This is the year of making. Making from the plants around me, rooting my creative practice in the land that sustains me. From growing willow and hazel, planting apple trees, foraging the hedgerows, making medicines, experimenting with plant pigments, I am learning as much as I can about the many and varied uses of each plant in my landscape. Wild or cultivated, they form a part of the places I belong and teach from. Firmly rooted in these places and attuned to the seasons, I am learning the gifts of each plant and the connection they bring to the lives and skills of our ancestors, a thread spun from our history in this place.
Today for the first time I made ink. I have ditched the plastic single use biro for a fountain pen for a year now, and there is something quite different about writing with a fountain pen. It makes me put more thought into my writing, it feels more permanent and important. It’s not to be thrown away but to be annotated later, improved, comments in the margin. It was not a big step to look to the plant world to provide me with the material for my mark making.
I am lucky to have access to some very special trees, and at Tortworth we have a mature black walnut, juglans nigra. The leaves do not resemble our native walnut, juglans regia, they are compound leaves made up of leaflets that almost resemble ash. Both kinds, if you crinkle up a leaf in your hands, give off a pleasant citrusy smell that is distinctive to the juglans family.
The black walnuts themselves are larger, with a much more spongey fruit and a much harder husk. The hulls and husk have a high tannin content and make everything near them go dark brown or black pretty fast, so preparing them with gloves is advisable.
I left my bucket full of walnuts to sit in water for a good few weeks before extracting the liquid (and the all important tannins) and using it to dye wool for a weaving project. Animal fibres take on dyes very well and the high tannin content meant no mordant was needed to make the colour fast. So one woven scarf later, I was still left with my bucket of black sludge and no idea what to do with it all.
I boiled down a litre of the remaining liquid, after draining, and bottled it without much idea what I would do with it. Christmas came and went and I forgot about it.
Today however I was tidying up and found the bottle and also a packet of gum Arabic I had bought before Christmas. So I set to making the ink.
One way to tell if your ink is reduced enough and high enough in tannic acid is to taste it. Not something for the faint hearted! Im a true believer that you should be familiar with plants, the smell, how they feel in your hands, how they taste. It is of course important to know they are not toxic first.
If you are making your ink from scratch rather than using left over yarn dye, fill your slow cooker with the husks, cover with water and simmer for as long as you can, ideally overnight, before draining off the liquid and reducing it down. Try not to boil it.
Ink is essentially pigment with a binder. The binder you choose depends on the final use; I’ve heard of people using honey for thick inks designed for print making. You can use gelatin, or hide glue, if you want to be authentic to inks made historically in the UK. I opted for gum Arabic because, although it is not derived from a native tree, it is plant based and easily available online. I’d happily use hide glue if I could assure myself it is a byproduct of a sustainable, ethical meat system, or make it myself from my own animals.
One teaspoon of gum Arabic per cup of liquid meant I had a gorgeous stable liquid to use with a hastily fashioned goose quill pen. I need to practice this but it was satisfying and counts as another ‘for’ in the ‘for and against’ getting geese in spring. I am already itching to try making paint brushes from found materials, sticks, twigs, plants in the woods. But that is for another day.
The next step is to combine the ink with iron which you can do at home with an iron vinegar solution. This is something I have heard about with mordants for wool dying but have never tried, and I used Nick Neddo’s recipe from his amazing book, The Organic Artist.
I say recipe; you pop a bunch of rusty screws into a pot of vinegar and let it stew for a few days, taking the screws and nails out to oxidise in air every so often. Luckily I’m married to an untidy carpenter, and rusty screws are plentiful.
As I wait for the iron vinegar solution to become potent I have decanted the ink into a glass jar, to be kept in the dark, with a few drops of birch sweet essential oil to keep it from spoiling. Once it looks strong I’ll add one teaspoon to my cup of ink. The iron will react with the tannins, and the ink will take on a much darker hue. Give it a good shake.
Good luck experimenting. I’ll be making oak gall ink on my new course, Native Trees, so if you want to join us and learn more about our incredible woodland species and the many ways we can live with them, take a look. Perhaps I’ll see you in the woods soon.