Wednesday, 31 October 2007

dilemma resolving

A good thing about outing yourself – as I did with my dilemma of work direction (see this previous post) – is that because you have faced facts and acknowledged the situation you know there is only one way to go from there.... towards resolution. There's no more excuse to dither.

So late last week I contacted Jane Deane of Cross-Eyed Chameleon to find out if they had any imminent native plant dyeing (on cotton) workshops, and specifically local plants. I'd met Jane a few months ago at their Open Studio in Launceston, and in between the chinwag I realised these were people who knew loads about natural dyeing - and even better shared my outlook on the environment.

My big plan had been to move towards working in indigo – or woad. Solely in blue. That ambition hasn't gone but threw up its own dilemmas: the majority of the remaining Mekong work wasn't envisaged for indigo and even if it did I'm not sure the show would hang together half in indigo and half in brilliant Procion. They wouldn't complement each other – the remaining work would have to be in Procion.

And (as already discovered) indigo/woad makes a mess and I don't have proper space to allow that mess. So indigo work is delayed until I do have a suitable workspace. Hmmph. Grrrr. Aaaagh! But.

Some months ago I joined a couple of natural dye lists on Yahoo, mainly to pick up tips about indigo dyeing - a kind of preparation and a constructive remedy for the unsatiated urge. An email came in response to a comment I'd left about wax and resin – from Teresinha Roberts who's behind the amazingly informative All About Woad website. She does her woad dyeing in a greenhouse, keeping the vat alive right over the summer. And... ping! So could I! Why had I been thinking bricks and mortar and evicted car? Someone somewhere not too far away must have a disused greenhouse I could hire next summer... and how eco-friendly that would be, with its own solar heating. Brilliant! And what's more... a deadline to work towards.

What also has come out of these dye groups is recognizing the buzz others are getting from dyeing with local plants, whether garden grown, picked from the wild (with caution), or retrieved from 'waste' (eg onion skins); and their sharing of knowledge and re-discoveries in traditional ways, and ecological and health issues.

The wildlife, agriculture and culture surrounding a local river, from its sources here on the moor through to its estuary, is my next project (though it may evolve). Being able to dye from plants and vegetable matter found along its banks and valleys fits perfectly with the theme... and my intention to source locally where possible. To help that along I began an informal self-taught common plant ID course in the summer. For twelve months I am surveying four local one-kilometre squares for fifty locally common plants, learning about them as I go and in the process helping create a database for the Parish Wildlife Project. I was ashamed of my ignorance and pleased that I already knew quite a lot... just not their names! But already I'm finding an acuter awareness of these plants and their localised ecosystem, and hopefully this will develop into a feel for appropriate amounts that can be taken for dyeing.

Like woad work, this would be a spring thing... in the meantime I can learn more about plant dyeing – techniques, tools and space needed. Also... how combatible the various processes are with batik (not melting the wax!), sustainability issues around mordanting, and lightfastness. And also, whether natural plant dyeing is more eco-sustainable than chemical dyes, once all externalities are built in. I'm still to be convinced one way or the other.

Except with woad. My feeling is that woad will win easily over chemical dyes, if I could grow my own. But alas I have read woad is not a lover of acid soils. Which is Cornwall's lot.

Thursday, 25 October 2007


Over the winter of 1998 and 1999 I was in Isan, better known as North-East Thailand, mostly in a small village called Sang Khom on the banks of the Mekong. I had been there eight years before and had always wanted to return. The Mekong is a huge lumbering and beautiful river forming the border between Thailand and Laos, and Isan, being little affected by tourism, seemed full of traditional character and "place". As everywhere, globalisation was making inroads, but hadn't overrun. I travelled around the region and also into Laos, to another small village Vang Vieng.

Back in 1999 I also had been pondering my creative direction, unsure whether there really was a future for me in batik, in Britain at least. The medium struggles to be accepted by the establishment as "fine art" (despite employing drawing, painting and printmaking skills let alone design and colour theory ones). I have never felt comfortable calling myself a textile artist, as my sewing skills are such to make my mother weep with shame. Yet I wanted to belong... somewhere, and if that meant change then change it would be.

So alongside this three-month holiday I intended to practise working in acrylics. Why I settled on them I'm not sure, maybe because of the strong colours, maybe because other people's work in acrylic inspired me to think it was for me. But I struggled... the paint dried up so quickly! The heat! The heat.

The peaceful surroundings of river, horticultural activity on its banks, distant hill and forest views, rice padi and banana plantations, butterflies, spiders and lizards, Buddhist monastery gong rings, and village life ticking over was astoundingly inspiring. Ideas for batik kept leaping forth, I scribbled them down, making sketches and taking photos for reference. Within a few days I knew: I am a batik artist, it's how I think, it's how my work evolves, it's what I do, it's what I was meant to do. I am a batikker, and will have to make it work, somehow.

I resolved to forget acrylics, and concentrate on initiating a series of batiks inspired by Mekong culture, agriculture and wildlife. It would have been great to have started the batiks there (if workspace and sourcing all materials and equipment were possible) but I knew I couldn't make enough in the three months. And besides, it was also a holiday!

Once back in Cornwall I was completely fired up and began the batiks straightaway. But somehow I got sidetracked into furthering the water movement series I'd started before I left, inspired by streams and rivers here on the moor. I managed to work the two projects side by side for some years, concluding the rivers work with an exhibition in the Indian King in Camelford in 2003. This show was an eye-opener for me, indicating that the way forward definitely was (though I hate the commerciality of the phrase) themed exhibitions. More than that, exhibitions themed around rivers. And I was halfway with the next, the Mekong...

But in 2004 I found myself starting a part-time PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education, post-16 education). Although an existing artist-PGCE student advised I should forget about getting any art made during the course, I foolishly felt I would be able to keep some batik going. But in the first term I was throwing away so much dye - not being able to get back to it before it 'went off' – that I consciously stopped batikking. The PGCE ended in 2006. And my headspace was elsewhere. So elsewhere that I haven't been able to pick up the Mekong thread from where I left off. I have tried several times to re-inspire myself... well I am inspired to do it but the art would be coming from completely the wrong place. It would no longer be emerging from within but would be created from a detached, external, emotionless place. And I just can't do that, I need to feel, breathe, live my work not do it as something like a mathematical equation.

So my dilemma: I have half an exhibition made, and the chance to show the whole caboodle in a good wildlife gallery in 2009. Should I force myself to complete it – maybe even going back to Mekong country to get re-invigorated - or should I just admit defeat, that time and circumstance has lost me that opportunity and just as my practice is evolving all new work should also reflect that I have moved on.

I do know what I want to do next, it has been hanging around ever since the moorland streams exhibition, just waiting for Mekong to complete.

I know the answer. I just don't want to feel I'm letting down the wonderful people of Sang Khom. Not that they are expecting anything, but the exhibition would be my gesture at giving something back. A recognition and respect for what they have and who they are.

Monday, 15 October 2007


Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Being Blog Action Day for the Environment I thought it might be time for some introspection. Umm? Environment... introspection? Well, yes. But it's not really about me.

For me, environment isn't an external thingie to occasionally be looked at and tick-box admired/appreciated/enjoyed, or something that can be taken for granted as always being there, whether 'there' is here now under my feet or somewhere else, somewhere over there.

Environment is part of us just as surely as we are part of the environment. At least that's how it feels to me. In some places around here, especially up on the moor I feel a deep bondedness with the land, with the atmosphere, with 'place'. I feel we have melded and I move within it, not over it and distracted by other thoughts. I no longer concentrate on direction or footfall, only occasionally being aware that somehow miraculously I am still on track for wherever I already was heading. Now if this sounds a bit flunky, then let me tell you that I – and others – have found our way off familiar moorlands despite sudden windless fogfall. Your head is little use to you at this time, you have to allow all your body's tunings to guide you. Let's face it, your head (mine anyway) would be useless and panic, thinking of all sorts of bad possibilities... like sudden huge endless quaking marshes which you've never seen before so and which seem to have surrounded you! But your body, in harmony with nature, is led with "feelings" (physical not emotional)...

Yesterday afternoon I walked from my house up to Eastmoorgate and on to East Moor. A last minute thought was to take my camera... shame I hadn't thought sooner as the battery was low and konked out just when everything was getting very interesting. Oops.

I walk this way once or twice a week as far as the gate, and once or twice a month out on to the moor. Recently I've been picking blackberries and bilberries (local name, whortleberries). I know the seasonal haunts of jay, cuckoo and golden plover... and appreciate songs and calls of other resident birds. I stop on the bridge over the Lynher and gaze into its water, both upstream and downstream, every time I pass. I've seen herons and an otter here. I walk alongside moorland streams, gazing at their swirling patterns of clubrush. I see the changing colours in the fields, the hedges, the views. I smile appreciatively at the oft-repaired fences and gates. I sit or lie on a large stone at dusk and just listen. I watch the sunset, the cloud patterns, the stars and rising moon. Every time I go this way there's some new marvel as well as the re-assurance of the familiar. And from this place comes inspiration for paintings and designs.

I'm fascinated, hmm, don't like that word. Intrigued, maybe? I'm intrigued... not quite that either. It's that Australian Aborigines have such a deep familiarity, connectedness, with the land that (I have read) they share a surname with plants, animals, land features and areas. They are that close. In the Maori language the word whenua means both placenta and the land. Even in English the root of the words nature and natal is the Latin nasci 'to be born', and nature also implies "identity or essential character" and "the whole system... of all physical life... not controlled by man" (McCleod and Hanks 1985). So being bonded with nature is a pretty ancient way of being!

It's also a zillion miles from the world of objectivity, where everything including nature exists only as we look at it and record it. There is a time and a place for measuring, of course, but I feel it's imperative that as a society we re-learn the wonder and joy of nature, we re-discover our connectedness with nature and grow a familiarity with the nature around us.

And that's the rub. It needs to be the nature around us not the nature in some other place, not that there national park, or them there beaches, or – dare I say it – some other country! Not to say don't go and visit these places... the unfamiliar is great for stimulating the mind! But it definitely can't replace the comfortable familiarity of our own nature.

My painting has always been inspired by and reflected the natural environment around me, (with occasional exceptions of larger environmental issues). I paint what emerges from within, by which I mean what's around, what I have experienced and felt... and I encourage students to do the same. It's my hope my art also plays a part in assisting others' connectedness with nature, to encourage viewers towards their own immersion in nature.

McLeod & Hanks (1985) The New Collins Concise Dictionary of the English Language London: Guild Publishing

...and just when it was getting interesting, the battery conked out! (Also a reason why all the above shots were, literally, first shot.)

Sunday, 14 October 2007

organic cotton - dipdyed re-visited

Since writing up my original findings on dip-dyeing organic cotton I have re-washed in Ecover and rinsed all the test samples. But I've struggled since to take good photos to illustrate the new findings... pixelation appears to distort evenness of dye, but at least colour variation can be seen - relevant for the eco-bleached white percale.

New comments are added at the end of this copy of my original findings: original comments are in blue italic.

hot water soak, hot wash with Ecover, boil with soda ash

As discovered in earlier tests, powerloom's wettability is its downfall. Following the (already proved inadequate for handpainting) scouring techniques of boiling with soda ash and soaking in hot water the fabric could be seen to have inconsistently absorbed both water at soaking stage and dye at dyeing stage – the boiled-with-soda surprisingly worse than the soaked only (not boiled for long enough?). A hot wash and soak with Ecover appeared to accept both water and later dye properly. After boiling out, drying and ironing, the same pattern emerges: the hot Ecover wash and soak is the most evenly dyed, let's give it 90%. The hot water soak gets about 65% and the boiled-with-soda about 50%. I'm sure trying an hour long soak in Ecovered water with more agitation (ie washing!) and rinsing would make up that final 10% to give very consistent dyeing.

The Ecover didn't make any difference though to wax removal – around 20 minutes boiling wasn't enough to shift it. The Ecover wash's waxed area feels as stiff as the previous tests but interestingly it doesn't have a darkened stain (from spread ironed-out wax) which I would have expected.

For me, powerloom isn't worth the bother of batikking on if the wax can't be removed easily, but it could be worth pursuing for dyeing only purposes – it's a pretty tough fabric that could have its uses.

The Ecover scoured sample's dyeing rating has risen to 95% following the final wash and rinse in Ecover but I still feel a longer scour in Ecover is worth pursuing (even if the fabric isn't conducive to wax removal).

direct, hot water soak, hot wash with Ecover, boil with soda ash

Being the dua donna of batik fabrics despite its name (primissima comes tops, I am told) I expected perfect results. Prima is my control fabric, despite being not organic (as far as I know), the one to compare all others to. It apparently is ready-prepared for batik – ready to take wax as well as dye. No scouring necessary.

Certainly there is no difference between different scouring techniques. On closer examination all versions show small streakiness consistent with the woven density of the fabric, not a problem but a feature of the fabric. At arm's length the colour appears even.

A couple of the samples show darker dye lines, one is on a crease. The second isn't but possibly is related to the production process though I couldn't say for sure. Nor why part of a crease has taken up more dye while (presumably) others didn't. Perhaps it was dye-bath related (not agitated there enough?), or hasn't been rinsed enough, or came about in the boiling out stage. Only further tests will enlighten, methinks.

The extra final wash in Ecover was enough to remove all traces of the darker lines!

Bishopston handloom
Fabrics handloom

direct, hot wash with Ecover, boil with soda ash

I expected these fabrics to take dye easily whichever scouring process (or none) was used, based on the handpainting results. And I'm not disappointed with the soda ash boiled or Ecover washed ones! If anything, the dipping has improved them. The inconsistency of weave is less obvious or at least regular enough to give a pleasing, vaguely streak "texture".

The direct (to pre-dye soak) versions though do show some unevenness in dyeing. Especially on the Fabrics handloom a straight line with "streaks" below it has paler dye – to be fair I can figure out this line continued on to the Ecover wash Fabrics handloom but only from looking deliberately for it! These lines must have come during the fabric production process as they are not thread/weave related (as the lines previously mentioned are). It may be that a longer soak in Ecover would have shifted them. They don't show in the soda ash boiled sample because it is from part of the fabric that didn't have that line running through it. Will any test ever cover everything that results throw up!

A few dark blemishes in both handlooms still show, but not so bad that I wouldn't wear clothing made with these cottons.

Following the extra final wash in Ecover any inconsistencies in dyeing are hardly apparent. The line mentioned is weave not dye related, revealed by a magnifier.

white percale
hot water soak, hot wash with Ecover, boil with soda ash

Being my favourite fabric so far, I expected these samples to dye beautifully enabling me to further praise this gorgeous percale. But I can't. Nor can I quite put my finger on why either. And then I look again and wonder what's the problem.

What should be top of the whole organic cotton experiment – ecovered hot washed white percale – has a few paler dye patches, akin to bad dyeing (ahem, also to fingermarked "something" preventing dyeing). Could it be I didn't rinse the Ecover out well enough? I'm more inclined to think the problem is a blip in my dyeing (but then might that not also apply to the handlooms?)

All samples have (non-related) dark straight lines one side originating probably from creases (prima also showed one or two of these). But most disconcerting is the impression of little bits of darker dye on mini-crumples right across the cloth, a kind of veining... perhaps they all need a really good wash and rinse. I will report back when this is done.

Big surprise from the final Ecover wash! All samples have lost colour, they are marginally but noticeably lighter than all other cottons. Before it wasn't possible to see any difference.

Whilst the aforementioned darker lines remain, the darker mini-rumples have been shed. Because of both this and the darker lines going in the prima, a further longer wash and rinse in Ecover suggest themselves!

natural percale
hot water soak, hot wash with Ecover, boil with soda ash

Natural percale is another fabric I knew would need scouring, according to previous experiments. Of the three scours tested little difference if any can be perceived in end result. They have a similar bit-of-excess-dye-on-the-surface look as white percale, whilst also having a not entirely even dye look. Again I find it hard to describe exactly what I see, mainly because I don't understand what has happened to make it this way. However, compared to the white percale, I don't see any dark crease dyemarks.

I will see if further washing and rinsing changes anything, and experiment with scouring to see if it's all down to some residue.

Wax wouldn't completely boil out again, despite length of time. Like powerloom, it may be this cloth isn't worth pursuing for batik. There again, that results (usually!) are more than good on white percale points to discovering the difference in production process – can it just be the eco-bleach process that enables the dye to (usually) be better absorbed (I should use the word "bonded") and is it just the lack of eco-bleach that prevents wax being boiled out properly?

There is no discernible change except possibly a reduction in dark mini-rumples. Like the white percale, it will be worth trying a longer wash in Ecover.

hot water soak, hot wash with Ecover, boil with soda ash

Close examination suggests the dye is patchy despite appearing even enough at arm's length. But this is probably due more to the uneven thread width and loose weave making denser thread areas seem pinker than others that allow more background to show through. There seems no difference between scouring methods.

Examining the cloth through a magnifier shows the cloth is (and probably was?) evenly dyed, it is indeed thread width inconsistency suggesting minor variation. The extra wash in Ecover made no discernible difference to dye quality.

nettle mix
hot water soak, hot wash with Ecover

It's the first time I've dyed with this fabric, because of having only a small sample (less than A4). The fabric is slightly stretchy and dense, so more suited to clothing than paintings. It frays easily...

Both samples dyed beautifully evenly though wax was hard to shift and some remains in the fabric. It's hard to say much more without more fabric to look at and understanding gleaned from other tests

Umm... no change, or rather I can't think of anything to say!

Friday, 5 October 2007

art - 'want' or 'need'?

Is Seasalt clothing "fashion" or "clothing" (see my last post)? What makes the difference? Does my "want"/"need" attitude play a part or is the designer/manufacturer solely responsible?

I believe that if the clothes are well made and of a style that will not look ridiculous within the item's lifetime (ridiculous because it incorporated a short-lived trend) then it is valued. And as such, is clothing. But if I had umpteen vests to choose from to wear, then their value is diminished in proportion... making them "throwaway" items and not "clothes" but "fashion".

So it's a two way responsibility. How does this fit with art production and selling? When someone buys one of my batiks is it as a "want" or as a "need"? Outwardly it would very much be as a "want", I ashamedly am sure. But if it's "well made and of a style that will not look ridiculous within the item's natural lifetime (ridiculous because it incorporated a short-lived trend) then it is valued." But if the painting was displayed in rotation with other works and spent much time in storage then its intrinsic value diminishes in proportion.

Inwardly, art - true art - touches the soul. It's a "need" just as a vest has a practical purpose (spiritual too, maybe?). If the batik is in storage or otherwise unappreciated (unneeded), then it has no higher purpose. It's a throwaway.

So... my batiks must be of the highest quality and not be faddish. They must strive to be of a nature that someone would want to keep on their wall, not grow tired of. But no, this still isn't quite right. It cannot be possible to strive for spirituality! Spirituality can only emerge from an inner stillness... as does art. This art is the art that – hopefully – will reach into a viewer's soul, will touch them on a level deeper than "that's nice" or "that's pretty" or especially "I want that!".

This makes me reconsider my thought that art needs to be regularly seen to have intrinsic value. One viewing only might be enough to uplift a person's soul... But then the work would need to be in a publicly accessible place to reach many people. So my thought about works in storage being without value holds.

I've just re-read Kandinsky's first chapter (Part I About General Aesthetic, I Introduction) in "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" and find yet again he explains what I feel so much better! So now I will spend the rest of the day pondering:

"Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions."
He later describes two kinds of art. One is short-lived although also being of the moment, because it had no depth, no meaning, beyond being available for sale. Tourist art falls into this category, I think.
"Such an art can only create an artistic feeling which is already clearly felt. This art, which has no power for the future, which is only a child of the age and cannot become a mother of the future, is a barren art. She is transitory and to all intent dies the moment the atmosphere alters which nourished her.

The other art, that which is capable of educating further, springs equally from contemporary feeling, but is at the same time not only echo and mirror of it, but also has a deep and powerful prophetic strength."

organic cotton from seed!

I bought a cotton vest in Padstow recently, in Seasalt, an accredited ethical clothing company based in Cornwall. Not only is it certified organic cotton, it's a gorgeous colour! By luck it was in the sale though buying it wasn't a spontaneous consumerist response to finding a "bargain". I have been on the lookout all summer for a vest (organic, fair trade), my old two being over 10 years old and anyway... lost! A vest was a "need" not a "want", and I managed not to be seduced by any other delightful things in the shop.

What was a bargain was discovering one of the attached labels was in fact a packet of seeds! It advises me I can sew them in the summer (inside on a sunny windowsill) and later plant them outside (in a sunny place)... and to water them well. And regularly remove pests such as aphids or caterpillars. Later they should flower and (if there's enough sun) the resultant bolls will open and produce cotton. And seeds for a new crop...

This is very exciting! I am just frustrated at having to wait six months to start... and curious about whether Bodmin Moor, let alone Cornwall, has enough sun for them to flower. And if our inconsistently wet weather would mean I'd still have to regularly water them. Whatever, I hope to learn a lot about cotton growing. I'm sure it won't be easy.

I just took a peek inside the packet – there's three fluffy seeds looking quite unlike seeds I have ever known.

Monday, 1 October 2007

sustainability of clothing

"Clothing and textiles is a high impact product category, accounting for 5-10 per cent of all environmental impacts within the EU-25."

Says DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). They go on to highlight environmental, social and ethical impacts of the textiles/clothing industry in the UK:

"Environmental Impacts

  • 1.5 - 2 million tonnes of waste generated
  • 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted
  • 70 million tonnes of waste water generated
Social impacts predominately occur in developing countries:
  • child labour
  • poor working conditions
  • low wages
  • health and safety risks
Ethical Impacts
  • animal welfare issues
  • inequitable trade"

And not before time...

"...representatives from the fashion, clothing and textile industries along with environmental and ethical groups are meeting to look at how they can work with government to improve the sustainability of clothing throughout its life cycle."

They met on 5 September 2007 and one welcome outcome will be a sustainable clothing roadmap coordinated by Defra that "examines all stages of clothing’s life cycle (from raw materials to end of life), charts the environmental and social impacts arising at each stage, and proposes ways of limiting those impacts where most effective."

Although I don't work in fashion or clothing (or interior textiles) I will be following this research, direction and action closely. And that's not just because of the relevance of the 'raw materials' findings for my own practice but because I believe the concept of fashion is in direct conflict with sustainability. This is not to oppose change or good design for they can bring improvements, but because the fashion world thrives in a self-promoted culture of throwaway and need for new for the sake of it. The only benefits are financial for the industry.

Fashion isn't limited to clothing, of course, it exists in the art world too. And Cornwall isn't exempt - many commercial coastal town galleries show what I call tourist art. Art created for a self-created market rather than a higher purpose... All us artists have to make a living somehow of course, but I wonder where tourist art fits in with sustainability...