grocery stores). Another dye fixative is Raycafix liquid wash additive.

Another member shared a happy thrift find. She found a copy of her favourite childhood embroidery handbook, 100 Embroidery Stitches–Book 98 from J&P Coats. She much prefers paper resources over the Internet because they don’t turn off right when you need to see the picture!

And one final recommendation from a member who strongly recommended the newly published book, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser, which is full of thought-provoking history and current events surrounding linen, cotton, silk, synthetic, and wool fabrics.

Sarah Thornton head shot

About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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