…and yes, the river is moving as I write”


Yesterday it rained. What better time to prepare fabric for indigo dye? I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks but there were enough nice days that I wanted to be outside as much as possible, working in the garden, planting tomatoes in pots on the upper deck. Getting fabric ready to be dyed is a long process. This time I’m not using any of the sewing resist methods. Mokume or woodgrain is one I’ve done in the past; you use a running stitch in parallel lines, or curving lines, and then gather the thread tightly. At least I don’t think I’m going to do this. I still have many yards of unbleached cotton waiting for me to decide what it might become. And today is rainy too.

Mostly what I did yesterday was wrap fabric around pvc pipe, using coarse hemp string to bind it. This results in the resist dye pattern arashi or storm. The last time I made a vat of indigo and spent a few days outside dipping and resting the prepared lengths, I think I loved the arashi cloth the most. See what happens with the areas bound by hemp string? I think of this as eel grass or rivers seen from a great height.


What I love best is taking the cloth into a 3rd dimension with stones or string or pvc pipe. I love to see it become a sculptural object. In the bottom of the basket on the left you can see a lumpy form created by pebbles fixed into place (with elastic bands) on a diagonal grid across 2/3s of the cloth (an old damask tablecloth, with stains, given me by a friend “to do something with”) and then the ends twisted and wrapped with string. What will it look like when dyed and unwrapped? I have no idea. Angels or birds or splashes of white.


I realize as I do this that I am more interested in the process than the result. I wrap and think and wonder. I know enough to understand how amateur my work is with indigo dye. I have no illusions about its importance as art or even skillful craft. But to be immersed (literally) in a long process of preparing and standing with a stick to push cloth into dye, to turn plain cloth into something else, something more, is about as thrilling as anything for a woman to do on the edge of the continent while the world is crazy with virus and death and grief (and I am crazy with those things too). To walk through the days after with stained wrists, a basket of deep blue cloth scribbled with memory, waiting to be taken to its next life as a quilt or curtains or simply to be folded in a basket.

In her book Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada wrote about this process:

When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the piece during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

I won’t mix my vat today. I need a run of nice days. But yesterday’s work with the string and cloth and my reluctance to do the complicated mokume or even to fold cloth in  accordion pleats and clamp wood along the length to make itajime or window resists seemed to be the right thing to do. And when I woke in the night, I realized why. I am working on a long essay about my grandmother’s early life on the Red Deer River. She lived on the south side and then, later, the north. I am trying to figure out the details of each period, how and why she moved, and yes, the river is moving as I write, is the source for so much of her daily life. Water came from the river, brought up in tubs on a sleigh in winter and maybe a wagon in summer. A neighbour who washed her clothes in the river and drank the water died of typhoid fever on the dirt floor of her shack. And I have wrapped fabric—old damask tablecloths, rough cotton, some scraps of coarse linen—onto pipe to make rivers, the “‘memory’ of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth.” How to make the language of this essay do that too? To spread itself across the page, first one bank of the river, then the other, a bridge in the distance, the far hills. Language to carry the dimensions of her life, of mine, her time, mine.

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