Primitive Technologies Day

I have not made a post in awhile, and for this I am sorry! Between a regular job which has turned up into high gear lately, and a seeming constant flow of spinning wheel rescues, I haven’t had much time to tend to my blogging.

Another event which took up a bit of time was the Primitive Technologies Day I recently participated in. What, you ask, is Primitive Technologies? This is a growing niche of the archaeology field known as “Experimental Archaology.” You don’t just go dig up artifacts and interpret them; you actually recreate them. Flintknappers chip out arrowheads, braintanners prepare raw hides, bowmen show how native woods were made into bows and arrows. Unlike some of my reenactment endeavors, however, modern clothing is the preferred method of dress!

An archaeology professor friend of mine runs this annual event in Washington’s Crossing Park in New Jersey. Knowing I was a handspinner, he invited me to the event but handspinning is too modern. I debated what to present and then hit on natural dyeing, with some drop spindling and weaving thrown in.

Because I had never done an event of this type before, I had little to nothing prepared. I outlined what I wanted to do, and set out to design a suitable display. In the end, here is what I came up with:

I used our regular craft show table, but covered it with 3 sheep pelts: a white Icelandic, a shaela frost Shetland, and a brown Navajo Churro with sunbleached tips. I found a basket wholesaler from who I bought several rattan trays. I was able to find wooden berry baskets from the Texas Basket Company, and lined the trays with rows of berry baskets that held fiber samples:

A Sharpie marker worked fine for writing on the berry baskets. I also acquired a number of primitive drop spindle whorls from various time periods. Not entirely sure who authenticated them, but the Certificates of Authenticity claim they are from ancient Egypt, the Roman period, and the pre-Columbian. I also had some quickly-dyed up samples of wool, linen and cotton, using some quickly-gathered dyestuffs:



These are among the more surprising results. The rose color resulted from using pignut hickory hulls. The very orange sample in the photo center, and the very black right above it are from shagbark hickory. The black was the result of dipping wool into a very fresh batch of boiled up hulls; the orange resulted after the dye bath had been allowed to oxidize for a few days. All interesting results which need to be pursued more next season!

For the main demonstration, I took two canning pots, filled them with pre-made dye baths — one pignut hickory and one black walnut — and boiled them over an open fire:

As the time of year was prime time for the black walnuts, and they abounded in the park, we were able to add some fresh hulls to the pre-made dye bath. This gave the dye a little more depth of color.

Ours was not the only fire. There was also a demonstration of pit-firing clay pots:

Does this guy look like a college professor? Well, he is and he’s the one whose class you want to take!  This is Dr. William Schindler of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Bill is building the perfect fire to fire up some clay pots made with native clays.

Our fire was not quite as large, but certainly as hot! John uses a hooked poker to get the lids on and off.

While the fires are burning and the pots are boiling, what else is happening at the event?  Lots of flintknappers are displaying their talents:


This fellow is making wooden bows from osage orange:

I even brought along a rigid heddle loom to demonstrate weaving basics. This made me realize how much I missed weaving!

The pottery fire pit, tended by another college professor. If I’d had more professors like this when I was in school, I only imagine where I would have been now!

As Professor Bill now had help tending the fire, he moved on to another skill … defleshing a deer hide:



The two students behind him are working over a hide that has been brain tanned. The last step is to make sure all the water is out of the hide’s cells. This is accomplished by pulling the hide by hand, sort an old-fashioned taffy pull but with leather. The resulting hide is absolutely cloud-soft. Bill says there are exactly the right amount of brains in one deer to tan the hide with.

As the day wore on, the fire pit turned to embers

While we kept the dye pots boiling:

The ladies worked equally hard as the guys, defleshing their own deer hides:

What a project for class! How ever do you grade someone on this:

By the way, that is a pile of deer hair on the ground. Other than tying trout flies, there does not seem to be much use for the hair. It is not spinnable, unfortunately.

Eventually, the pottery fired was allowed to burn down and the pots fished up from the ashes to be allowed to cool slowly:

The pots are almost all student projects:

Cooled and removed from the ashes, the firing pit was pronounced a great success. Almost every piece had fired properly, very few had broken, and most rang out with a lovely tone when tapped with a stick.

The wool was dredged up from its dye bath about the same time and was pronounced an equal success”


On the left is the pignut hickory dye which produces a remarkably clear rose pink. On the right is the black walnut dye.

The cooled pots waited collection alongside the fire pit:

John discusses fiber and dyeing with a visitor while newly-dyed wool roving dries on a rack:


It was a full day, but a successful one. I had not done much dyeing at all, let alone natural dyeing so I am now looking forward to following up on this next year, when I have a new supply of dye materials available!


2 Responses to Primitive Technologies Day

  1. Judy K Pfaff says:

    Permission to reprint two of the photos, 2 and 3, on this page in a family history book. I couldn’t find a personal email address to give details of my use. Would be glad to fill you in. Judy Pfaff

  2. Judy, hi! You may e-mail me at: woolmerchantsdaughter (at) yahoo[dot]com

    Thanks for your interest! I look forward to hearing from you!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: