Book Review: The Organic Artist

I didn’t know what to expect when I bought this book, honestly. The cover makes it seem a little cutsey, and some of the pictures seem, in the tradition of craft a la Hobby Lobby, to be more novelty than anything genuinely useful.

Boy was I wrong.

First off, the author is described in the back as (more or less) equal parts artist, survivalist, and caveman. Or, to put it more accurately, stone age technology aficionado. What this should have told me is that the man takes his work seriously, and that his breadth of very real knowledge is to be found in this book. He lives this stuff, he works in these media, and he’s been doing it for years.

Most of what he shows you how to do will not be of any real interest to most folks, though I suspect zero wasters will find some of the projects immensely useful. For instance, his paper-making guide is much more thorough, and results in a much more useful finished product than Bea’s instructions in Zero Waste Home. He shows you how to make crayons out of nothing more than beeswax and pigment; he shows you how to source your pigment from the landscape around you; he shows you how to make felt-tip pens out of little more than sticks, twine, and a bit of hide; he shows you how to make glue; he shows you how to make charcoal.

And the list goes on. Those beautiful little paint pots featured on the cover? Those are all handmade by him as well, and he shows you how to make them too: every step from finding and tempering natural clay, to shaping and firing.

There’s even recipes in here for the zero waste, organic printmaker: he has instructions on how to make an all-natural brayer, and suggests an ink recipe thickened with honey to use with your woodcuts. And for painters, he shows how to make animal hair brush bristles, complete with quill ferrule. (Guides for which are difficult to come by, I’ve found.)

Nick Neddo is a monster. And I mean that in the best possible way: he’s a person who knows his craft so thoroughly that you can’t help but let your jaw drop at the sheer absurdity of his knowledge, talent, and dedication. Included also are examples of his work made with the relevant tool or medium, and these proof of concept are not only astoundingly beautiful, but with no noticeable difference in quality compared to the plastic, commercially-produced equivalent that he is recreating. Most of these tools are so easy to make, so beautiful, and so personal, that in showing us how to make them Neddo almost asks, between the lines, why don’t more people do this? After all, up until very recently in human history (a period that can be measured in mere decades), most artists had to make their own materials.

Do I recommend this book? For artists looking to turn away from high-impact, toxic, and fossil-fueled-sourced tools and media, this is an absolute must-have. For zero wasters or organic households looking to replace a few of their casual art supplies, this is also a must-have. (Just about everything in here isn’t just non-toxic, but free of synthetic ingredients entirely, and probably also safe in the case of accidental ingestion, for those of you with children.)

For everyone else, this book is probably just a novelty – but get it anyway. It might inspire you take up doing even just one thing the Nick Neddo way.

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Book Review: Second Skin

Second Skin: Choosing and Caring for Textiles and Clothing is part how-to, part manifesto, and part memoir by lifelong seamstress, dyer, and textile artist India Flint, made famous by her contributions to the world of environmentally-friendly dyeing and surface design. (I took a class last year to learn her ecoprinting technique from a local Vancouver artist.)

India Flint is a staunch and powerful, though still gentle, voice in the slow fashion movement. And by slow, I mean slow. She is unrelenting in her dislike of synthetic fibers, high-impact dyes, and consumer culture’s influence on design and wastefulness.

The official blurb:

Almost from the moment of our birth, clothing acts as our second skin, yet we rarely consider where our clothes have come from and the effects they might have on the environment and ourselves. This beautifully photographed and illustrated book is about easily achievable ways to care for the planet by living simpler lives and using fewer resources, specifically those to do with cloth and clothing. It discusses the role of cloth in how consumption affects the ecology; looks at what textiles are made from and examines their properties, with an emphasis on those derived from natural sources; and talks about how to make informed choices regarding clothing-including deciding how much clothing one really needs. It also covers how to mend and maintain clothing, repurpose fashion, dyeing, and when all else fails, instructions for patching, piecing, felting, and twining. One ‘gallery’ chapter is dedicated to clothing designers and artists who have made a practice of working with salvaged materials, including Natalie Chanin (Alabama), Jude Hill (Long Island), Christine Mauersberger (Cleveland), and Dorothy Caldwell (Hastings, Ontario).

Honestly? This book is a must-have for people interested in lowering the carbon footprint of their wardrobes. And I don’t use that term lightly. Flint is thorough in her explanations of even the fibers themselves, their histories, and their contemporary processing methods; everything from how to choose the fabric your clothes are made from, to what to do when they start breaking down is under her slow, careful purview. She leaves no stone unturned.

Some reviewers are put-off by her reverence for textiles, and many pick up her books looking for simple step-by-step instruction. But that’s not what India Flint is about – she will not allow herself to abandon the whole picture of the textile industry to focus on some little technical detail, and she won’t let you forget the big picture either. I don’t find this off-putting, actually. I find it refreshing and necessary, and as a low-impact zero-waster (the two are not one in the same!), this provides an important piece often missing from the dialogue we have concerning what, exactly, goes into making our wardrobes.

The book itself is beautifully designed, too, and as a hardback, should last for years to come. Flint’s writing can get a little precious at times, but it really does fit with her slower way of life, and if you take the time to read her stories, you’ll find yourself rewarded with relatable anecdotes and inspiration from where her own life has taken her.

It’s not just about technical know-how for making our clothes last longer. It’s about asking ourselves how many clothes we have, why our clothes look the way they do, why they’re made from the materials that they are, why we wear them how we do, and why we can’t put more care and effort into making them last until there’s barely little more than threadbare scraps left before returning them to the earth.

Second Skin is a book that concerns itself with philosophy and ethics as much as it does with tricks of the trade, chemistry, and why wool felts when you wash it in hot water. If that bothers you, then you might ask yourself why that is. And if not, if you’re looking for a text packed with environmentally-conscious knowledge about textiles as well as one that asks harder questions, then this is definitely the book for you.

Kansha: Appreciation, or, F— You, Fossil Fuels

Kimchi.

Fermentation is really, really in right now. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is due to the mere movement of trends throughout the culinary consumer zeitgeist, and how much of it will stick around and be absorbed into an American way of life that will persist for years to come.

I, like our ancestors before us, came into fermentation as a strategy because I’m a cheap-ass.

My husband likes soda; soda is expensive; who says I can’t make my own soda? If I can make my own tonkatsu ramen, surely I can make my own soda.

My several attempts at getting a ginger bug started didn’t amount to much, but the logic was sound, and moreover, I wound up discovering a whole world out there of fermented, probiotic, and shelf-stable food that once stocked the larders of peasant households the world over. (And if it’s one thing peasants and I have in common, it’s a lack of money.) My second foray into home fermentation was kimchi, something I learned to love (and live off) in college, thanks to some Korean roommates. It was wildly successful. After that, I was a fermenting machine. Well, as much as I had the time, energy, and counter space for.

For me, fermentation isn’t about being culinarily impressive – though it often is – but rather more about being less reliant on my refrigerator.

Almost everything I do with food now I try to contextualize in our vast, sprawling, largely invisible web of fossil fuel usage. How much energy goes into making my condiments? My alcohol? How much energy goes into keeping my produce fresh? How much energy goes into making a salad?

I bought myself a used copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions for my birthday recently. Not only did it immediately find itself in heavy rotation in my small cookbook collection, but it will have a place in the kitchen, I believe, for the rest of my life. The premise of the book is basically how to cook frugally and mindfully the Japanese way. The lengthy appendices talk about how to reuse water used to cook noodles or rinse rice (make a sipping broth with leftover sauce), how to use every single part of a daikon in the same way that the subsistence hunter uses every single part of a kill. In the pickles section, there’s also a few pages dedicated to the Japanese nuka pot, a pot of pickling paste made from rice bran, beer, and vegetable scraps that is maintained not unlike a sourdough starter.

Eventually, the husband and I want to leave the city. We want to leave the grid behind; the nine-to-fives, the endless hedonic treadmill of bills and debt, the noise and light pollution, the carbon-heavy, digitized lifestyles that every single person I know claims to depend on for sanity and survival. We want to remove the countless middlemen between us and that which sustains: the earth, the plants, the animals, and the quality relationships with other people that made most pre-industrial cultures worth fighting for in the face of enclosure, capitalism, and colonialist greed. (No really: most peasants through history had to be forced off their land and into the cities at sword or gunpoint.)

And even though that goal will be years in the making, we’re doing all the mental prep work we can. Right now, that means taking a long, hard look at the refrigerator. If we break down what a refrigerator is and what it does, its workings becomes less mysterious and the prospect of going without one less terrifying.

So what is a refrigerator? A refrigerator is a heavily-insulated box that plugs into the wall which makes food cold so it lasts longer, basically. Or, to put it a slightly different way: a method of food preservation that depends entirely on unsustainable energy* and dangerous chemicals to function. Once you frame it in those terms, it suddenly becomes just one in a variety of methods of preserving the harvest. And when that happens, why, again, are we collectively choosing the most expensive, most environmentally suicidal option?

That’s where kansha and fermentation come in. The two seem to go hand in hand, really – if you have a deep love and appreciation for the bounty of the earth, then frugality should follow, no? Kansha the book is full of tricks on not only preventing food from winding up in the garbage, but from the compost bin too, even. Obviously, the recipes are Japanese in origin, but many of the ingredients, from cabbages to root vegetables, fresh greens to foraged mushrooms, are staples across much of the temperate world, and the author’s careful consideration of the daikon could be applied to almost any sort of root vegetable.

Nuka pots, if diligently kept, can last for decades, even generations. They are a common sight in many Japanese kitchens, and where food scraps that Americans would have no second thought about throwing away are given another lease on life in the form of a crisp, delicious pickle.

Nuka, the Japanese word for rice bran, needn’t be made with the stuff – I hear that wheat bran works just as well, and only needs a little tweaking in how its used. I plan on starting a nuka pot myself in the next few days, as I explore the household feasibility of fermentation as a viable alternative to refrigeration, and as I get my taste buds used to the slow introduction of more and more fermented foods in my diet. (Because someday, pickled vegetables may be the only vegetable I can eat for a good chunk of the year. I’m learning to be OK with this in practice.)

S in addition to kimchi, my list of successful ferments are steadily growing, and I’m getting better at sussing out the particulars of each kind, its strengths and weaknesses, the culinary niche that it might fill in my diet. Here’s what has stuck so far, or will absolutely need to stick before we pack up and head out, like some kind of parallel universe, anti-matter Beverly Hillbilles:

Kimchi

I love the taste of kimchi. It’s tangy, spicy, crunchy, and fantastic on a bed of warm rice. It’s also dirt cheap to make and almost impossible to screw up. (Seriously, I don’t know why anyone buys the stuff. It’s as absurd to me as buying water.) My latest batch I made with gochujang paste instead of chili flakes, because it’s all I had on-hand, but it worked really well all the same. I also replace the shrimp paste with miso in my batches, being vegetarian and all. As for its versatility, there are as many kinds of kimchi as there are vegetables in Asia – this is good news for those of us who might be growing things other than napa cabbage.

Sourdough

I’m still not great at making bread from a sourdough starter, but maybe that’s because I’ve only tried with stone-ground wheat. I can make bread that tastes good and very edible, but it’s dense. The starter, though, is also absurdly easy to cultivate, and is edible at just about every stage of the fermentation cycle.

Kvass/Sima/Cider

I don’t know what to call this stuff, to be quite honest. I’ve got a post written up about it, but the jist is this: it’s chopped fruit mixed with sugar, warm water, and whatever herbs/spices you like to taste, and left to get fizzy on the counter for a few days. It’s a little like the Finnish sima, a fermented lemonade, minus the added yeast… and all those other complicated steps.

Mead

Yes, I’m a burgeoning mead-brewer now. I’m going by a sort of eyeballed, wild-yeasted recipe that an acquaintance of mine wrote about a few months back, and it’s also easy as dirt so long as you know how to adequately sanitize your equipment. It’s one part unpasteurized (preferably local) honey to three to four parts warm water. Add fruit, aromatics, or what have you, and let sit at room temperature for a few months until the mead turns clear, making sure that your containers of choice don’t explode. Taste, rack, enjoy. It’s not cheap alcohol, but boy does it mean more when you make it yourself. And it tastes damn good too.

Nukazuke

If the magic happens in a nuka pot, then the magical result is the nukazuke, rice bran pickles. Again, I haven’t actually done this yet, but I see this being a seamless and delicious addition to my fermentation scheme, and a really good way to prevent otherwise good food scraps from winding up in the compost pail. (This is good for those of us who have a jar in the freezer specially dedicated to broth scraps, and don’t know what to do with the leftovers from cruciferous vegetables, spines from leafy greens, or other miscellany. Pickle ’em!)

Vinegar

I have also not made a vinegar yet, though I intend do as soon as I amass enough apple scraps or wine remnants. From what I’ve read, it sounds similar to making my fizzy fruit drink, except you let it turn alcoholic, then let the alcohol turn into acid. By all accounts this is also ridiculously easy.

Miso

Homemade miso paste is actually really easy to make, it just takes a long time – at least a year – and requires inoculation with a special culture found in a product called koji, where the fungus aspergillus oryzae is grown on specially prepared rice. The inoculated rice is a required ingredient in miso of any type (I’ve seen miso made from all manner of beans, not just soy, as well as barley, which is another traditional variety), though it too doesn’t take too much effort to make if you’ve got koji spores on hand, and the dried koji lasts a long time if stored properly. I love miso and use it in a lot of my cooking, so I can see myself doing a big koji/miso-making spree once a year, maybe entirely out of barley if it’s easy to grow.

With the help of a root cellar, a smoke house, and icy winters, I think we just might pull it off. One caveat: we will probably have a small deep freezer for helping store larger amounts of meat and processed game, which we will likely be able to get away with turning off when outside temperatures are below freezing.

We’ve already committed ourselves to living in a ‘dry’ house – that is, a house without plumbing – thanks to Berkey water filters, and strategically-located cisterns around/under the house and their associated hand pumps, and compost toilets. We’ve already committed ourselves to living with as little electricity as we can get away with also: a DC solar arrangement for a laptop or two, record player,  and occasional light bulb, perhaps. But it definitely won’t be enough to run appliances, let alone one that needs power 24/7.

Yeah, it’s going to be a huge change. But that’s why we’re starting here and now, with the concept of kansha. 

From the book’s dust jacket:

The celebration of Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions begins with kansha – appreciation – an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform nature’s bounty into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, encourages all cooks to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve our natural resources.

It’s not about saying “no” to the comforts of a modern Western home. It’s about saying “yes” to a different way of doing things, because if you don’t welcome it with open arms and appreciate it for what it has to offer, then… well, you’re up shit creek, aren’t you? Nothing worse than changing your life for all the wrong reasons.


*All energy that relies in any way on electricity at any point during it or its components’ sourcing, manufacture, use, upkeep, and disposal, is unsustainable in my book. My book is very strict.

BIFL Drawing and Writing Supplies

A few months ago I emailed Jetpens to suggest that they consider moving away from plastic shipping materials, or to at least give the option of using entirely paper-based shipping materials, and to also ask if they might someday put together a zero waste product guide. They kindly took my suggestions into consideration, but we’ll see if they’ll ever make them happen!

In the meantime, here’s my own product guide. I did a long suggestion list for more zero-waste friendly art supplies a while back, but didn’t get into specifics much. So based on my own experience making art, here’s the closest thing to a Buy It For Life list of drawing/writing supplies that I can think up. (Most of these are Jetpens links; I’m not an affiliate, they just happen to be the only US-based merchant that sells a lot of this stuff. I’m also a happy customer of theirs, FWIW.)

Rollerball Pens

Rollerball and other ballpoint-types, while convenient, are not the most eco-friendly option out there. Ballpoint ink is made via highly complex industrial processes, and is comprised of oil, solvents, and dye. Gel pens are worse, though, and I recommend staying away from them. Their opacity is due to many more chemical additives, gums, and other thickeners. If a ball-type pen is necessary for your use, at least try to stick with a regular ballpoint style ink.

  • The space pen:  This handy pen has been around for years and years, and was immensely popular a decade or so ago (ask around and you’ll surely find someone who still uses theirs). It’s reported to be one of the more durable ballpoint pens on the market, and AFAIK, it can take a good pounding. The refills are not especially cheap, though, and can only be bought in packs of one on a blister card. $20
  • Karas Kustoms Retrakt Pen: This pen made it onto the website’s own BIFL list, but the neat thing about it is that it’s compatible with a huge range of refills from a bunch of different manufacturers, and takes a bunch of different kinds of inks too. It comes in a brown craft box with little plastic packaging. $50-100
  • CW&T Pen Type A: “Over-engineered to crazy town”, this pen seems to be built like a tank. It uses Hi-Tec-C refills, but the pen itself comes packaged in a cardboard tube instead of plastic. $160

Fountain Pens

Ink-wise, fountain pens win the environmentally-friendly race, hands down. Fountain pen ink is, comparatively speaking, simpler to make because its water-based, and it is possible to make them with 100% natural materials (if you so choose to make your own!). A such, there is a much wider variety of inks on the market to choose from, in a wide range of colors, compositions, and amounts (for the bulk nuts among us). For a much greener, BIFL option, I wholeheartedly recommend a fountain pen.

  • Lamy Safari: Yes, this is a plastic pen. But it’s an ABS plastic pen – the same thing Legos are made from, and we all know those things last forever. This model of pen, as I understand it, is a well-loved EDC pen for many people, and may just be the cheapest BIFL fountain pen option out there. $30
  • Kaweco Brass Sport: You didn’t think you could get away without hearing about this pen again, did you? As an owner of this amazing writing and drawing tool, and someone with first-hand understanding of how durable this thing is, of course it’s going to make the grade. This Kaweco – versus the plastic Kaweco Sports – comes in a very nice metal tin. (There is also a Sport pen made with an aluminum body that runs about $80, which I imagine is just as durable.) $96
  • Kaweco Liliput: A few of these have also made it to the site’s BIFL list, and they’re all metal-bodied pens, so there’s not too much more to say here I think. $58-175

Honorary mentions: J. Herbin inks, which are purportedly made from 100% natural components, and dip pens, which are cheap, durable, and rely on even fewer industrial manufacturing processes than fountain pens.

Pencils

Pencils are a bit tricky. Because on the one hand, you’ve got your mechanical pencils/lead holders, the bodies of which could probably withstand a nuclear blast, but whose refills come overpackaged in ridiculous amounts of plastic; and on the other, you have the generic #2 pencils, which are much simpler, but will inevitably wind up a near-useless little stub of wood and graphite. What’s a green BIFLer to do? So here are a few options, depending on your needs.

  • #2 pencil, sans eraser, + pencil extender: I learned to make use of a pencil extender in art school, where sharpenable drawing tools would get used up faster than toilet paper, and throwing away 3-inch stubs every week was like throwing away money. A pencil extender is just a piece of wood or plastic or metal that clamps onto the end of your too-short pencil, and lets you use it some more. I recommend doing this with eraserless pencils, just so you don’t have a metal/rubber end to deal with afterwards.
  • 100% recycled #2 pencils: Another option is to just use pencils with 100% recycled body content. They make them out of wood pulp, newspaper, and other stuff nowadays. Unfortunately, they always come with eraser heads.
  • Carpentry pencils: You know the ones: they’re sort of oblong instead of round, chunky, eraserless, and need to be sharpened with a knife. You can get these by the handful at hardware stores, and if they’re durable enough for use at a contruction site, then they’re good enough for you!
  • Graphite stick: Also known as woodless pencils, using a graphite stick eliminates the wooden body altogether and doesn’t really need sharpening. Not so great for writing, since the larger ones are usually very chunky and not especially sharpenable, but if you really just need to draw with graphite for some reason, this is a good way to go. The other downside is that they usually need to go in their own container, otherwise they’ll get graphite on whatever they come into contact with after a while, and everything in your bag will wind up black and shiny.
  • Lead holder: A lead holder differs from your typical mechanical pencil in that they usually make use of larger lead sticks: several inches long, and at least several millimeters in diameter. These refills last a long time. (A tip on making your leads last longer: go with the lighter, harder leads, as the softer hardnesses break down faster and release more mineral particulate when scraped across paper. So when shopping for leads, be sure to pick out something with an “H” instead of a “B”. But not too hard, though, otherwise you’ll have difficulty erasing.) Here’s a selection of metal-bodied lead holders$20-112
  • Good quality drafting pencil: If you insist on mechanical pencils, then at least pick one with a thicker lead. 0.5mm pencils sure do make you feel like a sophisticated writing machine, but they’re fragile, and their leads are easily broken – and therefore wasted. I recommend at least 0.9mm simply for the robustness factor. If you have a choice of lead hardness, again, go with something on the H side of things. Here’s a selection of metal-bodied drafting pencils. $16-20

When it comes to Buying It For Life, you don’t always get what you pay for – a $30 Lamy Safari will probably prove just as trusty as my brass Kaweco over the years, let alone something well into the three (or four!) digits that was designed with the collector in mind. Meanwhile, none of the pencil options listed above will come as close to being as BIFL as a simple $3 chunk of graphite.

Either way… let’s ditch the disposable pens, yeah?

#EverydayCarry

edc

This has been my writing/drawing/organizing #EverydayCarry arrangement for about a month now, and I love it. It’s everything I could possibly need for basic writing tasks, as well as casual drawing and professional comic-making. (Minus the brush and ink.) Moreover, it all fits into my traveler’s notebook.

My Everyday Carry consists of the following (from left to right):

Not pictured: my trusty Opinel penny knife. I left it in the notebook and the TSA had to take it last time I flew to Vancouver. Boo. I’ll be buying another one, though – they’re very handy, and still made in France.

To make your own sketchbook, just divide your sheet of paper up, leaving a little extra as possible, cut, and fold the resulting sheets in half to form your book’s pages. For slipping into a traveler’s notebook, you don’t even need to bind them together – the elastic band or rubber band or whatever you’re using to hold it in will keep the pages together also.

What’s your #EDC?

*A 25×30″ sheet of Canson paper gave me a 24-page booklet that would fit in the notebook (about 4.5×8.5″). Any decent art store should sell sheets of paper like this individually and without packaging. Sometimes without even a barcode sticker! I recommend heavier weight paper like this for writing or drawing with a fountain pen, though – normal paper will undoubtedly bleed.

Baking Substitutions

The hubs and I made a trip to Costco a couple weekends ago and treated ourselves to a box of brownie mix – it came with six bags of mix! No, not particularly zero waste, but it should last us a long time.

A few days ago I visited our local market and saw they had bags of bruised apples on their “day old” produce shelf – everything there is a dollar and would otherwise get thrown out – so I grabbed some, hoping that I’d get a chance to make some kind of baked dessert before they headed too far south. I didn’t get a chance to do that, so I whipped out my manual puree grinder and made some applesauce out of what was left. It wasn’t exactly great… kinda starchy. So I got worried. What the heck would I do with it?

And then it occurred to me. Brownies! Apparently you can substitute applesauce for not just eggs in a recipe, but oil too. So I did, and it got me to thinking about all the other “simple food” substitutions there are out there. Because lets face it, aside from eggs, a lot of what we need substitutes for in recipes tend to be the highly specialized, processed ingredients like oil, butter, or certain flours or starches. While these things are indeed staples, they are far from simple foods – a lot of energy goes into making even the plainest bottle of olive oil, for instance. Or bag of all-purpose flour. Their ubiquity betrays their labor and energy intensive processing to get from plant to shelf. (So all things considered, a half-dozen local apples in a plastic bag is less wasteful than even bulk oil when you take processing and manufacturing into consideration.)

Anyways, enough of that. What other interesting baking substitutions are there? Well, poking around the internet, here are a few I’ve run into:

  • 1/3 c. applesauce for 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp ground flax seeds (FRESHLY ground) in 1/4 c. warm water for 1 egg
  • 1 ripe mashed banana for 1 egg
  • equal amounts applesauce for oil called for
  • juice for oil called for
  • mashed (not refried) beans for oil called for (match bean color to the recipe!)
  • avocado for cheese or butter
  • mashed sweet potato for cheese or butter

Got any other wacky ideas, readers?

Ecoprinting

Ecoprinting

I took an ecoprinting class last night at the Homestead Junction, a local joint here in Van that is pretty much one of my favorite stores in the world at this point. The class was taught by Caitlin Ffrench, a super nice, tarot-reading, punk-hippie local textile artist who started the class by acknowledging that Vancouver is, in fact, unceded Coast Salish territory, and that whenever we go out foraging for plant material to print with, remember that this is their land.

And then I proceeded to learn about ecoprinting, a technique developed by – if I remember correctly – India Flint from learning about traditional egg-dyeing in eastern Europe.

All in all, the technique is ridiculously simple: soak your fabric in mordant, find yourself some leaves and flowers, arrange them along the fabric as you fold it (so that no part doesn’t have stuff touching it), roll it up very tightly with a stick, wrap it very tightly with string, and stick it in a pot of boiling water for about 15 minutes for every inch in diameter your bundle is. Let rest, cut off the string, unwrap, and voila! A beautiful, utterly unique, and low-tech work of textile art.

Above is my piece, about 24″ square – perfect for furoshiki, for turning into a bag (to collect more plant material in), for wearing, to cut napkins or kerchiefs out of…

What struck me about this technique is just how low-impact and zero waste it is. It’s not wholly non-toxic – natural mordants, while often more or less safe for skin contact, should be disposed of carefully because they are solutions of metals – but it’s as green as fabric-dyeing can possibly get. And about as easy, too.

So I’m going to tell you how to do it!

You’ll need:

  • Water
  • Fabric
  • Mordant (see below)
  • Plant material: leaves, husks, berries, flowers, rinds, bark, etc.
  • A jar or large metal pot that won’t touch food ever again
  • A stick
  • String
  • Heat source

1. Buy or make a mordant.

Some mordants, like alum, need to be purchased, but others you can make yourself. Copper and iron mordants are easy enough to make at home, and I’ve read that you can even use an aluminum pot for your dye bath instead of alum, or just use plants that have a high tannin content – like crushed acorns, oak galls, pomegranate rind, juniper needles and others -as tannin also acts as a mordant.

But for now, we’ll stick to the basic iron/copper mordant.

To make some at home, grab a glass jar, fill it full of nails (for iron) or pennies (for copper; sorry Canadians, you’ll need US pennies), and fill the rest of it with half water and half vinegar. Set it sit until the metal starts to rust and the water starts looking really, really gross when you shake it. Strain out the metal pieces, and the resulting liquid is your mordant!

2. Pre-soak your fabric.

Gather up your fabric and throw it into a container that you can from here on out designate as not food-safe. Cover it with water and add a splash of mordant, letting it sit for a half hour or so.

3. Gather your plant material.

We used what Caitlin provided, which were leaves she’d collected in autumn and stored in a freezer. But green foliage works great too, and she even recommended going to florist shops and asking for their leftovers, especially when it comes to using plants from other climates like Eucalyptus. Leaves, husks, berries, and flowers will all work, assuming they have some kind of pigment to contribute.

4. Arrange your pattern.

Remove your fabric from the mordant, and wring it out. Lay it down on a flat, protected surface, and begin arranging your plant material onto half of the fabric (assuming something wider than 8 or so inches). With leaves, put the top-side facing down. Fold it in half, like a sandwich, and arrange again. Repeat this process of arranging and folding until you’re left with a long strip no wider than your dye container is tall. Arrange your last set of plants along the top of your strip.

5. Tie the bundle.

Grabbing your stick (which also shouldn’t be longer than your container is tall), start at one end of the fabric and wrap very tightly – as tight as you possibly can – around it. The fabric should still be wet, so it won’t loosen so easily if it’s sticking to itself. Then grab your string and wrap it around the fabric, also as tightly as you possibly can. the fabric doesn’t need to be covered with the string exactly, just tightly bound.

6. Prepare the bath.

There are a few ways you can do this part. We did ours in a huge stock pot on a hot plate, and the liquid was just remnants of some of the instructor’s other dye baths – she doesn’t like to waste dye! This is why the fabric turned out gray instead of stayed white. But dye isn’t necessary, and we could very well have used water too – or hell, we could have omitted the water altogether also, since this only requires heat, and not necessarily steam or boiling water.

You can do what we did, and boil your water on the stove or a hot plate, and set your bundle in the bath, and let it sit for about half an hour – roughly 15 minutes for every inch in diameter of your bundle – and remove it when done.

The other method is the one I’m interested in: using a jar. For this, get a heat-resistant jar, throw in your bundle, and cover in boiling water. Screw on the lid, and set aside for two weeks – this is similar to solar dyeing – and remove it when done.

7. Enjoy your beautiful fabric!

Once cool, unwrap your fabric and take a peek. That’s what so wonderful about this method: there’s no telling what you’ll get, and it’s almost impossible to get nothing. Every piece is unique. Caitlin said to let the fabric “rest” for a few hours or overnight before hand washing with dish soap and hanging to dry. After that, feel free to launder as normal.

In conclusion?

Ecoprinting and natural dyeing is freaking rad. It can be done on less than a shoestring budget, accomplished with random junk you find on sidewalks and in parking lots, done with fabric or garments you get at the thrift store (bedsheets, anyone?), and the results are impressive every time.

Oh, and it’s also a damn eco-friendly art form.

Give it a go!
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Manual Monday: Treadle Sewing

So Manual Monday is a project that I’ve been thinking about ever since I bought my breathing hand washer, but what really sealed the deal was a post featured on a favorite blog of mine, wherein the author talks about learning to use a scythe for his volunteer work, the history of it and the sensation of using such an ancient tool.

Manual Monday posts will feature a near-lost bit of technology or methodology for getting something done, or even a more contemporary manual technology – like the aforementioned breathing washer. I’ll reference some of its history, how it was used, and how it is or might be used nowadays. Sound fun? It does to me!

Let’s get started!


man•u•al
1. done, operated, worked, etc., by the hand or hands rather than by an electrical or electronic device


 

I could have done a feature on hand-sewing, which is even more manual than this – but embroidery, sashiko, and other similar skills are all the rage right now, and information on that sort of thing is easy to find.

History

In 1790, the English inventor Thomas Saint invented the first sewing machine design, but he did not successfully advertise or market his invention.[3] His machine was meant to be used on leather and canvas material. It is likely that Saint had a working model but there is no evidence of one; he was a skilled cabinet maker and his device included many practically functional features: an overhanging arm, a feed mechanism (adequate for short lengths of leather), a vertical needle bar, and a looper. […]

In 1804, a sewing machine was built by the Englishmen Thomas Stone and James Henderson, and a machine for embroidering was constructed by John Duncan in Scotland.[5] An Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger, began developing his first sewing machine in 1807. He presented his first working machine in 1814.

The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829. His machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch like Saint’s model, and in 1830, he signed a contract with Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, who made the requisite drawings and submitted a patent application. The patent for his machine was issued on 17 July 1830, and in the same year, he opened (with partners) the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create army uniforms for the French Army. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing their livelihood following the issuing of the patent.[6]

A model of the machine is exhibited at the London Science Museum. The machine is made of wood and uses a barbed needle which passes downward through the cloth to grab the thread and pull it up to form a loop to be locked by the next loop.The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832.[7] His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down, requiring the machine to be stopped frequently and reset up. Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it. In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States.The British partners Newton and Archibold introduced the eye-pointed needle and the use of two pressing surfaces to keep the pieces of fabric in position, in 1841.[8]

The first machine to combine all the disparate elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine, was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844, built by Isaac Merritt Singer and Elias Howe in the following years. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher’s patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine in the legal disputations of priority between the two Americans. […]

Clothing manufacturers were the first sewing machine customers, and used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing and shoes. In the 1860s consumers began purchasing them, and the machines—ranging in price from £6 to £15 in Britain depending on features—became very common in middle-class homes. Owners were much more likely to spend free time with their machines to make and mend clothing for their families than to visit friends, and women’s magazines and household guides such as Mrs Beeton’s offered dress patterns and instructions. A sewing machine could produce a man’s shirt in about one hour, compared to 14 1/2 hours by hand.[18]

In 1877 the world’s first crochet machine was invented and patented by Joseph M. Merrow, then-president of what had started in the 1840s as a machine shop to develop specialized machinery for the knitting operations. This crochet machine was the first production overlock sewing machine. The Merrow Machine Company went on to become one of the largest American Manufacturers of overlock sewing machines, and continues to be a global presence in the 21st century as the last American over-lock sewing machine manufacturer.

In 1885 Singer patented the Singer Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine, which used Allen B. Wilson’s idea for a vibrating shuttle and was a better lockstitcher than the oscillating shuttles of the time. Millions of the machines, perhaps the world’s first really practical sewing machine for domestic use, were produced until finally superseded by rotary shuttle machines in the 20th century. Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish decoration appearing until well into the 1900s.

The first electric machines were developed by Singer Sewing Co. and introduced in 1889.[19] By the end of the First World War, Singer was offering hand, treadle and electric machines for sale. At first the electric machines were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side, but as more homes gained power, they became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.

Treadle machines aren’t found only in history books and antique stores, though: there is exactly one company, Janome, that makes a single model of treadle sewing machine that is currently on the market. Though why buy a clumsy plastic machine for almost $300, when you can buy a used one for a fraction of that which will last for generations?

Public Domain

Public Domain

Technique

Depending on whether you use a modern or vintage treadle machine will determine how you sew. Vintage machines don’t have any fancy settings like modern machines do – like zigzag or button-hole stitches – and many of them don’t even have a reverse setting, allowing you to do just a single, basic, unidirectional stitch. Want to go the other way or secure the end of that stitch? You’ve got to turn the whole piece around, or do it by hand.

The other consideration is, obviously, the treadle itself. There seems to be a groove you fall into with pushing your foot, and figuring that out just takes practice.

Basic overview:

How to thread a vintage machine and check tension:

How to treadle:

How to do freehand quilting with a treadle machine:

One of the things I love about these is just how QUIET they are compared to the roar of powered machines. You can actually have a conversation while sewing!

Feasibility

How feasible would it be to go back to using treadle machines? I think very – there is a thriving market for vintage treadle machines and tables, and not just for decoration. There’s a little bit of a learning curve, but from what I’ve seen, it seems to be no steeper than learning to use any other modern machine. The tables themselves are large pieces of furniture, but I see no difference between that and any other kind of surface that you’d need to put your modern machine on anyways. And the modern ones don’t have the benefit of being small, either. the vintage machines seem downright tiny in comparison.

I think for the hobbyist sewer, treadle sewing wouldn’t be much more difficult or inefficient than what we get with our modern machines. If you run a business, though, or do more than a few hours a week, I can see how using the pedal would get tiring after a while.

Further Reading

Interested in learning more about the treadle technology? The history of pre-electricity sewing? Or interested in buying one for yourself? Have some links!

Interview: “Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century”

This is a podcast episode from the New Books Network, which is a series of podcasts that interview authors of interesting new books in just about every field imaginable.

The featured book in this episode, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century, is about something that the vast majority of western environmentalists (yo, zero wasters, you’re very guilty here too) are either willingly or unwittingly ignorant of: the historical relationship between monied western countries and those in the developing world in terms of the 20th century environmentalist push.

Just to sort of set the scene for this history, the modern environmentalist movement, and even the World Wildlife Fund, was founded by a prominent eugenicist and colonialist. 

So if you’re interested in “””sustainability””” or whatever, please for the love of kale, listen to the podcast. Or better, get the book.

Today, sustainability is all the rage.  But when and why did the idea of sustainable development emerge, and how has its meaning changed over time?

Stephen Macekura’s new book, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2015) explores this question by connecting three of the most important aspects of the twentieth century: decolonization, the rise of environmentalism, and the pursuit of economic development and modernization in the Third World.  Macekura, who is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University, demonstrates how environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to promote environmental protection in the post-colonial world, then, after failing to do so, challenged the economic development approaches of the United States, World Bank, and United Nations.  The book reveals how environmental activists initially conceived of “sustainable development” as a way to link environmental protection with Third World concerns about equality and justice in the global economy, but how, over time, the phrase’s meaning moved far away from this initial conception.

In addition to exploring the idea of “sustainable development,” Macekura also examines the growth and limits of the environmental movement’s power. He pays close attention to how international political disputes have scuttled major global treaties over issues such as climate change; he also documents the evolution of international development politics and policy since 1945. In sum, Of Limits and Growth offers a new history of sustainability by elucidating the global origins of environmental activism, the ways in which environmental activists challenged development approaches worldwide, and how environmental non-state actors reshaped the United States’ and World Bank’s development policies.

Raw Diets for Pets

Is it just me, or do pet food manufacturers jump on the same food bandwagons as people food manufacturers do? It seems you can’t even walk into an independent pet store without seeing shelf upon shelf of grain-free, or gluten-free cat and dog food. What, exactly, is going on here?

Let me say this up front: raw food diets for animal companions are not a trend, but boy howdy are the pet food companies trying to turn ’em into one! If you think that pre-made raw food is atrociously expensive, it is. All the more reason to make it yourself. But, more on that later.

What is a raw diet?

A raw diet (for pets) is a lot like what a raw diet is for people: uncooked, unprocessed, whole foods that provide a balanced species-appropriate nutritional profile that mimics what nature intended for them to eat. Animal parts of all sorts, from meat to offal to bone, and even few choice veggies (for dogs), egg, and the occasional supplemental source of protein or oil, are all part of a quality raw diet.

What are the benefits?

The benefits to switching from kibble to raw are immense. Improved health through the whole body; healthier teeth, coats, intestinal tracks and their flora, liver, pancreas, muscle… everything. In cats, stool consistency and odor is greatly improved also. These are just short-term improvements that can be seen in a matter of weeks, though. The long-term picture for a carnivorous animal getting fed a more natural diet are tremendous. All it takes is a little digging to find countless stories of pets, old and young, being saved from euthanasia or invasive veterinary treatments by being switched to a raw diet… and usually at the discouragement of their vets. Why is this? First, though:

What’s wrong with kibble?

The vast majority of kibble is bad. And I mean bad. It is essentially equivalent to eating 3 meals a day from what you can find at 7-11. How long do you expect to be healthy on a diet like that? How long before the health complications start piling up? Or imagine feeding any other carnivorous pet – like a ball python or falcon – a vegetable-based diet of crunchy, extruded bits of who-knows-what. Harder to picture, right? Well, it’s time to star thinking of our dogs and cats (and ferrets too!) as meat-eating animals with special dietary needs, just like their wild cousins.

Here’s an abridged version of a very long and thorough article, written by a vet, on why you should not feed your carnivorous pets dry kibble:

1. Ingredients

Dry food is typically made from rendered ingredients, such as chicken meal, poultry byproduct meal, and meat and bone meal (MBM). Rendering starts with animal-source ingredients being fed into a massive grinder to reduce them to chunks. The resulting hodgepodge is boiled at high temperatures for hours or even days, turning everything to mush. Fat floats to the top and is skimmed off for other uses. The remainder is dried to a low-moisture, high protein powder suitable for use in dry foods. […]

Because all of this ends up as an amorphous brown powder, it’s impossible to know what went into it. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that dog foods containing MBM and/or “animal fat” (both rendered ingredients) were the most likely to contain pentobarbital, the primary drug used to euthanize animals. […]

A survey of dry cat food for sale at a popular internet pet site found a huge variation in the price and quality. As expected, generic and grocery-store type dry cat foods were less than $2.00 per pound, while “organic” and many “grain-free” foods were more in the $3.00/lb. range. But the mostexpensive foods were not grain free, organic, or natural; but rather were those most massively (and expensively) advertised. Science Diet’s Feline Indoor Maintenance rang up at an astonishing $3.96 per pound, despite containing not one single shred of real meat (mainly poultry by-product meal, rice, and corn). Don’t even ask about Hill’s Prescription Diets—but if you just gotta know, their “hypoallergenic” z/d formula is over $6.00/lb.

2. Processing

To make dry food, whatever rendered high-protein meal is being used is mixed into a sticky, starchy dough that can be pressed through an extruder, which forms the kibble. The dough is forced by giant screws through a barrel and ultimately into tiny tubes that end in a shape, much like a cake decorator. The heat and pressure in the extruder are tremendous. As the compressed dough exits into the air, it passes through a whirling mass of sharp knives that cuts the pieces individually as they “pop” when they reach normal air pressure, creating the familiar shapes associated with each pet food brand.

While heat processing makes vegetables, fruits, and grains more digestible, it has the opposite effect on proteins. Not only are cooked proteins less digestible, but they can be distorted, or “denatured,” by heating. These abnormal proteins may be a factor in the development of food allergies, as the immune system reacts to these unfamiliar and unnatural shapes.

Enzymes, special proteins that aid in thousands of chemical reactions in the body, are especially fragile, and are rapidly destroyed by heat, even at relatively low temperatures. The normal food enzymes that would help digest the food are destroyed by processing. This forces the pancreas to make up for those lost enzymes. Over time, the pancreas can become stressed and enlarged, and even get pushed into life-threatening pancreatitis.

3. Carbohydrates

[…] Dogs and cats are carnivores, meat-eaters. Their natural diet is high protein and high moisture. For example, a whole rat contains about 8% carbs, which are found mainly in the liver. Natural prey (birds, rabbits, rodents, etc.) contain from 9-10% carbs. Some of this is consists of glycogen, a fuel the body stores in the muscles and liver, and some comes from undigested food in the prey’s gut. The carnivore’s ideal diet is essentially the Atkins diet: lots of protein and fat, and a small amount of complex carbohydrates from vegetables.

The average carb content of dry cat food is about 30% carbohydrates; it ranges from 8% in EVO Cat and Kitten food (most the carbs are replaced by 44% protein and an astronomical 47% fat), to 48% in Blue Buffalo Lite. Protein is the most expensive ingredient, and carbs the least expensive; so in general, cheaper foods contain more carbs. […]

Heat processing increases the glycemic index of carbohydrates. Corn—a common ingredient of dry food—has a glycemic index similar to a chocolate bar. When dry food is available all the time, cats in particular will nibble at it 15-20 times a day. This causes multiple sharp swings in blood sugar and requires the pancreas to secrete insulin each time. Over-secretion of insulin causes cells to down-regulate and become resistant to insulin. This is one reason why dry food is a major contributor to feline (Type II) diabetes.

4. Calories

It’s currently estimated that about 50% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight, and many are seriously obese. Carrying extra weight isn’t cute and cuddly—it will shorten your pet’s life, create unnecessary discomfort, and will surely lead to one or more chronic diseases, such as diabetes, bladder and kidney disease, arthritis, liver failure, chronic gastrointestinal problems, poor immunity, and even cancer. You’re not doing your pet any favors by giving in to those abnormal appetites, which are in most cases caused and perpetuated by dry food. […]

5. Dehydration

Obviously, dry food is dry. This is a big problem for cats, whose ancestors are desert-dwelling wild cats. They have passed on to our pets their super-efficient kidneys, which are designed to extract every last drop of moisture from prey animals. As a result, cats have a low thirst drive, and don’t drink water until they are about 3% dehydrated—a dehydration level so serious that most veterinarians would consider giving intravenous fluids. Dogs have a higher thirst drive and will drink more readily, so they are less prone to dehydration.

Dehydration causes or contributes to many serious health issues, including urinary crystals and stones, bladder infections, FLUTD, constipation, and kidney disease.

6. Potential Contaminants

Given the types of things manufacturers put in pet food, such as pesticide-soaked grains and diseased, dead, and dying animals, it is not surprising that bad things sometimes happen. Ingredients used in pet food are often highly contaminated with a wide variety of toxic substances. Some of these are destroyed by processing, but others are not. […]

Bacteria & bacterial toxins. Slaughtered animals, as well as those that have died because of disease, injury, or natural causes, are sources of meat, by-products, and rendered meals for pet food. Rendered products commonly found in dry pet food include chicken meal, poultry by-product meal, and meat and bone meal. […]

Drugs. Because sick or dead animals are frequently processed for pet foods, the drugs that were used to treat or euthanize them may still be present in the end product. Penicillin and pentobarbital are just two examples of drugs that can pass through processing unchanged. Antibiotics used in livestock production also contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.

Mycotoxins. Toxins from mold or fungi are called mycotoxins. Modern farming practices, adverse weather conditions, and improper drying and storage of crops can contribute to mold growth. Pet food ingredients that are most likely to be contaminated with mycotoxins are grains such as wheat and corn; and fish meal. There have been many large pet food recalls in response to illness and death in pets due to a very powerful poison, called aflatoxin, in dry food.

Chemical Residues. Pesticides and fertilizers may leave residue on plant products. Grains that are condemned for human consumption by the USDA due to residue may legally be used in pet food.

GMOs. Genetically modified plant products are also of concern. […]

Acrylamide. This carcinogenic compound forms at cooking temperatures of about 250˚F in foods containing certain sugars and the amino acid asparagine (found in large amounts in potatoes and cereal grains). It forms during a chemical process called the Maillard reaction. Most dry pet foods contain cereal grains or starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and they are processed at high temperatures (200–300°F at high pressure during extrusion; baked foods are cooked at well over 500°F). These conditions are perfect for the Maillard reaction. In fact, the Maillard reaction is desirable in the production of pet food because it imparts a palatable taste, even though it reduces the bioavailability of some amino acids, including taurine and lysine. The amount and potential effects of acrylamide in pet foods are unknown.

7. Preservatives 

Preservatives are not needed in canned foods since canning is itself a preserving procedures. Dry food manufacturers need to ensure that dry foods have a long shelf life (typically 12 to 18 months) to remain edible through shipping and storage, fats used in pet foods are preserved with either synthetic or “natural” preservatives. Synthetic preservatives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol (also used as a less-toxic version of automotive antifreeze), and ethoxyquin. For these antioxidants, there is little information documenting their toxicity, safety, interactions, or chronic use in pet foods that may be eaten every day for the life of the animal. Propylene glycol, which keeps semi-moist food and “bits” soft and chewy,  is banned in cat food because it causes anemia in cats, but it is still allowed in dog food. […]

8. Liver Disease

[…] Cats’ livers are particularly sensitive to dietary changes. If a cat does not eat, the liver gets stressed and starts calling for “reinforcements.” In the cat’s case, this consists of fat breakdown around the body, which the liver then grabs from the blood stream and packs into its cells. This extreme fat hoarding can become so serious that it prevents cells from functioning properly, and a life-threatening type of liver failure, called “hepatic lipidosis” (fatty liver disease) can result. Overweight cats, and cats eating mostly or only dry food, are most at risk.

9. Allergies & Asthma

[…] As mentioned briefly above, the high-heat processing that dry food undergoes during manufacturing can denature proteins, meaning that it distorts their shape. To a protein, shape is everything, and only a protein in the correct shape will function properly. Shape is also how the immune system identifies proteins that belong in the body (“self”) versus foreign proteins. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other invaders are all identified by the proteins found on their surfaces. When an immune cell identifies a foreign protein, a whole cascade of signaling for reinforcements and production of antibodies is set into motion. Antibodies then scour the bloodstream looking for invaders matching their shape; when they find one, they latch on and signal for support. Inflammation is one of the primary responses.

When an abnormal protein is picked up by an immune cell and antibodies are produced, then every time that protein appears, antibodies flock to it and stimulate inflammation. More bad proteins, more inflammation.

The gut doesn’t take kindly to this reaction, and will start rejecting the food—one way or another—vomiting or diarrhea. Cats seem to be especially good at (or perhaps fond of) vomiting, and indeed, vomiting is the primary symptom of food allergies, as well as full-blown inflammatory bowel disease. […]

10. Kidney and Bladder Stones

Both dogs and cats can develop inflammation, crystals, and stones in their bladders and kidneys. These conditions are exacerbated, if not outright caused, by dry food.

[…] The best way to prevent all bladder problems is to keep lots of fluid flowing through the urinary system to flush these problem particles out. The dehydrating quality of dry food produces highly concentrated urine that is much more likely to form crystals and stones. Wet food is needed to keep the urinary tract healthy; and it’s essential in any dog or cat with a history of bladder disease.

So why don’t more vets recommend raw diets?

This is a complex issue, but unfortunately in my research, the blame can almost always be placed on the kibble companies themselves. Hills, the maker of Science Diet, is so ingrained in the veterinary culture that they are pretty much responsible for all the training on nutrition that a US vet will get while at school. From providing the professors to sponsoring student programs to writing the textbooks, it appears that they peddle the kibble myth to aspiring vets from day one.

The other issue is that, like human medical doctors, vets don’t actually pay all that much attention to the role of diet in a patient’s health. Or at least, not nearly enough. Pills are almost always preferable to a change in lifestyle, and that goes for animals too. The other concern is that pet owners won’t do it right–which is another reason pills are preferred; they’re harder to screw up–and make their pets even sicker by mishandling raw meat or not providing the right balance of nutrients.

And last, there’s always the liability concern. If a vet gives you the go-ahead to start throwing whole cornish hens at your dog, and the dog chokes on a bone, you might sue. And nobody wants that. Unfortunately, many fears about raw diets are unfounded, and many vets believe in these myths (probably due in no small part to their kibble-peddling professors in college).

How do I get started?

There are several ways to do this, but it’s generally recommended that you go cold-turkey, especially with cats because of how they digest meals. (If you feed a cat raw meat and kibble at the same time in an attempt to transition, the meat and the kibble will digest at different rates, and parts of their meal run the risk of going rancid in their gut.) The first thing to do, though, is to stop your pet’s grazing habits if they are in fact a free-feeder. This means setting specific mealtimes and removing the food in between. Yes, they will probably whine and beg for a few days, but patience here is key. They’ll get used to the new routine in no time.

Because the rest is species-specific – and even breed-specific in the case of some dogs – here are some links that far surpass whatever I’ve gleaned in the past few months. I’m still learning too!

For Dogs

For Cats

For Ferrets

So this is Lucky, a cat I rescued off the street in Bed Stuy 4 years ago. Even though I was super poor at the time, I still fed her as much raw food as I could afford. Then I brought her back to California with me, and she went on a grain-free kibble diet because it just wasn’t possible for me to keep doing raw. There was no room in the freezer, I couldn’t trust my grandmother to do it correctly when I wasn’t around, and I was just lazy. Now that she’s here with me in Vancouver, with not one but TWO loving humans who’d do anything for her, I decided to start feeding her raw again.

The first bad habit I needed to break was her grazing. She was used to having food in the bowl 24/7, and would munch here and there throughout the day. Grazing is an unnatural behavior in cats; in the wild, they have to eat as much of their kill as possible otherwise it’ll start to rot. Tired from hunting and full from eating, their natural inclination is to bathe and then nap the rest of the day away until its time to eat again. (Cats are active at dawn and dusk and shouldn’t be eating more than twice a day unless medically necessary.)

At first I started her off with wet food to get her away from the texture of kibble. The canned stuff she took to immediately (can’t blame her, it’s designed to smell great), but the less processed dehydrated stuff I got, a brand called Sojos, was less to her liking and she’d only eat as much as absolutely necessary. I’m sure the vegetable chunks were a turn-off. When it became apparent that she was never going to finish the bag of dehydrated food, I decided that it was time to switch. We headed off to the nearest Asian supermarket and bought a few trays of meat: chicken wings, boneless chicken thighs, duck gizzards, and the smelt.

The trouble with raw food is that it just doesn’t smell as exciting as processed junk food – hey, just like it is with humans! – and it can be tough to convince your pet that the chunks of raw, relatively odorless chicken in their bowl is actually food at all. So the trick here is to brighten up the smell with something a bit more familiar to them if they don’t take to it right away. Catnip, a schmear of canned food, or even a ground-up sprinkle of their old kibble will help a lot. (It’s like getting your kids to eat their veggies by putting cheese on it.)

If your cat is a lifelong kibble-cruncher, then they won’t actually have the jaw muscles to tear into the tougher cuts of meat, ligaments, skin, and especially bones, that they otherwise would have. So it’s useful to start them off with softer tissue, or cut others into smaller, more manageable pieces. The process of building up that jaw strength can take months; and until they can chew their way through a bone, you will have to supplement their diet with essential nutrients like calcium and phosphorous. I read that you can use ground-up egg shells for this instead of buying a supplement.

Part of that can be alleviated by feeding your cat what’s called “whole prey’ – like the fish in the picture. Granted, I only give her a few a week as I don’t want to screw up her thiamine absorption, but the bones and offal in the fish do somewhat make up for the fact that she’s just not that great at chewing larger bones yet. (The most she can handle right now is the ends of chicken wings.) Though that’s not to say don’t give your cat bones if they can’t eat them! Even just attempting to eat them is beneficial as it cleans their teeth and is a great workout. You can always put the unfinished bones in the freezer until they’re ready to tackle them down the road.

Eventually, I’d like to start developing her taste for heart (rich in taurine), liver (always feed organic liver if nothing else, because that’s where all the toxins and antibiotics wind up), other offal, and maybe even pinkie mice. Even brain and green tripe would be a good, if rare, addition to her diet.

The ZW Benefits

Did I mention that switching your pets to a raw diet produces less waste too? Even if you’re still buying meat on styrofoam trays, think of all the energy from shipping and processing and rendering that isn’t being used to feed your pet now. And if you have access to a decent butcher who’ll fill your jars with beef hearts and chicken wings? I’d say you won the jackpot.

But think about it – even if you’re one of those orthodox package-denying purists, you can appreciate the big-picture improvement from switching from kibble to raw. Even bulk kibble to packaged raw. Fewer health complications down the road reduces trips to the vet, reduces the likelihood of needing prescription medications, and will even reduce the chance of having problems that require surgery when your furry friend gets old. My step-mom has a senior cat with diabetes, and they have to give her an insulin injection every day. That’s a lot of trouble that, honestly, would probably have been avoided if not for a life of eating carb-laden kibble. (Carnivores need very few carbs, if any at all.)

To me, that’s worth a mountain of styrofoam trays.