I teach a great deal, which I love doing. Yet occasionally I relish the opportunity to learn from someone else – someone who has different experiences and who causes me to look at my own process in a different way. Last week I took a class in natural dyeing at Shakerag in Sewanee, TN with Charllotte and Sophena Kwon of Maiwa. When I immerse myself in a class such as this, I know that I will come away with new understandings but I can never be sure what the lessons will be.
Charllotte organized a week that included dyeing cellulose and protein fibers in many different dyes, combinations of dyes, and with some ferrous applications. The palette was extensive and yet I knew that we were just scratching the surface of what is possible.
We used the classic dyes – those that have been tried and true over many years and used in production and industry in different parts of the world. When one invests so much time preparing and mordanting fibers, it’s important to have the best dyes possible and ones that will last as long as the fiber. All the dyeing was done using formulas that are easily repeated. Maiwa produces a line of naturally dyed clothing and as a result they have refined their processes and dye choices. We found plenty of inspiration in Maiwa’s collection of masterfully dyed fabrics from all over the world.
When it became time to dye with indigo, I was surprised that we used chemical vats reduced with thiourea dioxide. Both Charllotte and I learned the organic indigo vats from Michel Garcia, where the reduction comes from plants or fruit sugars. I have spent the last 8 years using only these organic vats in my studio work: how to start them, to read them, keep them alive, and dye successfully with them. I didn’t think I would ever return to the chemical vats.
It was a revelation to be re-introduced to the “thiox vat”, a real “work-horse” indigo vat that is most appropriate for quick samples or when a hard-working vat is needed for a group of people or an intense dyeing period. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the dominant smell of the vat came from the natural indigo and not the reduction chemical.
We made 8 indigo vats one morning and all the vats worked successfully well into the night. The organic vats would have required more rest time, more fussing, and ultimately may not have been as rewarding for the dyers in such a setting. The thiox vats were not without maintenance; we checked the pH, added thiox or lye water as necessary, and more indigo when needed.
The lesson for me last week was to always keep an open mind. My studio practice will continue to include an organic indigo vat. Had I not spent these years committed to these organic vats, I wouldn’t understand them and they would not be an integral part of my studio. But I left last week’s class with a new attitude about choosing a process most appropriate for the setting. I am sure that there will be a few chemical indigo vats in my future.