Things have been quite busy in the studio and I realize I have not posted since November of 2018!  (Again, best laid plans – I am beginning to see pattern here (wince)!)  However, after this little update, I have some natural dye reflections I initiated back in March and never got around to publishing, among other things.  As “archaic” as this format sometimes seems, it still has relevance across the spectrum. For me, it serves a real purpose, which I had lost track of for a spell but now reclaim: writing as process-witness.

My practice continues to evolve.  Two full years after a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I never thought I would find myself in a hopeful place around my studio work…but I do again.  I finally found my way back to the heart of the work, to my true flow, and that feels pretty fabulous.  The work begins to look and feel different to me although clearly on the continuum of a process begun so many years ago.  And while I have never been one to rest too long on one technique – I am sure that is my Aries nature – I am still working with cloth and fiber because there is still so much there to explore!     

So, before I resume essay-esque pursuits, I thought I might just provide an update for the record – a brief flashback to the first several months of 2019 as a way of clearing the way for whatever is to come. 

January: Lots of natural dye experimentation – mostly direct application and immersion variations with indigo, madder, tannins and ferrous after-baths.  Began working on my new wearable collection for the April open studio.   I also began experimenting with alternate hand-stitch processes which have now been incorporated into some of my wearable work.  In the midst of the studio experimentation, I was immersed in preparations for a presentation on Sustainable Making at the Southeast Fiber Arts Alliance.

February:  I continued working with natural dyes, mostly direct application with gum thickeners, exploring layering of color and assistants in various floating (unregistered) patterns on a wide range of cloth surfaces.  The process of working with natural dyes is much more labor- and time-intensive than working with their synthetic alternatives and because of this, the work feels almost contemplative.  I want to explore this entire complex topic in future posts.  But for now, suffice it to say that natural dye print processes are now a solid part of my studio practice.  Also ever-present now is my organic indigo vat, and I did get around to making some new pieces for a local craft pop-up and the first installment of the 2019 wearables.

March 2019:   My time in March was largely spent preparing for the April open studio, although I did take some time to facilitate an indigo-dyeing mini-workshop at the studio one fortuitously-gorgeous Spring morning.  I also received my copy of The Art and Science of Natural Dyes (yay!) and reflected on my early exposure to natural dyes with Catharine Ellis which work has so thoroughly enriched my current studio practice.

In April – I hosted an open studio and continued to develop more work, including a new collection of totes, as well as naturally dyed cloth, and stitched appliqué detailing.   All of my wearable work is presented under the label Petal-una Collection.  This line has been an active focus of my creative energy since 2012.   If you want to learn more about it and see more looks follow this link.

All of which brings me to the present moment.  I will save that for next time!  Meanwhile for fairly regular and consistent check-ins, I am on Instagram and FB – the links are scattered throughout this website.   If you would prefer to keep up via this blog, that is awesome too!

Thank you for following along.

So…you have probably noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Sometimes I question the purpose and relevance of this blog’s existence; sometimes I am just distracted – writing takes time and focus and both are at a premium!  That said, I have committed to resuming and aim for regular posts.  The reason being there is suddenly much to write about again!  First some news: After a post-ACC show break, the paths open before me once again.  I will be participating in this year’s Swan Coach House Summer Invitational, and on the wearable front, a new Petal-Una Collection is in progress and will be available beginning in August.  For sneak peeks at process, works in progress and other images follow me on Instagram (@kathycoltartisan) and/or Facebook.

Meanwhile…back in the studio:

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I am examining many of my textile studio practices (more about this in future posts).  One of the areas I am looking at is dye use.  It has been nearly 2 years since my memorable experience at Arrowmont learning about natural dye processes with Catharine Ellis, and while I continue to use synthetic dyes, I am slowly transitioning to natural colorants for much of my work.  Since that workshop, I have contemplated (among other things) building an Indigo vat spacious enough to accommodate larger pieces of cloth.  Well, I finally made that happen: In March, I started a 70 liter, medium-dark strength vat (images above).  For the uninitiated, Indigo is different from other dyes to the extent that it does not become soluble in water until oxygen is removed from the solutionOnly when the solution is re-oxygenated (i.e., removed from the vat) does the color “develop.”  So the process for accessing the color is a bit more complicated than that for other dyestuffs.  A chemical balance must be struck to achieve reduction in the vat itself and thus actually dye with the Indigo.  There are more or less environmentally-friendly ways to achieve this reduction.  The term “organic” refers to the fact that a balance between plant sugars and an introduced base (in this case, calcium hydroxide) creates the right conditions for reduction.  I should add that those conditions differ depending on whether one is dyeing plant (cellulosic) fibers or animal (protein) fibers.  It is a laborious process getting the vat up and running, but it requires very little input to keep it going.  (A more thorough and concise explanation of the indigo dyeing process can be found in one of the many informative downloadable resources from Maiwa Handprints Ltd.  Thank you Maiwa!)

I say that my indigo vat is relatively low maintenance now, but in its early weeks, particularly while a late winter chill still hung in my basement, things weren’t quite so mellow.  I was admittedly a bit fussy in my care of the vat in the beginning.  However, since those early, tentative weeks, I have learned to relax into a rhythm with it.  Some action on the part of the dyer is crucial to keep the vat humming during active dyeing times, and to keep it “on the ready” during less active times.  Ultimately, we have a little collaboration going: the vat shows me what it needs, via liquor color, “flower” (the foamy bloom on the top), and pH, and I respond accordingly.

More simply put, I am beginning to build a relationship with indigo.  As a dyer, that’s important.  After all, Indigo is a foundational, fundamental dyestuff and color and I want to get to know it well.  At almost two months, I do feel this vat has a definite presence in my life.  I am conscious of its well-being and check on it regularly (although not obsessively); I may feel even a slight twinge of anxiety if I haven’t engaged with it for several days.  If a week has passed, I am always relieved to remove the cover and see it “looking” up at me, its lovely foamy “flower” and coppery film intact.

The earthy-sweet, grassy odor, the “flower”, the maintenance, the process of dipping and oxygenating – these facets of the living vat are all satisfyingly “grounding”….and yet still a bit esoteric.  While my modern human brain (read my left hemisphere) wants to know there is an explainable chemical process at work, and that steps followed yield calculated results, I resist the impulse to micromanage.  I sometimes feel more like a facilitator rather than a control agent.  I am okay with not having a linear, scientific understanding of this process.  I am okay with working in cooperation with the vat.  My understanding and experience of Indigo is of a sensing, feeling nature.  There exists in this vat, and in this process, a fundamental mystery which speaks to the part of my brain still able experience magic and wonder in the world.  That’s something I am happy to welcome into my dye studio!

I am just beginning to “unpack” the content and experiences I had last week at Arrowmont in Catharine Ellis’ Natural Dye workshop.  The volume of information we were introduced to, along with the actual practices we were absorbing, was tremendous and overwhelming – towards the end of the week it was almost as if a bomb had exploded in my brain – an indigo-cochineal-weld-ferrous bomb – shaken, stirred, dissolved, precipitated…I feel like the cloth we worked with – now primed to soak up as much as I can following this most intensive week of learning!  I am so grateful to Catharine for making the space and providing the energy for this experience…I am also indebted to the fabulous workshop participants whose individual contributions to the body of understanding were, for me, an essential part of the process.  I am overflowing with joy and an urgent desire to get to work!!  First up: my organic indigo vat.  Meanwhile, here are some images from the week (click on a thumbnail to open the gallery).  Many thanks to Jane Cooper for supplying a few of these images.

I have been experimenting with botanical extracts and I am completely hooked….I have already fabricated some wearables from these goods (images soon) and I feel so energized!  Full circle and returning to my plant roots!  (Addendum 8.8.2013:  My enthusiasm for these early encounters with natural dyes have been tempered slightly following the recent workshop at Arrowmont with Catharine Ellis but I feel no less energized!)