Tuesday, 28 August 2007

organic cottons and boiling out wax

Normally I boil cotton for a few minutes to remove wax from small cloths, longer only for larger ones. Of the organic cottons it wasn't enough for the voile, natural percale, and powerloom. Natural percale had an additional five minutes; voile and powerloom an additional fifteen but even that wasn't enough. On ironing wax remnants transferred to newsprint on all boiled pieces and the warm-wash powerloom, natural percale and just slightly with voile.

Completely unplanned-for results: using Isabella's wax on the warm-wash pieces gave clear comparisons... her wax was cooler and fresher than mine, which was hot but old well-used wax (the intention being not-wasteful on tests about dyeing not waxing). Her supplier and wax recipe also are different... opening an idea for future wax testing! To be fair, I have occasionally had wax removal problems before and put it down to old, over-used (and probably over-heated) wax. But I don't want to over-analyse wax removal now - the tests were about indigo and natural cotton.

Whatever, there seems an issue with boiling wax out with powerloom, natural percale and voile. The latter is most surprising as it's such a loose weave. Another mysterious observation with the powerlooms is that wax in the boiling water transferred to the frayed edges, made apparent on ironing it out. Or in (it melted and spread but didn't fully transfer).

Monday, 27 August 2007

indigo and organic cotton 2

There were three specific trials I'd planned for on my indigo dyeing day with Isabella Whitworth: (1) a four-stage series of dips (on prima) to get an idea of how colour builds up with successive dips; (2) comparative dips with the organic cottons (and prima) either scoured first in boiling water with soda ash or by washing in hand-hot water with soda ash; and (3) dipping a large sarong size piece of prima (1.75 x 1 metre) to get an idea of required vat size and other difficulties when working large.

My earlier teachers (Abi Evans, Vivien Prideaux) had already advised that for deeper blues multiple five-minute dips with airing/re-oxygenating time in between gave greater fastness than a single longer dip. Although there seems marginal difference between individual stages the change between first and fourth is striking. Another time I'd like to test hues achievable with up to twenty dips. Quick calculation... requiring 200 individual dips! Taking over 16 hours! I had been pondering various home-made time-saving devices for multiple-piece dipping before the day at Isabella's – definitely one would have come to fruition before 20-stage testing!

The "sarong" wasn't a complete success – although the vastness of blue is gorgeous! But parts have uneven colour – aka bad dyeing! Possibly just in the third stage when I was chinwagging more than concentrating on dyeing and simply didn't open the cloth up enough. Less liquid in the vat by the third dip might also be responsible, not giving the cloth the room it needed. However, the marks are those of cloth not being exposed to dye. Strangely we both commented on brighter lighter patches showing as the cloth hung drying/airing against the light. But they seemed to disappear, perhaps as excess but unfixable excess dye ran down the cloth, obliterating the patches.

With Abi I had learned to lower cloth in to the vat in sheet fashion and similarly remove; with Vivien I'd learned to squeeze out water and lower in in clenched fist, opening the cloth up under the surface, and re-squeezing below the surface before removal. Both methods have the same intention (to prevent air getting into the vat) but the squeezed method would be difficult with waxed cloth to avoid cracking. Hence I need a vat big enough to lower "sheets" in and a high enough ceiling to allow for this – maybe standing on a ladder? Or another device to assist dipping large pieces...

The organic cotton tests were both successful and not successful. One intention was to discover whether each fabric needed boiling to remove starches and other residues from processing, or whether a wash in hot water would suffice. They were boiled for about five minutes each. Soda ash was used with both - alternative trials for another time could be to boil or wash without but testing that would come later. The ideal is to use a fabric that requires the least energy and resources input before dyeing (and waxing), though this could be a false saving if the cotton went through more unecological processes before purchase. I believe an advantage with certified organic cottons is that the processes used have been audited and theoretically are traceable. And certainly the worst offenders have been eliminated. I'll be investigating this later on.

The boiled cloths had a second dip to deepen colour. I was surprised to see the intensity of colour was nearly even over all except the voile, which is darker. They were the first dyeings of the day, and the first few cloths came out with dark almost black streaks in one corner, which haven't washed out. I assume it was indigo transferring from my gloves – I hadn't washed them since the Prideaux workshop (note to myself: haven't washed them since the Whitworth day either so do it while remembered!).

The warm-wash cloths came last, partly because they were still drying and needed to be dry before waxing on the cloth name and process. I was also nearly out of time if I was to catch the bus to Launceston, and so the cloths went in two or three at a time with less eye on the clock. No time for a second dip, they possibly also suffered from a short airing before being dumped in my bucket along with the rest of the wet work. So it isn't possible to do a fair comparison between processes. Instead I'll have to do it with dip-dyeing in Procion.

Of the warm-wash cloths the dye is very patchy on the Bishopston handloom – but I really like the effect! Probably any experienced indigoer will groan embarrassedly at my delight in accidental effect but it has something of a stonewashed look. It hasn't occurred on the boiled version but as already mentioned, the stonewash effect was most likely down to bad practice and not cotton quality (no problems dye-painting with Procion). However, close up the boiled Fabrics Ltd handloom gives a hint of stonewash effect and its warm-wash version also looks stonewashed, so perhaps there is something in it. On the other hand all the other warm-wash cottons have a degree of stonewash (even the prima), which perhaps would have been evened out by a second dyeing. Though the boiled white (but surprisingly not natural) percale also has a suggestion of stonewash. And so frustratingly, I can't really draw conclusions one way or another on washing or boiling or my dyeing ability. Except that the four dip test on prima shows no stonewash.

And then there's the boiled powerloom. Even after two dips the colour doesn't seem happy on the cloth. It's a bit greyish and uneven, not worthy even of being named stonewash. On the warm-wash version the dye is intense along (presumed) creases and blotchy in between, pretty much as already seen with handpainting Procion on cool-soak version. Powerloom needs some serious de-scouring... of what? With what?

Conclusion? Other than powerloom I think all boiled versions would dye evenly enough with further dips and more practice on my part. But I'll wait until after dip-dyeing with Procions before being too deductive.

pics show: (1) four dip comparisons; (2) boiled wash and two dip results; (3)warm-wash, single dip results; (4) handloom comparisons - left, boiled, two dip handloom; right, warm-wash, single dip with stonewash look. The odd dark spots are dew from the grass.

Friday, 24 August 2007

blue heritage

When I was young, I would only wear blue. I would stretch blueness to blue-green or blue-purple to deflect attention from my bias. It was only when I went to art school I felt I should get adventurous with other colours so as not to be always the same (I was too naive to realise the paradox: I was already making a personal statement and instead ended dressing the same as everyone else!). I have often wondered if my Celtic forebears were indigo (or rather woad) dyers and the blue fondness is inherited.

I couldn't believe how much blue got around the bathroom (where I washed out the dyed pieces). It's just as well Vivien Prideaux advised that it would get absolutely everywhere but would come off easily - with Ecover cleaner. Unfortunately mine had run out and it would be a few more days before I could get into town to buy some. Every time I walked into the bathroom I emerged with blue soles – despite several washes and wipes of all surfaces and the floor. The bath tub had blue smudged footprints under the shower for days – so much so that I doubted it would shift. Ever. Even today, a week after getting the Ecover to it, my feet have taken on a slight bluish tinge!

Thursday, 16 August 2007

indigo and organic cotton

Last week I went on Vivien Prideaux's two-day indigo workshop in Plymouth, part of the inspiring touring show 'Indigo' currently at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. And last Tuesday I had a truly wonderful indigo dyeing day working alongside friend and fellow batikker Isabella Whitworth. I feel I have come on in leaps, bounds and confidence since my first few forays into indigo dyeing with Abi Evans some years ago, which is great because that's what workshops are for!

The experience making up and working with my own vat yesterday was elating, also disturbing as I realise I don't have space for ongoing indigo dyeing here. The mess! Vivien meant it when she said indigo would get everywhere. Isabella and I worked in her double garage with tarpaulins on the floor to catch drips and hold puddles. Abi also worked in a garage sized space and outdoors. When I move, if I don't acquire a garage I will certainly need space for a garage sized shed just for dyeing. For now I had pondered doing it in the kitchen near the back door, and close to the drying line outside... but not now I've remembered what a messy person I am! Small scale my tiny bathroom could be OK, but as I don't really work small scale it won't. Why not in the studio itself? Easy! Don't want a wet floor - it's carpeted (in a fashion). Nor do I need stray indigo powder/granules/streaks/smears popping up all over...

Vivien and Isabella worked their vats in different ways to reduce the indigo (to a soluble state suitable for dyeing, by de-oxygenating the water). Vivien used lime and zinc dust, and Isabella hydrosulphite and caustic soda (as did Abi). "Zinc lime" is, I think, the traditional way still practised by some village craftsmen/women but commercially has been replaced by the "hydros" technique. Vivien indicated that hydros is more reliable but by using fierce chemicals is less environmentally friendly. Both need more research on my part to understand the sustainability issues.

Vivien had two vats already on the go which needed re-activating (that is, re-de-oxygenating) and Isabella made hers up fresh that day (though as mine wasn't "exhausted" by the time I finished will re-activate it another time). Vivien had one natural and one synthetic vat, Isabella's were synthetic though she also uses natural indigo. So, I've been lucky to have experienced both within a short space of time. Vivien's explanation of the difference between natural and synthetic starts in its mode of production – natural indigo is derived from the indigofera species of plants, extracted from its leaves and stems; synthetic is pure chemistry – nothing more or less than the exact chemical formula that is pure indigo – petro-chemically derived. Natural indigo isn't pure - its impurities are what gives it its character... such as colour varying slightly. With synthetic you get digital perfection each time, predictable and measurable.

My inclination is that production of synthetically-produced indigo is probably no better and may be worse environmentally than fibre-reactive dyes; on the other hand only a finite amount of natural indigo can be produced each year (without encroaching on food crop land), and although at a low price in the west because of being imported from lower cost countries, its relative scarcity should be recognised by being used only in dyeing "things" that carry a value of their own - not a financial value but a respect or spiritual value, a value for community and future generations. I am not sure where my work fits into that yet but I know what I shouldn't be doing! Ideal would be a vat that can be replenished/re-activated over and over rather than making up a new one each time, that is if I convert completely to indigo-dyed batik. Having to take regular care of a vat would ensure a good relationship with it, one that wouldn't treat the dye as commodity. To contrast, it's hard to not view synthetically-produced, market-quantified dyes as commodities, and with that attitude how could I really put 'mana' into my work?

Most of the first day of Vivien's workshop was taken up with shibori – aaagh... sewing! Needle, thread and I do not good companions make, but I worked diligently throughout the day only getting narked at going-home time when finding the thread used wasn't adequate for puckering up the cloth. I unpicked all my samples at home that evening and by 1 am had re-made them all with proper-puckering embroidery thread. Although the shibori part of the workshop didn't particularly interest me I do believe in making the most of opportunities to learn new skills, they can open new ways of thinking or approaches (eg, I see now how it's possible with thread and puckering to make cloth three-dimensional, even though that wasn't the intention here). The second day was dyeing day. And my sewing worked – brilliantly in some cases, I humbly thought! Big mistake though was to not sketch, photograph or otherwise note down the technique used in each for future reference. Too much in a rush to get to the vat, I think.

As well as dyeing the shibori pieces I tested small samples of the organic cottons with mixed success. With so many others using the vats it was impossible to do a controlled kind of testing. They were getting exhausted too quickly (they=vats not participants!), and although all took the dye some are far paler than others. So I carried out this testing again at Isabella's, with 2 five min dips on each. These samples were boiled first in soda ash water to scour them. Additional sample pieces that had only been washed in warm water with soda were also tested.

At Isabella's I also dyed a 2 x 1.2 metre length of prima, to get a grasp of vat size. The tub began with about ten litres of dye, which had reduced a bit by the time of the first dip, and a bit more by the third. Dry, the cloth shows uneven dyeing streaks at one end. Although all the cloth was below the surface, the cloth/dye/tub ratio wasn't high enough to ensure all was opened out and able to absorb dye. A deeper vessel containing twenty litres dye would be my next aim, along with a contraption to hold the cloth open top and bottom as it goes in – research and design cap needed!

Today is washing out day... more to follow.

top pic - shibori and indigo dyed pieces drying at Vivien Prideaux's workshop. Mine are just right of centre stage, hanging on the looped railings.
middle pic - Isabella Whitworth amongst her batikked and dipped indigo scarves (pre-dyed in annatto). The vat I worked with is under the blanket inside on the right.
bottom pic - My organic cotton tests drying at Vivien Prideaux's workshop

Thursday, 9 August 2007

organic cotton testing 2

Today I painted the organic cottons with basic Procion colours (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, as I call them, showing my graphics background). As a reminder, the test fabrics have been only soaked for 30 mins in water, rinsed twice then drip dried. None were heavily creased from this, in fact, while painting I wondered if I was working on straight from the roll fabric!

There were a few surprises, which weren't so surprising after I'd thought about them... the white eco-bleached percale took dye very close to acceptably but the natural percale didn't. Something in the eco-bleaching must have made the fibres more receptive to dye – though the final analysis won't come until after boiling out the wax. Both percales were gorgeously smooth to wax on, just like prima, and despite their expense which I daren't check back on at the moment are currently top of the list. The two handlooms took dye easily, which doesn't surprise me, but what I can't figure out is whether they have been prepared for dyeing or not – instinct suggests not, because the weave is so haphazard and price low. It warrants investigation, because if the chemical treatment given to other cotton to make it super regular also prevents dyeing then... well something to ponder once known!

1 Greenfibres soft voile
waxing – smooth enough to work on but waxing lines look pixelated because of looseness of weave. Meaning some lines may not be thick enough to withhold dye.
soda ash fix application – very slow and unspreading, may not be consistent.
hand-painting dye – no spreading at all, but seems to have absorbed through.

2 Greenfibres natural percale
waxing – beautifully smooth and even lines.
soda ash fix solution – slow, eventually soaking through.
hand-painting dye – virtually no spreading and not completely through at once or when dry.

3 Greenfibres eco-bleached white percale
waxing – very smooth! fantastic for waxing.
soda ash fix application – just about OK, soaked through but not immediately.
hand-painting dye – spreads slowly, and slowly through.

4 Bishopston handloom

waxing – penetrates cloth fantastically but the uneven texture was apparent, drawing the canting was a little rough.
soda ash fix application – fine, no problem.
hand-painting dye – easily spreads and penetrates.

5 Fabrics Ltd powerloom
waxing – it wasn't too bad for waxing as regards smoothness of surface but penetration problems came once the wax started cooling.
soda ash fix application – a joke! No penetration!
hand-painting dye – seemingly no absorption at all, dye not penetrating at all. Cloth is definitely coated with something that needs removing.

6 Fabrics Ltd handloom
waxing – penetrates well, seems a little smoother for drawing than Bishopston's handloom.
soda ash fix solution application – fine, no problem.
hand-painting dye – easily spreads and is absorbed.

7 Textile Techniques prima
waxing – absolutely lovely to work on but seemingly not quite as smooth as percale!
soda ash fix solution application – fine
hand-painting dye – smooth, very fast absorption and spread.

Summary: Dye was absorbed fine on prima, white percale, and seemingly Bishopston handloom. Dye wasn't fully absorbed to the reverse side on Fabrics handloom, voile and natural percale, though it was marginal on the handloom. On powerloom it had hardly penetrated to the reverse side.

Hence powerloom requires a serious attempt at scouring. To compare results I will do equivalent tests on all other fabrics. I see two levels of scouring – boiling in water with soda ash and soaking in warm water with soda ash. The powerloom is so heavily opposed to receiving dye my inclination is to start with boiling and if that works try again with warm water. If boiling doesn't work... well, I'll decide then!

The other reason for starting with boiling is that I need to boil out the wax to test fastness of dye on tests already done, so can boil other cloth at same time (not ideal to do it in waxy/dyey water but good enough!).

Thursday, 2 August 2007

organic cottons - testing begins

Finally! I have started testing the range of organic cottons, six in total plus prima as a control (also nettle mix fabric, but I have such a small sample that testing will be limited). The cottons include some I consider too loose or tight a weave for good waxing (specific waxing tests coming later), and others that might be perfect but have many inconsistencies in the weaving.

In fact, were it not for their organic, fair trade status I would reject them for poor quality – this is far more a reflection on me and western society than on the cottons! We have been groomed to expect and demand perfection. But one of the defining characteristics or quirkiness of batik is its non-perfection – however accomplished the artist there will be variations in their waxing of line widths, starts and endings. These may not always be discernible to the naked eye, but if the design was instead computer-generated to total perfection, of the two works of art the human-created one would resonate better, more naturally. I once heard a similar comparison from a musician comparing human drumming to that of a drum machine – it's the slight imperfections and variations that give a more pleasing and natural rhythm.

So, while I practise batikking with these cottons I also will have to ponder the nature of the fabrics and the effect any weaving irregularities might have on a final piece of art. Or other end purpose - soft furnishing, clothing etc.

The first round will have three separate sessions: painting base Procion dyes with soda ash fix already in the cloth; dip-dyeing a single colour of Procion; dip-dyeing into indigo.

Today is prelim day - soaking a sample of each cloth in cool water for 30 minutes, rinsing twice then hanging to dry. This may or may not be enough pre-treatment before starting waxing and dyeing but ideally it'll be the minimum necessary. It all depends on how and with what each fabric has been treated during process, and if these need removing before dyeing and how. Certainly organic standards require far less chemical treatment than mainstream textiles, which is a good thing but not always helpful for dyeing! See here and here for more info.

So this first stage may be a failure... or a part-failure. The second round isn't yet planned, no running before walking etc!

In case you haven't already spotted I'm not a connoisseur of textiles, I don't know the speak, so here's a batik lay person's initial impressions of the different fabrics:

1 Greenfibres soft voile
organic certified, fair trade

Smooth surface and minimal irregularities, but such a loose weave that I think finely-detailed batik wouldn't be possible. It's also very see-through, which could work well for hangings in some circumstances but not so good for framed work. Off-white natural colour.

2 Greenfibres natural percale
organic certified, fair trade

Beautifully smooth surface – is it treated? Very fine dense and regular weave – might it be too dense for waxing? Several dark flecks in the weave, say 10 per 10 cm square, some of which can be scratched out. They are small enough that they might not be too distracting... An off-white natural colour.

3 Greenfibres white eco-bleached percale
organic certified, fair trade

As the natural percale above, also a gorgeously smooth surface and dense fine consistent weave. The eco-bleaching presumably has taken care of the dark flecks. It is whiter than all the other fabrics but not as brilliantly white as the prima. More a natural white shall we say?

4 Bishopston handloom (calic
fair trade certified, organic

Right from the beginning my highest hopes were with this hand woven calico – quite possibly because Bishopston's website gives more information on its origins than other companies, and I have bought clothes from them with which I have been mightily pleased. But... the weave is sooooo uneven: the piece I am looking at now shows a sudden change in weaving like a new person had taken over whose technique gave a different weight and texture. One moment it is so, then from the next line on the weave is finer, looser. Probably it is just a switch in yarn to a finer one, but the difference is striking. But as it's more consistent either side then presumably the cloth could be cut along the "join" with each side separately worked on. Except it's not then that consistent – the wave density and opaqueness varies a lot. But this certainly gives the cloth a character of its own, though I feel it could distract from or even destroy certain designs or imagery. It also contains a few obvious dark flecks within the weave and some loose ends of thread both of which are rough and raised compared to the rest of the cloth which is smooth with a good weave density for waxing. Off-white natural colour.

5 Fabrics Ltd powerloom unbleached calico
fair trade certified, organic

A very even weave but probably too dense for good waxing, and maybe hand-painted dye penetration. Pleasantly smooth but many dark flecks, about 8 small and 8 very small per 10 cm square, though some can be scratched out. Enough flecks to be a feature of the fabric. Off-white, natural colour.

6 Fabrics Ltd handloom calico
fair trade certified, organic

Somewhat like the other handloom, this fabric has sudden major inconsistencies. This time though they are in both the warp and the weft, and being singular thicker lines would seriously disrupt any design. Other than these the weave varies consistently enough to be an acceptable feature, if that makes sense! There are a few darker thicker woven-in stretches of thread, and a few white bobbly ones, which if in the wrong place could detract from a design, as could the odd few loose thread ends. The cloth is smooth enough for waxing, with a good density of weave for fine work. Off-white natural colour.

7 Textile Techniques prima
neither organic nor fair trade, though in their favour the suppliers have a good attitude

After primissima, prima is reputedly the next finest cotton for batik work. It has a very smooth, even surface and should take wax beautifully. The weave isn't 100 per cent perfect but the density varies only slightly though regularly enough for it to be an acceptable feature. There is though one 2 cm long thicker thread
that is prominent and might detract, also a handful of very small white bobbles. The weave weight and density is similar to the two handlooms. The cotton is bleached very white. Apparently prima needs no pre-treatment – it is ready to be worked on. It does feel like the smooth-smooth surface has gone after soaking!

8 Greenfibres nettle mix
organic certified, fair trade