linen dish cloth

When the countertops and cutting boards, the faucets and the sink are all wiped down with a good clean cloth, I’m quite content. Linen fibre is strongest when wet, so it makes an ideal dish cloth. I adore the texture and gloss of wet-spun linen, at once hardy plant fibre and fine silk, artless pastoral and opulence combined.

These cloths are a great little project to pick up and stitch when there are quieter moments in the day. All you need is some linen yarn and a crochet hook in your pocket, and the simple pattern, below.

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The qualities of linen

Like rustic clothing, the difference between store-bought and handmade is often its strength. They’re certainly not cheaper than the imported cotton dishcloths we can easily buy, but then they last so long, and please me so much. In using natural linen we sidestep destructive farming practices, pesticides and toxic dyes. There are even folks experimenting with local flax production, and you can grow it easily yourself! To demonstrate the wonderful process of transforming flax to gold, there’s a an old bit of Canadiana on the subject, too.

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Linen care

To care for these linen cloths, we just throw them in the wash as usual, cold or hot, with a drop of tea tree oil to kill any germs. I imagine it doesn’t get musty or stain as easily, but I might just take extra care to hang it to dry, because it’s handmade and beautiful. We hang them or lay them on a flat, waterproof surface like our countertops, and sometimes block them. Block them?

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Blocking is what you do to shape any knit, woven, crocheted piece, and is simply arranging it back into shape and allowing it to dry that way. You can get fancy with special pins and boards, if you were blocking pieces of a sweater before sewing it, so that it would fit perfectly together. But for the linen dish cloths, you’re just laying them flat while they’re wet or damp, and patting, pulling, shaping back to a square, then leaving them to dry. Shaping is ten-second task. No harm in skipping this part, either. It does please me to see them back in their fine shape.

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Theme and variation

Crocheting linen fibre makes these pieces a little bit rustic, a little bit ornate, and thoroughly handmade. I love to use these cloths to experiment with variation in crochet patterns.

Linen dish cloth pattern

I like to use a heavier linen yarn like Euroflax, and a 4.5mm hook – aim to have the hook larger than what’s called for, to get that open weave.

Chain 27 stitches, and work into them half-double-crochet, double crochet, or triple crochet, repeating until you have a square.

I like to stitch the rows in hdc, and then finish with a restrained ruffled edge: chain 6, slipstitch to attach at every 5th stitch, and repeat to the row’s end. Then work back with 6 or 7 double crochets around that loop you’ve made, just enough that the ruffle lies flat, working a slip stitch into the previous slipstitches. Tie it off very firmly. Rinse the piece and block it!

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Linen cloths make a nice accompaniment to a trusty stiff brush, and a stack of linen tea towels. Elegant tools make the work far easier, far more agreeable, I think. They encourage mindfulness in presence in everyday labours. We love these useful, perennial favourites.

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an illustrated guide to comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility and the health of the homestead is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix. Once you’ve got comfrey, you can just make more, for so many purposes.

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The dynamic accumulator

Comfrey’s deep taproot makes it a dynamic accumulator, so we plant it around our fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Best to bury those leaves under some other mulch to retain all the nutrients. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you, and pollinators love the flowers.

The super-nutrient feed

We feed comfrey to our chickens, ducks and goats too. I cage smaller plants to keep them from getting browsed to death!

The fertiliser

We make a comfrey fertiliser to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

The healer

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice. As a salve I swear by comfrey for aches and pains, it works extraordinarily well to reduce inflammation. A homesteader’s salve most definitely.

Make more comfrey

Now, we like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring (unless you have goats to control it!) and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered til they are established. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

making traditional rhubarb soup

Kiiseli is a fruit soup from Finland that generations of my family grew up making. This family recipe is drawn from my mother’s best advice, her 1966 Finnish cookbook, a peek through my grandmother’s 1948 cookbook and a family friend’s 1933 cookbook. It’s a recipe you can easily grow in your own garden, too. With all that research, your kiisseli should make a fine old fashioned (yet gluten and dairy-free!) dessert.

kiisselli

The ingredients

We’re going to need:
1 litre water
750 grams chopped rhubarb
200 grams sugar or alternative, to taste
4 tbsp fine potato, tapioca or arrowroot flour

The method

Cook the rhubarb in the water for a short while til softened. Add sugar to taste. (I like to pop up the sweetness with a few drops of stevia, and drop the sugar.) My mother usually adds the strawberries when finished cooking to retain their freshly picked flavour. Dissolve potato flour in a small amount of cool water and then stir the solution very well into the rhubarb mix, heating til it just begins to boil. Take the soup off the heat, and sprinkle a little sugar on top to prevent a skin forming. Serve it cool.

Eating rhubarb soup with ice

Double cream or ice cream is gorgeous with kiiseli. In spring we love combining rhubarb & strawberries, or in the summer, blueberries & raspberries. I love to think of all my relatives, a long time ago, maybe on the farm in Finland, making kiiseli, eating it together round the table. We have pictures of our children as toddlers, painted with rhubarb soup.

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Fruit potager

Rhubarb and strawberries are both easy, early perennials to grow in a corner or pot somewhere, we have ours as a pretty understory to a fruit tree, white wisteria, marshmallow plants and hollyhocks. I look forward to the moment our rhubarb is tall enough to twist off stalks for rhubarb soup!

a short guide to foraging and preserving nettles

The old-timers would take bitters in early spring, and wild stinging nettles grow just at the moment when we really need some good greens. Nettle is good for all of us here on the farm, and can be used in many ways. In early spring we head out foraging.

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Harvest the nettles

The moment to forage stinging nettles for fresh eating and preserving is a dry day in early spring, while the tops are young and fresh. Heavy gloves, long trousers and sleeves and great respect for the plants are required. I keep a bit of calendula or comfrey salve to hand for stings. We like to use a pair of snips and a burlap sack, and we just cut the top few leaves, plenty of them as they dry down to very little! Then we take them home to preserve.

Preserve the nettles

To preserve the nettles, I shake them out onto a cookie tray (to keep from getting stung), put my oven on its lowest temperature with the fan on, and pull them out when crispy-dry. They should crush to a powder. Once dried or cooked the sting is removed, happily. Or, if you catch a good warm, dry day, you can lay them out on a clean sheet and turn them now and then til they are crisp. Fresh or dry, or a combination of both, you can make them into a nettle tincture.

Store the nettles

I love to have a store of dried nettle and tinctures put away for the year. As a tincture they store indefinitely. Fully dry in a glass jar they will keep for a lot longer than any of them ever last at our house, certainly past the brief autumn harvest and through to the following spring.

Use the nettles

A friend on a nearby farm harvested some nettles to provide me with mineral-rich tisanes as I was convalescing after an illness, and later on we gathered a huge batch together. Infusions full of minerals are just the thing to give me strength and are particularly good to help counter my iron-deficiency. You can make fresh nettle soup, pestos, ravioli too.

Nettles for flora and fauna

When the nettles are older they’re no longer safe for teas and soups, but they are excellent for making a liquid fertiliser for the garden – simply cover with water, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Goats love to eat nettles fresh, and our ducks and chickens like them if we crush them first to remove the sting. How great to create fertilisers and fodder from the wild larder! Closing the loop on fertility and feed is a huge step toward greater community-reliance.

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Foraging and preserving nettles for high-mineral wild infusions, medicinal tisanes, fertilisers and fresh eating is a very old, trusted practice. It feels good to continue it.

a short guide to fermenting sauerkraut

There are useful things that I like to make purely for the pleasure of it, to have just what we want at a higher quality than one can buy, and to enjoy the thing knowing it’s homemade. Sauerkraut goes a step further, being so strikingly economical. As a health food, it succeeds in making me feel better immediately upon eating it. I love that it will balance stomach acid, whether you’ve too little or too much, but mostly I just love to eat it. I figure that fermenting sauerkraut is worthy of becoming a habit for life. Here’s how I’ve been making it.

The ingredients

Begin with a cabbage, sea salt, and a very clean, very strong glass kilner jar, (we like Le Parfait or Fido), with a rubber seal. A small clean glass jar is useful later, too.

The method

All set? Weigh the cabbage. Ours was conveniently a full kilogram.

Calculate how much 2.5% of the cabbage’s weight would be, then measure that amount in sea salt. (In our case, 25 grams.)

Reserving a nice big leaf, slice the cabbage as finely as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky to have one!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl. I like to be sure to hone my blade, now there’s a useful skill, before slicing and during, too.

Now, bash it. We found this old muddler at a favourite antique shop, how easy would it be to turn one on a pole lathe! It works brilliantly – but the flat end of a handle-less rolling pin or similar object you find around would function.

We like making kraut with friends, taking turns having a bash. The goal is to see a good deal of liquid emerge from the cabbage. Sometimes we leave somewhat muddled kraut under a towel and plate overnight to get the juices flowing, depending on what the day is like.

When you pack the cut, bashed cabbage firmly into a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more brine later if necessary, depending on the type and the age of the cabbage. To make brine, mix water to salt at 2.5% or so – or follow the simple traditional rule our friends the Bairds over at Ecosense use – salt it to taste like the ocean!

Tuck the cabbage leaf that you saved all round the top of the chopped stuff, putting it to bed so nothing is floating, nothing exposed to air. Place a small clean jar or glass with some water in it inside the large jar, to weigh down the big leaf, and close the large jar up tight.

A dark, cool cupboard will be an ideal place for the sauerkraut to live while it ferments.

The ferment

In a while – my friend waited only a week while I waited three – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. Tuck it back in and leave it be if it isn’t ready. When you figure it has fermented to your liking, eat it up. I move it to the fridge -some folks say there’s more probiotic action before refrigeration, and some folks are a little nervous of things like this and trust the fridge- and use it up within six weeks. This time I shall set a reminder to make some more before we run out! Ben Hewitt of the wonderful book Nourishing Homestead makes a ton of it in jars and stores it cool all year.

The taste-test

We are very much impressed with the flavour. The texture of this batch was a shade crunchy for the smaller folk, so the verdict is to try a different cabbage, and experiment with how thinly to cut the veg. No mold, no burping the jar, no airlock required, no special crock, nothing to do but be patient.

We like Sandor Katz and Pascal Baudar for great writing on fermentation, and tremendous ideas on what else to ferment.

Ah yes, you’ve caught us. Now we’re eyeing other people’s prize cabbages, and plotting to grow our own kraut-cabbage.