Archive for April, 2012


While going through all my Assignment 2 material for a final Reflective Commentary and then package it all up for snail mail (yay!!!) I realised I haven’t written about these two books.

Klein, Bernat (1965) Eye for Colour, Bernat Klein, Scotland and Collins, London.

Bernat Klein, a textile designer with an absolute passion for colour, used his autobiography to explain not only himself, but his theories about the nature and importance of design and colour. He was born in 1923 in Yugoslavia and was involved in textiles from an early age, as his parents owned and operated a textile wholesale business. Textiles and clothing – quality, colour, style and presentation –  were always important. The story of his journey from Yugoslavia to Jerusalem to Leeds in Britain to Galashiels Scotland, from religious student to Art School to textile technology at university was interesting in itself, but really a backdrop or preamble.

For Klein, “for those who can speak the language of colour it can express the whole gamut of human emotions” (p51). He argues that colour has been liberated, moving from symbolic use in ancient times to being a vital part of a richer, fuller, more civilised life. Artworks by Turner, Monet, Klee and others are illustrated and discussed in support of these ideas.

Klein has some strong views about the importance of well-trained textile designers to take advantage of and further this evolution – his program of study is quite ambitious and may have been overtaken by changes over the years. I also found his analysis of eye colour to guide colour choice in clothing rather dated. On the other hand his call to teach the young to consume intelligently (p. 94) is very current, as is the approach he took in his textile mill: “For a young, smallish firm to make its impact it must rely on brains rather than brawn, brilliant design ideas rather than quantity of output and turnover” (p 114).

The brilliant design is definitely there. Klein would start the process with an end use in mind. When a clear image emerged, often based on one of his own paintings, he would consider raw materials, equipment and processes. He would then work on constructing the yarn, being innovative in both materials and dye process. Finally there is the weave structure – often fairly simple, and the same structure looking very different due to the unique and unusual yarns and ribbons used in them.

The book finishes with large, detail photos of six fabrics, each with the painting that inspired them and a few paragraphs of text. These are wonderful. The fabrics are so complex you really need the closeup to appreciate them, and it is so interesting to be able to trace the original image in the final fabric.

Klein’s fabrics were very successful and influential, being used in designs by Chanel, Dior and Yves St Laurent.

My description above is very dry and dusty and has sucked the joy and colour and vibrant life out of Klein’s book and work, so I urge you to follow some of the links below and see for yourself.


All these links were accessed 28 April 2012. A series of photographs from an exhibition at the Scott Gallery, Hawick Museum August – October 2005. These are the best images of Klein’s work that I found on the internet. The subject of this page is clothing designer Bonnie Cashin. It includes photos of a coat made using fabric designed by Bernat Klein. There’s a very good closeup photo – not my favourite fabric, but it does show the complexity of the component yarns used. This interview by Jackie McGlone was published in The Scotsman 28 November 2011. Weaving and an exhibition inspired by Bernat Klein’s work. The author, Terry Bibby, does beautiful Saori weaving. KAUL, EKTA KHOKHAR, Innovation in Creative Industry. This page includes some closeups of Klein’s textiles. There are also some interesting comments on the challenges facing the Scottish textile industry and innovation in traditional crafts. This post has photographs by Arthur Massey of a young Klein at work, and some of the garments created using Klein’s textiles. National Museums Scotland has acquired Klein’s archive – this is the press release from November 2011.

Reading Klein’s book while working on Assignment 2 was very well-timed for me. While general and widely applicable, the course so far has used stitch and surface design as particular textile techniques. I’ve sometimes wondered how much the sketchbook work could feed into weaving design. Now I have a really clear example of how work in other areas, in this case specifically painting, can underpin weave design.

I should point out there’s a project later in the course on Woven Structures – I haven’t read ahead in the notes, but I’m mildly nervous about pushing myself out of standard weaver mode into a more expressive and innovative exploration. I need to remember the importance of the yarn, specific yarns created for a specific image and purpose. While typing this I realised an article I read last week in Textile The journal of cloth and culture is also relevant.

Harper, Catherine and McDougall, Kirsty, “The very recent fall and rise of Harris Tweed”, in Textile, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp. 78-99.

The article tells a wider story, but of interest to me here is the importance of the wool, dyed in a huge range of colours then mixed before spinning to create complex, subtle colouring expressive of the land, sky and sea of the Outer Hebrides. The colour blending is one of the most skilled tasks in the process of making the tweeds.  A rationalisation by a mill owner has put into jeopardy supply of the yarns, and so of most traditional tweeds. Another of many challenges in rejuvenating the harris tweed industry is introducing colours from other environments, in particular Glasgow urban.

I’ve got rather carried away here and this post is long, but I do want to mention briefly another (fairly) recent read – Pattern, colour & form: new approaches to creativity by Carolyn Genders. This beautifully illustrated book starts by reviewing a range of themes and approaches in design – abstraction; colour; line, structure and form; memory and place; play; size, scale and space; texture, surface and pattern.

The second part of the book has sections on eighteen artists. In different levels of detail we learn about each artist’s background, inspiration, design process, and particular concepts and concerns. Illustrations include source material, sketch books and works in progress as well as finished pieces. There are a wide range of disciplines used – textiles, glass, metal, ceramics, photography etc – textiles in particular being very well represented. We have Jeanette Appleton, textile artist; Jane Arkwright, whose experience as a textile artists influences her current painting; Jackie Binns uses basket weaving techniques in her artwork and has a “sketch box” of small samples. Without exhaustively naming them all, many of the artists use techniques traditionally associated with textiles in their work, even if the materials used and application of the technique is decidedly non-traditional. The design process is interesting in any medium, but I think the textile slant made this book particularly approachable for me.

This is a lovely book. I read it some months ago, before I started the design section of  Assignment 2, but flipping through it now I think it would be interesting to revisit. The reading pile only ever seems to grow!


Klein, Bernat (1965) Eye for Colour, Bernat Klein, Scotland and Collins, London.

Harper, Catherine and McDougall, Kirsty, “The very recent fall and rise of Harris Tweed”, in Textile, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp. 78-99.

Genders, Carolyn (2009) Pattern, colour & form: new approaches to creativity, London: A&C Black Publishers

Project 5 Stage 4

Lanaset dyes printed on silk (felting paj). Printed area 44 cm wide x 52 cm high.

This final stage of the project asked for a larger sample, a repeating pattern and/or a “single unit” piece – a design complete in itself. I felt I’d done enough repeating work already, so just went for the contained design.

The subject is a jug that’s been passed down through the family and I now have on permanent loan from mum. It’s appeared on this blog before – it was the subject of my very first OCA sketchbook page here, and blogged here.

There was a quick profile sketch then a paper cutout in March, which was used as a stencil resist in the orange and black scribble printed fabric that I was very excited about here.

Focused work on this iteration began on April 16, which I’m amazed to find is only 10 days ago – it feels I’ve been living with this much longer! A day by day, blow by blow description of the development process is in the sketchbook beginning here.

Apart from the obvious of wanting to meet course requirements, I was interested in extending the work previously done. The printing on silk I’d done in Stage 3 led to some interesting overlapping images and had me thinking about the nature of memory and images from the past. The process had also highlighted some technical issues in terms of size of prints I could achieve. I felt the use of perspex plates seen in the scribble print could help with that.

After a couple of quick sketches I settled into the practicalities – for example to keep on shape and the squares on a grid I would have my printing surface, then a full-scale printout of the vase silhouette complete with a printed 5cm grid, covered by clear plastic; then creating lots of paper resists and playing with placement.

This blog post by fellow OCA student Lucie stopped me in my tracks. I’d forgotten the design process. I hadn’t explored options, I hadn’t focused in on interesting areas, I hadn’t tried different media. I’d had an idea and I’d set about making it happen. <– Note the full stop.

Worse the idea was so literal – a jug plonked down in the centre of the image.

I’m being a bit harsh on myself. There had been play with collage materials, even if it hadn’t proceeded to making a collage. There was work to be shown in conte crayons and pencils, plus on the computer. A work by Picasso that I’d seen in the recent exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery was in my mind (Man with a Mandolin, 1911 – a photo is included in this article) which I remembered as having a central focus, but I looked in the catalogue(*) and read a bit about analytic cubism (**), then felt pretty foolish. Rather worse was when I noticed the wall mural in the supermarket carpark – blocks of colour, overlapping silhouettes…

I tried a quick idea of some kind of still life (thinking about Cézanne this time, and a little sketch thing I did here) but my heart wasn’t in it. Apart from anything else I was curious – would the ideas I had so far work?

After all the preparation and thinking, in the end it came together quickly. I had a printing session yesterday afternoon, then when I went to continue the work this morning I decided it was enough. None of the additional ideas I had would make it better – just different. Now having steamed and washed and ironed and pinned it up on a board and sat looking at it a while I can see heaps of flaws and problems and things to do better, some specific things I wish I hadn’t done – but overall I’m very pleased with it.

Some specific areas for reflection suggested in the course notes:

Selection of design material: The designs I selected back here were shells, Tutankhamen inspired, ink scribble and bird. The ink scribble worked best – it had a strong graphical element which worked well with the stamping technique. I also enjoyed the liveliness and flexibility it offered. I did a lot of stencilling with the shell design. It was reasonably effective, but unsatisfying in that I didn’t develop it further in the process. That’s in part due to the nature of repeating patterns – design and plan up front, repeat as accurately as possible thereafter.

My favourite tutankhamen design didn’t work out. I didn’t like the dye-paste print on the silk that I had in mind, and more importantly I think I’ve used the design enough for a while at least. On the other had I was able to use elements from it as stamp motifs and they worked nicely (they were the basis of the overlapping example shown above).

Although not on the list the jug has appeared repeatedly in my work to date. My use of it also built on the scribble technique and the layering achieved with the tutankhamen column motif. Overlapping and fractured images fit with my ideas about ageing and memory – topics that I’m considering exploring as a theme later in the course. The jug is part of family history, family memory, and it has a range of seemingly unrelated motifs jumbled around on it. I think this works well with the techniques used.

Fabrics chosen: I tend towards natural fibres and in particular I love silk in all its guises. It’s partly the simple “natural = good” message, although I don’t hold to that in dyeing. Silk is special. It dyes easily, takes colour well, generally feels good whether satin smooth or raw and slubby or crisp in organza. It seems to generate or amplify light.

For the final stage I chose a very light felting paj. It gave the most interesting patterning in my sampling and has a beautiful gleam. I have vague notions of using some of the ideas in nuno felting in the future. Finally, it’s light and postage limitations are always a consideration for the course. I did consider some heavier silks, but the habutai just looked a bit bland and I thought a textured silk wouldn’t work well as an interpretation of a glazed ceramic.

Scale, spacing, contrast and harmony: The scales of the marks and shapes work well in the piece. The individual motifs vary in size providing variety and additional interest.

The fabric itself is well suited to the project, as discussed above, but in this form is not really practical. It is too lightweight for durability in most applications. If used in felting I would expect loss and distortion of the image – which of course has its own potential.

When I decided the piece was finished I thought there was a good balance of shapes across the design – not even, but balanced. Now I see it finished and pinned vertically some areas that I thought were restful and interesting white space don’t really work. In particular the space in the left background near the handle is too large and it would probably have been better to indicate the narrow area near the foot more clearly – or at least one side of it. However I am very happy with the overlaying of images and colours, the positive and negative shapes formed and the complexity of image I achieved.

Soon after beginning work I changed my mind about how to handle the definition of the edge between jug and background. My original intention during planning was to use masks all around the edge, but I was concerned that this would make the overall shape too obvious and literal. I decided to cut off rectangles with a sharp angle when crossing the boundary, giving a kind of pixilated-on-large-scale edge, then define some areas with an added line. I thought this would make an interesting contrast of geometric and organic shapes. In practice I found the diagonal cuts jarring, and felt the complexity of the decoration would work better with a smooth, curving boundary. The early cuts are still there of course. I think it was a good choice to change.

The top of the jug is also a problem area – the spout and horned detail are too dark and flat, the top curve of the handle too undefined.

I particularly like the areas where the motifs cross the boundary of foreground and background (although the one on the right below has one of those annoying sharp diagonals).

I prepared both positive and negative versions of stencils to get further variety in the image which generally works well, except for a clumsy repeat of white on black close to black on white of a small plant mid-right background. Also I intended a more gradual and general movement of value in the background from dark at the bottom to light at the top. Unfortunately I haven’t achieved that. Really the overall balance of value isn’t right.

I like the range of colour used. Possibly it could be richer/deeper, but I didn’t want to risk losing the overlaying of shapes and imagery.

Overall success of sample and design: All the above issues aside, I think there is both contrast and harmony in the piece, providing an interesting, varied and harmonious image.

The layering and complexity of motifs works well, providing interest at a detail level. The treatment is very appropriate for the subject matter. The distance view is not quite so successful, with some distracting, clumsy areas. Also with so many rectangular elements I wanted to make the outside border of the image uneven, but I think the result goes too far.

Near the bottom right in the background is a small stencilled jug shape. I thought it might make a good visual clue if the overall design turned out too messy. I’m probably too close to the image to judge, but I hope that the overall shape is apparent (effectively making the small shape unnecessary and a bit cheesy).

The orange defining lines were a late addition to the design. The original sketch used black lines and the idea of the complementary orange was always on the list of “maybe somewhere”. In the end I think the amount of orange used is about right, and the extra definition helps to clarify the shapes. Although there were some poor choices, I was pleased that I was well prepared but not over prepared – there was still some flexibility and spontaneity while actually doing the printing.

I’ve read comments (and made them myself) in blogs and forums about various difficulties and disadvantages of being a distance student. On the other hand distance learning has the advantage that in the end you are responsible for everything. There are lots of resources available – course notes, tutor, the internet (especially blogs and youtube), books, friends, guilds … – but in the end you choose the specific task to meet the requirement, gather the equipment, find solutions to problems and get a result (even if the result is “I don’t like this” or “it didn’t work”). I love going to classes, but they’re often exhausting, you can easily miss a vital something that makes everything work and there could be specialised tools or materials that you’re unlikely to invest in at home. To get the best learning I need to come home and try the technique on my own, using resources and material available to me. With this piece I feel a real sense of personal ownership and confidence. I know how to do every step involved.

Overall I’m very pleased with my result. To be honest, this Assignment has taken so long I would have said “good enough” to almost anything, even a disaster that I could learn from. As it is I like the result, I like seeing the progress shown in my work and the development of ideas and techniques, and I’m sure similar elements will appear in future work.

* Laporte, S. (editor, 2011)  Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, Paris: Musée Picasso, Paris.

** Maloon, T. (editor. 2010) Paths to Abstraction 1867 – 1917, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Research point – textile collections in a museum

A Research Point in the OCA course recommends visits to contemporary and historical or ethnographical textile collections. For contemporary, I wrote about Sensorial Loop here. Now taking a slightly different slant, in the past few weeks I’ve seen textiles in a number of non-textile-oriented collections, and have been musing over the different approaches taken in their display.

First up a trio at the NSW Art Gallery (which has the advantage of allowing photographs of most items in its permanent collection – although no flash allowed, so apologies for photo quality).

This magnificent Atsuita No robe is displayed centre stage in a section of the Lower Asian Gallery. It dominates the room in a large free-standing display. The space allowed both inside and around the cabinet together with the raised stand adds to the drama and visual importance of the piece. It is the only obvious textile piece in the area, which also contains ceramics, paintings and drawings, netsuke, etc. The lighting in the gallery generally is dim and the spot lighting enhances the textile and allows clear viewing of the detailed work.

The robe is Edo period (1603 – 1868), circa 1800, and is a theatre costume. The whirlpool and dragon design is in silk and gold, using ikat dyed threads for the warp (information provided on signage). There is further information and a photo on the gallery’s website (click here).

The workmanship of the weaving is just amazing. I’ve never seen ikat dyeing used in such a crisp, formal way – in fact it took me a long time examining the work to accept the information. The use of colour is very effective. I particularly like the flashes of brighter colour in the whirlpools.

This Kalinga skirt cloth from the Phillipines is a more modest cloth, more modestly displayed. It is in a back corridor in the upper Asian Gallery, quite a bright area. The piece is mounted in a frame behind glass -I had difficulty getting a reasonable photo, so apologies for the reflections of lights and the ceramics displayed on the opposite wall. The Gallery website has a much, much better photo – click here.

Once again the signage was very informative. Also once again I had trouble believing it, originally thinking it was embroidery rather than floating weft decoration (I’m still not totally convinced – I think there is a combination of techniques). I first took a close look at this cloth in February – notes and a schematic in my sketchbook here. The dangling beads and shell pieces reflect the triangular shapes in the cloth, and add an extra touch of colour and texture to the textile. They must look very effective when worn as a skirt.

The final piece I have chosen from the gallery is La Somnambule, by Rosslynd Piggott, made 996-97. Unlike the earlier two pieces of costume and clothing, this was obviously created as an artwork although elements are drawn from clothing design. In keeping with this there is much less information provided in the gallery – names and dates for artist and piece, plus a brief list of materials (silk, hooks, coathangers, perspex, stainless steel). There is much more descriptive and interpretive information, plus photos, on the Gallery website (click here).

This work is displayed in the Contemporary Galleries, at one end and rather separate from other work. This provides a sense of space and quiet that fits well with the piece.

It is a very beautiful and intriguing piece. I find it quiet and gentle, although the many hooks in one of the “nightdresses” and the unravelling in both could suggest more sinister ideas. The mirror-shaped perspex suggests a reflection and possible distortion, or perhaps a displacement “Alice through the looking glass” effect. Looking now at the photographs the disproportionate sleeves look somewhat reminiscent of a straight-jacket, but I didn’t get that sense when looking at the work itself – the beautiful, gleaming silk doesn’t fit that notion. It is much more a fragile, dreaming sensation.

Each of these pieces has been displayed in a different way by the Gallery. Each is in the company of its peers. I feel the Gallery has done an excellent job of considering the nature and requirements of each individual work, and appreciate the value clearly given to textiles as cultural and artistic artifacts.

In Canberra a few weeks ago (blog post here) we had some time in the National Gallery of Australia before going into the Renaissance exhibition. We wandered into a gallery of Impression and Post-Impressionism works, enticed further by one piece after another (including Sonia Delaunay‘s Dubonnet), and came to a large case of costumes from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and other Ballet Russes companies that followed. No photography is permitted in the Gallery, but I have included a link below.

There were 9 or so costumes in the case, with diffuse lighting above and spot lighting from the very high ceiling. Signage explained the fragile nature of the pieces. Unfortunately the case was at the end of a cul-de-sac in the gallery layout – it gave a good view at a distance to bring visitors in, but you couldn’t move around to see the sides and backs of the costumes.

A dress designed by Giorgio de Chirico for the Ballet de l’opéra russes á Parie production of Pulcinella in 1931 and 1932 particularly attracted me given the current OCA work on painting and printing. There is a photo on the Gallery’s website here. The full skirt has been stamped and painted with blue paint in simple triangles and dots. It is clearly hand-done, and achieves a very lively and spontaneous air. The bodice has been painted with large scrollwork and a fleur de lis kind of shape. There are curious stuffed shapes on the shoulders, yellow puffed sleeves and for me there is an overall almost cartoonish feel. I can imagine the skirt lifting and swirling as the dancer moved.

Another favourite was attributed to Picasso, elements from a production of Le Tricorne. Detailed information was given putting the costumes and production into their historical and design context. The costume, including men’s breeches, was fairly plain, but there were little bobbles that I thought may have been crocheted attached to the seams – again with lots of potential for movement during the ballet. Other costumes used raw edge applique and tassels sewn on, again with a cartoonish, raw, fresh and handmade appearance.

Overall the quality of information provided and the variety of textile work used was very interesting and satisfying.

The final exhibition is Travelling the silk road: ancient pathway to the modern world at the National Museum of Australia, also in Canberra. The exhibition is organised by American Museum of Natural History, New York. It had only been open a day or two when we went and a few things weren’t quite set up (a film show, a few of the exhibits not working).

The exhibition is telling a very big story – the “Silk Road” was many routes through many cultures and countries over 600 years. It cleverly does this by taking the visitor on a journey to four cities on the road. It is educational, entertaining, interactive. You can walk in dappled light under a grape vine and smell the spices and scents of the markets while camels snort in your ear (the lights bright spot lights, the grapes plastic, the scents under sliding covers in barrels so you could try to guess what they were, the camels recorded and thankfully not spitting). You can tell the time using the “stars” and a model astrolabe (set at a height convenient to children). You can find links in culture and technology on an interactive map (set at a convenient height…). There was a huge setup explaining a karez underground irrigation system – I’m glad to have learnt about this remarkable achievement.

I feel really conflicted about this exhibition, because in many ways it was wonderful but I found it sterile and distancing and unsatisfying. It was so artificial. It was so well intentioned. It was so cheesy. It was so polished. It provided nice little chunks of information conveniently packaged for my consumption. I should add that my companion knows far, far more about the Silk Road than I do, she has visited three of the four cities featured, and she really enjoyed the exhibition.

Focusing back on textiles, there was no stinting the information and carefully designed displays on all the stages of silk production. Entering the exhibition you immediately see a huge replica of a Tang era loom, dressed in gleaming rich golden yellow silk. There are shuttles, a thread winder, bobbins, a roll of woven cloth… of course I tried to read too much into it – the position of the beater looked impossible, the roll of finished cloth on the cloth beam had never been woven on that loom, whatever, whatever – not relevant to the purpose of the exhibition. I liked a display based on a reproduction of a scroll that illustrated all the processes of sericulture, harvesting the cocoons, through winding off, processing and weaving the silk. I was pleased with myself for recognising Michael Cook on a video (I used to follow his blog wormspit). There was a lot of use of modern silk in patterns based on possible silk road trade goods. Further on there was an interesting set of items showing the diffusion of designs from textiles to ceramics to architecture.

I think the problem for me as a textile obsessive is that in a way the silk wasn’t real – it was a tool, a part of telling a wider story. In terms of entertainment and education it didn’t matter that everything was a reproduction – and large pieces of bright coloured cloth are much more eye-catching than tattered, stained, precious remnants woven by someone’s hands centuries ago. I don’t want slick presentation and everything given to me, I want some spaces for my imagination and a sense of my own discovery.

With all this negativity I don’t want to put people off visiting this exhibition. It has a lot to offer. I just tried to make it something is isn’t – something that fits into a research point about an historical or ethnographical collection of textiles.

Textile research point

Wedding shawl of Elizabeth Travis

The course asks for an in depth look at a textile I have at home.

Elizabeth Travis (1843 – 1897) was the daughter of Thomas Travis and Ann Travis (née Lofthouse) and the sister of Mary Ann Brant (née Travis). Mary Ann was the mother of Alice, who was the mother of Eleanor Louise, the mother of Margaret Eleanor, the mother of Judith Margaret (me). Which I think makes Elizabeth my great great great aunt. As a child my grandmother, Eleanor, lived in a house in Sheffield UK with four generations and although she didn’t remember much of that time she had been told that she learnt to walk in her Great Grandmother’s room (that would have been Ann). I don’t know any more of Elizabeth’s story, when or who she married, but the shawl and story were given by my grandmother to my mother. Early this year I asked mum about the shawl for this research exercise and she has now given it to me.

The shawl is woven, rectangular and large – around 275 cm in length plus a fringe of 9 cm at each end, and 146 cm in width. The ends of the shawl have a narrow hem and the fringe has been added separately. It is very light – just 235 grams.

I did a burn test on some fibre taken from a torn area and assessed it based on a chart and information from (accessed 13 April 2012). It burnt briefly then self-extinguished. There was an odour of burning hair (I cross-checked by burning a snippet of my own hair!), and left a black, soft bead of ash. Based on this plus the appearance of the shawl, I think the shawl is a mix of silk and wool.

The central part of the shawl is warped in a very fine off-white thread with a sheen. The warp is spaced, with pairs of threads every millimetre or so. This gauzy weave seems quite stable, suggesting to me a leno structure or similar, but even with a fairly strong magnifying glass I can’t see clearly. At each side there is a striped border – a broad (5.7 cm) stripe of heavier tan-coloured silk woven in a twill (I think) at the side, then four narrower stripes. Each stripe is edged by a few ends of off-white silk, heavier than that in the main cloth.

Weftwise, there is a matching border of tan silk striping at each end. The body of the shawl has a very regular repeat of stripes. I think the main weft may be wool. Certainly it is more matt in appearance that the other threads. There is a stripe of wool a couple of picks of the off-white silk, a stripe of wool, then a stripe consisting of a dark silk, the off-white silk, then a variegated dark and tan thread.

In the photo the shawl is partly over a black sheet of paper, and you can see just how fine it is. Given the weight of the silk used and the regularity of the weaving I believe it was machine made.

Although there are no signs of fading, the shawl is in poor condition. There has been moth damage and I found a couple of what appeared to be old moth bodies in the cloth. There are also tears in the cloth which seem to be along fold lines. For many years the shawl has been stored in a plastic bag in a dark drawer, and even when taken out to show me it hadn’t been unfolded. I found one area of mending.

If the family story is correct, Elizabeth may have been married in the 1860s or 1870s (although it’s really just an assumption even that it was her wedding). A brief search on the internet found mention of large shawls – up to 11 feet – to cover the wide skirts in fashion around that time, although those seem often to be triangular. Wearing white at weddings is thought to have become popular after Queen Victoria wore white lace at her wedding in 1840, although confined to the elite due to laundering considerations (, accessed 15 April 2012). The shawls I found in my search were lace, or beaded and/or embroidered. There is no embellishment on Elizabeth’s shawl. Thomas, her father, was described as a labourer on her birth certificate and in later documentation was described as a Maltster Journeyman. A light coloured fairly plain silk and wool shawl may have been appropriate for the wedding outfit of the daughter of a man of that station in life.

It’s impossible to judge the accuracy of the family story, given it is mostly oral history. There is a note in my mother’s handwriting stored with the shawl, and a brief mention of the house in Sheffield in a letter from my grandmother in 1990. Mum has also spent a lot of time researching the family history, so we have copies of some birth, death and marriage certificates. It’s such a lovely story and there seems no particular reason not to believe it, although memories are frail and many a family researcher has found surprises where there was no apparent reason to mislead.

It is wonderful to feel a connection with women through five generations of a family. It has been treated by all of us as something special and precious, including the careful darning. I’m lucky to have that sense of continuity and belonging.

As a weaver I would love to create a piece inspired by the colours and structures of the shawl. At first glance it is deceptively simple although attractive. Looking more closely for this research piece has made me appreciate the complexity of the design.

I don’t know if, how or when I’ll use this shawl. It’s certainly too delicate to wear as it is. Perhaps one day I may have the inspiration and the courage to cut into it and use part in a textile piece. In 2005 or so I made this piece Life Weaving – Generations which incorporates a fragment from Alice’s 1897 wedding dress, but that was all I had. (I was much more blasé about taking scissors to my wedding dress and my mother’s!). It would be harder to cut into something that is perhaps 150 years old and still basically one piece.

Project 5 Stage 3 Part 3

Printing and painting on fabric.

I posted about my first group of work here. I was pretty happy with my results – some experimentation, some development of my chosen designs, lots of room for further work. The second round of work is here and I was super excited. I’d had an idea, worked towards it, and got results that exceeded my expectations with a strong development of the design and lots of future potential.

Most of the work to this stage used textile printing ink. For my final experiment I wanted to use dyes on silk – using a fibre I love and trying to keep the hand and sheen. I’ve done some silk painting in the past, so was looking for something different. Some internet searching on monoprinting led me to Linda Germain’s blog printing without a press. She prints using gelatine – it’s definitely worth watching her video here to see the amazing results she gets.

My plan was to make a gelatin plate. Instead of a commercial printing ink I would thicken some Lanaset dyes with DR33 (a modified guar gum I got a few weeks ago from Batik Oetoro). Lanaset dyes work at a pH of 4.5 – 5.0. I decided to soak the silk in an acidic solution, then dry and iron the pieces ready for printing, in the hope that steamed after printing and drying the conditions would be roughly the right pH.

It all went horribly wrong. For some bizarre reason I decided to use a rusty old baking pan to hold the gelatin while it set in the fridge. I had trouble getting the set gelatine out of the the pan, so held it “briefly” in a larger pan of hot water to loosen it – which actually melted a large amount of it.

To go with my lumpy, bumpy, sticky gelatin plate I made up some DR33. I’d found a variety of “recipes” on the internet and actually came up with something that looked roughly the consistency of the textile printing ink. Very roughly – the big problem being it was gloopy. It stuck to itself. If it deigned to attach to my foam paint roller, it attached in a big blob all in one spot. Somehow the roller couldn’t get any traction, so skidded over the gloop instead of spreading it nicely. I tried lots of ways to spread dye gloop onto melting gelatin gloop. Occasionally something would end up on the fabric – blobs that ran down the fabric as it hung to dry.

I attempted printing with my bird polystyrene stamp. It wouldn’t be accurate to call it a total failure, but only just.

On the plus side, when dried and steamed the dye fixed and very little came out in the wash. Unfortunately some of the gloop also didn’t come out and the silk has completely lost its drape. With the wonders of hindsight, I’d set myself up for failure. Too many new techniques at once, too many approximations and make-dos on ingredients and equipment.

This all happened almost three weekends ago. Mulling it over I decided the two main problems were: 1) experimenting with both the gelatin plate and the dye thickener at once; 2) the surface tension of the thickened dye was too great, so it clung to itself and wouldn’t spread out or stick to other things (like stamps) nicely.

Last weekend I tried again, experimenting with adding albegal set and orvus paste to help with the surface tension problem. Albegal set is a surfactant used as an auxiliary with Lanaset dyes. Orvus is a detergent, sodium lauryl sulphate, that is good for washing silk. I learnt about both of these from Karren Brito’s book Shibori: Creating color & texture on silk (my go-to place on dyeing silk), but this use was definitely off script. I thought both had properties that could reduce the surface tension and help the paste to spread nicely.

The learning curve continued – for instance adding a little albegal set can make the DR33 paste a bit thinner, adding rather more can turn the paste to liquid. Also take time about stirring the DR33 into a small volume of liquid and make a nice smooth paste. Trying to stir out lumps later is …(pause to find nice words)… unpleasant and time-consuming.

Ultimately my printing paste was much better, but I still couldn’t get decent, even coverage on a stamp. I bought a small silkscreen and squeegee a month or two ago – still in the shop’s bag because I realised I was trying to do too many new things at once. Out that came, and I was able to squeeze the paste through with a paper doily underneath. It worked! This was my absolute first-ever time screen printing and it got pretty messy – but I was getting imagery onto fabric.

I tried the paper jug cutout (used in the orange/black squiggle), and after the print picked off the paper, put the screen on some more fabric and used a brayer to get off the remaining colour.

Next was some grasses and (weed) flowers under the screen and got an image. I used a brayer to get the remaining colour, but this time put an acetate sheet between it and the screen so I didn’t cause paint movement and smudging. This left some paste on the acetate, so I tried to print that off.

At some stage I had the idea of screen printing onto stamps to get a spread of colour on them, so I was finally able to do some stamping too. There was a flurry of activity while I tried the two versions of the Tutankhamen stamps, getting images off the stamps and the screen. In the first photo below, top right are the original two stamps. Top left is the image taken from the paste remaining on the screen. That led me to create the bottom two rows of stamping, trying to apply the paste to the stamp through a different area of the screen each time. The second photo below is the print resulting from the screen – fabric on a printing pad of old newspaper, then the inky silkscreen, then a sheet of acetate, then roll a brayer over the acetate to get off as much colour as possible. Some paste gets onto the acetate in the process, and the third photo below is the print from that.

I also put a stencil under the screen, and did the same idea of a series to use up all the colour.

One thing that didn’t work so well was using the perspex squares. The idea was to get colour on them through the screen, then play around removing colour with a stamp and using both the stamp and the perspex to print. The paste went onto the perspex nicely, and dragging through the paint with a brush left an indistinct pattern, but it was very difficult to use a stamp – it kept sliding around on the pasted-up perspex, messing up the image, plus I wasn’t able to get enough colour onto the stamp.

Another disappointment was screen printing onto the thick loose-woven raw silk, using a stencil developed earlier in the course from a Tutankhamen design. The result is just uninteresting, with no interesting variation in the colour and losing the character of the fabric. I was hoping this would be the basis of the larger work required in the final stage of the project, but it’s not exciting me.

That was last Saturday and on Sunday I couldn’t wait (I usually leave a couple of days between each step when dyeing). I steamed the dried fabric, let it cool, washed it out in orvus paste and ironed it dry. There was virtually no run-off of colour. There is a slight stiffness in some of the thicker fabrics – a bit more patience in the washing could resolve that. The thinner fabrics have hand and sheen unchanged! The colour is grey not black – I could use more dye next time, but in fact I find the variation in tone very attractive.

With some finetuning I think there are possibilities for some very interesting, complex imagery with a nice mix of control vs serendipity. I’ve been thinking about themes of ageing and memory, and some of the partial, combined, changed, overlapping elements could work very well with that. In this final photo I’ve laid the last printoff of the tutankhamen stamp (on a light georgette) over the stamping on a Honan pongee tussah. I find the result complex and intriguing – definitely potential.

I’ve decided to call this “enough” for this stage of the project. The last batch of work was more focused on getting a technique that worked than developing my chosen design ideas, which isn’t ideal. Even so, it’s time to move on to the final stage of the project (and assignment), which is a larger sample.


Brito, K. (2002) Shibori: creating color & texture on silk, New York: Watson-Guptil Publications.

Canberra grab bag

Last weekend I visited Canberra with my mother and we did such a variety of things I’m still sorting impressions and rebuilding energy.

The Canberra Two Day Walk was our primary purpose. It’s an annual event (this was the 21st) and mum has participated 12 times. We do the shortest walks – 5 km each of the two days – and it was beautiful walking in warm autumn sunshine, often around the shores of the lake. The building in the photo is the National Museum of Australia.

We saw lots of birds – these swans were part of a large group on the lake and were totally comfortable with all the people on the path just a couple of metres away.

An intended highlight of the trip was a visit to the Renaissance exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition showed 15th and 16th century Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo and included works by Raphael, Botticelli and Titian among many others. I was strangely unmoved. It wasn’t the anticipated crowds – our timed tickets were Friday 2pm, but when we arrived around 1:30 they let us straight in because it wasn’t too busy. There were certainly lots of people, but if it was busy near one painting we could just look at something else until it cleared. It was partly a mix of subject matter and symbolism, mixed in with ambivalent feelings about some aspects of my catholic education. Many of the paintings were intended to instruct (“indoctrinate”, in a very literal sense of the word). Partly it was the colours and techniques used – often a limited palette and flat areas of colour. There were exceptions, but generally I felt emotionally detached. I hope I continue to think about this, because it seems important to my understanding of myself, my response to art, and perhaps themes and choices in my own work.

One thing I think is very clever (or fortuitous) in the Gallery design is that to get to the special exhibitions area you have to walk to the back of the building. Along the way there were enticing glimpses of the Gallery’s own collection. We were tempted off our path and saw some interesting works, including some textile pieces which I’ll write about in another post.

We went to a special exhibition, Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan at the Australian War Memorial. No emotional detachment here – this was a very challenging experience. I have a lot of thinking to do about this as well, but not for blogging at the moment.

A last minute addition to our itinerary was the Travelling the Silk Road exhibition at the National Museum Australia. The exhibition is from the American Museum of Natural History, New York and it actually opened while we were in Canberra – luckily we saw some notices in the newspaper. The exhibition is organised around four cities and mum has visited three of them – Xi’an, Turfan and Samarkand – and she was quite excited about it. Mum has always been a great traveller (I love the story that from her very first pay-cheque, as a teacher, she bought a suitcase), and for her 70th birthday she wanted to visit China. None of the commercial tours at the time visited all her “must see” places, so she work with an agency to design her own and got together a dozen friends and family to make a group. I think she went through Samarkand on a trip to spend some time at an archeological dig on part of the Silk Road.

It’s a very informative exhibition, with lots of interactive elements – walking through a Turfan “marketplace” there were large pots with fragrances to identify accompanied by the sounds of a snorting camel. Naturally I focused on the textiles and related material. The exhibition designers did a good job of showing how motifs and ideas moved and changed along the length of the trade routes, sometimes transferred from one medium to another (parallels on textiles, ceramics…). More detail hopefully in a future post.

We also met up with friends and family, and I’ll finish with a plug for Adore Tea: the destination for tea lovers (a plug in that my niece works there). They have a number of stores including a tea house in Federation Square (the Gold Creek touristy area) and the Golden Mao Feng is seriously wonderful.


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Calendar of Posts

April 2012

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