“Diary of a Dyer for a Day: A Report from Ann Schroeder’s Studio”
(first published in the Inverness Oran on July 29, 2009)
Mabou quiltmaker and fabric artist Ann Schroeder is opening her studio to students weekly throughout the summer, and I recently joined four other women for a day-long workshop in fabric dyeing. I have admired Ann’s work in galleries and craft shows around Cape Breton, and was intrigued by the opportunity to learn about fabric dyeing from a master. It was, as fellow-student Mary MacKinnon said, “a day full of surprises,” in the course of which I progressed from childish finger paint maestro to abstract painter to fashion designer. I will never look at white the same way again.
There were five of us—from Brook Village, Kenloch, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Some were complete beginners, and some confessed to a few tie-dyed tee shirts in their pasts. My experience with dyeing was limited to once turning a white dress brown in my washer with a box of supermarket dye, with results that were wearable but far short of art. The color was not a disaster, but it was not the rich, chocolately brown I’d envisioned. “You could over-dye it!” Ann told me. “You’ll see…”
The large white table in Ann’s studio was laid out with twelve bottles of brilliant rainbow colors and tools for each student. We wore old clothes, comfortable shoes, and snapped on plastic gloves. Ann began with some color theory basics and then we launched into dyeing. We started simple: dyeing squares of cotton in bright, basic colors. Then we moved to mixing earthy, complex colors according to formulas in our handouts. While these early projects “cured” in plastic wrap, we learned more complicated techniques, mixing whatever colors our hearts desired, and pleating, folding, or scrunching the fabric. I wanted to capture the sunlit scene outside Ann’s studio window: the blue water in Mabou Harbor and the green and yellow field grasses and flowers, and asked for color advice. Ann suggested that I try (1) yellow with a drop of purple; (2) green with a drop of orange, and (3) blue-green dye, and so I concocted my half-cup of each, and went to town. It was a joyful process—I hadn’t done anything so liberated with colors since I was a kid. It’s fun to splash around in rainbow hues! Unless, of course, you’re anxious that you are failing. One member of our class started out extremely self-critical. “I did this wrong!” “Oh, I messed this one up!” But Ann insisted that she was doing just fine, and that there was no way of knowing what the fabric would look like until it was out of the wash and dried. Before lunch, we hung our wet squares on the clothesline, and—wow—they looked promising!
After our break, we surveyed our work flapping in the breeze. Golly! It was gorgeous! My blues and greens really did capture the landscape colors. The self-critical student had produced a glorious riot of green and purple evoking a spring lettuce patch. We each had a portfolio of pillow-cover sized fabrics and were ready to move on to table-runner size. Ann introduced some new techniques: painting colors onto fabric with brushes, or creating resist spots with clips and plastic disks or rubber bands, and over-dyeing (taking a piece that you weren’t crazy about—such as a fading brown dress?—and trying another color on top of it). With more confidence we set our table-runners to cure, and turned to our final projects, either a large swath of cotton or a silk scarf.
Ann urged scarfmakers to choose colors that we would actually wear. I mixed an autumn leaf range and painted them across my wet, folded fabric, creating a murky, muddy mess, and announced that I had ruined my scarf. Ann reminded me that wet fabric always looks darker dry, and that I would just have to withhold judgment. I wrapped my sorry effort in plastic for curing in the microwave, then rinsed it, and unfurled it onto the drying rack. And—whaddaya know!—it was gorgeous! The autumn leaf colors glowed like stained glass.
After I got home I started noticing all my stuff that is just too white: cotton slacks I never wear because I’m afraid of spilling something on them; old linen tablecloths and napkins that I never use for fear of stains. And so, I was delighted to learn that Ann is planning to offer workshop graduates the opportunity to return to her studio and work on advanced projects. We also came home with a full set of instructions and resource list, if we want to venture into dyeing at home. Jennyfer Brickenden of Brook Village said that the workshop “was a blast.” And it was, a great way to spend a sunny day–or a rainy one.
We put them on the wall of my quilt studio to take a look and then it’s time for a group portrait.
Next each person does their own dye mixing across the colour wheel, mixing various proportions of complementary colours to dye more subtle colours.
Saturday afternoon we did group experiments using techniques to create unique textures and variegated colour mixtures.
Below we dye three pieces of fabric in layers using three different colours. Regina chooses the colours, red-orange on the bottom, yellow in the middle, and red-violet on the top. Each piece of fabric is scrunched or manipulated in a different way.
Sunday afternoon we met again and everyone did their own individual experiments. Among other things, Suzanne tried a stitched resist and finished it with rubber bands, Helene tied fabric around small rocks with thread, Regina made more circles and dyed cheesecloth and silk ribbons, Candy dyed a big linen tablecloth blue, and Cynthia created a small landscape.
By the end of the weekend, we were all tired but excited about everything we’d accomplished. Cynthia, who is from Sydney, a 2-hour drive from Mabou, had stayed overnight at a b&b and managed to fit in some hiking and an outing to the West Mabou square dance Saturday night. When she got home Sunday, she arranged all her fabric on the living room floor and sent me the photo below. In her email she said, “Spring is great! And your workshop was so inspiring for the rest of the blooming and growing year!! And I don’t mind if you mention in your blogs about the fun I had dancing, and watching sunset and pussy willows shining in the sun …… “
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be giving a weekend fabric dyeing workshop through the Inverness County Department of Recreation on April 25 and 26, with a second session in May if necessary.
On Saturday morning we’ll mix three colours of dye—red, yellow, and blue—to make nine other colours, and together we’ll dye light, medium, and dark values of each colour. Here’s a photo that shows medium and light colours:
We’ll also dye some more complex colours made by mixing complementary (oppositite) colours, for example adding a little blue to orange to make rust.
Then on Saturday afternoon we’ll work as a group to try out various dyeing techniques. We’ll scrunch fabric into buckets and pour one or more colours of dye on it, as in this photo:
We’ll also pleat fabric and paint on dye with a foam brush, to get effects like these:
We’ll clamp fabric using round plastic disks:
And we’ll fold a large piece of fabric into a small shape, dye it, and unfold it to see what happens:
Everyone will get to take home a small sample of each of the 40-50 colours we dye and a fat quarter of our technique experiments.
Then on Sunday, each person will experiment with whatever colours and techniques interest them most, to create their own one-of-a-kind fabrics. There will be handouts and discussion about buying supplies and setting up a place to dye fabric at home.
I’m really looking forward to sharing something that I have found to be lots of fun. Send me an email if you have any questions, and I hope to see you there!
Who would think that an island in eastern Canada would be big sky country? But it is, because of all the hills and open fields. With frequently changing weather, the sky is not dull here. Talks with acquaintances in the village often begin with a brief commentary on the weather of the moment, useful for glimpses into the other person’s mood or general attitude. Our friend Dan Angus, a carpenter who builds houses and often works outdoors, says that all weather is good weather, a view not shared by many but one that I try to emulate. I’ve made a few quilts about the sky and weather and I’m sure there are more to come.
Welcome to my new blog! That back-to-school excitement surfaces each year, and early fall brings a shift in energy. Here in Mabou, the goldenrod and lavender asters are blooming, the school bus drives by at 8 each morning, and the air is getting crisper. Just the right time for new projects, like launching a website and writing a blog.
What will I write about? Some ideas include:
- inspirations for my work, like the beautiful surroundings of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia where I live
- some of my dyeing and sewing techniques
- musings about making a living as an artist (with advice appreciated)
I would love to get your comments on the website, the fine art quilts, and the ideas for blog topics. Do you have new projects of your own this fall?