It feels like it has been a long winter. I have been keeping myself busy by catching up on my record keeping for my natural dyeing. This has involved writing up my notes on each of my dye experiments, labelling all my samples, and identifying those that are worthy of being included in my “portfolio”. These are the ones which I will use for reference and which I may want to repeat in the future. It’s been a long process, but an important one, and now I feel ready to build on this work and start something new!
In March I was preparing my white samples ready for dyeing and now I am putting my indigo vat to bed for the winter. I have investigated several new dyestuffs, continued experimenting with eco printing, started using my hand-dyed yarns in weaving projects, and explored the Japanese art of shibori. It’s been another colourful year!
There are four phases to my weaving. First, I think about the story, colours, textures, fibres and pattern. This often takes the longest time. Then I play around with sampling, executing some of my initial ideas, but adding to this as the cloth becomes a reality. Then, I choose a design and develop the specification, including the yarn I will use and how I will set up my loom. Finally, I weave the piece. The latter often takes the shortest time because of all the preceding thought and practice. So, it was lovely when a friend, Uli, asked me to make her a scarf already in my collection! The original inspiration was from a picture I took of a woman in Gujarat, India, sweeping up petals from the grass. I love this colourful image and developed the design for a friend with Gujarati heritage and environmental credentials. I changed the second scarf based on the colours of the flower market in Cahors. These are Uli’s favourite colours and will, I hope, remind her of happy times in France, thereby telling a different story.
I love working on commissions, taking my time to interpret the brief, to develop some samples and then, finally, to weave the piece. It’s no wonder weaving is called a slow craft. However, when my friend Elizabeth asked if I would weave her a scarf in January 2018, I wasn’t expecting it to take over three years! But, she specifically said that she wasn’t in a hurry, and so I took her at her word, fitting the work around other commitments and enjoying its evolution. The brief was for the piece to be a reminder of visits to Botswana: …”the contrast of the dryness, all the brown and orange hues, and then the greening when the rain comes”. I decided I would have a go at capturing some of these colours by hand dyeing the warp and then, by using a thinner weft, ensuring that the fabric is warp dominant, allowing the natural dyes to be the feature. I think it was worth the wait!
I have just returned from the the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers ‘Summer School’ in Writtle, Essex. This event is eagerly anticipated as it only happens every two years and, after lockdown, it felt particularly special. I attended a wonderful workshop on stitched shibori given by the award-winning shibori artist, Jane Callendar. Over the course of a week, we stitched, folded, wrapped and dyed, turning white cloth into patterned fabric. It was a magical experience!
Shibori is a Japanese word that describes a process by which fabric is stitched, folded, pleated or clamped and then dyed. The bound areas resist the dye, so when these cloths are opened up, they reveal intricate patterns as a result of the contrast between the dyed and undyed areas. The technique is characterised by soft edges (where the dye bleeds across the fibres) and is a tradition found not only in Japan, but also in Africa, India, Indonesia and South America.
Over the last year I have been exploring woven shibori, which is an adaptation that combines weaving and dyeing. During the weaving (which is normally a simple plain weave), an additional pattern thread is added with gaps between and carried gently around the edges. Various woven structures can be used, but they must result in floats on the surface. Once off the loom, the extra weft threads are gathered up and tied (or clamped into a toggle) to form a tight, pleated resist. After dyeing, these are removed, with the result that the remaining plain weave fabric records in dye what the pattern threads did on the surface.
It’s been quite a challenge to do, but my samples have worked out well and are giving me lots of ideas for future projects.
I have started a new project to weave a blanket. Last year I wove Janet Phillips multi-sectioned sample blanket which has 10 threadings and 50 lift plans, resulting in 500 different small samples. It’s a fantastic resource and the variety is extraordinary on just four shafts. This year I chose four threadings and 16 lift plans to produce 64 different, larger samples in pure wool. From this, I plan to choose one threading for the middle section and another for the two outer sections, as I will have to weave the blanket in three pieces to get enough width. My idea is to have 10-12 changing patterns in the centre, and one on the outer edges to frame it. I have got a way to go and won’t be able to start the final weave until next year. But I am excited by the prospect and pleased to have put some building blocks in place.
A year ago I started a new piece of work and finally it is finished. “My big project” has turned into curtains for my brother’s boat! I developed a bespoke tartan, building on the experience I gained from attending a tweed and tartan workshop in 2019. The cotton fabric is composed of large stripes of dark blue, interspersed with smaller ones of brown and cream. In my mind these represent the hull and decking. The silver-grey stripes on either side is the foamy water as the boat ploughs through the waves. The smaller panels of pale blue are the view of the sky through the windows inside. These are criss-crossed by the darker grey lanyards. It worked out well and now I am familiar with my new loom!
Spring is arriving and plants are finally starting to grow. I am already picking daffodils in anticipation of their lovely yellow dye and looking forward to experimenting with some new natural dyes. In order to be ready, I have been processing lots of “white” yarn and fabric. This involves making sure everything is washed and scrupulously clean as otherwise the dye won’t take or be uneven. My samples include wool, alpaca, silk, cotton, linen and Tencel (a man-made cellulose fibre), all in their natural un-dyed state. All dirt, grease, natural oils and any chemical residues from industrial processing must be removed. Where needed, the samples have to be mordanted too. To do this, the samples are treated with small quantities of alum (potassium aluminium sulphate), a technique which has been used since ancient times. For the majority of dyes, this helps to fix the colour and improves light and wash fastness. It’s a labour intensive process, as all the samples have to labelled, weighed and recorded. But now the fun can begin!
When lockdown was announced again, I decided to use the time to brush up on my spinning skills. I learnt to spin on a wheel in the 1970s, but have never used a drop spindle. So, a five-week on-line beginner’s spindle spinning course (https://www.theslowyarnspinner.co.uk) seemed the perfect option. Our tutor, Ruth, has set up a great website, with practical and informative videos, and her love for yarn and their heritage shines through. To get us started, Ruth sent us a kit, which included a spindle and five different types of fibres. Just opening up this enticing box, with tops, batts and rolags, got me excited to start. Each week we practised with a new fibre, learning how to set up the spindle, draft and twist the fibre, and then ply and finish the yarns. The pace was just right, enough time to work through the week’s assignment and gradually improve our skills. To start with it seemed impossible to turn the fluffy fibre into a robust yarn, but soon the magic happened, and we were all excited to talk through our progress in weekly Zoom meetings. I am thrilled to have got back into spinning again and am looking forward to using my new yarns. My long-term aim is to link my spinning, dyeing and weaving, but it will be a while yet!