Oklahoma is derived from the Choctaw Indian words "okla" meaning people and "humma" meaning red. Oklahoma is my home. Tinctoria is Latin, meaning to dye or color things; this is my work.

24 February 2010



Natural Dyestuffs, 2009

“The only way to preserve tradition is to allow it to evolve.”
Yo Yo Ma, The Silk Road

Natural color is about process. Process is about performing “a series of mechanical or chemical operations in order to change or preserve” (Oxford American College Dictionary). When it comes to natural color, the processes of collecting, chopping, grinding, heating, extracting, cooling, and straining can be very involved and tedious. Whether extracting from natural bulk materials or utilizing already prepared natural dye extracts the mystery of alchemy persists when using natural dyes. 

What is it that keeps natural dyers continually returning to the same dye pots and extracting from the same plants over and over, searching for new discoveries? There are three things: color, materials and stories. All of these are steeped in centuries and centuries of human history, revolving around culture and cloth.

There are many definitions of  “natural”. I am not interested in arguing the finer points of what is and what is not natural. You must consider your own personal guidelines for a healthy life and decide if your community or country share those same guidelines. But, I am interested in the richness of the colors produced from a complex process of extraction that leaves the dyer in awe of beauty at the end of each dye pot. Why do natural colors proliferate despite the secrets being locked away or almost lost completely? There has certainly been a resurgence of natural colors in the market place and their use amongst artisans has increased. These dyes are being studied in many academic fields, including anthropology, chemistry, botany, horticulture, history, economics and textiles. There is a transformation that takes place, an alchemic reaction between dyestuff and dyer that keeps us coming back to these naturally beautiful substances.

Natural colors are derived from three elements: Plants, Insects, Minerals.

Energyscape Series #3332, 2009.

The following are some natural color for thought.

1. Leaves
2. Roots 
3. Barks
4. Fruit Pods and Skins
5. Bulb Skins
6. Stems
7. Flowers
8. Insects
9. Mushrooms
10. Lichens
11. Mollusks
12. Earth
13. Minerals

1. What is the identification of the material being collected?
2. What is the habitat of the natural material?
3. What are the growing habits of the natural material?
4. How is it classified? Is it a weed? Is it endangered?
5. Is it abundant? Is it scarce?
6. Is the natural material wild collected or is it cultivated?
7. Should you acquire permission to collect the material?
8. Is the collection process being performed in a sustainable manner?
9. Is the natural material native or exotic?
10. Is the source organic or has it been treated with agricultural chemicals?
11. Can you grow it in your garden?
12. Can you grow it and share it with other gardener friends?

1. They can be light fast.
2. They can be wash fast.
3. The colors can be reproduced.
4. They can be made into a dye bath or...
5. They can be painted.

1. CHOICE: from the love of process and respect for ecology.
2. LIFE PHILOSOPHY: integrating natural color with other healthy lifestyle choices like food, activity and medicine. 
3. STORIES: natural color tells stories about the grower to the harvester to the  processor, the spinner, the dyer, the weaver, the artist.
4. PLACE: natural color relates to place and marks a sense of time.
5. SERENDIPITY: the process and the results are beneficial whether expected or not.
6. COMPLEX COLOR: there are a cast of colors from a single natural dye because there are multiple dye molecules. Hence, the absorption of light varies, illuminating a complex palette of color.
7. PRESERVATION: of process, knowledge, techniques and methods including agriculture, traditional land use, food, medicine.
8. BEAUTY: natural colors are exquisite!
9.  AWARENESS: using natural colors promotes understanding  of  environment, available resources and preservation. 
10. EXTENSIVE COLOR PALETTE: natural colors offer a complete range like that of a prism.
11. DIVERSITY: resources are abundant and versatile.
12. AGES WELL: natural colors often mellow or deepen with age but remain pleasing.
13. AROMATIC: while “brewing” many dyestuffs have an aromatic quality.
14. ALIVE: natural color resources are alive, the colors are alive and complicated.
15. DIALOG: natural colors encourage conversations that can relate to many topics such as politics, agriculture, art, craft, history: the exchange of knowledge.
16. RENEWABLE: if harvested and used responsibly natural color resources are sustainable. 
17. SYMPHONY: process and product come together to form a beautiful whole.

Energyscape Series #1309, 2009.

Without light there is no color.

17 February 2010

The Great Mullein

Huge roadside Mullein, 2009

Natural colors can be found in under appreciated road-side plants such as Mullein. Although considered a weed by some, I have been enchanted with the naturalized Verbascum thaspus for many years. When boiled the the soft, thick, flannel textured leaves unlock a yellow to grayish green color. Mullein is statuesque and a wildly charming biennial, deserving of a spot in any garden and dye pot.

Scientific Name: Verbascum thaspus, V. blattaria

Common Names:
Mullein, Great Mullein, Flannel Mullein, Flannel Plant, Moth Mullein, Woolen Blanket Herb, Velvet Leaf, Cow’s Lungwort, Candlewicks, Velvet Dock, Bunny Ears

Common Names in Other Languages:
Russian: Korviak visoky
Italian: Verbasco Tasso-barbasso
French: molene
Spanish: guardalobo
Potuguese: verbasco

Scrophulariaceae, Figwort Family
This Family also includes Indian Paintbrush and Penstemon.
For full taxonomy see:

Mullein is an herbaceous biennial plant growing from 1 foot to a towering 7 feet tall! During its first year of growth it is developing its root system and the leaves form a rosette of furry, soft, velvety leaves that are silver green. The slender, upright stem shoots from the center of the rosette during the second year of growth. This erect flower stalk forms 5 petaled yellow flowers the entire length of the stalk, producing from June- September in North America. The tiny fruits are round capsules that develop on the stalk. The leaves are simple, meaning that the leaf is a single blade and not divided into leaflets. They are also alternate at the base of the stem and hairy which helps the plant protect itself from insects and moisture loss in hot, dry climates.

Emerging Mullein Stalk, 2009

Related species and Cultivars:
Verbascum contains about 250 species, most are biennial and some perennial. Try some of the following Verbascum cultivars and hybrids and discover various yellows within Verbascum species. All of them vary in size and leaf color and will be a beautiful addition to any garden:
V. chaixii: nettle-leaved with long arms extending from main stalk 
V. phoeniceum: purple mullein
V. bombyciferum: tall with large wooly leaves
V. thapsiforme: flowers
V. olympicum: native to Greece and Turkey
V. creticu: large, lemony yellow flowers
V. blattaria: slender spires, often called moth mullein
V. dumulosum: furry and little

Habitat, Ecology and Distribution:
Mullein is native to Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin. But, it has naturalized throughout North America, especially Verbascum thaspus. Although Mullein is adapted to a wide variety of soils: poor and dry, acid or alkaline it does not like “wet feet” and requires a well-drained location to thrive. Due to the hairy nature of its leaves, mullein is rarely disturbed by wild or domestic animals.
Often found in “waste sites” like roadsides, clearings, overgrazed pastures and other disturbed habitats, Mullein can grow as a single statuesque plant or in stately looking localized populations.
Mullein grows best in full sun but it can tolerate part shade in some locations. 

Garden Cultivation:
Although there is a taproot on the plant it transplants pretty easily. Mullein can be propagated by seed, the hybrids or cultivars must be divided from root cuttings or division. It is most easily grown from seed and especially volunteer seeds, which begins to germinate underground throughout the fall and winter. Surprisingly, it seeds itself rather sparingly and ends up in unexpected places in the garden-the beauty of letting the garden make its own decisions.
Mullein makes a great addition of “wild charm” to any cultivated garden and requires nil maintenance. Usually it is grown for its large but subtle gray, silvery foliage. Its added surprise is a stately stalk which emerges in the second year of growth. Some other Verbascum species send out multiple stems or arms from the central stalk.
Although rich in history, tradition and folklore there still remains few references about Mullein and its qualities as a natural dye plant. There may be a couple reasons for this obscurity; most likely because Mullein was often used for medicines and it was probably "wild collected” by natural dyers and never grown for commercial purposes. Hence, Mullein remains a noble weed (Jones, p.223) with only recent recognition for its qualities as an enduring landscape plant.

Fresh Mullein Leaves Harvested for Dyeing
Workshop Dye Garden, Taos, 2009

Part of Plant used as Dyestuff, Harvesting and Dyeing:
The leaves are used to extract a yellow to gray-green on protein fibers. The flowers of V. thapsiforme have been referenced for dyeing, producing a yellow (Flint, p. 58) but V. thaspus has small yellow flowers that may be too tedious to collect enough to utilize in the dyepot. The alum imparts the light yellow-green color. Copper sulfate* can be used as an after-bath to bring out the gray-green color or simply steeping the dyed fiber in a copper cauldron and cooling overnight will coax the color into a deeper gray-green.
The leaves are harvested fresh, preferably from second year growth plants that have produced their flower stalk and seed for the following season. If leaves are collected during the plants first year of growth then only collect from large rosettes and only a few leaves from each individual plant so the growth of the plant is not weakened for its second year. If the leaves are “wild collected” then do so with an ecological sense.
Consider cultivating Mullein in your garden. Only a few plants are needed to produce an amazing amount of material. They can be used fresh or thoroughly dried before being stored. A general rule for dyeing with natural materials is 1:1 for fresh material: weight of fiber or 2:1 for dry material: weight of fiber.

* note about copper sulfate: copper sulfate causes a “greening” effect in natural colors that can be desirable but it is toxic. Often copper sulfate is used as a fungicide in organic gardening and it is used to kill algae. The best way to achieve this greening effect is to use a copper cauldron and let the dyed fiber cool overnight in the copper cauldron. It is recommended to reuse the water in the copper cauldron for the next bath so that there is no contaminated water disposal issues.
Mullein Dyed Wool Yarn and Mohair Fiber
Workshop Gathering Flowers from the Field, Taos, 2009

Historical and Other Uses:
Mullein is referred to as a Candelabra because of its tall stems are filled with bright yellow flowers. The flower stalks were also literally used as candles or torches. The leaves were stripped off and the stalks were “dipped in suet, pitch, resin and lighted” (Jones, p. 219). Hence, Mullein has been thought to drive away evil spirits with its power of light.
This under recognized plant also has a long medicinal history. Having been used as an astringent, an emollient, cough syrup to relieve pulmonary and bronchial illnesses and also smoked. Poultice made from Mullein has been used to relieve ulcers, boils and burns. The fresh flowers combined with olive oil was “regarded as a valuable bactericide” (Jones, p. 223). 

Verbascum Bibliography

Charest, Alain. “Wild and Woolly Mulleins”, Fine Gardening. May/June 1997: 58-61. Print.

Davidson, Mary Frances. The Dye-Pot. Self Published, Gatlinburg, 1974. 

Flint, India. Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles. Murdoch Books, Australia, 2008.

Freeman, Craig C., Schofield, Eileen K. Roadside Wildflowers of the Southern Great Plains. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1991. 

Hutchens, Alma R. A Handbook of Native American Herbs. Shambhala, Boston, 1992.

Jones, Pamela. Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses. Illustrations by Bob Johnson. Chapters Publishing, Shelburne, 1994.

Lovejoy, Ann. “Inspired by Verbascums: The Hardy Mulleins Reach New Heights in the Border”, Horticulture Magazine. August/September 1995: 30-34. Print.

Taylor, R. John, Taylor, Constance E.S., An Annotated List of the Ferns, Fern Allies, Gymnosperms and Flowering Plants of Oklahoma. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, 1994. (pp. 328-329).

Tyrl, Ronald J., Bidwell, Terrence G., Masters, Ronald E. Field Guide to Oklahoma Plants: Commonly Encountered Prairie, Shrubland, and Forest Species. Illustrations: Bellamy Parks Jansen. Oklahoma Sate University, 2002.

The following images are public domain from:

Verbascum thapsus L.
Verbascum thapsus L.
Credit: Photo by Leo Michels - Source: http://www.imagines-plantarum.de/
Public domain image

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this photo for any purpose. It's recommended to cite the author and the source.

Verbascum thapsus L.
Verbascum thapsus L.
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 3: 173.

The copyright of this image has expired. This applies to those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years (United States, Canada, the European Union etc.). Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this line-drawing for any purpose.

Verbascum thapsus L.
Verbascum thapsus L.
Hippolyte Coste - Flore descriptive et illustrée de la France, de la Corse et des contrées limitrophes, 1901-1906 - This image is in public domain because its copyright has expired.

10 February 2010

The Three Primaries

Canoe Trip Buffalo River, 2009
Color is visual language. The basics of color theory gives us an understanding of how colors interact with one another. 

The three primary colors in the pigment spectrum are RED, YELLOW and BLUE. All other colors are made up of primary colors, but the primary colors cannot be made from any of the other colors in the spectrum. 
They are first and powerful and the color wheel is designed around RED, YELLOW and BLUE. 
The primary colors can be found in unlikely places with subtle proportions and accents.

Blue Hill, Maine, 2009

Blue Hill storefront, Maine, 2009

Gloucester, Massachusetts, 2009

Homer, Alaska, 2009

New Mexico, 2009

Andrew's Boat, 2009

Energyscape Series, Chicago, 2009

04 February 2010


Above is our chemical world on a grid, a map of sorts. Although everything is made up of some combination of elements on the Periodic Table, it does not reveal the breakdown of health, safety and the environmental hazards once the chemical cocktails start flowing. We are increasingly immersed in a toxic world with strange hybrids of "natural" and "synthetic" and few of us can make sense of it all. The questions quickly become daunting and at the very least confusing: what is "natural" or what is "synthetic"? and on and on. Perhaps this is a difficult subject to tackle or define and it definitely is a gigantic can of worms to open but let the discussion begin...

Following are the definitions for CHEMICAL from the Oxford American Dictionary:

adj. “of or relating to chemistry or the interactions of substances as studied in chemistry

n. “a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, esp. artificially

In short, chemicals are everywhere and they make up the planet we live on. Chemical compounds create the beauty we see in natural colors and they also create the horrors of the current environmental and health devastations we are experiencing. Governmental chemical legislation and political action remain extremely important. To date, the European Union has the most progressive governmental action facing the challenge of reigning in the current chemical world market.

REACH, the Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals, proposed in October 2003 by the EU and voted into legislation became effective June 2007. It is administered by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). It is the most progressive chemical management law to take effect anywhere in the world. Although REACH is an EU law it will send international waves regarding the management and manufacturing of chemicals. Prior to REACH consumers had little access to information about the products they use and what the unknown hazards may be. This lack of knowledge is called "information asymmetry" by Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner and author of Globalization and Its Discontents. REACH is making its mark on chemical history and on the chemical industry and will potentially change the way consumers consider the products they buy.

To summarize (please see Resources and Bibliography for specifics), REACH requires the following information for chemicals produced in or imported into EU:
1. CSR's or Chemical Safety Reports
2. Exposure information
3. Registration of each chemical produced or imported
4. Inventories of chemicals on the market in EU
5. Some new testing requirements
6. Specific focus on carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins requiring authorization from a scientific panel for further use

Never in chemical history has there been a government action requiring identification of safety risks, exposures and hazards of chemicals in everyday products that are found in food, textiles, cosmetics, electronics, furniture, basically everything everyone uses everyday. REACH will focus special attention on CMR's which are carcinogenic, mutagen, and reproductive toxins, the chemicals which are potentially the most hazardous to health and environment. It will share the information collected on a website which will be accessible to everyone, making the chemical producers more transparent about the products they put on the market. The responsibility to demonstrate safety now falls on the chemical producers and manufacturers. These laws are required for all EU chemical companies and also for any company wanting to participate in Europe's multi- billion dollar market. 

REACH has challenged new international standards for the management of chemicals, far exceeding those of TSCA, Toxic Substances and Control Act, effective in the US in 1977. Although TSCA set the global environmental standard at the time, the reality is that it grandfathered in over 60,000 chemicals already on the market, hence never demanding they meet the standards of any new chemicals on the market (Schapiro, 137). The US market has produced a total of 5 new chemicals since 1977! In addition, REACH also addresses the complete "life cycle" of products containing chemicals which includes waste and disposal costs and downstream product manufacturers to know what chemicals are going into the products they produce.

Companies buy the chemicals they "need" based on function, price and performance. With REACH these same chemical companies are now required to factor in the hazardous aspects of their products. The EU had chosen to look forward and be cautious about existing and potential hazards. They have stepped forward and begun to identify the problems to rising health care costs, ecological implications of hazardous chemicals and increased energy consumption and to find solutions that give their citizens choices.

REACH has also energized the field of green chemistry by creating legal and financial incentives for businesses to find alternatives for the toxic and potentially harmful chemicals being used today. By making toxicity data available to everyone the incentive for new research and innovation increases global competition and overall chemical awareness. Visit The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council for more information: http://www.greenchemistryandcommerce.org/home.php

Tighter regulations of chemical management in the world’s marketplace can improve our environment and our health. And if new scientific areas like green chemistry are given the resources to develop alternatives to the toxic chemicals that are in use now, then we can potentially live in a healthier world.

All of us should consider and evaluate our chemical inventories, our environment and assess our waste products. It is always good to start local.



1. “Spheres of Influence, Chemical Reaction: The U.S. Response to REACH” by Harvey Black, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 116, No.3, March 2008, pages A125-A127. Accessed 2 February 2010:

2. Schapiro, Mark. Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2007.

3. http://www.chemicalspolicy.org/home.php, accessed 2 February 2010:

4. EUROPA Press Releases, “New European Chemicals Agency start operations as REACH enters into force”, Brussels, 1 June 2007, Reference: IP/07/745. Accessed 3 Feb 2010:

5. European Commission environmental Directorate General, “REACH in brief”, October 2007. Accessed 3 Feb 2010: