The Humor and Life, in Particular Web site
author:  Margie Culbertson

February/March, 2004 Humor Writing Contest winner
Best Short Humor!


A First Foray into Plant Dyeing


Mary Catherine Johnson

There is something innately absurd in the sight of a gray–haired woman swishing through unkempt vegetation alongside the highway, snipping fronds of ragweed and stuffing them into a blue plastic Wal–Mart bag. Traffic slows. Passengers gawk. Drivers court disaster by directing their gaze toward the plumpish figure reaping a bountiful harvest of ragweedis allergicus.

To all this, I remain serenely oblivious. I continue collecting the key ingredient for a concoction reputed to impart a deep golden hue to natural wool—in this instance, two four–ounce skeins of wool yarn. Once dyed, the yarn is to be transformed by my nimble fingers into a hand–crocheted muffler for my younger son, who was smitten by the intense color labeled "ragweed" in a display of plant–dyed wool exhibited at a local college.

His faith in my ability to overcome minor obstacles is boundless. Never mind that although I am lamentably familiar with the concept of "plants dying," the subtle alteration of the phrase to "plant–dyeing" ushers in a realm of gruesome possibilities. Furthermore, my total output of crochet–work, at this point, consists of half an afghan. (Yes, half! And therein lies a story, not to be recounted here.) So, I toddled off to the public library, where I perused "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" as well as a few up–to–date tomes expounding the intricacies of plant–dyeing.

The first step, I found, is to "mordant" the wool—soak it in a substance which will discourage the dye color from fading. A mordant favored in earlier times was a natural, ammonia–rich yellow liquid euphemistically referred to as "chamber lye." Not for the fastidious. Think about it.

From mordants more acceptable today, I chose alum and cream of tartar. Following recipe directions, I dissolved the powders and added them to two gallons of water in the lower section of my enamel roaster. ("Roaster" was not specified, but "enamel" was. The only other enamel vessel I possess is a coffee pot, which seemed inadequate for the purpose.)

I pre–wet the wool, added it to the water in the roaster, and simmered it for an hour. After it cooled, I hung it over the clothesline to dry, and went foraging for the proper plant . . . which brings us to the point where I arrive home with bulging bag, ready to begin the Great Experiment!

I cut the weed into roaster–size lengths, add it to fresh water in the roaster, and simmer the mixture for an hour. Odiferous steam rises from the pan and permeates the atmosphere. I fancy I hear the scurrying of tiny feet as small critters (who, I suspect, share my domicile) vacate the premises posthaste!

The fragrance does not diminish as the ragweed soaks overnight. When I spy the mailman sauntering up the walk next morning, I open my door and the odor wafts outside. The mailman's face turns an interesting shade of puce as he thrusts my mail into my hand and departs precipitously. Obviously, he's too polite to ask "What's cooking?"

After straining the ragweed from the reeking tincture, I wet the wool, immerse it in the dye, and simmer the two together—thus facilitating the emanation of additional noxious fumes. Truly, the procedure of plant–dyeing calls for remarkable olfactory fortitude!

The wool soaks in the dye overnight. Next morning when I squeeze the dye from the wool and rinse it thoroughly—viola! The yarn is a glorious, deep golden color! The recipe says to dry it in the shade, so I festoon my black deck chairs with the bright yarn. They look quite jaunty. When dry, the yarn retains its vibrant hue and is delightfully odor–free!

With the aid of a "how to" booklet, I begin to crochet. Miraculously, I produce row after row of single crochet, double crochet, single crochet, double crochet . . . I sit up late, savoring the sensation of watching my creation grow.

On the third night, I finish the ends of the muffler with a luxurious fringe of my own design. It is, I state with all modesty, a stroke of genius. Not only does the fringe add class, it elegantly conceals the uneven end stitches! I am ecstatic.

The muffler (along with my son) moved to Texas, so I cannot spread it out and gloat over it as I was wont to do before it migrated, but I've been wondering . . . would sumac produce a scarlet dye? How could I get a nice lavender? Or robin's egg blue?

Maybe next summer . . .

©Mary Catherine Johnson

I was born in a little farmhouse near the meeting point of Missouri, Kansas, & Oklahoma. My first published essay, "Scotching the Snake," was about my mother's reaction to the serpentine population of that homesite. It appeared in The Ozarks Mountaineer several years ago.

Back about 1995, I sent some poems to the children's magazine, Ladybug. Shortly before mailing them, I realized I could enclose one more sheet of paper for the same postage—however, I had no more poems ready to send. Recalling that the magazine also publishes songs, I forthwith seated myself at the piano with paper & pencil & tried my hand at writing down a little song I'd made up for my younger son when he was a toddler. Four lines, & it took me all afternoon!!

Howsomever, my carefully crafted and undoubtedly superior (!) poems were all rejected, and the song was accepted. At present, ten of my songs have been published in Ladybug. The most recent is "Song for the World" in the May 2004 issue.

I have five offspring, nine grandchildren, and three great–grandchildren, & lead a very, very busy life. In my spare (?) time, I do storytelling for local schools, libraries, & organizations.


You can read more of Sharon's writings at her website. CLICK HERE.

© 1997–2004, Margie Culbertson
CULBERTSON and Associates

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