A Tiny Cardboard Loom


It was only a matter of time before I went from buying fabric to making it myself, even if the first results are rather lumpy and the approximate size of a bookmark.

I blame it on Fibershed and a growing community interested in sourcing local materials for a handmade wardrobe.  While the birthplace of Fibershed is my old home of California, the same principles of organizing a web of regional fiber producers and consumers can be applied anywhere.  For drool-worthy examples, see the challenge from this is moonlight of #1year1outfit in which participants create an outfit sourced from their fibershed over the course of a year.  That may sound like a long time in which to create a single outfit, but as demonstrated again and again, local fiber resources are not always easy to find, especially not in the form that we are  used to working with.  Interesting challenges ensue, such as what to use for thread and fabric when most of what is available is raw fiber or yarn.  In addition to time spent researching local resources, many participants were forced to learn new skills such as spinning, weaving, felting, and dyeing in order to process the fiber available to them.  Is it any wonder then that a single outfit could take a full year to research, design, prepare materials for, and produce?


The fibershed model of crafting a handmade wardrobe resonates with me deeply.  It is more than just wearing me-made clothes, more than choosing organic cotton, more than using natural dyes.  It is working with my environment and my community to clothe myself.

Going forward, I intend to buy only locally produced fiber and textiles.  Now that I’ve had a chance to settle into my new home by finding the farmer’s market, public library, and neighborhood parks, it is time to start planning for the future.  The future of how I will keep myself cool in hot and humid summers and warm in often brutal winters.  How I will dress my daughter and perhaps start making clothes for my husband as well.  How to make curtains, blankets, quilts, pillows, mattresses, and maybe even shoes.  This is not an easy task.

The first step is learning about my local fibershed and what resources are available.   This is where I am now.  In the mean time, I have fabric, thread, yarn, and other notions purchased over the last four years to work through.  As excited as I am about using local fiber, I can’t ignore the stash I have already amassed.  Not only does it take up considerable space in my small apartment (four moving boxes worth of space, to be precise), it required considerable natural resources to produce.  The least I can do is use it up before consuming even more.

In preparation for taking full advantage of my fibershed, I will also work on improving and diversifying my skills.


So I made a tiny loom.

The loom is cut out of a small cardboard box that once held a baby spoon.  The sides are cut away to provide room to thread (the weft) yarn back and forth with my shuttle (a large, blunt needle I use for sewing in the ends of my knitting).  The ends have many small, evenly-spaced cuts on which to thread the other direction of yarn (the warp).  This tiny loom is perfect for using up very short bits of yarn left over from my natural dye experiments.


My first woven piece is the size of a bookmark.  It uses six different colors of naturally dyed yarn, including both the warp (alpaca) and weft (cotton).  It was an absolute joy to make.  I worked from my childhood memory of using a small wooden child’s loom, but beautifully illustrated instructions can be found here by Sugarhouse Workshop.


What’s next? Making a second, slightly larger cardboard loom.  There are only so many bookmarks one family can use…


Additional Weaving Resources:


Truly Non-toxic Natural Dyes


I have a curious crawling baby, for goodness’ sake.  There is no way I can rationalize keeping harmful powders, liquids, tablets, or any such nonsense within her reach.  And as I’m learning, “in reach” pretty much means everywhere.

It was frustrating, then, to realize that much of the natural dyeing literature depends upon using mordants to create vivid colors.  Mordants that are toxic enough that you need to be careful how you dispose of them.  If it can’t be poured straight down the drain, I don’t want my baby ingesting it.


So I started to make a list of all the natural dyes and mordants that I could eat.  Simple as that.  I took every natural dye book I could find out of the library and slowly the list grew.  What follows is by no means complete, since I’ve erred on the side of caution.  There are doubtless many other dye stuffs that are non-toxic to ingest, but the ones I chose are very obviously so.

Non-toxic Natural Dyes (colors and sources)

  • Coffee (brown): from reusing coffee grounds.
  • Black tea (brown): from reusing tea leaves or a tea bag.
  • Red onion skins (brown): collect the dry outer leaves in a paper bag.
  • Celery leaves (green): these are otherwise reserved for veggie stock in my house.
  • Carrot tops (green): carrots are often sold with their greens at the farmer’s market during the summer, or try growing some of your own.
  • Yellow onion skins (yellow): same as for red onion skins.
  • Turmeric (yellow): the dried and ground kind in your spice drawer.
  • Hibiscus (pink): sold as herbal tea (e.g. Tazo Passion).
  • Beets (pink): use the water from boiling beets to eat and then add any peelings (the root end and top, for instance) to get more color.
  • Red wine (purple): preferably from the remnants of a bottle you forgot to finish.

Non-toxic Mordants (particular affinities)

  • Vinegar (especially good for onion skins and beets)
  • Salt (cotton)
  • Skim milk (cotton)
  • Whey from cheese-making (cotton)
  • Black tea (cotton)
  • Water from boiling acorn meat that has the leached tannins (cotton)
  • Soy milk (silk)
  • Oxidized wine with tannins
  • Baking soda
  • Sugar
  • Cream of tartar
  • Yogurt

Of course you may notice that some of these things (vinegar and baking soda for example) would not be pleasant to ingest in large quantities, but I have these in my kitchen regardless.  The goal is not to reduce all risk, only to minimize it to what is reasonable given our current lifestyle.

IMG_6830White and light brown alpaca yarn dyed with beets and red wine.

There will doubtless be much poo-pooing at this point (and no, not just by the baby) that many of the above dyes are not particularly light-fast, wash-fast, or generally prone to keeping their color.  At first this bothered me, but after reading India Flint’s book Eco Colour, I am converted: the worst thing that can happen to dyes fading is that you need to re-dye your textiles, giving you the opportunity to change them with the seasons or the years.  As for wash-fastness, I appreciate any excuse to do less laundry.

IMG_6828White and light brown cotton yarns dyed with beets, hibiscus, and red wine.

In all honesty, I have barely begun exploring the dyes and mordants on my list.  I started with beets because we eat them often and the bright pink dye liquid takes advantage of what would otherwise be waste water and trimmings.  Then I found some old Tazo Passion tea bags that had water spots on them and realized that they were mainly hibiscus.  For mordants I have tried sea salt, white vinegar, black tea, coffee (perhaps more of a pre-dye), baking soda, and old red wine.  The red wine turned out to be more interesting as a dye than as a mordant for beets.  I have also tried using white vinegar as an after-rinse to make colors more vibrant.  Soon I will experiment with yellow and red onion skins that I am saving in a paper bag in the kitchen.

IMG_6797Dye samples on cotton and alpaca yarn with detailed notes on the mordant and dye bath.

Every single book or blog post I’ve read about natural dyeing harps on the importance of taking dye notes and saving a record of how each dye experiment turns out.  By the time I had dyed more than two different pieces of yarn, I was on board.  There is just no way to remember all the little tricks and experiments you will think of.  Make it easy on yourself and create a library of dye samples by punching holes in the side of a piece of paper through which you can tie a piece of dyed yarn.  The result is beautiful and allows for easy comparison.  I like to add samples of the un-dyed yarn as well.

IMG_6810More dye samples of beet, hibiscus, and red wine and how the colors come together in a small woven piece that includes six different colors of naturally dyed yarn.

Until I have the motivation to write a comprehensive review and comparison of natural dye books, let me recommend India Flint’s Eco Colour as my overwhelming favorite.  It is the only one I’ve read thus far to emphasize how important it is to source and dispose of both dye and mordant responsibly.  Many of the other books focused on natural dyeing like following a recipe, despite the fact that dye results can be affected by something as simple as the water you use in your dye pot.  As with cooking, a recipe can only get you so far and may have the effect of limiting your creativity if you don’t have the confidence to experiment for yourself.  With non-toxic dyes and mordants, what can go wrong?

IMG_6803White and light brown cotton yarn dyed with hibiscus tea drying on a plate.  After the yarn is rinsed the color will be less intense.

As a final note, let me add that natural dyeing has been an ideal creative outlet this winter, requiring only small bits of time whenever inspiration strikes.  I have a single small pot for my dye bath that lives on the stove.  The dye pot does not need special ventilation because it does not generate toxic fumes.  Every few days I will remember to start a bit of yarn soaking in some mordant that I keep in a couple glass jars on a side table.  A few days later I remember to add the yarn to the dye pot, turn on the burner for a little while, and then let the yarn soak at least overnight before letting it dry on a plate.  Every so often I make up a new dye bath when the old one seems weak.  As long as I take notes on what was done to each piece of yarn throughout the dye process then my lack of promptness only works to my advantage (assuming longer soaks in mordant and dye bath lead to brighter/stronger colors).

It’s as easy as dropping a scrap of yarn in the dregs of your morning coffee.  What’s not to love?




Starting Over


Before the birth of my daughter, I had the life I wanted.

There was the apartment within walking distance of work.  Small, but rent included utilities, prompt maintenance support, a tenant-organized swap shop for donating and adopting gently used household goods, and space in a community garden.

What we didn’t grow in the garden we bought at the farmer’s market a short walk down the road or from the community-supported Food Co-op on our walk home from school.  We learned to can jams, pickles, salsa, ketchup and hot sauce.  We made bread and yogurt.

Food scraps went into the compost.  Tissues were replaced with handkerchiefs.  We stopped buying paper towels, napkins, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil.  Other than a few recyclables each week, we were living mostly waste and plastic-free.

All of these changes were made over many years.  Slowly picking up skills, finding little ways to minimize our impact on the environment, to become more connected to the natural world despite spending our working lives indoors conversing with machines.

It’s surprising how quickly good habits can be broken.

After the birth of our daughter much of the progress we’d made was lost.  It started in small spurts of having close family stay with us and do the shopping.  Soon the kitchen was covered in disposable plastic containers and the trash and recycling multiplied.  There was the occasional disposable diaper and a huge increase in laundry of all kinds.  We prepared as best we could for parenthood, buying minimal baby gear and mostly making do.  Our focus was on learning about pregnancy and then baby development.  What I didn’t prepare for were the other people who would be living in our home and taking care of us and our baby.

Now that we are settled into our new home in Cambridge, it’s time to get back to where we were a (very long) year ago.  With a different location and rental situation the resources have changed.  There is no longer a convenient compost pile, or a garden, or even a south-facing window for growing plants indoors.  There is no community-supported Co-op on the way to work (although there are multiple farmer’s markets). But the public library, the doctor’s office, our daughter’s daycare, our bank, and a beautiful park are all within easy walking distance.  There are also community gardens nearby and my name is on the two-year-long waiting list.  While we may have taken a few steps back, I have no doubt that changing our habits the second time will be easier.

Starting with getting more sleep…


Baby Adi wearing a handmade blouse and wrap dress that were made for me when I was a baby.