October 11, 2014

Pokeberries & Pumpkins

 Whenever I'm asked what college I'm at I say with a smile that I've decided to take a gap year to pursue my interests.  They usually then return the smile and reply that they or someone they know took a gap year to travel abroad and it changed their lives.  I feel more fortunate than words can convey.  I didn't have to travel any farther than my own backyard to have a life changing experience.  My internship at the Genesee Country Museum is really and truly the best thing I've ever had the privilege of doing!

I just submitted my couple page write up for week fourteen and I think it's time to give you all an update of what I've been doing there:

September 18, 2014:  I spend Thursdays in the costume shop with Bevin, Cheryl and Wilma and it has become a much-welcomed weekly habit.  In fact, Bevin mentioned that we are ahead of schedule on the Sophia Project, which is pleasing to hear.  This time, I spent the entire day practicing my hand sewing.  Both front openings of the wrapper needed to be turned under and whip stitched closed.  Lucky for me, I had cut the front edges along the selvage edge, just like the original, which made measuring and ironing much easier.  By the end of the day, both sides were neatly stitched and my finger was very grateful for using a thimble.

Making progress on the Sophia Project!

September 21, 2014:  I had the pleasure of joining craftsperson Ron T. again at Keiffer.  Not only do I enjoy Ron’s company, I look forward to a day full of his jokes that never fail to amuse...his remark on flax seeds and I quote: “from seed to shining sea,” a line he had been waiting to drop all week.

Unfortunately, the downpour and later threats of rain kept us indoors most of the day, giving me the chance to get acquainted with a great wheel again.  This time, I hand-carded the wool and spun on Ron’s personal walking wheel.  He also demonstrated a few more techniques like giving an extra twist to better control thickness and to keep the yarn from untwisting.  Later that afternoon, I evaluated his flax demonstration and the clarity of his outline for the symposium workshop, “beginnin’ to linen.”

September 25, 2014:  Taking a break from the Sophia project, Wilma put me to work on winter petticoats, a popular and much-needed item for the interpreters out in the village during the colder parts of the season.  While she finished a stack of red, flannel petticoats, I returned to the heavy-weight linen panels I tore for two warm petticoats one of the last times I was in costuming.  All morning, I worked on seaming the panels, hemming the plackets and creating waistbands out of strips of white linen.  In the afternoon, I employed the divide and conquer method, matching medians to evenly distribute fullness, to pleat both skirt lengths into their respective waistbands.  Once both petticoats were pinned in place, I used the machine to secure them; the fabric was so thick that I had to lift the presser foot each time I came to a pleat.  Finally, I finished the day with some hand-stitching, using a heavy-duty thread to whipstitch the waistbands closed.  

Note: Instead on an "experience day" this week, I picked up extra hours interpreting and teaching children 1855 script lessons in the Romulus Female Seminary.  In fact, we weekend interpreters were told that the museum broke a record this year with 1200 plus visitors during Smithsonian Day, the annual date that museums across the nation offer free admission!

October 2, 2014:  With the museum season coming to a close and preparations for the two last special event tours underway, the decision has been made to place the Sophia Project on hold for the rest of the month.  Instead, I will be spending my time in the costume shop helping Cheryl and Wilma prepare the interpreters for winter weather and the Yuletide tours.  This time, I was tasked with finishing the two linen petticoats I worked on last Thursday; both petticoats needed three inch hems.  All morning, I worked at the ironing board, measuring and ironing the half inch turned under and three inch hem.  Securing the hems by hand with an uneven running stitch then took the rest of the day.

October 4, 2014: The first day of the museum’s annual agricultural festival!  I was stationed at Kieffer to assist Ron and Dawn at the dye pots.  Most of the dyeing was done in the morning.  We had a few mordants, substances used to prepare yarn for color, cochineal dye, which produces vibrant pinks and purples, as well as Prussian blue dye heating over the fires.

Cochineal on the left & Prussian blue on the right.

Visitors and I alike were fascinated by the Prussian blue, created by a chemical reaction between potassium ferrocyanide and sulfuric acid.  At first a neon yellow-green, the dye faded with heat and time to a dark green and turned into the brilliant, Prussian blue color.

For the rest of the afternoon, Ron did his flax to linen thread demonstration, Dawn spun wool on her European castle wheel and I helped direct visitors to the table display.  On the table, we had a pumpkin filled with wool yarn soaking in poke berry juice and a dye pot with indigo leftover from the morning.

Our pot of green indigo.

Wool yarn skeins dyed with indigo.
(Image via: http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/indigo.html)

A popular 19th century source of blue, indigo is a dye extracted from the leaves of a tropical plant that are harvested in the second year, fermented and pressed into a cake.  And, as I found out, indigo actually dyes a dark green color that only turns blue when introduced to oxygen.  (Read more about indigo dye here: http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/indigo.html.) 

October 5, 2014:  Day two was of the agricultural festival!  And again I had the delightful opportunity to join Ron and Dawn for dyeing at Kieffer.  The morning brought tending to three fires and dye baths of a tin mordant and of Saxon blue dye.

We received varied results from the Saxon blue dye, a combination of indigo, sulfuric acid and chalk, because of differences in preparation, fiber content and troubles with unfreezing the solidified dye.  The two dyeing experts then spent the rest of the day attempting to reduce the color differences with an alum bath and overdyeing.  

For the rest of the afternoon, Ron did his flax demonstrations, Dawn knit and kept the fire burning, and I, recalling all that I learned from them yesterday, interpreted the table presentation.

These colorful bottles of mordants were part of the table display.

Mostly I discussed sources of 19th century reds as we had the pumpkin and pokeberry dye display as well as a bottle of cochineal.  I began by asking our young visitors if they had a large sum of money to afford cochineal - an expensive dye made from the female beetle that lives on prickly pear cactus.  Collected when dead, the beetles are crushed and used for bright pink and purple dyes.  (Did you know at one time Starbucks used cochineal as a dye in their strawberry frappuccinos?  Yum, it was banned after people heard their drinks contained crushed beetles...)  

Wool dyed with cochineal.
(Image via: http://www.cochinealdye.com/html/cochineal-extract_0.html)

All of the children shook their heads no, so I replied that their red clothes would have been died with madder root or with pokeberry juice.  To dye with pokeberries, the museum followed an original 19th century recipe.  Gather about a bushel of berries (very easy as they are a common weed around here), squish for the juice and strain out the seeds.  Then, hollow out a pumpkin, fill with pokeberry juice diluted with water and submerge your yarn.  Leave the wool in the pumpkin for 10 days, stirring daily to ensure even dyeing.

Dyeing with pokeberry juice in a pumpkin.

Poke berry plant & dyed yarn.  Do NOT try to make a snack out of pokeberries,
birds can eat them but they are poisonous to humans!

Why the pumpkin?  Probably the most asked question of the day - Ron suggested that, in addition to being an available vessel, the fermenting and tannin in the pumpkin may help the dye.  There is a great article in ALFAM's 2014 spring bulletin: "Pokeberries and Pumpkins" by Karen Cox (page 15) - so make sure to check it out!

All in all, another amazing experience that proves to me that I belong in a field where I can share a love for connecting the past with the present.

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