The Weaver’s Magic Garden

 

Kate Bridges-signature line

It’s spring!  My thoughts turn to planting and what I’m going to do with my flowerbeds this year.

I can well imagine how much joy the gardens brought to the settlers of the Old West as they tried to scratch something valuable out of the soil.

wg5In my novels, I’ve mentioned all types of gardens. Or thought I had. There were those belonging to apothecaries and doctors – the herb gardens they planted to create remedies and cures.  There were those belonging to florists, who would plant their flowers for market. Restaurant cooks planted vegetables and herbs to use in their dishes. Private citizens grew produce, too, not to mention orchards for fruit wherever the land could sustain it.

But recently in my research, I came across a type of garden that took me by surprise. I’d simply never thought of it:  the town weaver and his or her special garden where they planted a spectrum of plants to create powders and liquids for the dyeing of fabrics.

That must have been fun! Wild bursts of color, rich seeds that started out pink and ripened to a rich berry, roots that dyed fabrics blue or black, or maybe some exotic plant from China that grew from fragrant seeds passed along from some stranger on a wagon train.

wg8The town weaver was a valuable asset to any growing Western town.  From their maze of looms, they produced blankets and coverlets, shawls and rugs. No scraps went to waste here. They collected rags from the community and produced cloth balls that had a dozen uses around the house—anything from knotting rope to hanging laundry to creating rag rugs.

 

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The photos of this weaver’s shop are circa 1860s.

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The color of the plant or flower doesn’t necessarily correlate to the end result of dye color. There are hundreds of plant choices. Here’s a sampling of some common ones, a few of which surprised me:

wg1sunflower – pressing the seeds creates a bright yellow oil; combining different plant parts produces dyes in the color of tan, gray, and green

indigo – rich blue color obtained from the leaves– the dye is colorfast, very desirable

goldenrod – root contains a brilliant yellow dye

wg2white birch tree – leaves give a yellow dye; inner bark creates lavender, tan, or purple

elderberry – purples and blues

bloodroot – juice of the stem and roots for the color red

flowering dogwood – bark produces a red dye; root produces violet wg3

Have you started your gardening yet? Do you prefer planting vegetables or flowers? Or neither? Have you ever hand-dyed an object? When I was younger, some of my friends dyed their leather shoes (ie. for dance class). I tried it once but they didn’t turn out right.

There must have been something special about the town weaver – a professional craftsman who knew what he was doing.

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27 thoughts on “The Weaver’s Magic Garden”

  1. Loved the post. We haven’t started our garden yet. It has been to wet here. I also have a flower garden that has been put on the back burner due to the weather. Once it dries up a little, we plan on getting out there full force. Have a great day.

  2. Have read several of your books and enjoyed every one of them. The characters are very real as are the situations. You give the readers the feeling they are there and it is really happening. I have The Commander on my TBR shelf right now. Look forward to it. We have both vegetable and flower gardens. Have never done any real work with dyes, but played with it when we were kids (a very long time ago). Have always wanted to weave. After I retire, maybe I’ll take it up. My daughter has llamas so I have a source of fiber and would be able to experiment with dyes. Keep up the good work. I look forward to more REAL stories from you.

  3. Hi Roberta–It’s still too wet here, too. The gardening centers are just starting to open up their stock. Good luck with your flowers, and thanks for dropping by!

  4. Hi Patricia-How kind of you to say all that. Thank you so much. It really means a lot to hear that you’ve enjoyed several of my books. I’m currently on deadline for another story proposal, so your comments will make it easier for me to sit in my chair this weekend and write! The Commander is one of my favorites–bit of a tearjerker, but I enjoyed writing about all the family interaction.

    Your llama experiments sound like they’d be fun! I agree that weaving sounds interesting. Good luck with it, and thanks for the good wishes. 🙂

  5. I knew they used plants for dye, I just didn’t realize how many “regular” plants were used. Great post! As for a garden- while my mom and grandparents had green thumbs and could grow anything- I can’t even keep a cactus alive. I have a few hale and hardy plants in my flower beds, but I can’t keep plants alive in my house and every time I decide to plant a garden and try again, it fails. I envy those with lush gardens and bountiful crops.

  6. Hi Kate – I’d never given any thought to the skills of a weaver before. Great info on the origins of color!

    I’m afraid I’m not good in a garden. But my hubby has a GREEN thumb, thank goodness. He just planted flowers called Satin, that are prolific, colorful and supposed to bloom throughout summer. He also just bought some gadget that attaches to his drill that really turns up the soil well. Kinda like a jackhammer for the soil. All I know is that our garden is very pretty right now, both front and back. 🙂

  7. Beautiful blog,Kate! Love the photos. Since I so often seem to have spring deadlines (this year’s no exception), what I plant is perennials. Lots of lilies, hostas, irises, blooming groundcovers, grasses, etc., etc. With the exception of a few tomato plants, if it has to be planted every year,I don’t grow it!
    🙂

  8. P.S. I’m a good hand with Rit, but have never tried plant dyes.

    Has anyone read “Precious Bane”? The book’s set in 18th (19th?) Century England, so not a western, but the hero is a weaver, and is wonderful. You can’t help but fall in love with him.

  9. Hi Paty–I sympathize on not getting plants to grow indoors. I’m not that good, either. And a cactus is really hard. I either over-water or under-water. I hear that the most healthy plant for growing indoors is the spider plant (looks like grass.) It’s supposed to clean the air of toxins. Who knew?

    I was suprised, too, at the regular plants they used for dyes. Every plant had 2 or 3 uses. Thanks for posting!

  10. Hi Charlene! Your flower garden sounds beautiful. You’re so lucky you get to plant already, living in California. 🙂 The rule of thumb here in Toronto is that nothing gets planted till the May long weekend (latter part of the month) or it’s liable to be killed by overnight frost. But hanging plants can go out a little earlier. I love looking at everyone’s and they brighten up the neighborhood!

    LOL on your hubby’s drilling tools. My dh loves those kind of things, too. I looked up Satin on the web–they look really pretty.

  11. Hi Elizabeth–you’re so wise on the perennials. I had some tulips here but I live on a hill and the wind seems to kill anything that grows higher than a few inches in my front yard. I’ll have to look for shorter perennials!

    I think I’ve tried Rit dyes, too, on T-shirts and stuff for home-ec classes, lol. I’ve never read “Precious Bane” but I’ll keep my eye out for it–sounds interesting.

  12. Kate, I love this. This post is a keeper. I’ve found myself so often trying to figure out ‘how did the use the local plants’.
    My very first published book, Golden Days, was about a young Tlingit girl from Alaska and how she could live in harmony with that harsh land and I did soooooooooo much research about plants and animals in her area of Alaska.
    Doing the same now for the Yellowstone area for my work in progress.
    I’m definitely keeping track of this post for future reference.

  13. Hi Mary! You’ll be a plant expert before you know it. I’m amazed at how much research you’ve done. Of all the gardens the settlers had, I bet the weaver’s one was the only one that has really died out. We all just buy store-bought dyes now that are likely mostly made of chemicals. Medicine gardens have faded in popularity, too, but I think medicinal herbs are still so commonly talked about, someone out there is growing the stuff!

  14. Next year, our town will celebrate its centennial. At only 100 years old, it is relatively young when compared to other areas of the country.
    However, we still enjoy some of the “antiques” that are found in many gardens here, especially hollyhocks and irises.

  15. Great post, Its still a little early here to do the garden. I do mostly flowers but I do put out a few tomatoes, but I wait to the first of May for that. We sometimes have late frost around here and I know this Sunday it is going back down the 32 so still to early for gardens.

  16. Hi Kate, what a fascinating post! We have birch trees…maybe I’ll try some dye jobs! I never even suspected it.

    A weaver shop sounds like something I need to add to my wip!

    I have about 20 rose bushes that I like to work on but don’t have that green of a thumb, sad to say. Dang that powdery mildew! But they do look good most of the year especially through Christmas before I prune. I also like herbs but I put my most recent rosemary in a pot because the peppermint plant in the ground kept growing like the little shop of horrors.

    Your pictures are wonderful.

    oxoxoxox

  17. Kate, I’ve never heard of this. What an interesting subject. It’s little things like that what enrich our stories. I’m glad you shared this with us.

    I’m not a gardener but I love looking at other people’s. It’s a lot of work. Guess that says I’m lazy! LOL Flowers are very beautiful though and they contribute so much to the earth.

  18. Hi LuAnn–yes, a 100 years is fairly young. Glad you can enjoy those flowers. Happy birthday to your town next year!

    Quilt Lady–We wait around here, too, because of the frost. Tomatoes are fun to grow. Not too hard as long as those yucky big bugs don’t come around, lol.

    Hi Tanya–birch trees are among my favorites. I never suspected the lavendar and purple colors, either. Your roses sound beautiful. We have 3 bushes but they don’t keep well over the winter. Always have to cut them down to the ground every fall. Rosemary and peppermint, huh? I’m impressed!

    Hi Linda–yeah, the topic was a bit surprising to me, too. I guess because weaver’s gardens aren’t around much anymore. LOL on the lazy label. I agree with you on loving to see other people’s flowers in bloom.

  19. We’re having our load of compost delivered next week, so we’ve started gardening by making the plans! LOL My first annuals in will be morning glories – we have so much of our beds in perrenials now.

  20. I’ve read about weavers, just never paid any attention to the fact that dyes and colors were
    necessary to the finished product. Even with the
    oh so gorgeous antique rugs from the Middle East,
    I just never gave much thought to how they came
    to be so beautiful!

    Pat Cochran

  21. Kate,
    I enjoyed your post so much. We love to garden too. Right now our apple tree is in full bloom. We’re hoping we don’t have another freeze like we did last year. Loved the photos. 🙂

    Jeanmarie

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