The Dye Garden

Pamala Jane Weber’s intimate connection with the natural world
The most striking thing about Pamala Jane Weber is her generosity and inner strength. Sharing her knowledge and giving to others is part of her process, she says. Once, she knitted hats and fingerless gloves as Christmas presents for her 24 second-graders and watching her young students on the playground just made her very happy. She is now taking things to the next level by writing a book about natural dyeing, open-heartedly disclosing all her recipes and techniques. When she’s not teaching, she’s busy planting, growing and picking flowers, or dyeing and knitting handspun wool. Her annual dye garden and whimsical knitwear reveal her long, intimate connection with the natural world. 
 
A Minnesota native, Pamala grew up in Mound on the western shores of Lake Minnetonka. From her free-range childhood she remembers running in the woods and using her parents’ outdoor old-fashioned brick barbecue to boil pots of berries and plants she would find in the wetlands during the summer months. Growing-up exploring nature was the earliest influence that led to her desire to be in nature and of nature. She now jokes she has achieved her childhood fantasy, being a witch, and thinks of her artistry as practical witchcraft that keeps her stirring and boiling plants or hand-spinning wool fiber.
 
During her college years at Concordia University in St Paul, MN she took field biology courses and immediately felt at ease: “Identifying plants and animals was always easy for me. Long before I was natural dyeing I could walk to the woods and know where everything was. That’s really helped later on”. She majored in Elementary Education in the early 1990s and went on to be a full-time teacher.
 
Pamala set up her dye garden just three years ago and growing plants has been a transformative experience too. “I do a lot of mindfulness and guided relaxation with my students. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a second grade life coach. I’m the teacher who teaches them about life. I try to be the teacher I wish I had. It’s the same with natural dyeing”.
 
She became interested in natural dyeing after seeing pictures of solar dyeing on Instagram. “These posts were inspirational because those were exactly the colors I liked. I didn’t have a garden then so I was just urban foraging and picking things in different places. I also checked out a few books in the library because I needed to learn how to do it. It is a difficult craft but I realized pretty quickly that I was very good at it. After reading many books I felt I could do it better or easier. I’m not a good rule follower! I also wanted to create a more eco-friendly way of doing it, not using mordants like tin and copper or any chemicals that would hurt humans and the environment. I did not want to use extracts either, because to me natural dyeing is about using plants, not a vial of powder, so my primary goal was to focus on plants I could grow. Plants change throughout the season, and there is a little bit of excitement in discovery. I’m only using plants that are available in Minnesota, except for the Cochineal that is imported from Mexico”. 
 
“Dyeing yarn using the actual plant is very labor intensive. The whole process includes growing it, picking it and cooking it. It’s so different from using extracts. You must also dry it to use it in the winter, when it’s 20°F below and that’s adding even more time to the process, but all my plants (Indigo, Tansy, Cosmos…) can be used fresh. Over time I’ve tried almost everything I can find that I know will dye in my local eco-system and I’ve narrowed it down into this smaller group of plants that I know have good results, last then give me the colors that I like. In the end, natural dyes reflect the natural world and they naturally all work together”.
 
She has established standard rules when using fresh plants, usually weighing 100 grams of fiber for 200 grams of the plant material. The volume is 50 percent less with dried plants, but it still takes a lot of time to pick them and dry them. Her favorite colors to knit are browns and greens, which is perfect because these are easy to achieve, she says. The browns are made using Black Walnut, fresh or dried, while greens are obtained by adding iron to the yellow dye, or over-dyeing yellow yarn with indigo. 
 
“My dye plants are all annuals so every spring I have to start them indoors from seeds. I call myself a reluctant gardener because I really don’t like to garden but I have to do it. Having my own dye plants, versus having to go find everything has been a big step in developing my skill set”. 
 
“The flowers will poop out by mid September so I have to pick as many as possible before that. I pick Cosmos flowers everyday and I put them in the freezer. My freezer is full of flowers! I pick those every day, all summer long, but I leave half on for the pollinators, because they love the Cosmos”. She doesn’t use any chemicals and fights off pests using soapy water: “Last year, I probably spent one hour a day just getting the Japanese beetles off the plants and putting them in the soapy water. I feel bad about it, but they destroy everything”.
 
Slow Color: a practical guide to natural dyeing in the North is Pamala’s how-to book that includes patterns, dye recipes and simple instructions for setting up a dye garden. “I wrote the book I wish I had. I want to teach people how to do it, the way I wish someone would have been there to teach me. It’s written like a yearly diary with step-by-step instructions, like a cookbook. It’s very strategic. As a teacher I know I only want to give the important information and as a learner, I just want to know what I need to do: just give me the basis because I want the freedom to do it my own way. As a self-taught artist my goal is to share information, to give back and share the knowledge I’ve learned. That’s the natural teacher in me. I don’t think knowledge should cost, we should all just be willing to share, not hold our secrets so close”.
 
Her beautiful tattoos are part of her life journey and show her keen interest in active and transformative processes. She can transform yarn enjoys the freedom of transforming her skin, choosing designs of plants and pets she loves. She wears long sleeves at work, but her young students know all about her tattoos. “In Minnesota, students and teachers traditionally exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day. Once, a little girl said to me, ‘I know you really well so I know you’re going to love it,’ and she gave me a box of temporary tattoos!”
 
Slow Color: a practical guide to natural dyeing in the North
Tinderbox Editions
Release date : July 2017
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