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 "Zinc lime" is, I think, the traditional way still practised by some village craftsmen/women but commercially has been replaced by the "hydros" technique.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


isabella said...

Interesting write up about a great day, Robin! I really enjoyed working with you. I haven't done my web write-up yet but should say my lovely annatto colour disappeared when I heated out the wax. Sob.

Anonymous said...

Well hello Robin! Here am I sitting in a very cold Delhi and came across you blog by chance. Very good indeed and very impressed how you find the time to write so much. Plymouth as a really good time and thanks to the keen and willing students!
I have been away from home since September working with indigo in Japan Thailand and India , meeting wonderfully creative and talanted people so much fun laughter and experiences with the wonderful blur that is indigo.
Will be back in Fowey begining of March so perhaps we will met up. Keep up the good work and have grat fun . Best wishes Vivien Prideaux