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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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For some reason, I've never been able to remember jokes. Considering the number that I must have heard in my life, it's amazing that I can only remember perhaps two or three altogether...and that's including "Why did the chicken cross the road?" One of the other two jokes that I can remember must come from the early Sixties by the sound of it. It isn't very funny but it goes like this: Why did they call Marilyn Monroe a Suicide Blond? Because she died by her own hand. A pretty pathetic joke but it leads me somewhat uneasily to dyes which of course provide the colours in the Batik process.


I've always loved dyes and dying cloth. As a teenager I used to buy cheap dyes and change the colour of my clothes in buckets at home as my tastes and trends changed. I once used our bath to dye some jeans black which got me into a lot of trouble. When I first discovered batik as a school teacher in Oxford, I found that there were some pretty good British dyes easily available and that's what we used in those first experiments.


When Marie Luz and I first started to work together in Barcelona, we really had a lot of fun scouring hardware stores and pharmacies in the narrow twisting streets of the old areas of Barcelona. Every now and then, we would uncover great caches of long-forgotten dyes. They were mostly ancient and came in little rock-hard pastilles which I would quite literally have to attack with a hammer before grinding them down to a usable powder with an old metal spoon. It took a lot of time to prepare these old dyes which often came in strange, exotic and unfamiliar colours like rose madder, old gold or (very sought after) cerulean blue. A good find would be very exciting for us and cause for great celebration. Probably most of my work before I came to America was created using these old Spanish dyes. We would add salt as a fixative and they would fade quickly in the sun or after repeated washing of the cloth. But the colours were often lovely and clear and I learned a lot about mixing dyes and creating different colours.


When I came to America, finances and ignorance dictated that I continued to use dyes that were readily available in drugstores all over the country. They were either in powder or liquid form, were easy to use and once again salt was the requisite fixative. But I soon became aware of other dyes on the market, dyes that were made specifically for Batik, were much faster (i.e. lasted longer) and relatively easy to use. My dyes had to be cold rather than hot water dyes for of course, hot water would melt the wax on the cloth. I found that there were various appropriate dyes on the market but after experimenting with different kinds, I settled upon one kind which I have used almost exclusively for the last ten years or so.


These dyes are Fiber Reactive dyes, which I found to be widely available from art stores and mail order catalogues all over the States. They are called Reactive dyes because the dyestuff is quite inert until it is dissolved in an alkaline solution. The alkaline brings about a reaction which causes the dye to bond with the fiber involved. Fiber reactive dyes develop colour inside the cloth rather than on the surface which improves light and wash-fastness. They are designed specifically for vegetable-based fibers like cotton, linen or rayon. With the addition of a mild acid such as white vinegar and the gradually raising of the temperature of the dye bath, Fiber Reactive dyes may be used with protein-based cloths like wool, silk or even nylon. Washing Soda is the alkaline activator and common Table Salt levels the colour of the dye and improves its solubility.


To dye one pound of fabric, the basic proportions are two and a half gallons of water to a tablespoonful of dye powder, 40 tablespoons of salt and four tablespoons of soda. I have to confess that at this point I rarely measure out my dyes and chemicals very carefully but rather gauge the amounts by eye. I use only a few dye colours and mix all my colours from them. My basic dyes are lemon and bright yellows, scarlet, cobalt, navy and turquoise blues, dark brown and black. Sometimes I use a different blue, fuschia or a warm red and there are several different black dyes, with base colours ranging from a dark green to a violet. Mixing dyes is just like mixing any paint and accuracy comes with experience.


The process is relatively simple for immersion dyeing. The fabric should first always be washed to remove any starch or sizing on the surface of the cloth. Next the dye should be made into a paste and then dissolved into a cup of hot water. The salt should also be dissolved in two quarts of hot tap water and both dye and salt solutions should be added to the remaining two gallons of cold water. The fabric should be immersed in the liquid for a few minutes before adding the soda, which has been dissolved in a warm solution of water. The dye bath is now activated. The liquid may be stirred occasionally and the longer the immersion of the cloth, the deeper the resulting colour. After a couple of hours, the solution begins to lose potency and will eventually stain rather than dye the cloth. After twelve hours, the dye colours may not be true or fast.


I have learned to leave my fabric in the dye for a little bit longer than seems necessary for the colour always drops a little by the time the cloth is dry. If I hold the fabric up to the light and look through it, I can get a pretty accurate idea of my final colour. When the dyeing process is finished and the desired colour obtained, the fabric may be rinsed carefully, so as not to dislodge the wax on the cloth. The longer that the fabric is kept damp, the more fixed and permanent the dye will be. I generally lay the batiked cloth out on a table and let it dry slowly between layers of plastic. After a couple of days, the fabric is usually dry enough to be rewaxed or, if finished, is ready for the drycleaner who removes the wax for me. The wax may also be ironed out by placing it between sheets of newspaper and running a hot iron over it but that is a tedious and messy process and some residue of wax will always remain.


To apply the dyes by brush locally to the fabric, I mix up water with a little Urea which is a moisture-drawing agent and keeps the fabric damper, longer during the drying process, ensuring deeper, brighter colours. I dissolve a little seaweed thickener, Sodium Alginate, in the liquid which inhibits the spread of the dye. I add one teaspoonful of soda in solution and as much dye powder as I need to a cup of this chemical solution. My dye is then ready to be painted directly onto my cloth which should then be dried slowly under plastic sheeting. As with the immersion dyeing, the dye mixture gradually loses its strength over a period of several hours.


Dyeing, like living, comes with practise and both, in theory at any rate, improve with time and experience. I suppose that I create my colours almost intuitively at this point. A mixture of lemon yellow and turquoise dye result in a very different colour to that produced by a mixture of bright yellow and turquoise. A warm red with a bright blue dye can result in a brown tone whereas the same red combined with navy blue produces violet. A true black is the most difficult colour of all to dye and I've been known to keep a fabric immersed in dye for days or even weeks on occasion to get a really dark tone. I could spend another lifetime playing with different dyes and still not exhaust all the permutations, combinations and resultant colours. In my own work, I'm probably locked into some familiar dye colours at this point and know exactly how to achieve the tones I want in my batiks. But flesh tones continue to be mildly problematic for me and the results are still not always predictable. I have learned to use reds mixed with browns and then heavily diluted with water for those colours which, like skin tones all over the world, often vary enormously. Dyeing, like living, doesn't always come easy as poor Marilyn found out.


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