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A Fire and Smoke Ritual for Land Healing and Blessing

A few years ago, I led a smoke cleansing (smudge) stick making workshop at the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering event. As that event often has upwards of 100 attendees, I spent months growing and harvesting materials for the event so that everyone could make 1-2 sticks.  Sure enough, everyone got to make some smudge sticks and the workshop went great.  After the workshop, one of my friends and event fire tenders, Derek, came up to me and asked me about the leftover materials.  I had been placing them in a paper bag, and had planned on taking them home to make more sticks or return to the land. He said, “I want to make a smudge bomb and send healing smoke to this entire land.”  I said, “Yes, what a great idea!” So we tightly bundled up the remainder of the material, which filled at least 1/3 of the paper grocery bag, and wrapped it with the same cloth string.  The next day, as the Ovates were meeting around the fire circle in preparation for ritual, he brought out the smudge bomb.  The previous night’s fire had been a particularly large one, and in the morning, it still contained the embers from the fire the night before. Derek carefully placed the smudge bomb into the glowing embers.  It worked just as we hoped: it smoldered and sent up a healing and blessing smoke into the surrounding land. And it lasted quiet a long time!  Ever since that experience, I’ve been working with fire in different ways to think about how we might use fire and smoke to bless and heal large spaces, and how we can also make offerings in thanks to fire, humanity’s oldest friend and companion.  Today’s post compiles some of those ideas, big and small and is a follow-up to my ancestral Beltane fire post from last week.

 

Altar with various bundles, getting ready to burn

Land Healing through Fire and Smoke: A Fire and Smoke Ritual  in Three Parts

Using the “smudge bomb” experience for inspiration, I developed a larger technique for using fire and smoke for land healing and blessing, creating specific ritual objects that are created in a sacred manner and then burned to send that energy, by way of smoke and wind, to far off places.  As I described in my earlier series on land healing, land healing comes in many forms.  Energetic healing or palleative care can be useful in situations where the land is actively under duress (which unfortunately describes many places on earth currently), where physical land healing (through permaculture, seed scattering, etc) is not an option. One of the challentes with land healing, particularly on a larger scale, is that you don’t always have physical access to the land you want to heal.  I do think that doing ritual directly on the lands you want to heal is most effective–but doing something else at a distance can be equally as effective if you have some good way of transmitting that energy.  Thus, this ritual technique is very useful for spaces, far and wide, that are otherwise inaccessible: around here that would be large swaths of logging, strip mines, polluted waterways, etc.  It is also very useful for healing more distant concerns: the plight of polar bears in the Arctic or deforestation in the Amazon, the oceans, or some other “far away” issue.  Or maybe you want to do land healing working for the entire globe. Thus, this technique is one that you can use to send healing and blessing energy to the lands nearby–or quite distant, using air and smoke as a carrier.

 

Smoke is often seen in today’s culture very negatively primarily because of our challenged relationship with tobacco: we have secondhand smoke, smoking as a harmful and life-threatening, smoke from wildfires causing issues, and  much more. And yet, smoke cleansing and blessing practices have been used throughout human history and in many cultures as a blessing and purifying agent (this link has a nice overview; this link is a study to over 250 plants used in smoke healing around the world).  In the druid tradition and in other pagan traditions, we use these practices quite a bit: through smoke cleansing (smudge) sticks, incense, using tree resins– smoke helps us call in and establish air in ceremonies and connect deeply with that element.  We often use smoke clearing, incense and similar such things on a smaller scale–but why not consider it on a large-scale for land healing or blessing?

 

Thus this technique has three parts.  Each of these three parts has both a physical component and an energetic component. The parts are:

1. Creating a bundle or object that will turn to smoke and bring that energy, through the currents of the air, to other places.

2. Creating a fire in a sacred manner and opening a sacred space.

3. Burning and releasing the bundle and directing energy.

(And then, of course, closing out your space and giving thanks. )

 

Part 1: Making Your Healing Bundle / Healing Object

Now, I’ll walk through some potential options for how to create your own healing bundle.  I am giving you options below to spark your own creativity, s.  Before we get into the bundles, I want to offer a few general principles:

 

  • *Everything* in these bundles should be all natural, coming directly from nature. This is because you are burning the objects, so obviously, you don’t want to burn something that pollutes the air.  So for example, if you are using string, it should be cotton, hemp or jute (string can be plastic), wax (use soy wax or beeswax).  Because non-natural materials can release harmful chemicals into the air, thereby rendering any particular healing work you want to do ineffective.
  • Like most magical workings, I think its less important the physical form it takes and more the intentions you bring with it.  Work with what you have and don’t worry about replicating what I have here–rather, create things from your local environment that speak to you.
  • Look for opportunities: a fallen conifer branch, a neighbor trimming a hedge of rosemary or hemlock, a huge number of pinecones, abundant material on your own land, etc.
  • At the same time, a larger size bundle certainly does give a good ritual effect, which is something you might want to consider.  Small ones work great too, but large ones burn longer, giving you more time to focus healing energies in a particular direction.

Three sample bundles: pine cone/herb bundle, wood burned oak slab, and bundle of sticks wrapped with prayers and sealed with wax.

There are two kinds of bundles you can make: things that are meant to smolder and things that are meant to burn. Things that smolder  are more traditionally used like incense on coals, and are designed to be added to existing coals or a slow burning fire.  Things that burn, on the other hand, are designed to burn when a fire is hot (and usually are wooden in some way).

 

Some Possibilities for Things that Smolder:

 

The Herbal Healing Bundle: This technique uses a bundle of aromatic dried healing herbs, very similar to the “smudge bomb” I described in my opening–a mix of carefully chosen herbs for their healing effects.  You can design a specific bundle for a specific healing purpose based on the herbs that you choose (see my list here).  I like to create these at the end of the season, when I’m clearing out my garden, and I have to cut plants back anyways.  This is also a great use of the stalks of plants; so if I’m harvesting sage, rosemary, wormwood, tobacco, and other plants, after I harvest the leaves, I am often left with a lot of stalk matter that I don’t know what to do with–and it goes in the bundle.  Any material (other than poison ivy) would work fine for such a bundle, but I think it’s particularly good with aromatic healing herbs that burn well–rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, scented geranium, wormwood, mugwort, etc.   For this technique, if you are using dried herbs, I suggest using a paper bag (which you can write your intentions on and then place the herbs inside) and wrap it tight with cotton string.  Depending on the nature of the herbs, you might be able to make your bundle without the bag, especially if you have a lot of long plant stalks, etc.  If you are using green/fresh herbs, you probably want to just bundle them without the bag using cotton string so that they will have a chance to dry out.  If you don’t grow your own herbs and/or don’t do wild foraging, this options probably isn’t as good for you as it requires a good amount of herbs and obtaining them may be more cost prohibative.  Never fear, there are many other options!

 

The Resin and Herb Bundle:  Conifer resins are a great addition to the herbal healing bundle; they smolder and produce a very good deal of smoke and last for a long time.  You can add conifer resins to a standard herbal healing bundle or use them on their own.  You don’t want to throw these directly in a fire; they are better off smoldering on coals.  You can also add conifer needles and branches, which will sometimes crackle and pop.

 

Pine cone bundle – this was for blessing the conifers of the land

Pine cone / Herb Bundle: Pine cones make great smoldering options, as they often contain a lot of resin in them.  I like to sprinkle my pine cones with herbs and then bind them together.

 

Shapes, Rings, and Effigies: Rather than putting your materials in a bag, you might instsead choose to shape some form–a wreath, for example, offers additional symbolism. Certain kinds of herbs and plants are obviously better for this than others.  An easy way to do this is to get a wooden ring started (see my instructions here for how I did this for a different project) and then from there, you can use cotton string to wrap dried or fresh herbs around the ring, layering until you have somehing you are happy with.

 

Things that Burn:

The Conifer Bundle: Conifer trees love to burn, and many of them have needles that are flamable, even when they are green and not dried out.  Eastern white cedar and other cedars, in particular, goes up well.  You can create a bundle of fresh or dried conifer boughs (or create a wreath or other shape).  This would be a good way to use up material from your Yule tree or else if you or a neighbor were trimming hedges of confiers, etc.   Bundle them up with cotton string and watch the sparks fly!

 

The Wax and Herb Bundle: An alternative to the large bundle described above uses beeswax candles wraped in herbs.  Beeswax will burn very brightly and leave off powerful light, and thus, is particularly good when you want to be bringing energy into a situation.  Take 1-2 beeswax candles (or a small brick of beeswax) and then layer the outside with herbs.  Or, you can heat wax up till its just soft, and then, roll herbs into the candle.  When you throw this into the fire, it will burn brightly and send energy outward quickly.

 

The Wooden Message Bundle: A final option is to use wood itself to fashion something–a bundle of sticks, wrapped with messages or healing words.  A wooden round with wood burning or natural ink messages, a wooden object bound together with string; a vine wreath with tucked in messages, and so on.  The sky is really the limit here.

Burning a Land Healing and Blessing Slab at Beltane

This first photo is for a simple healing for my own land; working with a wooden slab that I created and later burned ritually.  My own land was damaged through logging the year before I bought it, and I’ve been doing a lot of healing work here.  Burning this in a central fire helped send that blessing energy out to the land (and after burning it, to help further the intention, I did some cleaning up of a burn pile left by the previous owners that I had found a few weeks earlier).

Prayers for the world bundle

The second was a more in-depth bundle I created for holding space for species in decline and in danger of extinction and for ecosystems under direct threat. Each of the sticks in the bundle was a message that I wrote and tied to each stick; each stick became part of the larger bundle, which I sealed with wax. Each of these prayers were global in nature, thus, the smoke would carry the energy where it needed to go.

 

Part 2: A Sacred Fire

The bundles can be made anytime in advance of your fire ritual.  You can also make them together, as a grove or group of people.  To do your ritual itself, you can choose an aspicious day for your ritual (a full moon, a new moon, one of the wheel of the year holidays, etc).  I used Beltane for my most recent bundles–which are what the photos are of in this post.

 

If you can, I suggest building the fire intentionally and using traditional techniques (or in the least, not starting your fire with fossil fuels like lighter fluid–this is a healing ceremony, and using fossil fuels which are causing so much ecological damage sends the wrong signal and energetically, has issues).

 

Fire ready to accept healing bundles

Fire ready to accept healing bundles

Prior to starting your fire, I suggest that you open up a sacred space using whatever method you typically use (for druids, this might include delcaring peace in the quarters, calling in the four elements, saying the druid’s prayer, and casting a circle or protective sphere around the space). Once you’ve setup your sacred space, light your fire and tend it till you have what you need: good coals you can rake into an open area (for the smoldering bundles) or a blaze (for the burnables).

 

Part 3: Burning Your Bundle and Sending Energy Out

Once you are ready, place your bundle before you.  I like to do an elemental blessing of my bundle at the fire, blessing it with the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, inviting those elements into the bundle to help with the healing work.  You could do other things here, for example, if you are a reiki practitioner, you could send some reiki energy into the bundle, etc.  You might also raise energy in the bundle in other ways; drumming a steady beat into the bundle also works great.

 

Burning the healing bundle–I let the fire go almost out, then I put it on there and it smoldered for a long time.

State your intentions for the bundle, and offer it to the fire.  Observe as it burns, watching it and seeing if you see any messages within the fire.  As it burns, you want to envision that energy going to where you want it to–that the winds take that energy to the places you wish it to travel.  This may take some time, and my suggestion is to hold space for the duration of the bundle burning and smoldering.  You might also do other things to help the energy get there: drum, dance, sing, etc.

 

Once you are done, close out the space, and if at all possible, allow the fire to burn out naturally.

A Beltane Blessing: The Magical Art of Pysanky Batik Eggs

Bowl of Magical Eggs

Bowl of Magical Eggs

When I was a child, my family and I would spend hours carefully drawing melted beeswax onto eggs and dyeing them, the rounds of successive colors growing darker and darker. Once an egg had been fully dyed and covered in wax, it was time to unveil the magical colors, the revelation of incredible, magical works of art.  Pysanky, or Ukrainian Eggs, is an old tradition still in practice here in Western PA; it was brought over from Ukrainian peoples and others of Eastern European decent and spread throughout the area (it was later suppressed in the old world by the Communists, who claimed it was a “religious practice” for a number reasons, some of which we’ll explore in this post).  I’m not sure how my family originally found our way into this practice, but every year, we would make our delicate and beautiful works of art and display them on a bowl in our living room. This year, my mother put a bowl of them out for Easter, and I wanted to get back into this lovely art form, this time with a bit of a magical twist! And so, today, we will dive into the art of crafting magical eggs using batik techniques!  This is an absolutely perfect magical art form to practice at Beltane–hence the timing of this post.

 

This Beltane-themed post has two parts–first, I wanted to explore some of the traditions and mythology surrounding these magical eggs. And in the second half of the post, I’ll show how to make your own psyanky eggs.

What is Pysanky?

Pysanky is a permanent art form where the artist uses a wax resist method to preserve colors during a dye process. The egg has all of its contents removed (yolk, white) and is washed out so that the shell is all that you are working on–this creates a permanent art form. Essentially, you add wax to the color you want to remain that color, and then dye the egg a darker color. Everything that isn’t covered by wax will take that new color. For example, if you want white, you start with a white egg and add wax to all areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg to your next lightest shade (usually yellow), then add beeswax to all the yellow areas. Then you dye it your next shade (green or orange) and add wax to all of the green/orange areas, and so on, until you end with some dark color, often black, dark blue, or purple. The beeswax is removed, and the brilliant colors are revealed. The choice of colors and symbolism adds various magical properties to the egg–this is not just me saying this, but this is part of the tradition. The egg is ready to display for a blessing of prosperity, health, or more!

A brightly colored egg!

A brightly colored egg!

Pysanky Lore and History

In Eastern Europe, and eventually the USA, the tradition of egg dying and egg marking is quite old. Its not just Ukrainian, but nearly all Eastern European peoples have traditions of drawing on eggs with beeswax and adding dyes. Scholars are pretty sure that this tradition dates back to pre-Christian times (so perhaps even the times the druids were hanging around in Gaul!) due to the nature-based symbolism and enormous amount of magic and folk legends surrounding the eggs.

 

One of the oldest traditions on the magic of Pysanky is from the Hutsul people, who believed that a evil serpent is bound to a mountain cliff, with heavy iron chains.  The monster has many envoys, who he sends to pay attention to people in villages–if he hears news that the people are ill, suffering, angry, or at war, he laughs and shakes the mountains, loosening his chains.  If this were to go on long enough, he would be let loose upon the world with his chains falling away and cause evil and destruction.  If his envoys tell him that people are happy and in high spirits, he grows angry and the chains grow tighter.  If people are making psyanky, that they are still making them and carrying the tradition forward, he gets very angry and thrashes about, which makes his chains grow even tighter!  His head beats against the cliff (thunder), his chains grow tighter, and sparks (lightening) begin to fly!  So this folk method suggests that the pysanky literally keep the world safe (more legends can be found here).

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

 

There are a few other bits of information I’d like to share.  Many of these come out of really books and papers on Pysanky that are in my personal collection on the subject:

  • “The Egg, as the embodiment of the life principle, has been associated with mythical and religious ceremonies since the earliest pagan times…each province, each village, each family has its own special ritual, its own symbols, meanings, and secret formulas for dying eggs.  These heritages are preserved faithfully and passed down from mother to daughter through the generations.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)
  • “The custom of decorating pysanky is observed with greatest care, and a pysanka, after receiving the Easter blessing, is held to contain great powers as a talisman.  A bowl of pysanky was invariably kept in every home, serving not only as a colorful display but also as protection against lighting and fire.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)
  • “Peasants placed krashanka shells [krashanka are the solid, dyed eggs] in the thatched roofs of their homes and under hay mounds to turn away high winds.  Beekeepers put them under hives for a good supply of honey. On St. George’s Day, a krashanka was rolled in green oats and buried in the ground so that the harvest would be full and not harmed by rain or wind. The Krashanka was also credited with healing powers. A krashanka, blessed on Easter eve, was suspended on a string from the neck of a seriously ill person, or touched to infected areas on persons suffering from blood poisoning to effect a cure.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)

I’ll get into more detail on the symbols themselves used in the eggs later, when I talk about how to make the eggs.  And so, what we see here is a lasting, magical tradition surrounding the creation of these eggs.

 

A Synthesis of Traditions: A Modern “Druid’s Egg”

So on the other side of Europe, we have the occurrence of the “Druid’s Egg” that is discussed in connection with the Ancient Druids.  I am not, in any way, saying that these traditions are connected or the same thing.  But I do want to consider some parallels.  Of the Druid’s egg,  Pliny writes in his Historia Naturalis of the ancient druids: “The magical practices of the druids, their knowledge of botany and the sciences.  They wore a distinguishing badge, a “serpent’s egg” worn on the bosom and regarded as a potent talisman.” Other writings, also from Pliny, show that these “druid eggs” were created naturally, in a snake pit, and that the eggs were very magical, protective, and held in high esteem by the ancient druids who wore them as protective talismans. People used these eggs to win court cases and gain “favorable reputation” with princes. And people were even killed if they had them in their possession due to their potent magical effectiveness. Obviously, in modern Druid Revival orders, we don’t take the idea of the druid’s egg quite so literally (after all, even historians aren’t sure what the druid’s eggs actually were), although the idea of the “druid’s egg” certainly is woven into some of our lore and practices.  I think this bit of history gives ways for new interpretations of the “druid’s egg” and how we can manifest it today, through the bardic arts.

 

There are some parallels between the traditions that are interesting to note. If we study the artwork of many of these pysanky, there is an “entwining” feature that naturally occurs due to the nature of the egg.  We can, in making these eggs, create entwining patterns that make a nod back to the original producers of druid eggs, serpents. Druid eggs were said to be highly magical and rare.  And the same can be said of pysanky: not many people do pysanky today either.  I’ll also note the importance of serpents in both sets traditions; in both they are dangerous, and the egg is somehow connected to them and their power. Finally, the magical powers of eggs in both traditions, especially for protection, blessing and power.

 

Given some of these parallels, I’d like to propose that one modern “druid egg” can be the pysanky, and its something we can embrace and practice as a magical art form.  So let’s get onto the best part: how to make these delightful eggs!

 

One of my favorite new eggs!

One of my favorite new eggs!

Materials Needed

Dyes for Eggs

Commercial, very bold and beautiful dyes for psyanky are readily available.  I’ve found that these dyes can be put in a wide mouth pint canning jar with a lid and used effectively for 2-3 weeks (after that they lose their dye capacity, and even reboiling them doesn’t allow for them to stick.  I’m still trying to figure that out).  A good source for dyes is at this Etsy Shop (Ukrainian Egg Supplies).

 

But the other option, and the more traditional choice, is to make your own natural dyes.  Kozolowski (1977, Easter Eggs…Polish Style) offers some ingredients traditionally used for egg dyes but doesn’t give details on how to make the dye.  In my experience, you can boil these down for a long period of time, add salt, alum or vinegar (or boil them in straight white vinegar) and strain them.  Its similar to how you’d make any other natural dye.  The list below is dervied from Kozolowsi with my own addition of other plant matter and berries that I often use for dyes:

  • Yellow: Onion skin, straw, saffron, dandelion flowers, goldenrod
  • Orange: Crocus petals, goldenrod
  • Red: Red beets, plums
  • Green: Spinach, grass, moss, buckthorn berry
  • Blue: Sunflower seeds, logwood, Huckleberry
  • Purple: Blackberries, elderberry
  • Brown: Alder cones, coffee, walnut husks
  • Black: Walnut shells, alder bark
  • Pink: Pokeberry

Of course, the problem is that not all of these dyes show up at the same time of the year.  I have had good luck in making the dye and then freezing it till the right time.  I’ve also experimented with drying the berries and trying to make dye later, but that has been less successful.

 

Tools and Materials

  • Kitska: You will need some tools to draw designs on your eggs. These tools are called Kistka (kistky; plural), for your eggs.  You can get them at the supplier listed above or readily online.  They are very simple tools–I like the ones with the little reservoir and the plastic handles.  You can also make your own.
  • Wax: You will need some beeswax in either little granules or a block.
  • Candles: You will need 1 candle per person to melt the wax.
  • Workspace Protection: You will want to lay down a plastic bag or newspaper around your workspace, especially the area you are dyeing the eggs.  The dyes can really stain a countertop!  You may also want to have some paper down around the areas where you are adding the wax.
  • Egg blower: You will want to invest in this little $12 tool–its an egg blower, and it allows you to easily blow eggs out prior to starting your dyeing.  When I was a kid, we used to blow them out by creating two holes, one at each end, and just blowing and blowing till all the insides came out.  For one, its a lot of work.  But for two, its now dangerous to do so due to the high level of salmonella in eggs today. The egg blower is amazing–you can blow out about a dozen eggs in 45 min or less!  Here’s where you can get a nice egg blower.

    Tulip egg my mother made

    Tulip egg my mother made

The Eggs

The eggs themselves should be carefully selected for the following qualities:

  • Eggs need to be whole (not cracked at all).
  • They need to have minimal bumps, and instead be smooth.
  • They need to have a pleasing shape (symmetrical) and of a shape you like.

You can start with white eggs or, if you prefer, you can start with a light brown, cream, or even blue chicken egg as the base color for your design.  I have found that getting an assortment of nice eggs at a local farm gives me a wide variety to work with.  The shells of these eggs are also usually thicker and better than those factory farmed eggs in the store.  You can also use duck eggs–but beware that some duck eggs have a film that you may want to scrub off.  I am really enjoying working with duck eggs!

 

The Process

So now I’m going to walk you through the full process of making your own beautiful pysanky!  As I said before, this is a great activity do do around Beltane.  I’ve taken to starting my Pysanky making at the Spring Equinox and wrapping it up around Beltane, so I have a full 8 weeks making these amazing eggs.  And without further delay, here’s how you make the eggs!

 

1.  Prepare your workspace and lay out your dyes. You will need to make your dyes according to the package instructions or according to natural dye making strategies.  Make sure you add vinegar to either kind of dye–it helps the dye take better on the eggs.  It is wise to place your dyes in a separate area (on a kitchen counter is good) and protect that area well.  I also like to get a bit of paper and dip a small piece into each dye and then put them in front of the jar so that you can see what the color looks like.  Here’s a dye setup (I’m using commercial dyes):

Dyes on the counter

Dyes on the counter

And here’s a setup for drawing the wax on the eggs.  The egg carton holds extra eggs, there are books for reference and a sketchbook for drawing out potential designs.  We have a roll of paper towels to keep fingerprints off of the eggs.  And of course, we have our candles and tools.  We have found that adding a little cardboard box below the candle catches drips and keeps them off the table.

Workspace for egg wax drawing

Workspace for egg wax drawing

2.  Select your eggs.  Select eggs that are free of cracks and that are smooth and well-shaped (see above).  Have some extras available, cause you will likely break a few in the drilling and blowing process (or even drop them at other points–try not to!)

A nice example of an egg.

A nice example of an egg. This one is setup to drill (see step 3).

3. Blow out your eggs. We use a Dremel drill to drill a small hole on the bottom of the egg.  I will sit the egg in a small cup, place a paper towel between the cup and the egg, and then drill the egg carefully. I usually drill about a dozen eggs at a time if several people are making pysanky. The second step is to use the egg blower to blow out the inside of your eggs (I blow them into a bowl, so that you can make a nice quiche later in the day!)  The third step is to add some water to rinse out the inside of the egg. and make sure the last of the egg is out (I don’t add this to my egg bowl).  Finally, you can let it dry out by placing it hole down in an egg carton or placing a little bit of paper towel up in the hole for 10 or so min.

Blowing out eggs

Blowing out eggs

3. Decide on a pattern or design.  This is my favorite part of the process–its here where you decide what your design will look like.  I like to use a pencil and very lightly draw my design (or design lines/guides) on the egg (the pencil will come off later in the process).  You can also use a string to wrap around the egg so that you get straight lines.

 

At this stage, you also need to get in your head how the dye process works and do some planning for the different colors you might use.  One of the biggest beginner mistakes is not to have enough contrast between colors–remember that its contrast that makes the different colors stand out.  If you end up with three light colors next to each other, the egg won’t be as beautiful.  But if you use light and dark colors next to each other, it makes the designs stand out more.

 

You also want to do your first few eggs simply. Maybe do a white pattern, a light blue pattern, and then dye it dark blue and that’s your first egg.  That will allow you to see how it works without getting too complicated for your first egg.

 

There are many options for designs and colors, as you’ll see under “symbols in pysanky” below–and all of these symbols and designs have meaning.  In addition to the traditional ones I’ve listed, we have an assortment of other kinds of symbols you can draw upon with meaning: spirals, celtic knots, awens, and more

 

Lines on an egg before I begin

Lines on an egg before I begin laying out my design

Symbols in Pysanky

The designs in traditional Pysanky all have meaning.  I have worked to compile the list of symbol meanings from various sources from my book collection on pysanky: Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957; Easter Eggs….Polish Style by Lawrence G. Kozlowski (1977); Ukranian Easter Eggs by Linda Gruber,  a handout by Martha Winchorek titled “Ukranian Pysanky (Easter Eggs) Designs) that is undated; and a handout titled “How to Make Ukrainian Pysanky (Easter Eggs) by the Pysanky Committee, Ukranian graduates of Detroit and Windsor (undated).  The traditional symbols and magical meanings are as follows:

  • Dots may represent stars or may be used in conjunction with lines to form a division on the egg
  • Ribbons, lines, or belts, those that encircle the egg, represent eternity (since they are continuous lines)
  • Lines in a pattern that would make a net are one of the most ancient designs, and are associated with the Hutzul people’s myth of the snake
  • Triangles are symbolic of the trinity, also the elements of air, fire, and water
  • A comb/rake is symbolic of the harvest
  • Flowers – symbolic of love and charity; happiness
  • Stars – An 8 pointed star has particular pagan connotations (it is connected to the pagan Sun god, Atar; connotes sunshine); stars are usually placed on the broad side of the egg and are very common
  • Pine tree or fir tree – symbolic of youth and health
  • Poppy or Sun – good fortune
  • Crosses – usually occur in the Greek style, with four similar arms; they can be symbolic of Christianity, but there are surviving designs and motifs that show this symbol is much older
  • Reindeer, Deer, or Horse– symbolic of wealth or prosperity
  • Rooster – Symbolic of fertility or the fulfillment of wishes
  • Birds – symbolic of happiness
  • Butterfly – symbolic of nature and resurrection/transformation
  • Horns, Spirals, Bends, Maidens: Combinations of spiral lines; these appear in several books but no meaning is given
  • Zig-Zag or Double-Zig Zag Pattern: (Called a wave or saw).  When this occurs in two parallel lines, it denotes death and was used for funeral palls.  So its RARELY used in Pysanki for that reason (the eggs are symbols of life and light!)
  • A spiral: Also used, connected to nature
  • A circle with a dot in the middle: represents something bright and noble; represents the sun and good fortune
  • A circle with a cross inside reaching the edges: represents the sun; good fortune

In Ukranian Easter Eggs Gruber writes, “Every mark that is placed on an egg has a meaning.  People with expertise in Pysanky can distinguish between eggs decorated in different sections of Ukraine and even between villages.  In the villages, certain families have come to be known for their distinct patterns” (3).   I find the symbolism here, pulled from old books, utterly fascinating.  Some of this same symbolism shows up, unsurprisingly, in the old esoteric lore! You can also use any other symbolism from within other spiritual or magical practices (such as some of the symbols I included here in an earlier post).
Ok, so at this point, you have your dyes made, your eggs drilled and blown, and a good design in your mind (and maybe drawn on your egg) complete with magical symbolism.  Now comes the fun part!

 

4.  Add your first wax layer.  Your first wax layer will be of your LIGHTEST color–that is typically white, but it might also be a very lightly dyed first color. You add the wax by heating up your tool, then scraping or dropping some wax into the tool, and wiping off the excess before drawing the tool across the egg.

 

Adding wax to an egg

Adding wax to an egg

5. Add your first dye layer.  Before adding your egg to the dye, you will need to seal up the drill hole with wax before you put it in the dye bath.  A little gob of wax does the trick here.  So, you can now dye your egg with the lightest color that you want to use in your design. Typically, this is yellow. The longer you leave your egg in the dye, the darker the dye will become on the egg.

 

Since your egg is hollow, you will need to weigh it down the egg so that it is fully dyed.  We found that a 1/2 pint jar works perfectly for this! I forgot to photograph this, unfortunately (so no photo here).  But basically you can use an empty 1/2 pint canning jar; it fit in a 1 pint widemouth jar that you are using for dye, and it will weigh the egg down.   Wait a few minutes, and pull your egg out often to check on the dye and see how you like the color.  Then when you are happy with the intensity of the color, pull it out of the dye and let it sit till it is dry again.  Its for this reason that we usually work on 2-3 eggs at a time–some are dyeing, some are drying, and one we are actively working on!  If you want a REALLY deep color, you can even put your egg in for several hours (or overnight) and you will get very intense colors.

 

6. Add successive wax and dye layers. You need to think about how the different colors already on the egg will interact with any colors you later put on the egg and plan accordingly.  This means you need to play for the dye path you will take.  So a few typical paths that you can use to dye include:

  • White–> yellow -> orange –> red  –> purple –> black
  • White –> Yellow –> light green –> blue –> purple –> black
  • White –> green –> blue –> Red (which makes purple) –> black

And so on.  Each layer gets darker, and its hard to go between complimentary colors on the color wheel (e.g. green to red makes a brown; yellow to purple makes a brown; blue to orange makes a brown).  As you work with the dyes, you can also experiment with different color combinations.

 

Here is an example of the successive layers of dyes that I used for my tree egg.

Second layer of dye and wax on my tree egg

Second layer of dye and wax on my tree egg; this was a sunflower yellow

 

Third layer of dye and wax

Third layer of dye and wax (egg is in the front left); its now a light green, which is going to be all of the leaves on my tree.

 

Fourth layer of dye and wax

Fourth layer of dye and wax.  I’ve taken it to red, which interacted with the green and gave me a nice dark red.  This is going to be the ground areas and trunk.

 

7.  Allow the egg to fully dry after the last layer of dye. I would recommend at least an hour total for the drying time before you proceed with removing your wax (although it is hard to wait!).  You melt the wax off by  holding the egg carefully to the candle for brief amounts of time and wiping the wax off with a clean tissue or paper towel (a tissue works better).

An egg that is ready to have the wax removed

An egg that is ready to have the wax removed

 

Removing wax from an egg

Removing wax from an egg

8. Finish the egg and display!  You can leave a thin layer of beeswax and wipe it all over the egg to preserve it. A lot of people choose to use varnish on their eggs to help seal in the colors, but I haven’t done that and they last just fine. But at the end of this process, you have an incredible work of art! Here’s the finished egg from my earlier photographs:

Here's my completed tree egg!

Here’s my completed tree egg!

I hope that you’ve found this post to be an inspiration to you on your path deeper into the bardic arts!  I have found making of these eggs to be a wonderful, relaxing pastime.  They are unique gifts, full of magic and beauty!  Not to mention, they look great on your altar :).

Altar with eggs

Altar with eggs

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part I: Equipment, Resources, What to Learn, and Timing

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about various wild foods and other kinds of wildcrafting and foraging on this blog, and I wanted to talk today about the principles of wildcrafting and ethical foraging more broadly. This post is the first in a series of two that focuses on introducing the reader to how to effectively wildcraft/forage, and is built upon my extensive experiences foraging and wildcrafting, which I have been doing in some form since childhood, but which I took up quite seriously about 7 years ago. This post offers definitions, supply lists, resources, what and how to learn, and information on timing. My second post in this series will discuss locations, avoiding environmental pollutants, and ethics.

 

Deep in the blueberry bog--an abundant harvest!

Deep in the blueberry bog–an abundant harvest!

Defining Wildcrafting and Foraging

Defining Wildcrafting: Wildcrafting is a modern term for an ancient practice. For as long as humanity has existed, we have gathered from the natural world for our food, shelter, medicine, clothing, ritual items, arts, and much more. Wildcrafting today refers to gathering materials from the land that you will use for various purposes, most frequently food or medicine, crafts, household items, natural building, carpentry, ritual items, clothing, and more. I often see the term associated with medicinal herbs, but there are many other possibilities for the wildcrafter. Non-food uses of wildcrafted items that I’ve covered in this blog include wildcrafted medicines such as jewelweed salve or various medicinal tinctures, smudge sticks, inks, baskets, and incense.

 

Defining Foraging: Foraging is a type of wildcrafting that is specific to finding food: wild food foragers hunt for food throughout the year (and I’ve covered many of my favorite foods one can forage for: burdock, black raspberries, violets, rampschicken of the woods mushrooms, and autumn olives, to name a few).

 

Other associated terms you might hear are bushcraft (a term for a variety of wilderness skills, such as shelter building, trapping, or fire making) and woodcraft (another term for skills associated with the woods).

 

Why Wildcrafting/Foraging?

Abundant harvest of black raspberry--one of my very favorites!

Abundant harvest of black raspberry–one of my very favorites!

This is a good question, and one that I get asked more often than one might expect.  For me, wildcrafting and foraging have numerous benefits, many of which are not material. First, as a druid, I enjoy spending time in nature, in stillness, in focus, and simply enjoying the natural world around me.  Wildcrafting gives me a good reason to get myself into the forest and the fields as often as I can. Second, I’ve been talking a lot on this blog lately about reskilling; developing the skills necessary to transition to a sustainable and earth-centered future. Learning once again to live off of the land, to live in harmony with the land, and to take only what is necessary is an important part of that path. This is what our ancestors did–and this is what we will again do–if we can learn to do it correctly and in balance. Third, I really enjoy the tangible benefits–the medicine, the food, the various craft items. I have tasted more new things and have been able to heal myself right from the land around me–these are empowering things.

 

Knowledge is critical to this path.  Not only knowledge of what you can take and use, but also knowledge of how that taking impacts the ecocystem.  And ethical forager is a knowledgeable one, connected to the land, and knowing their impacts.  So throughout these two posts, I’m really going to stress that you need knowledge to do this effectively.

 

Wildcrafting Supplies

Compiling some basic supplies will allow you to make numerous successful excursions.  Over the years, I’ve compiled the following supplies, which are useful and necessary:

 

Foraging Bookbag. When I got out foraging, I have a special “foraging” bookbag that I take with me with some basic supplies that are useful for finding food, medicine, and other kinds of things. The bag was one I purchased at a yardsale for 50 cents; it needed some minor repairs but works great.

Various storage - canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

Various storage – canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

  • Essentials that are always in the bag include sunscreen, an essential-oil based bug spray, fire starting equipment, an energy bar, a can of pepper spray, a hat that easily folds up, a compass, fire-starting equipment, and basic first-aid supplies. I also bring water; usually I don’t bring much in the way of snacks because I can always find a few trailside nibbles (that is, unless I will be out for some time and then I will bring some other stuff).
  • Tools: The Hori Hori.  If you are only going to have one foraging tool-this should be it.  Its a Japanese gardening tool that has a serrated edge, a sharp edge, and can dig and cut.  I won’t leave the house without it! I purchased mine for $30 and its one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
  • Other Tools in the bag include a small hand saw that folds up to about 7″ in length; my hori hori of course, a pair of scissors, a smaller knife, and a pair of gloves. These are all fairly light. If I’m going out for roots or tubers (like cattail, ground nut, or burdock), I might take a long a little fold-up shovel or even a garden fork if I’m not going far, but those are quite heavy, and I add these only when I need them. The knives are for cutting various plant matter or mushrooms; the hori hori can be used for cutting and also be used for digging roots or limited sawing. The hand saw is for getting branches or barks (useful to cut up roots from a fallen sassafras tree, for example). The scissors are good for harvesting smaller plants or greens, such as yarrow or nettle. I usually use the gloves for harvesting stinging nettles, which I take every opportunity to get when I go out in the summer.
  • Storage. The foraging bag also holds many different kinds of smaller bags for bringing things home–a few larger canvas bags for nuts or mushrooms, a few mesh orange/lemon bags (particularly good for mushrooms because it allows them to breathe), plastic bags of various sizes that I re-use, and paper bags of various sizes. I keep all of these materials in the bag and then when I want to go out (usually at least twice a week in the summer).
  • Blickeys. If I’m going berry picking specifically, I may also bring a blickey or two (see photo), which can be created from a gallon plastic jug. You just cut part of the top off of the jug, so you can easy place things in.  You leave the handle intact, which can go around your belt.  They are super lightweight and free to make.  If you don’t drink anything that would have them, a quick trip down your road on recycling day is sure to procure an abundant supply.  Because I have a friend with a severe dairy allergy that I often share wild-harvested treats with, I only use ones that had water or apple cider (like the one pictured), not milk. So keep that in mind when making your blickey.

    The blickey--fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

    The blickey–fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

Clothing for Foraging. I also always make sure I am wearing long pants and a belt; sometimes I will also include a hat for the sun and my muck boots if I am going into swampy areas.  Long pants are a great idea year round–in the summer they can protect you from poison ivy (even the most experienced wildcrafter sometimes wanders into a patch unawares–like the time I was enthusiastically harvesting St. johns wort and realized that underneath the top layer of plants, there was a lower layer of poison ivy–thank goodness for the jeans and muck boots!)  For shoes I will wear hiking boots or the muck boots (the muck boots are really hot in the summer).  The belt can hold a blickey or my hori hori or both.

 

Company for Foraging. I have found that foraging is much more fun with a friend than by one’s self. If I mention to some people that I’m heading out for a few hours, I almost always can find someone who wants to come with me and see what’s out there.

 

Other Resources. I usually take one or two field guides with me (see the next section for ideas), depending on what I’m going for. Since I’m still learning mushrooms, in the last two years, I was usually carrying a compact mushroom guide and one or two other books, depending on the time of year and what I’m looking for. I often bring more books and leave them in the car, such as Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals.  Field guides are particularly useful for plant ID.  What’s Doing the Blooming has traveled with me far and wide.

 

Resources/Books for Wildcrafting

These are resources specific to the Midwest and Northeast Regions–if you are in another region, I’m sure there are other good guides for you to find (and a local forager friend could be of help here!)

 

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Understanding Ecology. John Eastman has written a really good series of books on the place of many plants and trees in the ecosystem; and I highly recommend these works to anyone who wants to learn how to forage ethically and responsibly.  Why? Because if we are going to take, we need to understand what we are taking and how what we take fits into the ecological system–what insects or animals depend on the plant, what other plants are typically found in the area, and so on.  This is knowledge that our human ancestors intimately knew, and if we are going to engage in these kinds of activities, we too must understand it, first and foremost. The three books I’ve read from cover to cover that provide this information are: The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Swamp and Bog, and the Book of Field and Stream (they are the three tan/white books in the front of the photo). Honestly, this is a good place to start even before you begin gathering anything.

 

Wild Foods. If you are going to be looking for wild foods, I recommend Sam Thayer’s books: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. They are both available from his website (he self-published them, and they are the best foraging books I’ve ever read). I often have them with me out in the field and I study them when I’m not out and about.

 

General Plant ID. For flowers, there is a great and compact book called What’s Doing the Blooming? and its super useful for all manner of blooming plants (good for wild food, medicine, and even dye plants). Blooming plants are often fruiting plants later in the year, so you can identify them early in the season using this. Otherwise, any field guide with photos should be sufficient–there are some produced by the Arbor Day foundation on trees that are also useful.

 

Medicinal Plants. I took a four-season herbal intensive with Jim McDonald and that’s how I learned to ID many plants. I combined this with Matthew Wood’s two volumes, The Earthwise Herbal (vol 1 and 2). Usually if I need to find a specific plant, I’ll study it before I leave the house, locate it in one of my field guides, and then try to find it when I’m out.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root - an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations.  Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root – an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations. Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

 

Dyes. There are numerous dye books and mushroom dye books that are also useful if you are going that route. Some that I like are: Dean and Cassleman’s Wild Color and Bessette and Bessette’s A Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyer’s Field Guide.

 

Native American food/medicine/craft books. Some native American books that cover medicinal or edibles are really useful in terms of recipes and information. I have a few out of print ones on my shelves, and they have taught me much about traditional uses (such as hemlock-hickory tea and how to make pemmican!)

 

Other crafts: What you are looking for is very dependent on the craft. Books on basketweaving and natural weaving will describe what to get for those crafts; pine-needle basketry will obviously be about pines, and so on.  Natural papermaking books will obviously teach you about what to gather for that (I have a few posts on natural papermaking as well). I haven’t found good books on foraging for incense supplies, but I do have some information on my blog here, here, here, and here about it. My post on smudge sticks perhaps is the most comprehensive in terms of wild plants you can burn that smell good (never fear! I am working on a much longer post on that subject in this upcoming year–still testing plants at this point!)

 

Foraging friend and example of gear

Foraging friend and example of gear

How to Build Knowledge

Only some of my knowledge on this subject came out of books. A lot of it came from learning from others–I walked at my grandfather’s side and later, my uncle’s side and they taught me much about plants as a child. Much later, I attended a full year of my friend Mark’s Eat Here Now” classes where he did a monthly plant walk at various locations. I attended several mushroom hunting workshops to learn the mushrooms (and would like to attend more). And of course, I attended my four-season herbal intensive (which included one day per month of plant walks out in the field).  I also went out with others who knew different kinds of things and we learned from each other. I talk to people about plants often–and am always ready to learn something new or teach someone else.

 

 I have found that focusing your energies on one area can lead you to success and allow you to, over time, build a very diverse set of knowledge about things you can wildcraft. Now, when I got into the woods, I am ready for anything–crafting supplies, dye plants, medicine, wild snacks, and treats, wood to carve, and much more. I focused my energies each year on learning a different set of things and adding to my repertoire–the first year, it was mainly art supplies and incense making–I gathered resins and found every berry I could and tested its dye and ink capacity. The second and third years, I focused on learning all of the wild foods I could and kept looking for dye plants and such. The fourth year, I focused on wild mushrooms and brewing, in addition to food and craft/dyes. Finally, this year, I added medicinal herbs (and will probably continue to focus on them for some time). I made it a point to go out into the field at least six times a month looking for what I was looking for and also paid attention to what was already growing at my homestead.

 

Its also a good idea to learn characteristics of plant families — the book called Botany For Gardeners, recommended to me by Karen (one of the frequent readers and commenters on this blog–thanks Karen!) can really be of assistance.  This way, you can begin to identify plant famillies and even if you find a plant you don’t know, its features will give you some clue as to other related plants.

 

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

A final point about building knowledge–one of the first things you should learn is what can cause you harm. I think first-time foragers should all learn to identify poison hemlock in ALL of its stages before anything else. Poison ivy gets a lot of notoriety, and frankly, can give you a bad rash and a few unpleasant weeks.  But Poison Hemlock WILL KILL YOU if ingested–and it has many look alikes in the Apiaceae family (such as Queen Anne’s lace/Wild carrot).  Even just touching or smelling Poison Hemlock can cause nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.  Recently, I was officiating at a friend’s wedding.  The bridal party were getting ready to pose for photos along a bridge on a trail.  I saw a huge patch of it right where people were standing and watched someone reaching down to touch it (it was pretty, in full bloom). I quickly pointed it out and had everyone move to give it the respect it was due.  Interestingly enough, a few months later, one of the people in the bridal party reached out to me to learn more about this plant and many others. Other plants I would learn quickly include the death angel/avenging angel mushroom, poison sumac, and poison oak. When you start looking for particular plants, also be aware of what plants may look similar to the plant you want ( a good foraging book, like Sam Thayer’s books, will teach you this).

 

What You can Wildcraft and Setting intentions

Truthfully, the better question is–what can’t you wildcraft? I’ve taken particular joy in learning as much as I can about as many plants as possible and their uses. For example, see my extended post on the dandelion. One of the things you want to ask yourself is–why are you wildcrafting? For medicine? For Food? For crafting?  This will determine, to a large extent, what you are looking for and what resources you will need.  You also want to consider the abundance of the plant and who else may be depending on the plant as a food source (more on this in Part II of this series).

 

Setting your intent: Wandering vs. Targeted Harvesting. Sometimes I go out wandering to see what I can find, while other times, I have a very specific harvest in mind. Determining this will indicate where I should go (e.g. a few days after a “weather event” to look for mushrooms; to the outskirts of a housing development to pick serviceberries, and so on). If I don’t have anything in mind, I will go to one of several wild areas and make it a point to return to the same area multiple points in the season to gauge how the crops are progressing.

 

When you are first learning, the other thing is that you might not know where to get certain things. These “wanderings” then, while time consuming, are wonderful times of discovery. They help you establish your “spots” for future harvests–look for abandoned apple orchards, berry patches, abundant fields, and so much more.

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

 

Keeping records. I keep fairly detailed records of harvests and locations.  I know others who draw extensive maps so that they can find their mushrooms again the following year.  All of this is useful as you are learning–looking at your records from one year can help you figure out the locations and timing of where you want to go.

 

Wildcrafting Timing

Timing is a tricky thing in wildcrafting. Generally, the more often you go out, and the more time you devote, the more impressive harvests you will find. Each year can be its own wonky thing, and you can never be sure that the wild blueberries will be blooming at the same time (they, like everything else, can often vary by several weeks depending on the weather)  I find its better to visit early in the season and stop back often for things you really like than to miss the harvest entirely. For example, as I mentioned in my dandelion post, each year there is about 7-10 days of “peak dandelions” where they are blooming and abundant–and this is really the only time to make wine because its the only time they will be in the volume you need. If you miss the harvest–you’ll have to wait till the following season.

 

The other important thing about timing is that not everything is abundant each year. This is why we must take advantage of harvests when we find them and understand how to stretch those harvests out in times of scarcity. I remember, for example, the great apple harvest of 2013; the great st. john’s wort harvest of 2014, and the great berry harvest of 2011 and 2013 (and the lack of any berries to speak of in 2012 and 2014!)  Canning, drying, freezing, and other forms of preservation can allow us to enjoy the bounty even in years of famine.  A lot of people, as i mentioned in my earlier post, don’t really understand this. The supermarket is always abundant, and if you are going to share wild foods with them, I would suggest making them come with you on a trip or two so that they understand the work of it–and also the joy.

 

Stay tuned for my second post next week, where we’ll delve into understanding the ethics of foraging, discussing where to harvest safely, and more!

Hand Papermaking, Part 1: Recycled Papermaking

This is a post on papermaking using recycled fibers.  I also have two posts on natural papermaking with cattail heads (which works well) and cattail leaf (which needs some improvement).

 

The commercial process of producing paper is an incredibly environmentally destructive one, contributing to deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution.  The consumer demand for paper is so high that  35% of our trees are logged just for this purpose.  The process of making paper releases greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals into our air and water. As a druid seeking a deeper relationship with the land, I work hard to develop alternative means to avoid supporting harmful practices, like the purchase of new, non-recycled papers. We have massive deforestation in the world–so much of it driven by the demand for wood-based products.

 

Towards that end, I have developed ways of recycling paper and using local, abundant plant-based materials for papermaking.  This post will detail how to create paper from recycled materials, such as office paper waste, junk mail, paper scraps, paper bags, etc.  I will also soon post about plant-fiber papermaking.

 

If you find yourself in need of ritual papers or papers for special purposes, hand papermaking is a great skill to have.  The paper below, containing ashes from Yule and Beltane fires, was made by a friend of mine as a gift.  This sacred paper can be used for all sorts of things!

Papermaking - sheet of paper with beltane fire ash

Papermaking – sheet of paper with beltane fire ash

 

A Short History of Papermaking

 

Papermaking is an art that is over 5000 years old.  The first papers in recorded history papyrus (ancient Egypt) and Tapa (China).  Both were used in record keeping and both were made of plant fibers local to the area.   In AD 105 the Chinese created our first “modern” paper from waste rags from fabric.  Within five centuries, the Arabic world had developed fine papers and exported these all over the eastern hemisphere, including parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  Italian papermakers picked up on the Arabic techniques and improved them, creating the first paper mill.  In the early 14th century, paper was becoming more and more important to European societies—in both the public and intellectual spheres.  Because of this, paper mills spread throughout Europe during the renaissance and later to the Americas. Jumping toward the 21st century, concerns about whether the information era will cause an end to paper as we know it have surfaced and the art of handmade papermaking continues to be one practiced by a select few.

 

Papermaking Supplies

You can get started making handmade paper for a $30 or less investment–most of this should be available secondhand.  Here’s what you’ll need:

 

1)    A blender.  I have a blender just for papermaking, but its possible to use your regular blender if you clean it out sufficiently after use (and if you are not using any additives or chemicals, which I don’t recommend you using anyways). I recommend picking up a used blender at a yard sale or thrift store.

 

2)    A mould and deckle.  The mould and deckle is the part of the process that allows you to form sheets of paper from a vat of pulp.    The mould and deckle are two frames with an inside diameter of whatever size of paper you want.  I have moulds and deckles in 8.5×11” and 11×17”, but you can make them of any size.  Embroidery hoops and used picture frames can both work for this purpose.  One of them should have a screen (window screening is fine; choose fiberglass over aluminum if possible) stapled to them.  To do the pour method (see below) you need a special larger deckle that is 3” high.

 

3)    Couching sheets.  These are simply sheets that are slightly larger than the size of your frame (so about 10″ x 13″ would work for an 8.5 x 11″ frame).  For couching sheets, you can use any cotton-based or muslin material.  Old bedsheets work really well for this–I recycle my old ones this way, and ask family and friends to save them for me (or pick some up at yard sales). You can use any type of cotton fabric or unbleached muslin to hold your paper.  Cut your couching sheets larger than your mould or deckle.

 

4)    Sponges: Fairly self-explanatory; you can also omit these if you don’t have any around.

 

5)    Materials to create pulp: old office paper, envelopes, bills, dryer lint, old clothing, plant materials, etc!  Paper with text or writing is fine and will give you neat effects.  I do not recommend using newspaper because it has a high acid content and will deteriorate faster.  You can also purchase commercial cotton linters or abaca fibers—but I find these expensive and not necessary for successful papermaking.  These fibers strengthen your recycled pulp, giving you a stronger final recycled paper.

 

6)    Paper additives (optional) – paper additives come in two forms.  Those that you add to the paper for a functional reason (such as paper sizing) and those you add to the paper for effect (such as cold water fabric dyes sprinkled over the top, dried flowers, confetti, glitter, etc).

 

7)    A basin or sink in which to work.  I recommend using a sink if you have a garbage disposal—the excess pulp can then go through the disposal.  If you don’t’ have a garbage disposal in your sink, I would use a basin instead so that you don’t have to sieve the pulp out of the sink before releasing the water down the drain.

 

Additional things helpful to the papermaking process:

 

Easy Access to water and electricity. For modern papermaking, having your blender close by and a sink is very necessary.  Obviously, water and electricity don’t combine well, so take reasonable safety precautions when using this equipment.

 

A workspace that you don’t mind getting wet.  I’ve made paper in kitchens, garages, and outside in the sun.  All are good choices.  Papermaking is VERY messy, so choose your workspace carefully.

 

Old Towels: For cleaning up your mess.  Trust me, it will happen!

 

A sunny day with little wind:  Your paper dries quickly outside in the sun (2-4 hours).  In my part of the world, it takes 2-3 days to dry indoors due to our high humidity level.

 

What can go in handmade paper?

You can put all kinds of “inclusions” in handmade paper.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Dried flowers from the garden
  • Dried anything from the garden that is soft
  • Bits of fabric and yarn (cut up small)
  • Paper scraps and junk mail
  • Tea bags (used)
  • Dryer lint
  • Dried leaves and herbs
  • Cut grass
  • Coffee filters (used)
  • Paper towels used (with paint, not food!)
  • Bits of letters
  • Book pages (removed from books falling apart, etc)
  • Tissue paper (recycled from gifts)
  • Old clothing, torn up small

The sky is the limit.  For things that are thicker or harder, soak them at least 24 hours before you put them in your blender.  I advise against anything super-hard like pine cones or very hard seeds or nut pods—they simply won’t blend well and will cause you problems in your paper.

 

Stages of Papermaking

 

Prepare your of recycled materials and paper inclusions. 

Begin by tearing up the paper you want to recycle into 1.5” squares.  I stress that tearing is important because you want to retain as much of the paper fiber as possible (if you cut it, you’ll cut the fibers and end up with weaker paper).  Tear up a good bit, and then place them in a bucket or large bowl of water.  Allow the fibers to soak at least an hour (for standard office paper) or much longer (for heavier stuff such as cardstock).    I recommend soaking thicker papers like watercolor paper, abaca fibers, and so forth overnight.

If you are using flowers, tea, or plant matter with your paper and don’t want them bleeding into the paper (can look cool, but not always what you want) you’ll also need to boil those for 10 minutes or so.  This keeps the pigments in the flowers from spreading into your paper, creating small halos around the plant.  Personally, I like the effect but not everyone does.

 

Prepare your work area

Set your blender up as close to your sink/vat as possible.  Fill your vat/sink up with enough water to completely cover the mould and deckle when they are placed inside (about 1-2” over is a good amount).

Prepare a place to lay and press the paper after you create it—take an old towel or other absorbent surface and lay it near your work area.  This is where you will transfer your freshly couched sheets.

Your couching sheets should be damp before use, especially if you are using a thicker material like felt.  You can soak them and then let them sit out, or even hit them with a spray bottle before use.

 

Create your pulp

Once you have soaked your pulp, grab a decent handful of it and place it into the blender, filling the blender up about 1/3 of the way.  Fill up the blender to the top with water.   If you use too much pulp you’ll stress the blender, and if you use too little, you’ll be a bit inefficient in your pulp production.  Give the pulp a good blend – for a solid pulp, 30-40 seconds is sufficient.  As you are blending, watch to make sure all the fibers are spinning.  If they aren’t, then you have too much pulp in the blender—remove some and add more water.

Recycled paper and blender

Recycled paper and blender

Note: How much you blend the pulp can affect how your paper looks.  If you blend the pulp only partially, you’ll end up with a much different effect than if you blend it completely.  For a complete blend, you’ll want to start on low for about 15 seconds then move to the highest setting for another 15-20 seconds.

Blending time and speed will determine how quickly your papers turn to pulp.  When using recycled papers, you may consider blending them less to give you a neat effect.  Blending them for only a few seconds will leave portions of the text readable and give you very unique sheets of paper with flecks of text that can still be read!   You can combine different colors of paper for a confetti look too.  Here is an image of a piece of freshly pulled paper with text bits from a recycled book combined with some recycled purple tissue paper pulp:

Freshly Pulled Paper

Freshly Pulled Paper

 

Method 1: The Pull Method

The first method of papermaking (and the way its traditionally done) is to pour your pulp into a large vat of water and pull sheets from it.  The Pull Method allows you to create many sheets of paper similar in appearance.  The paper from the pull method is also thinner than that of the Pour Method (discussed below).  Both have their benefits.

To get the right consistency of pulp in the vat, you’ll probably need to add three or so blenderfulls of pulp to your vat.

Once you have added the pulp, swish it around with your hand to get any that may have settled, and then slip your mould and deckle into the pulp.  Hold the mould and deckle together, making sure that the mould (the part with the screen) has the screen facing up.  Pull the mould and deckle straight up (moving the mould and deckle together back and forth a bit to swishing around the pulp and water a bit to even it out as you pull).  Stop moving the mould and deckle once most of the water drains out.

Pull method for papermaking

Pull method for papermaking

Take one of your dampened couching sheets and place it over the freshly pulled piece of paper. You can use a sponge to get off a bit of excess water, then take the sheet to your absorbent cloth and flip the entire mould over.  The paper should come off the mould and stay on the couch sheet.  Sometimes it is a bit stubborn, and I find that if you pull on the edges of the couch sheet away from the mould, it helps get the paper unstuck.

Couching Papers

Couching Papers

You can continue to pull sheets of paper, couch them, and lay them on top of each other (creating a stack) until you have created all that you want to.  After you pull 5-8 sheets of paper, you’ll notice that your pulp will thin out considerably.  Continue to add new blenderfulls of pulp (and additional water) as necessary as you go along.  You can subtly change the color of the pulp as you add blenderfulls by changing the types of recycled papers you put into the pulp.

 

Method 2: The Pour Method

This is a method I developed to allow me to create marbleized paper techniques and also to create thicker papers.  It also allows you to experiment with different recipes for paper, one blenderfull at a time.  I highly recommend it for mail art, as you get thicker papers which are useful for sturdy bases and backgrounds.  For this technique you will need a larger deckle (3”) high.

Place your mould and deckle in the vat of water.  The top of the deckle should stick out of the water, preventing the water inside from flowing out.

Pour method

Pour method

Create your pulp as normal in your blender.  Instead of pouring the pulp directly into the vat, pour about ½ a blenderfull into the inside of the deckle.  Swish it around with your fingers till you see the pulp evenly spread within the deckle.  Grab the mould and deckle and pull the whole thing out of the water—and you have your sheet of paper!

You can experiment with all sorts of techniques with this method including combining two different types of pulp or making layers of color.

 

Give it a little color!

Some of the sheets in my examples have been treated with a powdered cold water fabric dye or natural dyes (walnut ink, berry dyes, etc.).   You can do one of two things:

1)    While the paper is still wet (just after pressing), you can take the package of dye and sprinkle some of it on each sheet (as shown in my pictures of my paper drying).  This gives you a speckled effect, and is really quite stunning.

2)    You can also add dye to your paper while you are making it.  Add a few tablespoons to your pulp in your vat—and use gloves to pull your paper!

3)    If you want color and don’t want to deal with the dye, you can also add colored sheets of recycled paper, brightly colored tissue papers, natural plant dyes (like chamomile or pokeberry) or even construction papers to your pulp and blend it well.  All of these options produce great paper with fantastic color!

Dyed papers

Dyed papers

 

Drying and pressing your paper

Once you have a decent sized stack of wet papers, take your stack outside.  I find the easiest thing to do is to press it by using a piece of board on the sidewalk or driveway.  I stand on it for about a minute, allowing much of the water to be removed.

Next, I remove each sheet (keeping them on their couching sheets still) and lay them in the sun to dry.

Drying Papers

Drying Papers

Often, I will mist them and iron them to get them completely flat once again.

Alternatives to pressing include using a larger commercial press overnight, or even using an vintage laundry press to press your sheets dry faster!

 

Handmade Paper Projects

There are just so many things you can do with handmade paper.  Here are a few recent things that I made with papers:

Handmade journals

Handmade journals

Pages for Book with Hand-carved stamp

Pages for Book with Hand-carved stamp

Recipie cards

Recipie cards