Grown to Dye

Weaving heritage into new hobbies



Robert Clark

On a quiet country road, closer to Prosperity than Little Mountain, is Debby and Pete Greenlaw’s haven. In 2010, they purchased a vacant, neglected late 1800s farmhouse and 14.5 acres off Craigslist. They said the 6 inches of pristine snowfall on the ground the day they first saw it helped with the sale. The Greenlaws were living in Lake Carolina; he worked in international sales and she as a nurse practitioner. But each desired a simpler way of life and a chance to live off the land. Plus, swirling in both of them were interests in hands-on resourceful pursuits that they imagined would have an outlet at their new farm. They were right.

For several months, they camped out during the weekends on a blowup mattress in the farmhouse kitchen while renovating the home room by room. They eventually sold their 3,800-square-foot Lake Carolina home; moved into the 1,600-square-foot farmhouse; and set about finishing it — adding 600 square feet and updating the structure and the grounds. Although Debby still dabbles in nursing on small consulting jobs and volunteers at The Free Medical Clinic in Columbia, the couple is essentially retired from their former careers. They happily report that they are involved full time in other endeavors, including farming.

“We’re interested in preserving the old ways of doing things,” she says, pointing out that they grow herbs and vegetables and get milk from their herd of Saanen and Nigerian dwarf goats and make cheese. Pete even makes his own wine and cider from the property’s muscadines and apples. Debby has found that her new passion and creative outlet involves growing plants for natural dyes and then dyeing her hand-spun yarns and woven goods.

Debby and Pete tackle new skills with fervor and precision. Pete built an old world outdoor brick oven, herb gardens, and an underground bunker storm shelter (which they used last year when a tornado threatened). For Debby, he constructed an indoor studio for spinning and weaving as well as an outdoor modern barn studio next to the existing solid oak antique barn for dyeing fibers and teaching classes. He also made a 25-by-40-foot garden area with 6-foot-high fencing, to keep out deer, so that she can grow all the plants necessary to use in her natural dyeing processes.

Debby, a master gardener, says she is self taught regarding dye plants and fibers. “I just really thought it would be a neat thing to do,” she says. “I was just so drawn to them. But there was never the time to learn to be a fiber artist.” For many years she compiled detailed scrapbooks with the help of a Workbox, a handy bin-storage cabinet that folds out at least twice on each side to reveal dozens of drawers and compartments, including a hidden table, to keep all elements organized. Currently, she uses one of these inside her interior and exterior studios for the countless essentials necessary to create beautiful textiles: spatulas, teaspoons, dried plant material, pH test strips, measuring cups, dye containers, mesh strainer, gloves, thermometer, timer, towels — just to name a few. Housed also is a tiny jar of cochineal, a dried South American bug that, when crushed and ground in her mortar and pestle, releases carmine, a red-hue colorant.

Through reading how-to books and trade magazines, and watching YouTube video tutorials, Debby learned what plants grown in South Carolina can best be used to make natural dyes. In the garden area, she has planted hibiscus, marigolds, cosmos, and madder, and she planted her first indigo in the fall that she hopes will yield a harvest this year. Some of the dye plants are annuals, while others are perennials. The annuals, such as cosmos and marigolds, often reseed so that new plants do not have to be purchased. Most of the plants’ seeds, flowers, or leaves create dyes; the madder’s root, however, can be boiled to achieve orangey reds. Black walnuts also make beautiful dyes. She freezes bags of the large nuts and uses them when needed. Once she makes a batch of dye, she must use it within a few days. To dry the plants she uses for dyeing, she puts them inside the property’s greenhouse.

She learned that some standard recipes for natural dyes have been around for centuries. While many plants produce yellow and gold hues, fewer produce blues, greens, and reds. Sometimes colors have to be mixed, such as a yellow and blue, to find an adequate green. The key is to find a natural dye that is colorfast. “You can dye with poke berries,” she explains, “but if you wash it a few times it will fade.” Turmeric, a spice that many have in their kitchens, is a natural dye that produces a golden effect.

Indigofera tinctoria, the plant grown to make indigo dye, was hugely important to South Carolina’s economy from the mid 1700s into the 1800s; in 1775, the Carolinas exported more than one million pounds to England. It was used to dye textiles a deep, color-fast, purplish blue.

In her research on dyes, she determined that any fabrics dyed before the mid 1800s were dyed using natural plants, while chemical dyes were manufactured and used readily after that time period. Natural dyes can only dye natural fibers, such as silk, flax, wool, alpaca, cotton, and linen. Chemical dyes are needed to dye synthetic fibers.

Typically, Debby dyes yarns and textiles in her newer outdoor barn studio, where neatly stacked pots and pans are on display and a two-propane-burner heat source is readily available. In her kitchen, Debby will sometimes do small-batch, non-toxic dyeing as well.

She has experimented with the “shibori” technique on silk scarves to attain unique patterns each time. During the dyeing process, the areas she gathers and wraps with a rubber band resist the dye and stay white. Sometimes, in order to create dye resistance, she wraps areas of the silk fabric for a scarf around PVC pipe and then adds dye to the rest of it.

“Dyeing is trial and error … unique every time, even though there are basic patterning techniques,” says Debby.

Besides dyeing fibers, scarves, finished woven goods, and other materials, Debby has become proficient at spinning raw sheep’s wool and alpaca fibers into yarns. She uses a Louet spinning wheel. In the couple’s great room, with a cozy fireplace and stamped-tin-look ceiling courtesy of Pete, Debby has her Leclerc Nilus 4-shaft floor loom, situated by a large window. (She also has a Louet Jane 8-shaft table loom and a Kromski rigid heddle loom with double heddles.) In the evenings, while a show is playing on the television, Debby weaves yarns, many of which she spun and dyed herself.

She has made shawls, scarves, and handbags. One piece, a fall-themed shawl, is a crowning achievement as it includes hand-dyed wool, spun yarn, and woven fabric. Plus, she took a multi-colored dyed yarn and used it to weave in highlights of autumn leaves. This piece, she says with all smiles, is not for sale. However, she is open to commission projects. Two other treasured achievements are an advancing twill flower scarf with beaded fringe, fine cotton thread, intricate patterning, and rich colors as well as a woven shibori table runner dyed with indigo.

This past January, Debby established Flora & Fiber, with the tagline “Handcrafting Traditions, a simple and fun approach to preserving and creating handcrafted traditions,” as a place to sell, share, and teach. She sells her hand-dyed merino yarns and silk scarves as well as raw wool, tools, and equipment. Silk scarves sell for upwards of $35, while 185 yards of marigold dyed yarn is $11. She showcases some of her more elaborate pieces in order to inspire and motivate practicing and would-be fiber artists. Finer pieces, which are valued in the hundreds of dollars due to the intricacy of the work, are on display in galleries. In a regular blog, Debby shares what she learns. She also gleans many ideas for her own work from others’ blogs, the guild, books, and conferences and then adapts them to convey her own thoughts, artistry, and craftsmanship.

Pete, ironically, admits that he has no sense of color. Yet, he is profoundly proud of his wife’s vast achievements in such a short window of time.

“As a nurse, I was working mentally and emotionally,” she says. “This is a chance for me to be creative, to work with my hands, and it’s just so rewarding to finish a piece and to enjoy it or to know that others are enjoying it.”

Debby and Pete say they are enjoying their second act. She has won numerous prizes at the South Carolina State Fair for her textiles, and he has been honored with Best of Show for his dessert wine. He bakes bread, builds, and grows food; she dyes, spins, and weaves. And, as often as possible, they share their back-to-the-basics retreat homestead with grown children and grandchildren, friends, and anyone interested in a farm tour.

Debby and Pete explain that being in the farmhouse, making it their own, working with their hands, and enjoying the land and the offerings of plants and animals means that the farm has new life that they feel privileged to be a part of.

For how-to information from Debby Greenlaw on her Flora & Fiber techniques, visit ColumbiaMetro.com