The humble tansy

Another little update about what I've been up to, before I get to what I'm actually working on right now.

Last summer, I went on a little bike ride outside Amsterdam and came across a field full of pretty yellow flowers. Around this time, I was so thoroughly obsessed with finding potential dyes in my surroundings that I immediately tought "could this be a dye plant?". I vaguely rememberd having read something about it, but to be sure, I quickly googled it and got my confirmation. Fortunately, I had an empty bag with me, so I picked as many of the flowers as I could without hurting the plants.


The flower is called tansy, Latin Tanacetum vulgare, or boerenwormkruid in Dutch. It has an amazing smell, quite medicinal, that reminds me of camphor and rosemary. Most plants with such an intense scent were used in cooking or medicine in the past, and the tansy is no exception. It was used to get rid of intestinal worms (hence the Dutch common name, literally "farmer's worm weed") and other illnesses, and also as an insect repellent. According to the Wikipedia article, it is actually quite effective against insects. It contains certain toxic substances including thujone (the same stuff that used to make absinthe such a wild ride), which probably make it a bit unsafe to use in cooking or as a home remedy, unless you know exactly what you're doing.

Fortunately for my health, I wasn't going to eat it - although it might be an interesting-tasting herb - but find out what colours I could extract from it. The process was straightforward: chopping up the plant material and boiling it in water. I added alum as a mordant and dyed some cotton fabric and wool roving. The result was a lovely yellow, quite similar to weld which is probably the best-known traditional yellow dye-plant. Modified with iron it turned into various shades of olive green, which I'm very happy with. Adding the iron directly to the plant extract before adding the fabric resulted in a darker, slightly grayish green, while adding iron to fabric that had already been dyed yellow made a brighter, more yellowy green. The dye also seems to be very lightfast, making it ideal for my purposes. 


These first experiments kicked off a summer-long obsession with the plant. I started to see them everywhere, mostly along roadsides and on empty lots in industrial areas. Interestingly, the flowers stay on the plant for months without fading. This was good news for me, as I wanted to pick as many of them as possible before the end of the season. I even dragged my long-suffering boyfriend on another long bike ride to find and pick more. (In case you're worried, I would never pick so much of any plant that it would hurt them. Tansy is plentiful and hardy and even considered a weed in some places, so I don't see a problem with harvesting quite a lot of it.) I dyed piles of fabric, unspun wool, yarn and paper and still had lots of flowers left over, which I dried on my laundry rack to keep for later. These all got used up over the course of the following months.

After the last large project, I wasn't sure what to do next. The tansy-obession kept me busy for a while, but dyeing fabric and paper was never supposed to be an end unto itself. I started playing around with the materials, did some experiments and made a few small pieces. I like them all well enough, I love the colours and the textures, especially the wavy paper. But somehow I was not happy. There was something missing...


It took me a little while to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with everything I made. In the end, the answer was quite simple: everything was just too small. Nothing that small could ever have the impact I wanted it to have. I needed another big project in my life! And that is what I'm working on now, and have been for the past few months. More tansy fabric, more sewing and weaving, more soft greens and yellows  - coming soon to this theatre!