Diary of a Dyer for a Day: A Report from Ann Schroeder’s Studio

workshop_Diary_1.jpgBy Cynthia Baughman

(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! 

workshop_Diary_2.jpgAfter 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.