Unexpected things. Mostly brown.

This past weekend was full of unexpected things. But good unexpected things.

I did not know there were going to be house guests, but breakfast out was really nice! We went to a local cafĂ© on a farm down the road from us. The building is a strawbale construction, a simple design, with rustic decor. The food is tasty and plentiful. And the owners know my friends (of course). During the course of chatting with the owners, I happened to look out one of the side windows and noticed a walnut tree laden with nuts, so at an appropriate moment in the conversation, I changed topics and asked about their tree. Would it be possible to collect some of the walnuts I had seen on the ground? I wanted to make a dye. Of course! was the answer. The one tree I had seen turned out to be part of four trees. I was given a small paper bag and after we’d finished, I went outside and around the corner to the walnuts. And lo! there I saw so many walnuts. In fact, I’d never seen so many walnuts, and I wanted all of them. However, not knowing how many I’d actually need to making dye, I happily filled my paper bag and asked if I could come back if I needed more. The owners were more than happy to oblige. I can come get as many as I like. Woohoo!

(Sadly, I did not get a picture of the trees.)


I counted them – about 60. But I had to toss a few that ended up being full of worms.

I must say, black walnuts smell delightful. The hulls have a sort of earthy citrusy fragrance that makes me so happy. I can’t quite adequately explain it.

The hulls will also stain your hands brown like crazy. We got home, and I put the rest of my day’s plans aside for a few hours so I could peel the hulls from the nuts – the hulls are used for making dye. The shells are too, but if I’m going to use the shells, I want to save the nutmeats, so I spent time separating everything into two buckets.


Nuts in the left bucket. Hulls in the right. Unexpected fun with walnuts!

Most of the instructions I found online made it seem like getting the nut out of the hull was really hard and that I needed to drive over them, whack them with the claw of a hammer, or find a mallet and whack them until they yielded the nut. None of that was necessary. I got a steak knife and just ran the blade around each walnut, neatly dividing the hull into two hemispheres. Then a twist released one hemisphere, and if it didn’t, then one more cut to divide a hemisphere in two did the trick. It was a bit reminiscent of pitting all those peaches I canned a while ago.

So, the staining. Because black walnut hulls have so much tannin in them, they stain things pretty permanently – the tannin is the mordant. Cloth, skin, any natural fiber…brown. All the sources I found online told me to wear heavy rubber gloves. I didn’t have any, but I did have some disposable food service gloves at hand.


Yeah. So, all this brown? Still got through, and my forefinger and thumb are a bit brown.

I got them all hulled! But what to do with them then? Most instructions say to simmer them for an hour or so, but I do not want to have an accident in the house and stain the kitchen. It is not my kitchen after all. So, I’m trying what I think is a far more likely historical recipe (even though I have no proof at all): I’m soaking the hulls in that bucket in water for a couple of weeks. Then I’ll strain everything and maybe might see if I can find an outdoor cooking arrangement so I can simmer it and kill any mold that might have formed. Or not. Maybe I’ll put some in quart sized mason jars for later.

This dye is also apparently an excellent wood stain! I loves me a multitasking thing I can make! So, after a little experimentation with some wood scraps and some research, I may do any final prep and put some in jars for my woodworking friends. (And I am filing this knowledge away for later when I want to build bookcases for whatever house I end up with!)

I’ve got a couple of white skeins of two ply yarn I’ve spun – one skein I really have to run through the wheel again to give it some extra twist. And I have so much more white (Down breeds blend) that could be dyed with local black walnut dye handmade by me. The dyeing process itself is apparently super easy. You simply put the yarn or cloth in the dye and leave it there until it’s brown. If simmering it, I think you simmer for something like 30 mins to 1 hour. I will likely try just soaking it for a day and see what happens. (I do have to look into some sort of outdoor cooking equipment, though…)

I was also thinking of dyeing some bamboo rayon yarn and/or cotton yarn for weaving cloth or towels or something. Because why not?

But, don’t you need more walnuts for dyeing all that stuff? I hear you ask. It turns out, everyone seems to agree that you only need 12-15 walnuts per gallon of water. For just the hulls. So I have 4 gallons of the stuff. That’s a LOT of dye. Even 2 gallons is a lot if some of the water is supposed to be lost in cooking it. I am planning on also getting the shells, which apparently yield a darker brown. (Of course, that may not work, but I will try.)


I filled up the bucket with the hulls with water. I’ve set it in the garage with a piece of wood on top to soak for a while. The bucket with the nuts got filled with water, and I started scrubbing the remaining hull gunk off. I had read that the gunk could rot and mold and make a mess, but most importantly, it would dye your hands dark brown. I don’t feel like walking around with dark brown hands and having to explain that I have been playing with dye everywhere I go, so I elected to scrub. The two floaters were thrown away – I suspect if they float, there’s probably a problem with them.

I got about half scrubbed before I ran out of time and energy. So I drained out the water, put a tiny bit in so the ones that were left were only barely covered, and set those in the garage too to wait until I have some time to resume scrubbing. I’m hoping the soak will help to soften up the remaining gunk.

The real work to this project is going to be actually cracking the nuts. A quick read about black walnuts online seems to show that I’ll need to use a vice as a regular nut cracker will not do it at all. Woo.


Excuse the messy counter – my first attempt at waffle production!

I also unexpectedly found an as-yet-unused, brand-new-in-the-box, three-year-old electric waffle iron in the house! Of course I tried making waffles. This is the first time I’ve tried making waffles. It was an adventure. Definitely an unexpected adventure.

I thought I’d double the recipe, because ultimately, I wanted waffles in the freezer that could be toasted in the toaster for near-instant waffle goodness. But then I accidentally put in twice the amount of butter for a doubled recipe, which meant I either had to throw everything away and start over, or end up with a quadrupled recipe. I went for the quadrupaling.

We have a LOT of waffles in the freezer. The house guests tried the waffles the next morning in the toaster, and declared them delicious. Successful experiment! I think the recipe needs tweaking – it needs a little sugar, and the optional cornmeal actually sounds good, so I might try that. And they were a little dense, probably because I didn’t whisk the egg whites nearly has much as the recipe said I ought, so maybe I’ll try that next, but with some cream of tartar to help things along a bit. So many tweaks. Or I could try another recipe.

In weaving news, I have a crazy idea involving 60/2 silk and some very fine baby alpaca and an overshot pattern. First, I want to make myself something beautiful like a shawl or scarf, but it occurred to me that I could sell one, and the pricetag would be fairly high – this would be a very time-consuming project with excellent and expensive materials. The bulk of the cost would reflect the labor involved. I wonder if I could sell one or two (or three?), because then I could buy a cello. It looks like that experiment has been successful enough that I’m close to outgrowing the cello I rent. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Advice? Suggestions? Is this an idea worth pursuing?

(I can rent a viola da gamba, it turns out, and it is affordable. I kind of hope that I don’t love it as much as I think I will, because there are almost not enough hours in the day for adequate practice…)


…in which Things Get Done.

Making is still slow going. My life living with people now means compromise, and that’s okay. I learned this past week that another culprit might also be the cancer drug I’m on: tamoxifen. It’s great stuff, and will help me not develop more tumors, but over the last three months, I have become increasingly tired, sore, and sad. I have been off it for a week as my oncologist wanted to see if those and other side effects I was having were actually related and went away. As of this weekend, I don’t hurt nearly as much, I am feeling more alert, and I have energy and strength again. I have been trying to make hay while the sun shines and do all the things I will not be able to do when I’m on it again!

This weekend, I found the waffle iron, and am hoping to make a load of waffles to put in the freezer (there is currently a surplus of buttermilk that must be used up – oh woe!). I bought some lavender plants last week (on sale! more on that later), and will try to weed the area I want to put them in today, and then I’ll plant them. I am going to try to figure out all the heavy lifting I’ve been meaning to do and do it today.

Okay. On to Making over the past month.

I finished up the overshot towels! One is in use at home, two of the yellow ones went to friends as a gift – their kitchen is yellow and green – and one has stayed with me, as yet unused. I now think these are the perfect weight for towels, and are very absorbent, but if I sell them, they’re going to be very expensive, because these take twice as long to produce.

When I am preparing to hem, I always wash and dry the cloth two or three times before I do anything. Then I iron the whole thing front and back. (I know lots of weavers say press, but honestly, this is cotton. They’re towels. I have never found a need to get super fussy with an iron other than to flatten the cloth.) Then I cut along the weft marker lines I threw when I was weaving. Sometimes, there are bits of scrap. I save those and use them to make greeting cards, or sometimes just as reference samples. Then I go over each towel looking for errant weft ends sticking out and I snip them flush with the cloth. I have read that snipping the weft ends flush while you’re weaving works a treat, but I’ve always found a few sticking out anyway after wet finishing. I’ve attributed this to the shrinkage of the yarn, and then the ends just pop out. But I like snipping the weft ends because it also allows me to really inspect every inch of the cloth, and sometimes I see a mistake I didn’t see before, which I can usually fix.

Sometimes I also find knots in the weft yarn that I didn’t notice while I was throwing the shuttle. The thing I’m pointing to above is a knot. (Sigh.) It was on the back of the cloth, so I didn’t notice it until the pre-hemming stage. I could fix it, but this particular thing is hard to fix after the cloth has been washed. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it when I was winding quills – normally, if I find a knot in the yarn, I’ll cut it out and just overlap the weft in the same pick as if I were starting a new quill.

With this batch of towels, the cloth is a bit thicker than just twill, so I did a little different thing with the hem: I wove a a bit of the ground, leaving the pattern out, and just folded that over and stitched. Behold:


This hem is sooo thin and unobtrusive.

I like it a lot! I had seen something like this in a picture somewhere and thought I’d give it a try as I find thick hems can get annoying with a stack of towels. I also just love how it looks.

What I need to do now is get an inkle loom or put together a backstrap loom so I can weave bands – I want to sew loops just under the hem of each towel I make (and maybe weave a logo into them?).

I took the last week of August off from work. Man, I haven’t had a vacation in what feels like years (and it might be two or three, I can’t remember), and it was pretty good. A friend and I went up to Shelburne to Apex Orchard to go peach picking, and we could not have picked a better day for it! The sky was blue, the air was clear and ever so slightly crisp, there was a gentle breeze…and the trees were positively laden with fruit. Some of the branches were nearly on the ground.

The view from the orchard’s shop is staggeringly gorgeous. That picture above doesn’t do it justice at all.

We each picked a large box (and spent several days eating our respective peaches), and then went back up to the shop for lunch. There was a lovely eating area outside, and I’d brought All The Food in an ice chest. We had already eaten several peaches in the orchard, but managed to get something other than fruit into our systems before packing up and checking out the shop in detail.


It doesn’t look like much, but this is actually quite a lot of peaches!

The shop is lovely, and I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. While the orchard has been around for years and years, the shop is fairly new, so don’t expect too much – but they do have pottery from a local potter or two, maple syrup, honey from the orchard, some handmade quilted things, and coolers of fruit. They also have a walk-in cooler of seconds!

I took advantage of this cooler of seconds a couple of days later:


This is a LOT more peaches than you think. I learned what ‘half-bushel’ really was. Also, please note the lovely and very useful overshot dishtowel under the peaches on the counter.

For a mere $22, I got a half-bushel of Red Haven peaches. They were fiiiine, and only some were very slightly bruised. They were very nearly all ripe to being completely ripe, and they were perfect to make into jam.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle with getting enough canning jars, running out of pectin and sugar and running out to buy more, not adding enough acid to the second batch because I’d been canning for six hours and was exhausted, canning the second batch a second time the next day after adding the right amount of acid and slightly more pectin, but in the end, I got it all done. Two cases of half-pint jars. I still have three cups of peach mash left (in the freezer) because I ran out of time and energy, and I thought this would be enough for a very modest batch of peach chutney. Which was supposed to maybe happen today, but won’t because omg I’m doing all the things today and will run out of time.

I finally finished my friend’s jeans:



It took months, and most of the delay was due to nonsense with the house I’d lived in before, being diagnosed with cancer, freaking out, and moving house…well, all of that is now behind me and this was actually on the top of the list for my vacation! (That list is so long still…) I’m so happy I finished it – it’s not quite right, but I couldn’t figure out what else needed to be there, and my friend was being SO PATIENT waiting. She loves them and I am thrilled to have learned a new method of repairing holes in clothing.

So, during that kerfuffle of getting enough canning jars (see second case in photo above), I might have accidentally bought five lavender plants (var. Provence). They were on sale! They were so healthy and so large! (Actually, they were so much on sale, I couldn’t NOT buy them.) I got that little pink yarrow as well because, well, it’s pink yarrow, and beautiful and well, it was on sale, too.

I am currently trying to get the garden by the front walk back into garden-shape again. My friends who I live with do not have time for this, and are sad that it’s gotten to this point, but basically don’t have time to really think about what to do with it. Well, this is something I can fix, albeit slowly. The strip is quite long as is not obvious in that picture above, and it seems to be taking forever. The grass/weeds are actually growing on the layer of old rotten bark mulch, so it all peels up pretty easily. I feel pretty much like I could run a race today, so it’s on my list of things to tackle. Maybe I can get it all peeled up? My plans are to put the lavender in the bit that gets the most sun. (I had plans to put it in the back yard where the drainage is probably slightly better, but I discovered there are ground wasps living there, so digging in their nest is probably not a good idea.) I hope there’s enough sun in the front.

My next plan is to keep an eye out for beautiful (and inexpensive) mums so I can add a bit of color to the front. I might put some spring bulbs in as well, but I want to ask my friends first – I don’t want to set up something that they will need to take care of after I’ve moved out. That would be mean. My Ultimate Plan is to plant perennials in there that will basically look after themselves with minimal weeding required. So, daisies, mint (already there), bee balm, lamb’s ears, maybe a rose or two (hardy)…you get the idea. The hostas and a couple patches of daylilies plus weeds is just sad. (And don’t get me started on this way of landscape planting that wastes so much space with bark mulch and nothing else – argh!)

I also will mow the lawn today:


A toy!

I can’t hardly believe my luck, and the trust my friends have in me. As a member of the household, I am always looking for ways to be helpful and contribute (other than financially), so I mow the lawn. It’s a very big lawn, and it takes just short of two hours to get it all done. Above is what I use to mow it, along with a regular push mower to get the edges and fiddly bits. It’s an actual tractor (not a lawnmower), with a mower attachment on the power take-off underneath. I like to think of it as a Kitchen Aid mixer with the fun attachments. There’s a snowblower attachment parked behind it in this picture that I will likely also learn to operate when it’s time. The driveway is also large.

I can’t adequately express how much fun it is to mow the lawn! I hope that never wears off.

In other news, I’ve been thinking hard about something else to make. I’ve been wanting to do this for years:


A good friend was off-loading some books…of course I nabbed them!

I figure I’ll scope out supplies and gather as necessary and required, and start small. So small. My goal is to make the rose scented soap I can’t get at the store anymore (because amazon bought Whole Foods, and while I do not buy into the complete hipster/yuppie/whatever it’s called this decade philosophy that WF peddles, they do carry a few things that I do like – but so many things have been discontinued). Rose oil, it turns out, is five times more costly than it was when I last checked (maybe 15 years ago), and there are varying reviews about the fake rose fragrance that most people use. So, I’ll start with lavender because that’s not too expensive and I can get it locally.

And I’ve saved the best for last.

Remember how I started that cello experiment? I started with three months. That was one billing cycle for the instrument rental, and I figured that was a good window in which I could decide if I liked learning to play it or not, liked the teacher or not, etc. And it was. Well. I have been mooning over the viola da gamba for a while (a year and a half, about) and this semester, I got my name on the list for a gamba class over at UMASS, just down the street from my office, and got the okay from my boss to take a long lunch once a week. And I got in. No auditions, no previous experience with string instruments required (but it helps).


So pretty!

I have borrowed the tenor gamba. It’s lovely in every respect. Well, not tuning. I’m sure I will get used to it, but tuning is a pain right now. The strings are gut, so any whiff of air from elsewhere makes it go wildly out of tune, especially if that air is of a different humidity.

So for three months, I’ve got to figure out how to practice two instruments – but the opportunity is so good! And it’s only three months. And maybe I’ll make musician friends? And maybe it will help with the anxiety about playing in front of other people? Seems like it couldn’t hurt!


And I’ll end the post with a picture of cuteness:


Ollie above, Marlie below. Not the best picture, but it was tricky to snap this one with one hand.

Ollie stayed with us for a week, and has gone back with his owners. They were a joy to take care of together. I will miss Ollie, and give Marlie extra snuggles for a while.