Thursday, 31 May 2007

simplicity and complications

Over the past few weeks I've been working again on the commission that needed a wet-sand coloured background mentioned in a previous post. I am making a new version of a 1960s batik from Taiwan, inherited by my client from her parents and one with special meaning for her.

Sadly it got damaged by being stored in her loft and then a cellar – both insects and mould have destroyed the cloth itself, and the dyes have not only faded but also acted in astonishing ways, such as vertical blue "veins" running through areas of a particular colour. The client and I had long conversations about the original colours. She had known the batik for decades but I could only guess – from what I saw and from extrapolation to the circumstances of its original production.

I believe the batik came from a Buddhist temple her parents visited, where they were produced by temple boys to raise funds for the monastery. Living a resourceful way of life they would have been made on old, torn or otherwise unwearable robes. The batik shows no white, the first wax went on the wet-sand colour (I stopped calling it saffron when the client called the first sample "too saffron"!).

So the background colour was sorted. The secondary overdyed colours being painted not dipped made me assume they were chemical not natural dyes (a natural dyer told me you could paint plant dyes but it seemed a longwinded way to achieve these effects. Wouldn't it make more sense to adapt the design and dip if using natural dyes?). And because all (assumed) original colours were reproducible with Procions (and very simply – black* and magenta/black mix making green-black and a dark reddish over the wet-sand) I chose to make the background with Procions as well. Fibre-reactive dyes became available in the 60s, quite probably in Taiwan too.

Most recently I've been struggling to discover how a particular waxed texture was created. Again working from what I could see alongside extrapolation (from my visits to Thai and Laotian monasteries, and from Pira Sudham's novels) took me into the garden to gather various 'twigs' to make brushes; and when none fitted to gather and test other potential wax tools.

The effects achievable from some came close but none felt right. It came back to simplicity – I was certain the original would have been painted/overdyed with blended colours and needed nothing more complex... yet I could see 'texture'. But attempting to reproduce this texture showed it would have taken extraordinary and seemingly unnecessary time yet I didn't believe damp, mould, fungus or insects had caused the dye to disappear in such patterns. Such a big dilemma... I asked the client. 'Feathered', she remembered. So, no textural waxing!

I should have started the final batik last week. But I had been shocked by my shaky waxing hand! My canting drawn lines were dreadful, like beginners. I hadn't realised how out of practice I was, so have spent days waxing, boiling out and re-waxing the same piece of cloth (not very resourceful I know, but better than using new cotton each time which anyway would have had the same quantity of wax and water/power for boiling out).

I cleaned my cantings and changed the wax. I considered my posture, my arm movements, my hold on the canting. I thought of all those things I tell students to do or not do. I tried sitting on the floor to work, thinking it was my legs and back being too tired and my shoulder too tense. I tried meditating and exercising, which helped. I practised and practised and practised. It got better but not enough.

Looking again at the smooth and confident lines in the original I felt the artist couldn't possibly have used a canting, though a very fine Chinese brush (such as I didn't have) may have been. Individual lines denoting folds in the Buddha's robe ended in a point, similar to wired batik (a length of wire used to make smooth and repeatable curves). So I tried wire. Successful with short curves, riskily unworth it with longer lines or 'S' bend curves requiring two joining wire marks. Wire it wasn't.

This morning I made a new stretcher from remnant timber in the shed, designed to the right size for working on this batik. Previously I had been using a big old one, the right height but too wide. I had wondered if over-reaching was causing wobbly lines. The dedicated stretcher helped, definitely. Attitude as much as access. Making it was akin to a ceremony, a meditation and new starting point.

I also had planned to cut cardboard guides to draw along. Although the task of cutting approximately 25-30 curved guides would eat time for a one-off use, it would have simplified good curve-waxing skills for when the temple boy was having an off-time, like I was. But I baulked. No curves were repeated, each had to be cut individually. How to remember which went where? How fiddly to hunt through the pile for 'S3' or 'T7'. Suddenly this simplicity-logic vanished. I knew the lines had been made by canting. It was the easiest way.

I practised all afternoon. Most lines were well improved, except for a persistent grouping. I waxed them from the reverse. I angled and re-angled the stretcher to change to drawing angle. I swapped the canting: a Malaysian Ahmad one for a Javanese Don Harper one. It sat differently in my hand, the wax flowed fast and free, and there I was drawing nice smoothly curved lines! Just like that!

Was it really as simple as changing the canting? I don't believe so. Yesterday I pondered simplicity, wondering about my life. Being out of practise was a major factor, but why had I let things slip to this? Taking on and doing too much, being often in a rush, late nights/not early mornings, and too much time standing and not enough sitting/resting comfortably. Anything but the simple life, the slow life, indeed!

Last night I moved the router downstairs and worked on the laptop in a comfy chair (as I am now). I didn't get to bed as early as intended (like now) but felt rested today, not tired on my feet - my whole body responded better to moving with the canting.

So tomorrow's the day for waxing the final batik.

And then I will muse on the role of simplicity for sustainability in my practice.

* the black is Kenactive black not Procion black

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

carbon costing

Knowing where and how to start calculating the carbon cost of making batik... that's something I've been pondering for some time. I feel the onus is on primary producers and suppliers to give the carbon cost of their produce and products - from which the true cost of making batik can be deduced.

Despondently I've thought that time is some way off, especially if buying from small scale producers. These individuals seem unlikely to have the time/money/know-how to calculate their own carbon cost... or so I thought until today, when Gossypium's latest e-newsletter arrived. Gossypium is a major importer and retailer of organic fair trade cotton clothing and textiles from India. It says

"Enough cotton for a t-shirt requires 2 square metres of land and will take 8 months to grow. In that time the cotton plants will absorb 3 kg of CO2 while growing. The t-shirts will travel 9,500 km by sea, emitting 0.002 kg of CO2 per t-shirt."

(in old money, that's 21.5 square feet, 8 months, 6.6 pounds, 5,900 miles, and 0.004 pounds)

But before I start skipping joyfully (spilling wax in the process) thinking using-cotton is assisting with reducing carbon emissions, I need to compare these CO2 absorption rates with an alternative crop on that 2 square metres of land. And with not-growing, ie leaving it fallow; and with the land being left in its natural state. (There is no comparison to make with so-called conventional agriculture with its nitrogen-based fertilisers: nitrous oxide, produced during cultivation, is another main greenhouse gas).

Cotton agriculture: I believe cotton plants are sown/planted each year rather than cropped year after year. Whichever, what happens to the 8 months of absorbed carbon after the plant is uprooted, ploughed back in, fed to livestock or whatever? Is it re-released to the atmosphere - even if for only 4 months until the next 8 month absorption starts? Or does that re-absorption count as a permanent lock-up of carbon, for as long as cotton is grown on that 2 metres?

And balancing the needs of the world's t-shirt wearing population and sustainability, how long must my t-shirt last before my turn comes up to have another from that 2 square metres? Can that two metres worth clothe the world's over-population?

I've a lot of respect for Gossypium, especially for publishing the carbon figures. I'm sure they wouldn't have "spun" them just to look good... but there's a bit more to find out yet.

Something else I've been pondering... a scientist who could help me with the carbon, chemical and more-besides understanding is becoming a necessity. I know my limitations!

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Batik in Malaysia

Diane Gaffney recently told me that Malaysia is hosting a second KLIB batik convention this autumn. Although I think their last one was more concerned with clothing, fashion and commercial batik than with fine art batik, I would love to go simply because it is in Malaysia (where I learned batik in the early 1990s) . I could catch up with a few friends, eat durian (can't remember when the season is) and roti canai, practise my rusty Malay, and then shoot up to Northeast Thailand to chill out and catch up with things there. After I finish this commission, I will be working again on what I loosely call the Mekong batiks, inspired by my last visit to this area. So everything seems to slot in (though haven't thought about financing it yet!) including the excuse of not having had a holiday away for years.

At the moment I am researching and writing an article for the Batik Guild magazine on climate change and batik practice following both the IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recent report 'Mitigation of Climate Change' and the British government's Draft Climate Change Bill of March 2007. News of the convention makes me wonder whether international get-togethers are still "a good thing" - or the right thing - considering all the carbon going into the atmosphere from participants flying there from all over. In terms of communication, learning, sharing, inspiring and general buzz they can't be beaten... but at what point do they become unsustainable? On the other hand, this kind of specialist networking is a useful "tool" for spreading new ideas... maybe even sustainable batik practice! Might the positive effect of one outweigh the negative of the other?

Or maybe it's fine for international get-togethers to be in and for those countries (and their citizens) who cannot be considered primary creators and maintainers of "the problem", such as Malaysia. After all why should they lose out because of our lifestyles? Why should they cut back now too, when their starting point is way less consumerist, on-demand and carbon-intensive than our existing one? We in the west will have to show a lot more willing and action I reckon before the rest of the world can be expected to make sacrifices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

bucketsful of water

The wet change in the weather reminded me that in this earlier post I described my surprise at the amount of water needed for dip-dyeing fabric and was going to suss how much was being used.

A length of prima cotton measuring 104 x 170 cm and weighing around 200 grams used between 80 and 107 litres. This was made up by 20 litres initial washing and rinsing, 5 soaking the cloth prior to dyeing, another 5 for the initial dye bath plus 1.5 used to dilute the salt and soda ash, and finally between 50 and 75 for final rinsing, rinsing and re-rinsing. When I switched process to overdyeing with a second colour (to achieve the intended wet sand colour) an additional 60 - 86 litres will have been used (the same as the first dyeing less the initial wash/rinse), totalling 140 to 193 litres.

These figures are way too high! Think of it in terms of milk or beer or petrol. No one would sensibly consider wasting 140 litres or 246 pints of Tribute, for instance, in such a way.

I can see ways to re-cycle the 'waste' water such as the initial soak water doubling as first dye rinse water. All used water could be stored for re-use as bucketed toilet-flush water instead of just the occasional bucket or two I did chuck there (though storage isn't too practical due to small bathroom size). According to toilet flushing uses 8 litres a go and this activity accounts for a third of our average daily use of 16 bucketsful of water. And to think I used 14 buckets-worth just for one dyeing!

When travelling in Australia and New Zealand I occasionally came across army personnel returning from training or just travelling across country, all very friendly and sociable (what sort of Aussie or Kiwi isn't!). Generous too, they often gave me their unused ration packs - high energy biscuits especially. An Aussie told me that they were trained to survive in the bush on just 4 (or was it 6? or 2?) litres of water a day - drinking, cooking, washing the lot. A real jaw dropper for me who drank 3 or 4 litres daily! Of course some water doubled up its uses, so for instance water that tinned food was cooked in could afterwards be drunk, or used to re-hydrate other food, and then for shaving. Other than drinking, I tried rationing my water for a few days to 4 litres and it wasn't much fun.

Yet many people in the world get by on twenty litres a day. If they can, can we? OFWAT reckons British household daily use is 352 litres, working out at 147 litres per person. About the equivalent for dyeing my cotton.

Being on a metred supply I can calculate my average daily water use. My bills show I used 45.9 cubic metres, or 45,900 litres between 22 February 2006 and 17 April 2007 (420 days). That is, 109 litres per day. The six months to the 25 August last year it averaged at 93.4 litres/day. The previous year it was 112 litres. But I am not smug or complacent - all are still a lot of water whether you compare it to bottles of Tribute, developing world use, or army rations.

And so, as part of sustainable batik practice and daily lifestyle I aim over the next year to further reduce my daily water use to below 80 litres (for starters).

As well as looking for ways to re-cycle dye-related water I should think more about harvesting rain for dyeing purposes. Currently I store rainfall from my shed roof for watering the garden, but because of living mid-terrace, with a right of way along the back impeding placement of a downpipe and butt, I haven't harvested rain from the house roof. At the moment it runs off into the mains sewers, such a waste (of water and of downstream re-treatment). Being able to harvest roof rainwater is one priority for when - eventually - I move house.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

organic fairtrade cotton has arrived

Last week three parcels arrived containing organic fairtrade cotton - mostly metre lengths for me to test for wax and dye qualities. Following my research into 'conventional' cotton production I vowed to find a sustainably produced cotton - or two - to become my standard. I last tried several years ago, but found dye take-up not satisfactory and the type of fabric not ideal (an admission: I am pretty ignorant about different fabric types - but for sustainable practice I need to learn more about all my materials).

I have two percales (one natural and one eco-bleached) and a soft voile from Greenfibres in Devon; two calicos (one hand loom, the other powerloom, both unbleached) from Fabrics Ltd in mid-Wales; and a handloom (I think a calico) from Bishopston Trading in Bristol. Greenfibres also supplied me with a small sample of Nettle Mix fabric, 90% cotton/10% nettle to try.

It was such a joy to open the packages, especially Greenfibres' and Bishopston's, because of the care they had taken with packing. They seemed to come with love, care and meaningfulness - just as my Riverford organic veg box does. It's part of the cycle of things that makes something not anonymous or just a commodity. It places an onus on me to maintain and enhance this aura and pass it on. I believe this is what Maori call mana.

For one of my PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) assignments I studied ancient wisdom, and Maori culture in particular. This was to learn the place of art and craft in their culture, how their art and craft skills were and are passed on and how sustainability and ecological knowledge related to that. About mana I wrote:

Mana is a spiritual power residing within people. It is conveyed from craftspeople into their work, imbuing it with value. Mana accumulates through the user, wearer or owner, and the collective knowledge and history of the art. Wholly unassociated with monetary worth, this value is also not connected to intrinsic meaning or beauty. As such, mana is not easy to translate though 'prestige' is commonly used.

Greenfibres' cloth was wrapped in grey tissue - possibly unbleached and recycled tissue - and tied with a ribbon (like a present!). This was inside a brown paper (slightly padded) sack taped together with paper tape.

Bishopston's came in a cloth bag, which if the graphics weren't so ugly, I would use (will try overdyeing it and then use it). The fabric was inside a plastic bag in the cloth bag, which was also in a polythene bag but this was the postage one.

Fabrics Ltd used no polythene other than a documents holder on the outside of the brown paper wrap they used. Open the paper and there is your fabric exposed to the elements - refreshingly trusting of the postal system. Their graphics is worse than Bishopston's... but they can be excused by being a small family business just moving into organic fabrics (the other two are seasoned players).

Some of the packaging has been re-used to send half the cloth to Caroline King who will also be testing them. She is moving back into batik after an absence of some decades and wants to start out how she means to go on. Isn't that sensible! Create the right habit from the start...

And I, I will not only be testing, I have been charged with a responsibility I wasn't expecting...

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

SOCIAL wasp's nest

Nic at ERCCIS (Cornwall's environmental record centre) suggested the wasp nest is probably a Vespidae queen, a social not solitary wasp, initiating her nest and could be one of the Vespula or Dolichovespula species, which in English is a common wasp or one of the others that look pretty similar to my untrained eye. Glad I found it when I did - in a few months time my garden/storage shed might have been swarming with a 20,000 strong colony! The last few summers there have been more wasps around the garden, so this one could be considered a local with an established right to carry on breeding. I'm more than happy for this, but not in the middle of my shed, please! A good pic here showing how this nest would have looked when finished and more info on nesting wasps here. Thanks to Brian of Parish Wildlife for sourcing the info from Nic.

The photo shows the wood-paper pulp that the nest is made of - there's a pinkish thread in there too.