Saturday, October 1, 2011

Black walnut delight 1

The end of September means black walnut time in our part of the country; some of the chartreuse nuts are still on the trees, but others are lying on the ground ready to be gathered up.  Some are intact, others have split and turned black.  It's time to collect them and make dye or ink!

Curiously, when I owned a black walnut tree I didn't realize its surface design potential.  I would give away the nuts to a friend at the office who would painstakingly spread them on the driveway, run them over with a car to split the tough husks, and pick out the nutmeats for use in baking. 

When we had to take the tree down a few years ago, I noticed that the stump oozed black sap for weeks.  I would cut a yard or so of PFD fabric, spread it over the stump and nail it down so it wouldn't blow away.  A week or two later, there was a gorgeous piece of dyed fabric -- for black walnuts are noted for their aggressive dye properties.

When I took up calligraphy two years ago I learned about walnut ink, one of the most beautiful coloring substances I've ever met.  So when fall rolled around, I decided to try making my own.  I followed directions found on the internet and cooked up a batch of ink, but it turned out to be considerably weaker than the commercial variety, so I kept it in its jar for a while in  hopes that the water would evaporate and concentrate the solution.

And promptly forgot about it.  Until this week, when I realized that it's that time of year again.  When we encountered lots of walnuts on the ground in the park yesterday, I decided to gather a load and see what I could do with them.  I'll share my processes and the results of my experiments, in case you have access to some nuts and want to follow along.

My first observation is that the nuts smell nice, even though they look nasty -- a faint odor that seems exactly like cardamom, one of my favorite spices.  Stay tuned for observations more closely related to surface design.


  1. In my former house I had a black walnut tree. It would give a bumper crop every other year and the only way to clear them away was to pick them up by hand on hands and knees, a yucky, messy job. One year I kept track and I picked up over a thousand! I wore heavy rubber gloves to keep my hands from staining. Then it dawned on me that if it stained my hands, it would dye fabric. So i had three big buckets with nuts and different mordants, salt, iron and alum and water. I then twisted up some muslin and put them in the buckets in the garage. I left them for about a week, stirring occasionally. The result was three different shades of brown with some nice mottling. I made a quilt with the browns as a background and different lime green circles for the nuts. I called it "Oh, Nuts! and it was my first quilt accepted into Houston.
    I didn't know about the ink. Be sure to show us your results.

  2. I got hit in the head with a falling walnut on my walk yesterday! I've been thinking of gathering some and doing the same thing. I do like Norma's idea of three different buckets.

  3. Hi, Kathleen. Just wanted to say that I've been reading your posts on text and quilts and have found them thoughtful and helpful. I've been working on a piece that includes a poem, my first experiment with including words on an art quilt, so I appreciated your comments about being "cheesy". Very well put. Before reading your articles, I had been thinking about the problem of the artist telling the viewer what to see by the use of words directly on the artwork. Is that a bit presumptuous? Shouldn't the viewer be allowed to interpret as she sees fit? Hmmmm.....
    Anyway, thanks so much for your excellent thoughts on the subject.
    best, nadia

  4. Hi Nadia -- I've pretty well said my rant on this subject before, but yes, I do have concerns about putting words on art. That's what editorial cartoons do.