Monday 23 April 2012

A Dispatch from Calgary

Teaching in a specialized field like screenprinting and surface design gives me an opportunity to travel for work. I'm a most-of-the-time Hamilton resident, and some-of-the-time Calgary resident, spending the winter term at the very wonderful Alberta College of Art.

One of the classes that I teach there is the Fibre 101 class, which focuses on 2D work. I've been wanting to add a natural dye project into the class, particularly one that can be done outside of school, requiring no specialized equipment. So much of what I teach relies on specific, often expensive tools such as exposure units and vertical fabric steamers, and I remember coming out of school totally unsure of how to do things on my own.

The class was given the task of purchasing a silk scarf, eating pasta or pickles for a week to obtain a 1L-ish glass canning jar, and collecting natural materials that they thought might provide colour. I wasn't very specific with the materials, just asking them to gather what they could find from nature or from the kitchen. This was, of course, the week it was minus thirty-five outside, so most of the materials were from the kitchen.

After being laid out, the silk scarves were folded over to fit into the jar, and then rolled around a stick that the students also had to find. Then they are tightly bound with twine, and tucked into their jars. Some students opted to add a colour modifier in the form of giant rusty bolts [iron], old pennies [copper], or in one case, a huge, beautiful copper mineral deposit that the student bought from a gem and mineral show. We then filled the jars with a 10% alum solution, as alum is a good colour-brightening mordant that helps to stick the colour to the fabric, and usually brightens colours as well. oh, and all that drawing you see happening? that is each person making a 'map' of where they put what, so they could have a reference for what material made what colour when we were done. I'm big on note taking.

The jars are then placed in a sunny window to let the heat of the sun cook the fibres and their contents, as in the first image. A week later, we unpacked the jars, shook them out over a bin, and then rinsed the scarves. I learned a great lesson from my class in this assignment - use lots of herbal teas! They make the unpacking process actually nice smelling [my test run was really, really gross! make sure the bundle is submerged in the jar, or you get mold. Lots of it], and hibiscus and rose petals provide lovely colour.


  1. wow, i wish i could have taken this class! the results are amazing!

  2. This is amazing!! I would love to try this at home. Do you have a good source for the white silk scarves? Or would cotton work as well?

  3. Dharma Trading (online) has a good selection of silk scarves. Cotton would likely work, but you'll have better results with silk.

  4. Ooh! This looks like so much fun! Are you bringing this back to Oakville with you in the fall? Please?