plant-dyed eggs

Happy equinox! Spring is blooming on the Pacific coast, and Easter is going to arrive earlier than I’d expected. We refine our plant-dyeing a little more every year in pursuit of some brightly coloured eggs, last spring’s quarterly featured this story. The new quarterly will be out soon to celebrate the equinox, don’t miss it!

bowl of white eggs

Gather together white eggs, emptied; white vinegar, a saucepan, a few heatproof jars, spoons, and a few plants from the kitchen and garden. For orange: yellow onion skins. For blue: outter leaves of a red cabbage. For yellow: rosemary, red onion skins, turmeric. Overdye blue & yellow for green, though powdered chlorophyll or raw spinach is reputed to work. For pink: frozen berries, cranberries or raspberries work well, we had none, nor even a beet!

plant-dyed easter eggs

Boil a handful of the dyestuff in enough water to immerse an egg in the jar, until it releases deep colour into the water and reduces somewhat. Add a splash of white vinegar, stir, and pour into the jar. Slip the egg in and turn now and then til it deepens to a shade you like. The cabbage-blue egg took easily a half hour’s bathing. The plant materials can be composted. Beeswax is just fine for drawing with in advance, we’d like to do that this year. We might try paper cutouts on our plant-dyed eggs, in the traditional German scherenschritte mode.


Early in October, when autumn was convinced it was summer, we visited my dear friend Sarah and her children in the city. In her beautiful kitchen I stumbled upon the most beautiful and unexpected object.

honey frame

A frame from their beehive, thoroughly sculpted with honeycomb, heavy with honey. I had no idea Sarah kept a hive in the garden! I fell over. Such an astonishing, amazing thing. How much would I love to do this! Like keeping chickens, beekeeping takes some studying, a well-designed structure, a good spot in the garden and a bit of bravery – and learning from watching someone else helps so much. Now I have a beekeeping friend to watch, with keen interest.


I’ve admired the hives on Old Plawhatch Farm near our old cottage in Sussex, and listened to a fascinating talk there by the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Sarah and I talked about how she’s caring for the bees, instinctively following principles I’ve become so interested in. What if the hive isn’t opened often, so it stays warmer, the way the bees need it? What if honey is only taken when the hive is particularly heavy, so the bees have their natural food through winter?


The hive strikes me as an unimaginable treasure. The intoxicating scent of beeswax, and so many wonderful uses for the beautiful stuff; the exquisite particularity of flavours of a local honey, and its extraordinary healing benefits; the tremendous contribution a beehive imparts to the health of the neighbourhood’s flora; the utter delight of watching the grace and beauty of bees at work. I love it, I am completely inspired. Thank you, Sarah.

hand-tied bouquet

Would you like to learn to hand-tie a bouquet? I spent a beautiful day studying floristry at the Blooming Green flower farm, and made a little movie for you to see how it’s done. Jen showed us some very simple directions to follow, to stunning effect, using gorgeous flowers and extraordinary greenery, freshly picked on the farm.

You’d like some more detail? Let’s take it slowly:


After cutting your plants and standing them in a bucket of water for a good soak, begin by conditioning the flowers. Simply strip the lower leaves off the flowers to keep them from decomposing in the water. Wear gloves if you like.


Lay out your flowers and greens and have a sense of how many you have of each. Odd numbers are often the most pleasing to the eye.


Begin with a fluffy, well-structured bit of greenery, to support the flowers that will surround it. Fennel is quite wonderful.


Lay your first blossom at an angle to the green.


If you have three blossoms to add, turn the bouquet a third, add another at the same angle, turn another third, and add the last blossom. Have a look at the movie to get a sense of how Jen turns the bouquet and adds more flowers.


Continue to work in this way, choosing greens and flowers and paying attention to multiples, so if you have five lengths of weeping willow, turn the bouquet in fifths, always adding at that same angle to creating a tight, spiralling structure to the stems.


Now and then turn the bouquet to have a look from the top to see if you’ve got a rounding, arching shape to the bouquet – though if there are longer sprigs that naturally want to spray up and out, Jen likes to let those have their way, too.

The tie Jen uses is quite wonderful. Simply fold a length of twine in half, loop it round your thumb as you hold the stems in place. Wrap the two ends around the stems and back to the loop, and slip them through it. Then you can pull the ends in opposite directions, wrapping as many times as you like around and tying a firm bow when they meet. I’ve forgotten the name of this tie, it’s charming!


Snip the stems cleanly at the end, leaving enough length to support the flowers.


A well-made hand-tied bouquet will have enough structure to stand alone! Let me know if you have a go. I’m so pleased to have had a lesson in hand-tying, such a satisfying thing to be able to do yourself. Thanks Jen! If you’re in England and looking for ecologically, locally grown flowers to buy online, or better yet, you’d like to pick your own for an event, visit Blooming Green in Kent. They are such a delight.

If you like studying traditional skills this way, have a look at the old school movies. They come with beautiful patterns, guides and materials, available in the appleturnovershop.

dyeing wool

The casual mentorship by family and friends in my life, introducing me to skills, tools, techniques, gives me tremendous courage. For months I’ve been actively avoiding a fleece, a wonderful big Jacob’s fleece that my sweetheart bought for a few quid at the farm shop. I’d never so much as watched someone washing or carding a fleece. Finally, my sweet friend Caz’s invitation to bring some wool and do some plant-dyeing over at Trefoil Farm School moved me to action. You know, the morning of our date. In fact it wasn’t difficult, or that messy. Out in the garden I clipped the tougher bits of wool from the fleece and put the rest into a tub of luke-warm, dish-soapy water, gently worked it, and repeated. Just to clean it a little and remove some of the oils. It’s amazing what scares me!


At the farm school, such a peaceful place, handmade buildings and everything beautiful, we set up at a table outside and the children all helped to card some wool. More about carding later – I’m very much in love with it!


The wool and yarn were placed in hot water, to soak before the dyebath.


Caz has a gorgeous collection of dyer’s books. We used Wild Colour, a copy of which I plan to get my hands on. Tansy!


We used dried tansy, prepare the day before. I think Caz had cooked the plant material and left it to soak and release more colour.


The plant-dye was strained off;


A mordant, one chosen to pop up the yellow colour, was added, carefully;


And all the wool added to the pot and set on the stove to heat for half an hour. The effect when dry was very subtle. More experimentation!


Most exciting of this process of dyeing wool with plants is feeling like we can begin wonderful experiments in colour now, with that courage you get from being shown how by a good friend. I have a red cabbage in the fridge and nettles in the garden that I might try first.


You might like a couple of images I made of the plant-dying, spinning and weaving projects Caz does with the sweet children at the farm school. I think her fibre work is so beautiful. Thank you Caz, and everyone at Trefoil for the tremendous inspiration!



A block of traditional cold-pressed soap that I made, deep in Devon in the Rowan Tree Studio, has been waiting since the beginning of winter for my attention. One afternoon, in the kitchen, with a knife, I sprung it from its mould.

cutting soap © elisa rathje 2012

Gorgeous object! I love the raw look of it. The scent of geranium and rose is just beautiful, subtle and sweet. The pale shade of it is delightful.

cutting soap © elisa rathje 2012

Though it appears that I cannot cut straight. My blocks are decidedly charming in shape. Soap-cutting is much like cutting cool butter or a mild cheese, and in fact I had to assure the children that they mustn’t sample it. All those bits, when cured, can be grated into the jar of homemade laundry powder.

cutting soap © elisa rathje 2012

Like my experiments in clay, I find the possibility of stamping patterns and text into soap quite entrancing. Pressing some of my antique silverware gave some beautiful shapes. I’d love to carve a stamp just for this purpose. Now I’ve wrapped the blocks in paper, and the soap needs to cure for a few weeks before we can use it. Joyful process! Sarah’s soap-making book is coming out in 2014.

traditional cold remedies

Despite glorious weather in the south of England, the lot of us came down with a springtime cold. Unlike the dreaded lurgy we fought over the winter holidays, this was an ordinary cold, so I used just a few tried & true, traditional cold remedies from the kitchen and the garden.


Fresh ginger root, with lemon juice and honey, to calm the throat. I pour boiling water over the ginger slices, allow it to cool a little, then stir in honey and lemon. Sometimes I’ll let this cool further and shake in some vitamin C, which I sweeten with stevia in water and give my family at regular intervals. A daily dose of cod liver oil with naturally occurring vit D, is a good idea for us too, in my opinion!


Nettle infusions, these are from foraged
and dried wild nettles, or I can get them in the health food store. Extraordinarily rich in minerals and vitamins to strengthen the immune system and clear out toxins.


Garlic, crushed and soaked in olive oil. My ears began to ache, so I prepared this and dropped it into them. Later on I had an epsom salt bath, and brought the garlic oil in with me, rubbed my feet with it, as well as the below my jaw where glands can get swollen. Luckily none of us had a sense of smell, as I’m quite sure it was pungent. But effective. I was better the next morning. We like to eat lots of garlic too, of course! We stayed in bed listening to my sweetheart reading aloud, and let the wind blow itself out. Today we’re all well and ready for some fun.