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.
In 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.
The 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.
The photos of this weaver’s shop are circa 1860s.
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:
sunflower – 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
white 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
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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