Well, finally

I’m finally back! Nothing like an upcoming exhibition to get the juices flowing.

So here’s how that happened: out of the blue, I got an e-mail from a production company putting up a yearly craft fair that includes a textile art exhibition. I had been recommended to them, and would I like to participate? This was less than a month before the actual event, so this kind of blew my mind and kicked me into overdrive. The funny thing is that I’d just finished the large piece I’d been working on for the last six months or so, and was wondering if I was ever going to be able to exhibit it somewhere. Well, here was my opportunity!

Indigo pigment for a background fabric which I ended up in an entirely different piece

Indigo pigment for a background fabric which I ended up in an entirely different piece

Speaking of the large piece, that was quite the journey. After sewing the 1000 pillows, I planned an re-planned, started and re-started. I changed my mind about it, took it apart after being almost finished, started over so many times that it’s not even funny. I won’t bore you with the details, just know that I had to do chemistry, math (some of it wrong) and then heaps of handwork (some of it several times due to the wrong math) until I finally ended up with something I’m really happy with.

Some versions that didn’t make it

Some versions that didn’t make it

I didn’t end up using all 1000 pillows, just 900 of them, but I’ll live…

As I said, the invitation to the exhibition kicked me into overdrive. I’d been out of my regular working routine for a bit, with a long overdue summer vacation, some home improvements and other life events taking up most of my time. Working on that one large piece felt like an indulgence, something I did for fun with no real purpose behind it. But this invitation turned everything around. I fell into production mode, made two new larger pieces, a small one, and repaired/improved two smaller ones as well. And even though the exhibition is next week and I don’t even know if I will finish it in time, I started on another one, just because I couldn’t stop. The ideas just keep flooding into my brain. As soon as I finish one (or even get close to finishing it) the next one, two or even more are already lined up in my mind. And why stop? Apart from maybe giving my poor hands a rest from time to time… but that’ll have to wait until the storm of inspiration dies down. Or I get carpal tunnel, whichever happens first…

The final result

The final result





1000 little pillows

So here I was, having decided that my next piece had to be big. This decision immediately gave me so much energy and motivation, I felt like a new person. Now of course I didn't have a definitive plan right away, but I had to strart somewhere. So I took my lovely green and yellow tansy-dyed fabric and my sewing machine and set myself a goal: to sew 1000 little fabric shapes or "pillows".

I was a little fed up with the "banana" shape that I had been using previously and felt like I needed to try something else. The shape I decided on is basically a tube, sewn flat on both ends, but one end is sewn perpendicular to the other. The result is a kind elongated tetrahedron. And I really did sew 1000 of them... 

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It took me a few weeks to finish. I got so obsessed at some point that I strained my wrist shoving the polyester stuffing inside hundreds of them in a row and had to take a break for a few days. That was hard! But here they finally are: different lengths, different shades and different fabrics, but they are all the same width, so they will fit together nicely in a kind of grid.

Most of the fabric is dyed with tansy (yellow and olive-grey-green), some with weld (which makes pretty much the same shades) and some is indigo I already had from ealier, over-dyed with tansy or weld. I like how the indigo adds a nice pop of more intense colour to the gentle greens and yellows.

The next step of course was to find a way to assemble them all into a finished piece. I had previously constructed similar pieces by weaving strips of fabric in/around a frame, and then sewing the pillows on. But assuming the width of 5cm for each pillow, and a grid of 20x50, the finished piece would have to be at least 1x2,5m - not a very practical size for a frame! - and that wouldn't even include any visible background. So if I wanted to have any visible background I had to make it even larger than that, but either way I didn't think such a large rigid frame was going to be a good idea. My solution was to weave the background with fabric strips on a frame like before, but to then remove the frame and finish te edges without it. A tapestry or wall-hanging doesn't necessarily need a frame, after all. So I built a frame, made a lot of fabric strips and started weaving...

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After about a day's work, I was becoming more and more unhappy. The weaving wasn't turning out large enough, the strips of fabric I had sewn together kept tearing, and somehow the colours just didn't seem right. I kept picturing the finished piece in my mind's eye and it just seemed... bland. There was only one thing I could do: take the whole thing apart and go back to the drawing board.

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In the meantime, I busied myself with some white paper, indigo fabric and red sewing thread, a combination that had been floating around in my head for a while. The way the paper is arranged on the fabric just kind of happened, based on the number of sheets of paper I had and an irregularity in the fabric that I wanted to cover up. Sometimes you just have to go with what you've got and let the materials be what they want to be!

One thing led to another and I finally decided that the 1000 pillows also needed an intense indigo background. There's already some indigo in some of the pillows after all, and the colour contrast would elevate the whole thing from bland to spectacular. At least, that what it looks like in my mind's eye. But of course I don't have enough blue fabric lying around, so it's back to indigo-dyeing, and that's where you'll see me again very soon!

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The humble tansy

Another little update about what I've been up to, before I get to what I'm actually working on right now.

Last summer, I went on a little bike ride outside Amsterdam and came across a field full of pretty yellow flowers. Around this time, I was so thoroughly obsessed with finding potential dyes in my surroundings that I immediately tought "could this be a dye plant?". I vaguely rememberd having read something about it, but to be sure, I quickly googled it and got my confirmation. Fortunately, I had an empty bag with me, so I picked as many of the flowers as I could without hurting the plants.

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The flower is called tansy, Latin Tanacetum vulgare, or boerenwormkruid in Dutch. It has an amazing smell, quite medicinal, that reminds me of camphor and rosemary. Most plants with such an intense scent were used in cooking or medicine in the past, and the tansy is no exception. It was used to get rid of intestinal worms (hence the Dutch common name, literally "farmer's worm weed") and other illnesses, and also as an insect repellent. According to the Wikipedia article, it is actually quite effective against insects. It contains certain toxic substances including thujone (the same stuff that used to make absinthe such a wild ride), which probably make it a bit unsafe to use in cooking or as a home remedy, unless you know exactly what you're doing.

Fortunately for my health, I wasn't going to eat it - although it might be an interesting-tasting herb - but find out what colours I could extract from it. The process was straightforward: chopping up the plant material and boiling it in water. I added alum as a mordant and dyed some cotton fabric and wool roving. The result was a lovely yellow, quite similar to weld which is probably the best-known traditional yellow dye-plant. Modified with iron it turned into various shades of olive green, which I'm very happy with. Adding the iron directly to the plant extract before adding the fabric resulted in a darker, slightly grayish green, while adding iron to fabric that had already been dyed yellow made a brighter, more yellowy green. The dye also seems to be very lightfast, making it ideal for my purposes. 

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These first experiments kicked off a summer-long obsession with the plant. I started to see them everywhere, mostly along roadsides and on empty lots in industrial areas. Interestingly, the flowers stay on the plant for months without fading. This was good news for me, as I wanted to pick as many of them as possible before the end of the season. I even dragged my long-suffering boyfriend on another long bike ride to find and pick more. (In case you're worried, I would never pick so much of any plant that it would hurt them. Tansy is plentiful and hardy and even considered a weed in some places, so I don't see a problem with harvesting quite a lot of it.) I dyed piles of fabric, unspun wool, yarn and paper and still had lots of flowers left over, which I dried on my laundry rack to keep for later. These all got used up over the course of the following months.

After the last large project, I wasn't sure what to do next. The tansy-obession kept me busy for a while, but dyeing fabric and paper was never supposed to be an end unto itself. I started playing around with the materials, did some experiments and made a few small pieces. I like them all well enough, I love the colours and the textures, especially the wavy paper. But somehow I was not happy. There was something missing...

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It took me a little while to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with everything I made. In the end, the answer was quite simple: everything was just too small. Nothing that small could ever have the impact I wanted it to have. I needed another big project in my life! And that is what I'm working on now, and have been for the past few months. More tansy fabric, more sewing and weaving, more soft greens and yellows  - coming soon to this theatre!

Some groupings of roughly banana-shaped pillows

Hello again. It's been a while! I'll recap what has happened since my last post, before I get to what I'm working on right now.

The piece I was working on when I posted last was finished soon after. I tried out a few different arrangements of "bananas" before I found one that made me happy, then I sewed them onto the woven background one by one, tweaking and refining as I went. 

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After that, I applied for two exhibitions of mini-textile art. The first, in Veere, the Netherlands, was asking for submissions of textile art no larger than 20x20x20cm. I submitted a piece which combined some fabrics I had dyed that reminded me vaguely of light skin colours: light pink avocado dye, and two pale beige-y shades obtained from tree bark. For the shape I was going for something finger-like, and although that isn't exactly what the finished piece reminds me of, I'm still very happy with it. So was the selection committee apparently, because I was accepted and the piece was shown in the Grote Kerk (large church) in Veere in a group exhibition.

The greatest thing about being in  an exhibition in this very church was that I used to go on holiday to Veere with my parents when I was a child, and I always found the church so striking. The size of its tower is somehow completely out of proportion with the rest of the building, and the entire thing is ridiculously chunky, rising far above the quaint fishing village. It seems so out of place now, but in the past Veere was an important trading port, and someone must have hoped that it would grow to do justice to such a large church. I always wanted to know what the inside looked like, but I never could have imagined that one day a work of mine could be exhibited there!

The other textile art exhibition allowed for two pieces measuring a maximum of 30x30x30cm each. The two pieces I created are titled Lutum and Limus (Latin for clay and mud, respectively) because that is what the colours reminded me of - the grayish-black of dark, smelly lake mud and the reddish shades of terracotta clay. I still can't decide which of the two I like more.

This exhibition took place in two separate locations in the Ukraine, which not only makes me an internationally exhibited artist (yay!) but also meant that I had to ship the pieces across almost the entire continent, hoping that postal workers along the way would treat them gently. Fortunately, all went well and they came back to me in good shape. You can see some picturese of both shows under work/exhibitions.

Lutum

Lutum

Limus

Limus

After this, I continued dyeing fabric, wool and paper, but as I didn't have a specific goal to work towards anymore, things slowed down for a while. Which isn't to say that I didn't do anything, though! The entire reason I started this blog is that I often do a lot of work creating materials (such as dyed fabric) that doesn't lead to a finished piece right away, but ends up being used somehow way down the line, and I wanted to share that process. Which I'm goin to try and do more regularly again.

So, see you next time?

Weaving a background

You may have been wondering what all of these fabrics I dyed are for. As with some previous pieces, the idea is to create a wall-hanging of a sort. I was asked to make such a work, with the only instructions being a certain size and "warm colors". 

The first step was to  choose which colors to use. My dyeing adventures had yielded a wonderful palette, including a lot of warm colors, but choices had to be made. After a lot of trial and error, making piles of fabric, shuffling them around and changing them over and over, this is what I came up with.

Red and pink from sandalwood, orange from annatto, yellowish-brown from rhubarb root, yellow and a contrasting greenish-brown from onion skins (with iron for the brown). I ended up using very little of the rhubarb, and added in some more brownish-red which I obtained by mixing sandalwood with annatto.

Next: turning the chosen fabric into "yarn". I sewed the fabric into a loop and cut it into one continuous strip, spiral-wise. A simple wooden frame provided the base for the finished piece. The fabric strips are wound around the frame in one direction to form the warp, and then I simply weave over and under in the other direction for the weft.

Starting the weaving. There is avocado-dyed wool and fabric drying on the left.

Starting the weaving. There is avocado-dyed wool and fabric drying on the left.

Repetitive activities like this are what I live for. Taking a strip of material, pulling it over and under another one, over and over... it takes me into a meditative state of flow that I never want to end. So of course I had to keep going until I was completely done.

This is about 1.5 hours into the process. My arms are definitely starting to get tired, but I'm not even half-way done, so I'm not stopping, although I'm starting to get fed up. This is the point where the magic starts to happen: the fight between my body's desire to rest and my compulsion to keep going is at a decisive point. Unless I'm in really bad shape physically, the desire to keep going usually wins - and pulls me into a particular mental state that I can't achieve any other way.

Another 1.5 hours later, I'm almost done. I've gone into a kind of trance state, ignoring the fact that my arms feel like they're going to fall off. I'm so close to finishing now that stopping is not an option. It's getting dark outside, which is why the photo quality is deteriorating, but time of day is not important when I'm on a mission - and I'm on a mission to finish this thing! 

After about 3.5 hours of work in total, the woven part is finished, and I can finally clean up and go home...

This will serve as a background and support to the finished piece. Unfortunately I didn't document this with any pictures, but I've spent days and days sewing little shapes I like to call "bananas" from more matching fabric. Straight ones, crooked ones, round ones and pointy ones... each one is individually sketched onto the fabric with chalk, cut out, sewn together, turned right-side out, stuffed with polyester filling and sewn closed. These shapes will be placed onto the background and attached, once I figure out a composition that makes sense. 

In the meantime I leave you and myself with this teaser. After days and weeks of monotonous labor, the piece is almost finished, and I like to linger at this point of near-completion for a little bit. The feeling of satisfaction when a piece is truly finished only lasts for a short while, but I can stretch out this exciting time of "it's-almost-done" for as long as I want. At the same time, this serves as a period to reflect and tweak any necessary details before everything is nailed down. 

Which it will be, soon.

I will let you know.

Avocado peels

The story of the avocado peels is told a lot more quickly than it took to actually happen. Because, who actually eats that many avocado's? So I recruited my colleagues at work (some of whom tend to be very health conscious) and my studio "neighbour" (who eats an avocado a day) to save their avocado peels and seeds in the freezer for me. Combined with my own avocado waste I ended up with a nice amount of material after a few months. I counted the seeds and got about 37, but there may have been more peels because not everyone knew I wanted the seeds as well.

My avocado peel harvest.

My avocado peel harvest.

At first, I sorted the peels and seeds into separate pots because I was curious if there was a color difference. Some website had told me to add some ammonia to the water, so that is what I did. Also, boiling was not encouraged. I left the peels and seeds in their cold ammonia water to soak for just under a week. Also, supposedly no mordant was required, which is always a bonus! 

When I added fabric to the avocado water, it immediately turned a nice peachy orange. But there wasn't a noticeable difference between the seeds and the peel, except for the seeds being more pale, so I added both dye baths together since there really wasn't any point in keeping them separate anymore.

Peels on the left, seeds on the right.

Peels on the left, seeds on the right.

It's always encouraging to get a good color immediately after adding the fabric to the dye bath. Usually, leaving the fabric in for a longer time will give a more intense color since the fabric has more time to absorb the dye. I really liked the orangey-pink color and could have used a darker variety of that, but unfortunately, even after a few days of soaking, the color stayed more or less the same intensity.

On the plus side, when fabric takes a dye in such a way that it turns the "end" color right away, you can usually keep dipping fabric and get the same shade over and over until the dye bath is exhausted, so I got quite a few pieces of fabric in this shade, plus a bunch of wool roving. 

The wool and fabric are still wet in this picture.

The wool and fabric are still wet in this picture.

As usual, the color difference between the wet and dry fabric is quite extreme with this dye. Not only is the wet fabric more intensely colored, it is also a more orange, salmon-y color. The dry fabric leans more towards a pale dusty pink. I was hoping tha dyeing the fabric twice was going to make the color more intense, which is how the below picture happened - some fabric drying, some already dyed and dry fabric going back into the dye -, but to no avail.

Wet fabric in the back, dry fabric going back into the dye in the front.

Wet fabric in the back, dry fabric going back into the dye in the front.

Still, I like the color. It actually reminds me a bit of a (slightly too pink) white-person skin color, which has inspired me to look towards the human body for inspiration for whatever the next step is going to be. 

The softness and flexibility of textiles are also reminiscent of human flesh, which is why this might be a match made in heaven... 

Rhubarb root

Chopped dried rhubarb root.

Chopped dried rhubarb root.

Today, a rather obscure dye plant: rhubarb, specifically the root. Once I had heard about it, I had to try it, but first I needed to convince someone to uproot their rhubarb plant to supply the material. Fortunately, my mother obliged (dankje, mama!). She had two plants and agreed to dig up the larger of the two, since she wasn't going to eat that much rhubarb anyway. The roots were washed, chopped, dried and mailed to me. I received about 250g of dried rhubarb root bits. 

The material smelled very interesting and rather nice. Earthy and fresh at the same time, hard to describe. I first soaked it in cold water overnight, then simmered it for an hour or so before adding the fabric (mordanted with alum). The dye bath was a nice yellow, and that is the color I was expecting. Modifying with washing soda was supposed to turn it pinkish.

Fabrics soaking in the rhubarb root dye bath, with added washing soda on the left.

Fabrics soaking in the rhubarb root dye bath, with added washing soda on the left.

And that is what happened.  Again, a really interesting color shift through simple modification of the acidity level. In the above picture you can see the fabric after soaking for only a short period of time, so I was optimistic: longer soaking usually results in more intense color, so I left them overnight to see how they would turn out

Unfortunately, this dye did not behave as others. Even after longer soaking, boiling the plant material again to try to extract more dye and even longer soaking, the fabric stayed pale. But at least the colors were nice, right? Even a pale yellow and pale pink are good colors to have.

The two pieces of fabric in the front were dyed with rhubarb root, still wet in this picture

The two pieces of fabric in the front were dyed with rhubarb root, still wet in this picture

After drying the fabric, another disappointment: the colors had turned a lot less intense and more towards beige or brownish shades. There is still a visible difference between the two, which is nice, but overall, not the most interesting colors I've ever seen. At least they seem to be lightfast, which is more than can be said for some other dyes I've tried.

As always, these subtle shades were very difficult to capture in a photo. I'm sure I'll find a good use for them complementing some bolder shades or in a collection of other pale ones, but overall, I'm rather sorry that an entire rhubarb plant had to give its life for this experiment...

Alternating unmodified/alkaline rhubarb-root-dyed fabric. The bottom two bits of fabric were unbleached cotton, which is why they are a bit darker than the others.

Alternating unmodified/alkaline rhubarb-root-dyed fabric. The bottom two bits of fabric were unbleached cotton, which is why they are a bit darker than the others.

The mighty onion and other plants of note

As of last week, I have pretty much dyed the entire rainbow. The more concentrated sandalwood dye came out really amazing. Mordanting the fabric with alum definitely helped to achieve a better dye uptake. The bright red doesn't seem to fade in direct sunlight, either. The first piece of fabric took up most of the color, but there was enough left to dye some paler pinkish shades. And when I threw in some light indigo fabric it came out a good purple! 

Indigo + sandalwood purple on top, and the most intense sandalwood red below that. The paler pink is from the partially exhausted sandalwood dyebath. Below that: annatto overdyed with weak sandalwood, plain annatto and some assorted other colors.

Indigo + sandalwood purple on top, and the most intense sandalwood red below that. The paler pink is from the partially exhausted sandalwood dyebath. Below that: annatto overdyed with weak sandalwood, plain annatto and some assorted other colors.

Next up: weld. I really needed a good yellow that wouldn't fade in a day or two like turmeric, so I turned to this traditional dye plant. I ordered two bags of 100g and used only one for now, so there's plenty left. The plant material looked rather uninteresting, and smelled a bit like hay when I added it to water to soak. Even after two days of soaking, it didn't look particularly promising. But I still had to heat it to extract the color.

The dried weld before soaking and boiling.

The dried weld before soaking and boiling.

Several websites with instructions on how to dye with weld told me not to boil it, so I heated it to a simmer and tried to keep it there for a while, but I was impatient. So I strained the liquid, which had turned slightly yellow, and added fresh water to the plant material to extract more dye. I immediately added a piece of fabric, mordanted with alum, to the strained dye bath. At first, it didn't look very promising. Even after a few hours - and another pot full of dye boiled and added to the bath - the fabric was still very pale. But the instructions said to leave the fabric to soak overnight, which is what I did. And my patience was rewarded: the next day, the fabric came out a brilliant yellow, almost neon when it was still wet. Dried, it isn't as bright as that, but still a good lemon yellow.

Having read that weld and iron was supposed to turn green, of course I had to try that, so I added one bit of yellow fabric to a water bath with iron solution. It did indeed turn olive green. Not a bright color, but a nice earthy shade, and quite a spectacular transformation.

The weld dye bath after a few hours of soaking, and the dried fabric on top of a pile of indigo blue and indigo + onion green. The brownish olive right under the two yellow pieces of fabric is weld modified with iron.

The weld dye bath after a few hours of soaking, and the dried fabric on top of a pile of indigo blue and indigo + onion green. The brownish olive right under the two yellow pieces of fabric is weld modified with iron.

I had also been collecting onion skins. I already knew this was a good dye, one that didn't even need a mordant, but in my previous experiments it had turned out rather pale. So this time I wasn't going to let that happen and collected as many skins as I could. My local supermarket helped me out by collecting the loose skins at the bottom of the onion crates for me, so I ended up with a bag full of them. Still, I didn't expect spectacular results... but that is what I got!

Mighty onion skins, ready to soak.

Mighty onion skins, ready to soak.

Like the weld, I left the skins to soak overnight in cold water, then heated them. They filled my entire 10 liter pot with barely enough room left to stir. It smelled of delicious onion soup and made me hungry. The water turned orangey brown rather quickly, so as soon as it was almost boiling, I decided to strain it and add fresh water. The fabric I added to the hot, strained liquid turned orange almost immediately. The dye bath looked inexhaustable so I added more and more fabric, and I kept adding fresh water to the skins to extract more and more dye. In the end I must have boiled four full pots of water with the skins and still the dye kept on coming. I managed to dye eight large pieces of fabric a nice orangey yellow, and some pale indigo fabric added to the same dye gave me a lovely grass green. I think there's even more life left in the dye bath so I haven't thrown it out yet - I only hope it isn't going to smell like rotten onions...

Onion + iron was also supposed to turn green, but it came out more as a slightly greenish/grayish brown. Maybe it would be more green on a paler, more yellow onion dye rather than this brownish orange. Onion + weak sandalwood became a warmer orange shade.

The brown in the middle is onion + iron, and the fabric on the right is onion + sandalwood. This picture doesn't actually show the colors very well - the lighting wasn't great.

The brown in the middle is onion + iron, and the fabric on the right is onion + sandalwood. This picture doesn't actually show the colors very well - the lighting wasn't great.

One thing I'm starting to realize now is that I don't actually enjoy it very much to just buy a material like weld, use it as directed and get a solid result. It feels like cheating, and kind of defeats the purpose of the entire process. I enjoy trying out materials, seeing what happens, and being surprised. The onion skins were great because I got them for free through my own efforts, and they turned out more intensely colorful than I expected. Indigo is alright because it is a complex substance that I have to tinker with, and most of its workings are still a mystery to me. But what happened with the weld was so unexciting and uncreative, I might as well have bought a synthetic dye, or even a yellow fabric. It's nice to get good colors without much effort, but that was never the goal. Now I know how to reliably get almost any shade I could wish for, I may need to turn my focus elsewhere... what to do with them, for example!

I'm not entirely done with dyeing - I'm still collecting avocado pits and peels to re-attempt that pinkish shade I accidentally turned into gray a few weeks ago, and depending on what I am going to do with the fabric, I may need more of a particular shade. But at that point it will be more of a production process than one of experiment and discovery. This always happens: there is a point in a process when it naturally stops and tells me to move on to the next step. This can be scary, because I don't know what's next. But it's also exciting, because.... who knows what's next?

Oh, indigo!

In my search for natural dyes, of course I had to come across indigo at some point. No palette would be complete without blue, and indigo is the strongest and best-known true blue dye there is. It used to be extracted from the "true" indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, but also from woad, Isatis tinctoria, which contains the same chemical in a lower concentration. The original blue jeans were dyed with indigo and most jeans are still dyed with a synthetic form of the substance. It's also used for japanese shibori, which is an elegant kind of tie-dye technique which seems to be very fashionable at the moment.

What I didn't know when I started this experiment, was that indigo needs a ridiculous amount of processing to get to the actual dye. The leaves need to be fermented, ground, soaked in lye and reduced (as in, the free oxygen has to be removed) in a process that is still a mystery to me. "Real" indigo dyers set up fermentation vats which have to be fed with sugar and tended to regularly - it almost sounds like having a pet. I wasn't going to do that to myself, or to the people I share my studio with. So I found a workaround: pre-reduced indigo. The plant matter is already processed and prepared so it is about 60% reduced, and there's no need for strong lye - which can be dangerous - to set up the dye vat. All it needs is soda ash (sodium carbonate), and a reduction agent called thiourea dioxide, thiox for short, for the other 40% reduction. These substances in a certain concentration should then yield a useable dye bath.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, wrong. First of all, I found several different instructions which all gave different amounts of the different substances. One told me I should use 65g of thiox for 20g of indigo powder, the other said it should be 100g, or even more. 100g of soda, or 250g. To be safe, I started with the smallest amounts. First sign of failure: some kind of foam should form. It didn't. So I added the rest of my thiox - 100g in total - and another 100g of soda. It foamed a little bit, but still didn't look like the "flower" I was supposed to get - a thick, shiny blue foam. It still didn't look right after letting it rest for about half an hour.

The dye mixture right away, after adding more thiox and soda, and after resting for 30 mins.

The dye mixture right away, after adding more thiox and soda, and after resting for 30 mins.

Still, I had to try it out to see if it did anything. I was excited for the magical color shift that had to happen. When you dye a piece of fabric in indigo, it first comes out bright yellow-green, and only turns blue as it oxidizes in contact wit the air. I couldn't wait to see this magic happen.

This is what my very first try looked like:

Nope.

Nope.

That wasn't what I was going for, exactly... But I wasn't going to give up. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to stick my gloved hands in the bath and feel around a bit - and it really was a good idea. Turns out that there were huge lumps of undissolved indigo powder at the bottom. Crushing these with my hands seemed to cause a little more foam and color. Also, I had read that it sometimes takes several dips to dye fabric a darker shade of blue. So I dipped. And dipped. After four dips, it started to look a bit like faded blue jeans - keep in mind that the fabric is still wet in this picture, so it would have dried up a lot lighter:

Sad, sad indigo.

Sad, sad indigo.

At this point I didn't know what else to do and went home. 

Two days later, I returned to the studio to discover a dye bath that was actually quite foamy. Maybe something had happened with the chemicals that needed a little time. I dipped in another piece of fabric and bam! the color was amazing. First this crazy yellow-green, and then slowly, developing like a photograph in a darkroom, the blue emerged. It actually changed so quickly that I wasn't able to capture the brightest green - in the time it took to take off my gloves and get to the camera, some of the blue was already developing.

Relatively freshly dipped in the front, more oxidized indigo in the back.

Relatively freshly dipped in the front, more oxidized indigo in the back.

Now, I wouldn't be true to myself if this lovely blue didn't give me the idea to dye an equally lovely green. So I dyed some fabric with both indigo and turmeric, creating some amazing shades of green, which was of course stupid. Because a few days later the turmeric had already faded so much that the fabric turned blue again, simply from hanging on the drying rack. I definitely need a different yellow dye. Since indigo is one of the "classic" plant dyes, the yellow has got to be weld, Reseda luteola, another traditional dye plant which supposedly dyes a rather lightfast yellow. More on that when I have the weld.

Some indigo and turmeric blues and greens (the topmost greenish yellow is from an old experiment with dried cornflowers).

Some indigo and turmeric blues and greens (the topmost greenish yellow is from an old experiment with dried cornflowers).

Another little experiment was to dye some of the wool roving (combed, unspun wool) I have lying around for felting. It took the color quite nicely, but didn't turn out as intense as the fabric. Still, it's a nice color, and I'll definitely be using this for some of my felt work. Maybe more hand dyed felt is in my future.

Wool dipped twice on the left, and wool dipped once into the failing dye bath on the right.

Wool dipped twice on the left, and wool dipped once into the failing dye bath on the right.

After all this, my dye bath started to look rather unhealthy and didn't give off much dye anymore. It had a good amount of foam on it, this strange and shiny "flower" which you're supposed to scoop off when you want to dye, and replace when you're done. But the liquid became darker and darker green, which meant that the indigo was starting to oxidize in the water. Of course, every time I dipped a bit of fabric in the dye bath I was introducing oxygen, and although I was being careful, soaking the fabric in clean water beforehand and doing my best to reduce dripping and other bubbles, it was bound to happen. So I think I need more thiox to further reduce the dye if I want to keep going.

Being the geek I am, I now wish I had the time to study chemistry and/or biology and set up a natural indigo vat, bacterial fermentation and all. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately for my studio mates) this is not a realistic pursuit at this point. But who knows what the future holds...

Lessons learned

This week's dyeing session taught me some lessons. First of all, that I shouldn't brag about vibrant colors before the fabric is dry. Annatto wins the day with its amazingly bright orange, and the avocado + iron grey almost didn't lose any intensity in drying. But turmeric... oh, turmeric.

Top to bottom: turmeric + soda (red), annatto + soda (orange), plain turmeric (yellow), avocado + iron (grey).

Top to bottom: turmeric + soda (red), annatto + soda (orange), plain turmeric (yellow), avocado + iron (grey).

Turmeric really doesn't hold up well. Especially the turmeric + soda combination, which looked amazing when wet, lost a lot of its vibrancy. I was worried about lightfastness as well, so I decided to put the fabric out in the sun and see how much color it would lose. 

The darker bit on the right was covered to preserve the original color.

The darker bit on the right was covered to preserve the original color.

The color change you see above happened in less than an hour and a half. I'm sure that they would have been bleached even more if I'd left them out longer. So although the color transformation from low-pH yellow to high-pH red by adding soda to the turmeric is quite amazing and dramatic, it's not a very good substance to dye with. The yellow didn't hold up very well either, as you can see in the topmost picture: it's rather pale next to the annatto, which didn't lose much color even in the full mid-day sun.

Of the other dyes I tried last week, I was rather happy with the shades of sandalwood. The ones I left in the dye bath for about four days turned out a lot darker than the ones I only left in there for a few hours, but unfortunately, the sandalwood + iron developed some brown stains. Another lesson learned, I suppose. I don't know if the darker color is due to the longer soaking, or simply because the dye bath was already mostly spent when I added the second piece of fabric. Also, after reading that I should use about a 1:1 weight ratio of sandalwood to dry fiber (which I didn't, I would guess that it was about 1:4), I might buy some more and try to achieve a more intense color.

Sandalwood + iron (soaked 4 days with the iron, note the rusty-looking stain); sandalwood soaked for a few hours with the iron added only at the end; plain sandalwood soaked a few hours; the same soaked 4 days; "everything-mix" soaked for 4 days.

Sandalwood + iron (soaked 4 days with the iron, note the rusty-looking stain); sandalwood soaked for a few hours with the iron added only at the end; plain sandalwood soaked a few hours; the same soaked 4 days; "everything-mix" soaked for 4 days.

After I had such amazingly bright dye baths left over last week, I didn't want to pour them out just yet. So I added them all together: annatto + soda, sandalwood + iron and turmeric + soda. You can see the result in the above picture on the right. Not a particularly interesting color by itself, but goes well with its "family". The dye bath still looked like it could give me some more color, so I added more fabric which came out about the same after two days of soaking.

About half my studio looks like this.

About half my studio looks like this.

Last week, I mentioned tree bark. I had collected both oak bark and the bark of a tree which I guess was beech, but I'm not entirely certain because I didn't have any leaves, only logs. I soaked both separately in cold water for about two weeks. They started to smell very interesting (ahem) and developed a slimy, yeasty layer on top... yum. I just strained out whatever I could and threw in the fabric. 

Since I had gotten a nice reddish-brown from oak bark in the past, I expected something like that again. But both barks didn't do much at first, least of all the oak. I added some soda to the beech, which did seem to make it adhere to the fabric a bit better... it left a pale greenish yellow, not bad for an experiment, but also not very spectacular. So pale, in fact, that it didn't photograph very well. 

The oak was refusing to do anything at all, so I decided to heat the entire dye bath with the fabric and see if that would make a difference... it didn't. Next try: iron again. This definitely changed things. The dye bath turned grey, and so did the fabric. A very different grey from the avocado, and quite lovely.

Oak + iron, on the left; and some varieties of "everything-mix" and weak sandalwood on fabric that had a slight tinge of color from previous dyeing experiments.

Oak + iron, on the left; and some varieties of "everything-mix" and weak sandalwood on fabric that had a slight tinge of color from previous dyeing experiments.

Below, a picture of all my dyed fabric so far. Quite a nice palette, I think, but apart from the annatto orange, not very vibrant. And the blue and green on top of the left pile - what's that, you might think? Well, that's for another post, because there is a lot to say about that particular color!

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Avocado and turmeric surprises

This week's fabric dyeing session started with a disappointment. After having collected a bag full of avocado pits and skins, even enlisting my co-workers to collect for me, boiling them and letting them soak for days, I had a deeply reddish brown dyebath. Previous experience told me that it would dye the fabric a lovely dusty rose. However, I misremembered having read that adding alum would make it more colorfast... not so. The dyebath immediately turned grayish brown and the fabric I added to it turned only the slightest bit beige, even after soaking for 24 hours.

Fortunately, my reliable friend turmeric, which had also been soaking for 24 hours, came out just as expected - sunny and bright yellow.

The avocado disaster, left, and the always radiant turmeric, right.

The avocado disaster, left, and the always radiant turmeric, right.

I wasn't going to waste the fabric that had soaked in the ruined avocado dye, so I decided to experiment with an iron modifier. About a week ago, I added steel scouring pads to a 1:2 vinegar/water solution in order to extract the iron oxide. The liquid hadn't changed in color much, but it didn't smell like vinegar at all anymore. Instead it smelled like metal, so I guessed it might be ready. Adding a good splash of the iron solution to the avocado dye bath (with one of two pieces of fabric still in it) caused the first surprise of the day: almost immediately, it turned dark gray. An incredible transformation, from nearly no color at all to this!

The avocado + iron dyebath, and the drying fabric. The lighter piece of fabric was dyed second, so there must have been less dye left in the bath.

The avocado + iron dyebath, and the drying fabric. The lighter piece of fabric was dyed second, so there must have been less dye left in the bath.

All this made me feel like some kind of alchemist, or possibly a witch, so of course I had to continue dyeing. Next up were red sandalwood and annatto. The last time I used these I just boiled them in water and added the fabric. The results were nice, but not very dark. A reddish pink from the sandalwood, and a yellowish orange from the annatto.

This time I had done some research and first soaked the sandalwood-powder in ethanol for about 30 min. before adding it to the boiling water. There was already a piece of fabric and alum mordant in the water, which immediately took on a lovely shade of pink, but it was still not very dark. Maybe it just needs to soak for a while? But even after two hours or so the color didn't seem to get any more intense, so I added more sandalwood powder which didn't seem to make much of a difference. Also, I separated the dyebath into two buckets and, inspired by its previous success, added some iron solution to one of them. The dye turned more purplish, but didn't seem to become darker. Longer soaking seems to be in order... more on this next time.

Sandalwood/ethanol paste, and the disappointingly pale fabric after soaking for about two hours.

Sandalwood/ethanol paste, and the disappointingly pale fabric after soaking for about two hours.

Next up, annatto. Also known as achiote, it's a little orange seed from a tree that grows in the Amazon. The seeds smell amazing, sweet and very fruity, almost like orange candy. I boiled the ground seeds for a little while before adding the fabric. It turned a light orange, not unpleasant but also not as deep as I was hoping for. After googling around a bit I decieded to add washing soda to the mix which had an immediate effect: the light color turned into a nice deep orange. When I added two more pieces of fabric to the dyebath, they immediately took on the same deep hue, no long soaking required!

Annatto dyebath with fabric, after adding washing soda.

Annatto dyebath with fabric, after adding washing soda.

Finally, I had plenty of time left and felt that I needed to experiment with some other dye before I called it a day. I had read somewhere that adding modifiers to turmeric dye might change the color, so I tried iron (didn't do anything) and washing soda. Surprise!! The bright sunny turmeric yellow that we all know and love turned an intense dark shade of red. It was almost shocking to see the soda dissolve in the yellow bath and change it to the color of blood. Chemistry in action! I have no idea how this works, but I love it. The dyebath was also very generous and dyed two pieces of fabric to a dark red, and a third to a lighter orangey-red. I have saved this dye, as well as the annatto, for further experiments.

Left: turmeric + washing soda. Right, from back to front: turmeric + washing soda - first, second and third piece of fabric to be dyed; annatto +washing soda.

Left: turmeric + washing soda. Right, from back to front: turmeric + washing soda - first, second and third piece of fabric to be dyed; annatto +washing soda.

I am amazed at the intense colors I was able to achieve today, considering that all of the materials are completely natural and non-toxic and can be found almost anywhere. Next up will be some tree bark, the sandalwood that I have left to soak for a few days, experiments with the saved dyebaths and whatever else I may come up with in the meantime.