When you look at wool, have you ever stopped to think about how it takes on its rich, vibrant colors? The practice of dyeing wool dates back centuries and was an important part of the work of Sam and Anna Daggett.
On the Daggett Farm in 1760 Connecticut, Sam and Anna raised sheep and owned a loom for the weaving of wool in their home. Dyeing was a big part of the process.
Today’s synthetic dyes hadn’t been invented when the Daggetts would have been dyeing wool. Instead, they used a natural process using the materials found in nature.
Various colors can be obtained through plants. For example, logwood, which is imported from the rainforest, produces beautiful purple colors, whereas madder root, which is actually grown in Greenfield Village, creates red and orange variations.
“Many of the dyes used back then are of ancient origin, some are imported; others can still be grown in the new world. Here, we use a combination of new and old world dye matter,” explains Cathy Cwiek, our Manager of Historic Foodways and Domestic Life programs.
What kind of materials can be used to create different colors?
Woad: an ancient plant dye that we use to create the color blue
Pokeberry: a weed that creates a pink dye
Osage Orange heartwood shavings: create a fluorescent yellow
Cochineal: a small insect that feeds on prickly pear cacti and gives off a red color. (A favorite of Cathy’s, it’s used as a natural dye in food products, too)
How do we dye wool in Greenfield Village?
First, we have to shear the sheep. This takes place once a year, usually in the spring.
Next, we pick and wash the fleece.
Then, the wool fibers are pulled in one direction by small hand cards (brushes) to help soften and untangle the wool. This process would take families months. Carding machines were later invented to mechanize the process.
The wool is then spun and turned into yarn on a spinning wheel.
Before dyeing, the yarn is wound into skeins.
Skeins are soaked in a mordant, a chemical that helps set colors to fabrics. We use vinegar and alum as a mordant for most plants, and spectralite for indigo plants. This can be done prior to dyeing or the mordant can be put in the dyeing pot.
To prepare the dye pot, put plant matter in a loose cloth and simmer until the color is extracted. Simmer wool in dye pot until the desired color is reached.
Rinse the wool.
The time required for this process varies depending on the kind of plant material being used and desired color. After that’s done, the wool is ready for a variety of uses.
“We knit hats, mittens, socks, scarves and anything else families would wear in that time period. It’s really a rewarding process,” Cathy said.
As you think about dyeing your own wool, look around you for inspiration.
“Experiment. Recently, I found a bright orange/yellow fungus growing on a tree. I dried it out and now I’m excited to see what color it will produce!” Cathy said.
Take a look at this video to see the dyeing process in action here at The Henry Ford.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.
As Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, I’m often asked what my favorite artifact is. This is a pretty tough question to answer when I have about 25 million artifacts to choose from—and to be honest, my favorites change all the time. Of the 18,000 or so artifacts added in our digital collections thus far, though, one of the items on my short list would have to be the Monkey Bar.
The Monkey Bar was created by Patrick J. Culhane (or possibly Culinane/Cullinane—correspondence we have related to the artifact contains several variants on his name) in 1914–15, while he was a prisoner at the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown, where he’d been sent after a conviction of “larceny from a conveyance.” Culhane crafted an amazingly extensive diorama by hand, out of materials including peach pits and scraps of wood, fabric, metal, cellulose, and plastic—and all on a base measuring about 16” x 20”.
Culhane intended the diorama to depict many of the worldly pitfalls that had put him and his fellow inmates on a path to prison. The Bar is chock full of monkeys engaged in all kinds of rambunctious activities—drinking alcohol, gluttonous eating, smoking (cigarettes, cigars, and opium), gambling and gaming in many forms (craps, roulette, checkers, shell game, and cards), playing music, monitoring the stock market via a ticker, and even paying off a policemonkey. Clearly some of the monkeys are ready to check into (or out of) the associated hotel, as they have their suitcases with them and keys and mail are visible behind the desk.
Perhaps surprisingly, monkey bars were created by other prisoners in the early part of the 20th century (another one was featured on Antiques Roadshow in 2007, for example), but the one in our collection is truly amazing in its tiny details, from the inlaid wood tables, to the cigar ash piling up wherever monkeys are smoking, to the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkey statuettes on top of the piano. Wherever you look in the great detail shots captured by our photographer, you see something new and striking.
The story didn’t end with the creation of this amazing piece, though. Likely working through intermediaries at a Boston-area Ford Motor Company plant, Culhane managed to get the Monkey Bar to Henry Ford. In this time period, Ford was particularly known for hiring those who might not otherwise have an equal shot, including the disabled, the mentally ill, and former convicts. A hand-calligraphed note on the Monkey Bar’s glass case reads “Presented to Mr. Henry Ford / As a token of appreciation and esteem for his many benevolent and magnanimous acts toward, and keen interest in, prisoners / By A Prisoner.”
Ford became interested in Culhane, and may even have interceded for his release. In January 1916, Culhane was hired to work at the Ford Motor Company plant in Cambridge, Mass. Ford’s secretary continued to correspond with the Cambridge plant about Culhane, which seems to indicate an ongoing interest on Ford’s part.
Over the next 15 years or so, Culhane married, had children, and became owner of his own roofing company, seemingly having turned his life around from his earlier, criminal days. One can only assume Henry Ford, given his views on the rehabilitation of former convicts and his continuing interest in Culhane, would have been overjoyed at this change of fortune.
Ellice Engdahl heads up the collections digitization effort at The Henry Ford, so gets many opportunities per day to revise her list of favorite objects. Invaluable assistance with this post was provided by her colleagues Lisa Korzetz, Registrar, and Andy Stupperich, Associate Curator.