Monday, May 21, 2012

Provisions for a Northern Climate

Astonishing as it is, I am now the two-thirds of the way through my MA course, and 30 of 45 weeks have passed. This week our work is being assessed by our tutors and an external examiner, and we will be given a provisional grade.

 Still much left to do.  In late March and April I was working intensively on my pieces for Field Dress, and I have to admit that my attentions were divided. Back in London after a visit to Canada that was lovely, but not particularly productive work-wise, I needed to refocus.  While the intended focus of my MA project is natural dye printing, I have lately found myself seduced by stitching.  I am obsessed by embroidery, particularly using knitting yarns to get big, bold marks.  I love the effect of dyeing the samples after stitching because of the way different fibres take up the yarn:  darkest colours on wool, then followed by silk, then cellulose fibres.  I am fascinated by the unpredictable nature of natural dyes - beautiful surprises not expected.  Sometimes failures also!

 While working on Field Dress, I discovered that hand-sewing the seams of a garment can be very enjoyable.  I sewed an entire outfit by hand, which was quite labour intensive, but also very meditative, and my hand stitching has improved.  It is more even and precise, and I am getting faster.  Hand sewing has advantages, too:  greater ability for easing and fitting difficult seams, like curves.  For the collection of stitched and printed garments I plan on producing for my MA exhibition, I may not hand sew all the seams, but I will certainly hand finish all hems and edges. For a sample garment for my collection, I did sew the entire thing by hand.  Above shows the garment before dyeing.

 Above and below are samples of embroidery that I later dyed.  I am exploring shapes and stitches to render imagery of some of the plants I've been drawing - Queen Anne's Lace, and the mullein (which rather ended up looking like wisteria instead).  I do not plan the stitching very much before I begin a piece.  I have an idea of the image, but I let the embroidery take form as I go.  Many of these pieces are stitched with various tape yarns of cotton, linen, bamboo, silk, and wool, that I purchased at Romni Wool in Toronto. They have a particularly lovely silk tape that I love, which also dyes beautifully.

 My stitching has helped to determine the imagery for printing.  My process is quite organic:  I spent some weeks drawing plants, then stitching based on the drawings, before moving on to drawings based on the stitching.  I had not quite realised that this was my process, but by analysing it because of my MA course, I've become aware of it. 

Mylar, my former favourite drawing surface, does not seem to be available in the UK.  In fact, over the last few years it has become more scarce in Canada.  While considering sustainability, I should consider whether continuing to draw on a plastic film is suitable.  In any case, I have found that the high quality cotton rag vellum is a nice substitute.  I do draw on paper in my sketchbook, of course, but I find that by drawing directly on to vellum, I can use any image as a screen positive. 

Above, sketchbooks, technical notes, samples, and drawings compiled for presentation.   Provisions for a Northern Climate is the current title of my project brief:

'Inspired by the resourcefulness of my ancestors, imagining a world informed by the ingenuity of the past and the science of the present, where we exist in alchemy with the wilderness that surrounds us, I intend to create a collection of garments suitable for living in concert with nature.  The climate of Canada is often one of extremes: cold, dry, snowy winters followed by hot, humid, stormy summers and in the past we relied on our clothing to help us adapt to these conditions. Modeled after utilitarian clothing of the past, this collection will include items such as quilted petticoats and woolen underwear, both printed and stitched, with imagery and colour to be drawn from the Canadian landscape.  The colour palette reflects the forests, gardens and fields of early Canada: black walnut, butternut, birch and oak, bedstraw, madder, weld and woad, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and sumac, and kitchen scraps such as tea, carrot tops and onion skins.'

Gathering Seeds Tunic

This garment is modeled after the Mexican huipil, a very simple top made of one piece of fabric.  The selvedges are the side seams, a neck hole cut at the fold, with arm holes left open.  Traditionally, the neckline and sleeves are heavily embroidered, rendering beautiful this utterly simple, utilitarian garment. My father brought me back two huipils from Mexico at least ten years ago, and they are my very favourite pieces of clothing.

First stitched, then dyed with dried carrot tops accumulated over this past winter, this shirt will be used as a blue print for the rest of my collection.  I imagine this tunic to be worn as the summer turns into autumn, walking through the fields in under the suns of August and September, when seed heads are heady, just ready to burst. It has ample pockets to allow for collecting seeds, or other treasures gleaned while wandering about.

Stitch and Dye Samples

 Dyes and fibres have an alchemical relationship.  Certain dyes have particular affinity to specific fibres.  I am exploring these alliances through stitch:  first embroidering with yarns of various fibres, then dyeing, sometimes mordanting, sometimes not.  Some dyes, such as cochineal, are pH sensitive, and therefore respond to after treatments using acids and alkalis that can dramatically shift colours from cool to warm, for example.  The bright pinky coral sample above right, shows cochineal with an acid dip, while in the left corner, with no after treatment.  Below right, osage orange dyes are intensely yellow, but merino wool takes up a warmer tone which is almost orange, while cellulose fibres are more lemony yellow.

This week, some more print sampling, and a few sojourns out of London.  The weather has been rather grey the last few weeks, but sun is forecast.  I have my fingers crossed for a picnic or a day of lying in the grass in a park also.


  1. Your work is INCREDIBLE!!!!!!

  2. So beautiful, I love how you've used the cochineal, I think the Madder sample is my favourite. Can't wait to see more!

  3. Wow!! they are sooo beautiful... I love the green top.. carrot tops really??? what is the kind of thread you use here for embroidery?

  4. great detail in your photographs, really professional!