Mom’s Dyeing … Another Gift from the Heart

My Mom was an ardent crafter decades before there were craft stores in every mall and extension classes in local high schools and universities offering tuition in everything from weaving, metal forging and woodworking to batik, ikebana and paper-making.

Originally, Mom’s specialty was weaving large wall hangings and tapestries.  For the first couple of years,  she bought her yarns already spun and packaged in neat skeins with the precise dye lot numbers stamped on them.   But eventually she became intrigued with her raw materials and their sources.   The possibility of actually spinning the  yarns herself was tempting.   And her interest in edible wild plants and their colorful juices obviously suggested to her the possibility of making custom hues for her hand spun yarn.

The sudden appearance of a pair of carding paddles and a spinning wheel in the living room was a bit of a novelty.  But it was when Mom decided she wanted to create her tapestries from “scratch” that the real problems began.

It wasn’t enough to know exactly which breed of sheep yielded a certain type of wool or how they were sheared.  Mom decided she wanted to process the fleece herself,  including the  washing and drying.  Each fleece arrived in one piece,  just as it was harvested from the animal,  before being bundled up in a bale which released a most horrendously foul odor when opened, a stench which lingered long after the washing process was completed. The weight of each fleece was often doubled by the amount of detritus it contained … everything from sand and dirt and sheep feces to a particularly redolent substance called suint which Mom explained was dried sheep sweat.

That little factoid was quite enough to keep me well away from the basement, where Mom’s fleece-washing station was set up.

wool images

After the first bale of raw wool arrived, it was only a matter of a day or two before the entire house reeked of the fetid fleeces strung out on washing lines suspended across the length of the basement.  And by the third day, my father had reached the limit of his endurance.   Our lovely house was his pride and joy and this sudden descent into olfactory squalor was too much for him.   The ultimatum was delivered.

“Make a choice, Maxine … it’s either the damned sheep corpses or me,”  Dad  announced with more asperity than accuracy.  Mom reminded him that they were only fleeces and not sheep corpses.   But she saw his point and backed down.   The fleece processing in our basement would be halted.


I wasn’t privy to whatever negotiations on this matter were later resumed.   Nothing more was said on the subject of the fleeces in front of us children.    But after a couple of weeks, production started up again.  Mom was careful to keep the basement door closed and made sure she was in situ in the kitchen or ensconced in the living room with her spinning wheel whirring when Dad came home from work.

 Clean fluffy clouds of wool began to appear in various baskets around the house awaiting her careful carding with odd little paddles equipped with hundreds of tiny metal pins.   She would place a  piece of fleece between the two carding paddles and then  pull them apart forcing the fibers into alignment.   When they appeared to be properly aligned, she would deftly roll the wool off the cards into a little cylindrical shape she called a rolag.   The rolags were then spun into yarn on her spinning wheel which looked exactly like the one  Rumpelstiltskin used in my old Grimm’s book of fairy tales.

As skeins of yarn started to accumulate in every room of our house, Mom’s enthusiasm for dyeing the carefully carded and spun wool burgeoned and she started to experiment with various natural extracts.  She boiled dandelions and various odd roots.   She crushed stems and berries and strained their juices into pots of boiling water.  Then she added what she said were mordants.   Ammonia, vinegar and alum.  Sometimes she added copper sulphate.   These chemicals somehow reacted with whatever natural substance she was using to prepare the dye baths.   And they interacted in different ways too.  It was amazing to see the different colors she could get with exactly the same boiled root or berry mixed with a different mordant.   I remember that the copper sulphate made the dye turn greenish.

But when  the first early October frosts began to nip at the leaves and wild flowers turning them into wilted clots of dead plant tissue,  Mom reluctantly began to search out other sources of dyes to see her through the long Canadian winter.   She finally settled on onion skins.  Any skin do and when she added her mordants to the bubbling dye baths,  the resulting hues were incredibly beautiful  …. and varied.  She saved every scrap of onion skin and persuded her friends to do likewise until the basement was filled with burlap bags of the precious material, sorted by color.   Dark reds, light tans and the slightly orange hued goldens.

By the time spring rolled around, Mom had accumulated a spectacular store of the richest colored yarn imaginable and had begun work on several huge wall hangings.

And peace reigned.


Several years passed and as the political climate in Quebec became more uneasy,  my parents decided to return to the West, where both had been born.   They settled on Vancouver Island choosing  Victoria,  a small and very lovely city with the most moderate climate in Canada.   It was a mecca for many seniors and there was a lively art scene, both factors which appealed to my Mom.

After a few months of settling in, Mom began to resuscitate her favorite cottage industry.   The looms were pulled out, the carding paddles unpacked and the spinning wheel re-assembled and placed in front of her favorite chair.  When the bales of wool she had cleaned in our basement in Montreal finally arrived, it was clear she wouldn’t be cleaning fleeces for a while.  There was a LOT of wool.   She stashed most of it in the back of the closets and under the beds  while the best quality fleece was firmly pressed down into her cedar chest until she had to sit on the lid to pull the latch down.

But most of that wool was still a natural white or tan shade since she usually dyed only what she needed for each individual project.  And she became increasingly impatient to start up since there were dozens of little galleries and shops in the city which she was sure would welcome her craft. Onion skins would be the easiest to obtain while she searched out the rarer wild flowers and roots in her new environs.  Or so she thought.

But her source of supply had been friends and neighbors and that pipeline was obviously cut off.  Mom was on her own.  She and Dad could only consume so many onions and she needed a lot of skins.  The local grocery stores seemed the best prospect and she made the rounds of Safeway and Thrifty.

She quickly discovered that supermarket onions were either packed in five pound orange net bags or were carefully selected one by one and arranged artfully in little piles.  There were no loose onions skins lying around on the counters.   Her only other alternative seemed to be an local Asian or European grocery where the produce was displayed in cartons on open stands.  Mom remembered seeing onions half buried in loose skins back home in Montreal. They were apparently shipped in from the farms with their rough outer peels ….   or canny customers hoping to save a few pennies, sloughed them off before they were weighed.  There were always a lot of onions skins at the bottom of the boxes.

Surely the shop-keeper would be happy to let her have them.

She decided to walk down to Lee’s Grocery Corner.   Lee was a rather taciturn Chinese man in his fifties who ran his chaotic shop single handedly.  He flitted like an over sized moth between rows of glass jars filled with brightly wrapped hard candies,  burlap sacks overflowing with rice and dried legumes and tables heaped with boxes of produce.   He would dip into a carton and pull out a perfect apple and display it with a flourish to a hesitating customer and with the other hand grab a small candy in a twist of foil and hand it to a child.  All in one fluid motion.

Bent on her mission, Mom had wasted no time in dressing up for a shopping and browing expedition along Douglas Street and had just tossed on an old jacket and Dad’s Tilley hat.  With two large empty canvas shopping bags to carry the onion skins home, she looked like any of the thousands of elderly residents who spent their days tottering along the streets and dipping in and out of the shops for a few daily necessities.

Mother hesitated a bit before going in.  She didn’t really patronize Mr. Lee’s shop very much.   His prices were slightly higher than Safeway and she liked to do the week’s shopping at the larger store.   But sometimes just before dinner, she’d run out of the milk which Dad drank at every meal all his life.   And then she’d dash down to Lee’s and purchase a quart, always grumbling a bit to herself about the extra pennies.   Which was merely habit, since she and Dad lived on a very nice pension and years of carefully invested savings.   Just a habit.

But after a few moments, she walked in and headed straight for the vegetable bins.   There were three or four varieties of onions   …. red, yellow and pearl white.   And some wonderful dark maroon ones.   She reached into the cardboard crate and was delighted to see there were lots of skins.  Oh la la.   She waved to Mr. Lee who scurried over and promptly plunged his hands into the box and pulled out a couple of perfect onions which he proffered with a little smile.

“Very fine onion.  I get best onion for customer.   Good taste  …”

Mother responded by digging her hands into the bottom of the carton and grabbing a fistful of the skins.  She held them out to Mr. Lee and then gestured towards her tote bag.

“Could I have these skins, Mr. Lee.   I just need the skins to dye my wool ….”

“Wool   …..  what is onion wool …?

“No.  The wool is just ordinary sheep’s wool I used for my weaving.   I dye the wool myself and I use onion skins.   I put them in a big pot of water  ….  ”  Mom made the gesture of putting the skins in a big pot and turning on a stove.    “And then  I dye the wool, ” she continued.

Mr. Lee’s face was a road-map of confused folds and wrinkles.  His forehead appeared to be furrowed in concentration while his eyes seemed to waver between amusement and concern.  Mom was clearly not getting her point across.  Mr. Lee didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.  Finally in a last ditch effort to clarify her reasons for wanting what to a shopkeeper was obviously garbage, she began a pantomime.

She raised her hands up to the ceiling as if she were holding large skeins of wool.  And then she dipped them into an imaginary pot and smiled happily as she said  …” Dyeing.   I’m going to dye the wool ….”

Suddenly Mr. Lee’s eyes went up to Mom’s hands raised heavenward with their fantasy wool and comprehension lit up his face.  For a brief moment.   Then he dipped his head and began to ruffle around busily in each of the four or five different boxes of onions on display.  He gathered handfuls of  the dry  skins and piled them on top of one of the cartons, waving mother away as she offered her tote bag.

“No no, Madam ….  I will pack for you.   No  …. you wait here,”  he said as he very firmly pushed her open tote bag to one side.   ” You wait …. I come back in one minute.”

He made a little gesture to Mom to stand aside as he hoisted the crate of onions, now topped up and overflowing with onion skins, onto his shoulder and disappeared into the back of the shop.

It was several moments before he returned carrying a large cardboard box, neatly tied up with twine, which he handed to Mom.    He looked rather sober as she took the box and smiled only wanly when she thanked him.   As she turned to go, he briefly patted her back and said softly, ” I hope good for dye…”


Mom headed straight for home, shifting the box from arm to arm as she walked to balance the weight.   She was surprised that onion skins could be so heavy, but reasoned that Mr. Lee had probably crushed a lot of them into the box.   She felt a warm glow of gratitude when she looked at the neatly knotted twine and the little “handle” he’d made so she could carry it more easily.

When she got home, she spread out a large sheet and opened the box.   As she looked in, she noticed a lovely golden onion peeking out from amidst the skins.   Mr. Lee must have forgotten to remove it.  But then she looked closer.

As she dug her hands into the box, she found three more perfect onions.  But it wasn’t until her fingers touched a beautiful fresh pear that she realized Mr. Lee hadn’t made a mistake.  There were two beautiful apples, a golden lemon and a small fragrant cantaloupe  lurking in the bottom of the box.   A cascade of the best produce Mr. Lee had in his little shop.

Mom sat there for a few moments, completely puzzled.  Then she began to carefully pull the strands together.   Like her wonderful tapestries.   Each little detail was a clue to the pattern.  And the answer.   She had walked into Mr. Lee’s shop carrying two tattered old totes she normally used to gather wild roots and plants.  She was obviously a senior and Mr. Lee knew she only dropped in to buy emergency items when the other big store was closed.   So he assumed she was living very frugally.

But there were thousands of poor seniors in Victoria.   Mr. Lee wasn’t going to give all his produce away.   And he’d chosen the best and freshest fruits.

Then in a flash, Mom saw.   And understood.  Soup.   Mr. Lee thought she was making soup out of those dried up skins.  And when she’d held her hands up miming the wool she was going to dip into the pot, he’d heard her say “dyeing”.

Mom laid the lovely fruits out on her table and cried.   For the generosity of a kind man.  For the beauty of his gesture.  For everything she knew was good in the world.




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3 Responses to Mom’s Dyeing … Another Gift from the Heart

  1. Your mom & Mr. Lee must be fabulous people. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Rosemary Callow says:

      I am so ready to read your book about your mom when you get it finished.We talked about when I was in Hawaii in Feb 2013

      • nikkitytom says:

        So glad you liked this post. It’s included in “Bird Songs” which I finished two weeks ago. I got the final proofs yesterday and I’ll have the approved book in a week or so. I am so pleased with the final edition … the illustrations and formatting were excellent.

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