Tuesday, 24 June 2008

procion dye shelf life

Procion MX one year shelf life? Tosh! Who started this myth? I've tested it using 18 month old magenta (red MX-8B), yellow (lemon yellow MX-8G) and black (Kenactive black K2647) and 11 month old cyan (turquoise MX-G) - all acquired at the same time (I think). They looked fine after painting, but once boiled the cyan obviously didn't fix well, as shown in the first photo. (I made the colour wheel ten or more years ago - the centre has 100% strength primary and secondary colours, with tertiaries also showing in the outer ring. The two in-between rings are primary and secondary colours at different dilutions).

I wasn't convinced by the depth of the test's black either, but serious-black always has been an issue with Procions.

Tucked away on the studio dye shelf were several pots of older dye, some even dating back to 2004 (first opened date), and some unopened pots. I was surprised to have such a collection - usually I only look when ordering new dye. There's also a stack of empty pots. Well-meaning I've intended to send them back to the supplier for re-use but haven't yet taken the final necessary step. Perhaps I should make this a little job for this week. Luckily I had an unopened cyan (though different supplier) and black (and magenta).

I ran a further test, as shown in the second photo where the year of first opening a pot is also shown. Even when painting the cyans the 2007 pot could be seen to be lighter than the 2005 and 2008 pots. To ensure it wasn't a mixing error on my part I made up a further pot of 2007 cyan, shown above the magenta where it (erroneously) says 2008 - I decided against opening a new magenta as the 2006 colour was fine.

A surprise was to find the 2006 black I was previously unsure of now looking better/darker than the old 2005 and newly opened 2008 batch. The 2003 magenta looks as good as the 2006 one, and all lemon yellows (2004, 2005, 2006) looked equally good - though as demonstrated in the colour wheel differences in tone of yellow aren't easy to grasp. For many years I have mixed lemon yellow (and advised students similarly) at a slightly higher concentration than other colours, because it seemed to need it. Perhaps I once had a 'dodgy' yellow and needed to then but this test shows there's no need to. Well that's good for resources and pocket!

To sum up, three dyes opened 18 months ago (at time of purchase) have lasted longer than one opened within the last year (also bought 18 months ago). Another dye just opened (purchased in last year?) is also inferior to that opened 18 months ago. Dyes can fix quite adequately even at five years old.

How to ensure newly purchased dye will be of a higher or equal quality to that 'past its shelf life'? I just don't know. You rely on being supplied with fresh stuff; suppliers aren't likely to tell you if it isn't.

Over the years I've bought Procion MX from three British suppliers. I used to buy cheaper dyes from one just for workshop use (when I was running lots of workshops), but wouldn't use them in my own work because the colour intensity wasn't as good. I shrugged that off as inevitable considering price difference (the 2008-opened cyan and 2005-opened yellow are these dyes, and yes I think the 2008 cyan is marginally lighter than the 2005, but not as pale as the 2007).

Maybe it all began changing when ICI's patent on MX dye ran out and anyone could then manufacture them. One company has been more open than others saying their MX is manufactured in Indonesia and naming the company.

For sure Procion does have a shelf life, though. I found out the hard way in my early years of batikking. It was a commission for a magazine front cover, with the possibility of the next two issues too. I was chuffed, flattered and very scared to have such a prestigious (and well-paid!) job to do. Very close to the deadline I went to boil out the wax - and one major colour bled bled bled! All the impact of colour A against colour B was lost - the design balance skewed and it just didn't buzz any more. There was no time to re-do it, I was too tired and wouldn't have had the subtlety for fine canting work at that eleventh hour. Devastated and despondent I had to explain what had happened. As expected they decided not to go with it despite me asking them to adjust the colours digitally back to how they were originally (at that time I had no computer and no idea whether it could be done). I felt so unprofessional... But a happier ending - some months later they came back to me - they'd decided they liked the design and would attempt colour correction. It was published but the colours they came out with were different from mine.

So... the conclusion on Procion MX dye shelf life is: demand suppliers state how old the dyes are when you buy them. Write not just the date of opening on the pot but also the date of purchase and manufacture. Test them immediately - if they are weaker than the 'old' dyes, hmmm... Don't want to fall out with the suppliers, but really I think they would need to give an explanation.

Of course, if I become a 100% woad dyer, I won't have this problem. Or rather, I very probably will but it's different as variations in woad colour will be as much down to nature and the annual crop - not wholly the grower's responsibility. Synthetic dyes are meant to be consistent.

Friday, 20 June 2008

waxing relief!

I was getting so despondent - why was I waxing only wobbly lines not smooth ones like I used to. I even bought Green&Black chocolate yesterday to see if that helped. I cleaned the canting (boiling all of them in water and poking the spouts with wire) and changed the wax (I wasn't sure how old or how cooked the previous lot was, but could tell from the colour and depth in the bowl it wasn't that new). I wondered if my worktop had originally been made for me working in shoes (I'm usually barefoot in the studio) and so tried with my flipflops on, half or an inch taller.

I tried changing position. I tried changing tool. I varied working from left to right (over the curve) and up and over to down and under. I tried every variable I could think of.

Suddenly I got it. Suddenly it was happening, suddenly smooth curves and smooth lines and I could follow the pencil lines easily. Oh joy! I was so happy and felt like celebrating! And I have no idea what I did, just that it all came together.

So... I had to go-for-it and do those not-at-all-scary-now spirals for the birds batik (see yesterday's post). I did them straightaway, and they are fine! A doddle!

Such a relief! I thought I'd need to practice for days to get that knack back!

Yee ha! Big smile! Chocolate time!

Thursday, 19 June 2008


The woad is growing nicely now, and it's time to get waxing to have something ready for dyeing. Here's one just finished, taken from a sketch of the Brown Willy skyline (Cornwall's highest peak) at sunset from a favourite perch, Black Rock. Because woad-dyeing will be a learning process I want to keep the first ones simple in terms of waxing - so less wax is wasted on (possible) disasters. A series of batiks of moorland peaks may not be particularly creative or ambitious but is a nice excuse to get out for some longer walks than I've been doing lately! Also, being nearly midsummer, my mind turns to our inherited stone circles and other monuments with solstice and equinox alignments. Roughtor (second highest hill) was, apparently, very important to our Iron Age forebears. So respecting their beliefs and knowledge by focusing on views of Roughtor from prominent peaks and places doesn't seem quite so shallow after all, and maybe I will learn something too.

Minimal lines will also help me get a feel for predicting balance of (should I call it 'colour' or 'tone'?) after dyeing - the impact white lines in a deep blue will have. At least I hope to get deep blue!

Also, as many of my past batiks have treated wax as though there's no tomorrow, literally swamping the cloth with it, I need to start from the opposite extreme of less is more. I do now recognise there are limitations to the amount of wax I should use per batik, as there are limitations to the amount bees can be expected to produce annually (on the one hand) and availability of paraffin wax relates directly to availability of oil stocks (on the other). And production of paraffin wax contributes to global warming, but all-about-wax is for another post another time.

A new problem hit just after I'd waxed this piece - where to store it? Up until now I've worked on just one or occasionally a few related pieces at a time - waxing, dyeing and finishing - before moving on to the next. But not now... I will need a number of pieces ready for the woad and then do the dyeing in a batch. The cloth can't be folded and put in a drawer - the wax would crack on the fold lines. It really needs to stay flat. My mind sees it hanging from one of those coat hangers with clips on but I don't have any, nor a bound-to-stay-clean and unlikely-to-get-bashed (=cracked wax) spare hanging place in the studio, or house. I'm trying to approach this sideways, hoping tangentiality will let the obvious solution slip into view.

There's another reason for waxing these pieces now. Before I start any woad dyeing I need to finish the birds batik mentioned back in January and to do that I need to get some canting practice in for very long smooth curved lines - requiring a move of the whole body in sync with the line. Like all craft skills, you have to keep practising - stop for any length of time and you get rusty. Like me. The design calls for two perfect spirals within the white circle - any imperfection would just kill the picture. So I'm nervous and need to get confident before starting.

I also mixed up some Procion dyes yesterday and am running a fastness test on them. Three of the colours were first opened about 18 months ago, theoretically past their shelf life, the fourth is about a year old. I really don't want to buy new Procions just now... but the thought of having to re-wax because the dyes didn't fix is too scary!

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

research on bees - a petition

Beeswax is one of my raw (and most valued) materials, and the historic resist for batik, so can I urge all UK readers to sign this petition.

Think not only of their wax and honey, both ancient traditional natural materials, but also of bees 'services' to agriculture. They fertilise up to a third of our crops - if bees seriously decline there will be disastrous repercussions for crop fertility. A beekeeping friend indicated his more experienced neighbour lost 23 out of her 40 hives last winter.

The petition is asking for
funding for research into the rapid decline of honey bee colonies


and runs until June 11th (a week left to sign).

The following came in the original email I received (Mark: hope it's OK to quote you):

"Quick background. I'm an erstwhile beekeeper, and this year painfully aware
of the lack of honey bees around. I leave a clump of brassicas on the
allotment every year for them to feast on, but until yesterday i hadn't seen
a single one. This combines with a local newspaper article (I live in
Warwicks) that colonies in this area - in line with the national average -
are down by 30 per cent. With no reserves in the 'British' wild (even more
serious news) I hardly need reminding anybody who is making connections that
this is part of and parcel of a bigger environmental catastrophe. I do not
use that term lightly - but without honey bees - even looked at in the most
blatantly pragmatic sense of 'eco-services' provided, our daily diets are
going to be seriously narrowed in terms of the vegetables and fruit we will
no longer be eating.

It goes without saying that last year's disastrous weather is a major factor
in the bee collapse. In other words, continued anthropogenic climate change
may spell the end of the British honey bee. The request for research money
may not help that in itself, but it might remind government on the
connectedness of all things, including the small but essential ones to our
bodies and souls, we tend to forget.

Sign the petition please, if you will!
cheers, mark"

More about bees at the British Beekeepers Association, whose site pointed me to this recent Daily Mail article about the funding situation by an enlightened (on this) politician. Last Saturday's Guardian had this informative article "Last Flight of the Honeybee". And here, a link to the government's response to an earlier bee research funding petition. Read it. Need I say more...

more woad pictures

For an agonising ten or so days only one woad seed had sprouted, but now of the five pots/ten seeds I still have here five are growing (one since thinned out). My friend Helen took in the other forty or so pots a few weeks ago to grow them on for me. They're in her greenhouse at the moment.

It's years since I've grown anything from seed and as I seemed to do OK before without too much effort, was panicking that something I'd done was wrong and I'd end the summer with no woad to dye with at all! Only a couple germinated at Helen's too and after analysing possible reasons, we decided we were being too precious with them, trying too hard, taking too much care and concern. My pots go out on the windowsill when I'm here but come inside at night, only because I worry they might be blown off! It was a mistake to start them growing inside the house - the first spent so long straining for the light that its stem is ridiculously long. I had tried to counter this by turning the pot by 180 degrees but won't again. The others are faring better by being outside from an early age, and from the pots being tilted to the light when inside. Ten days ago at Helen's I saw a good number of sprouts.

The difference in timing has surprised me and pleased me. Surprise as I assumed if conditions were right - light, warmth, moisture and whatever else makes seeds tick - all would come up within a few days. That they don't is great - they demonstrate the resilience of nature! Spreading your bets must give better chances than blowing it all on one seemingly good day. With woad's determination to do its own thing and not conform I feel confident we will have a great relationship!

images - the top one is from 20 May at 11 days old, the last from 30 May at 21 days old. It's my impression that the younger sprouts are producing new leaves faster, maybe because they weren't wasting time spurting stem, or maybe in response to climatic conditions. The point is that 21 days may be exceptional for this first sprout to be starting on its fifth pair of leaves.