three blue days

10 years

A few days ago, we decided we’d do some indigo dye work. My daughter Angelica and I spent a day preparing cloth — two sheets and two pillow cases in her case; a length of coarse linen (with waxed fish in the centre (more on this another time), a sheet, and a stained vintage damask table cloth for me, as well as some things I’d tied or clamped ages ago, hoping for a good time to dye–and then the weather wasn’t reliable for a day of standing outside, dipping our cloth into a dye vat, removing it so it could oxidize, and repeating as many times as we had patience for. The Edmonton family arrived. I wondered if the kids would like to prepare a small piece of cotton for the vat, something they could use as a flag for their room at home. They wound elastic bands around beach stones and added the cloth to the basket.

Yesterday didn’t begin in a promising way. When I swam early, it was drizzling a little. But then it cleared and given that some people will leave on Thursday, we decided that we’d make it work. We set up the dye vat on the long cedar bench by the garden and filled it with ten gallons of hot water, adding the prepared dye stock and the various chemicals. Angelica, Kelly, and I began the dips of the various bundles, pushing them down into the dye, stirring gently (so as not to introduce oxygen), and Henry also came to help.


I kept leaving between dips, while the fabric rested on the bench, to do things for dinner. A few people walked, there were snacks, eventually drinks on the deck as the sun really began to assert itself after days of grey. We did 5 dips before dinner and even though we were tired of standing, we went out to do 2 more after we’d eaten, the 3 of us slapping away mosquitoes, one person timing the dips and rests. We removed all the bundles to the bench overnight and today, after pancakes and sausages, we went out to untie, unclamp, and unfold our cloth.


All over the grass, lengths of blue cotton and linen, as lovely as fallen sky. Lovely as water. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about an earlier dye session, one I did alone on a summer morning, slapping at mosquitoes:

When I did this work, I remembered another occasion, outside, taking lengths of linen out of the tray where they’d been setting overnight after a morning of frequent timed immersions. While I was doing this, I realized the sound I was hearing, agitated, loud, was a whole family of pileated woodpeckers, the young having just learned to fly. They were flapping around awkwardly and making the most comical noise while the parents scolded and encouraged. Mosquitoes kept stinging the small of my back. What the cloth remembers, I will remember too—gathering the stones, sewing the circles that became the growth rings of larch, tying cotton string as tightly as I could. And the cloth and I will also remember the raucous sound of adolescent pileated woodpeckers finding their wings, learning what a voice sounds like in open air, in the morning, before the heat begins.

Weeks later, sewing spirals that draw together three layers of cloth—the newly-dyed surface, cotton batting in-between, and a back of old sheets or muslin—I try to recall each step of the process: filling the vat and measuring indigo, additives, finding a long cedar stick to stir the bundles of tied, clamped, and bundled cloth, brushing mosquitoes from my clothing, leaving streaks of blue on my old t-shirt, allowing the cloth to drip on the grass.

Maybe we are cloth, we are the very fabric of being, the world recorded on us like blue dye, the sound of woodpeckers echoing in the trees just beyond.

What the cloth remembers, I will remember too. My granddaughter, my daughter, and I, stirring with our blue-stained gloves, talking a little, wondering about the results of our work. And then our delight as we removed string, wooden blocks, elastic bands, stones from Trail Bay, to see what the cloth remembers of its time bound and tied, remembers as it is spread out on the grass under the blue sky, and warm sun, the wonder of it, mosquitoes forgotten.

4 thoughts on “three blue days”

    1. That’s an interesting notion, John. I feel that I’m present in every textile I work on. Sometimes I find a fingerprint. And in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, she is able to figure out so much about the makers of textiles by looking at tiny elements –shifts in the tension in weaving that shows women were sharing the work, a left-handed weaver turning the work over to a right-handed, etc. So much to think about!

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