redux: blue days

Today, three years after this post, I’m clearing the (figurative) decks to prepare for another indigo dye session out on the big cedar bench by my garden. Sometimes I read back to see how I did things and to remember how much I loved the process, even the days of blue hands afterwards…



In early June, I wrote of my delight in finding Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada’s marvellous exploration of shibori, or shaped-resist dyeing. I’ve done a little of this in the past, in a very amateur and careless way, and I’ve had some jars of indigo waiting for the right moment to try it again. I prepared some cloth (old sheets, some scraps of rough white linen left over from curtains, a worn damask table-cloth), trying as many techniques as I could, and then waited for the right time. Some were bound with string and elastic bands (kanoko); some were stitched (karamatsu or larch); one was wrapped and then ruckled on a piece of pipe for arashi, or storm; and one had pebbles from Trail Bay in Sechelt tied into it for kumo. Preparing cloth and dyeing it is a meditative process, like quilting — or at least it is for me. In a way, it’s thinking with my hands. So the time has to be right. And in Memory on Cloth, Wada writes:

Shibori recognizes and explores the pliancy of the textile and its potential for creating a multitude of shaped-and-resisted designs. 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 shape 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 on the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

Yesterday I dipped my prepared pieces into the dye vat. The process is magic. The dye itself is a kind of swampy green. The fabric turns pale yellowy-green and only becomes blue when it’s exposed to air. So you dip and then let the pieces oxidize; then you dip them again. The more times you do this, the darker the finished dye. I did 4 dips of about 20 minutes each, letting the pieces rest for half an hour on a long bench of rough cedar in-between their visits to the vat. One of the pieces, the damask table cloth, was wrapped around a piece of pvc pipe with cotton string, too long for the dye vat, so it had its own basin of dye and had to be turned regularly to allow it to take the colour evenly.

in the dye.jpg

There was time to do some watering in the nearby vegetable garden while the various pieces were soaking or else resting.

all tied up.jpg

I picked kale and made a green pie for guests who were coming to dinner. I made sourdough bread. And for each step of the dyeing process, I tried to lose myself in the fabric. If the cloth records the shape and pressure of thread and clamps, what does it remember of its worker? That she is flighty? That she was thinking of a sad member of her family too far away to truly comfort? That she wondered if she’d added salt to the bread dough? Never mind. I did my best, I think.

There are differing opinions as to what you should do when you’ve finished the last submersion. Some people advise you to rinse your pieces immediately and let them dry on a line. Others suggest letting the pieces oxidize for 12 or 24 hours to set the dye completely before you rinse them and then wash them in a mild soap. Because we had friends coming for a swim and dinner, I chose to let mine sit overnight on the cedar bench. And this morning I went out at 7 to snip the threads, the elastic bands, the string, and to remove the beach stones from the square of linen. There was very loud noise on the other side of the vegetable garden and I eventually realized it 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. And mosquitoes kept stinging the small of my back.

But what pleasure to lay each finished piece out on the grass! Each a surprise! I’d wondered when I was awake in the night if I’d bound pieces tightly enough, if the dye would somehow penetrate the thin pieces of wood I’d used for the itajimi pieces (you pleat the cloth, then fold it and clamp it or use elastic bands to keep it place between two pieces of wood). A more careful person would have more interesting results, perhaps, but I have to say I love what shape and pressure created, how the cloth remembers its time as a three-dimensional object. You can see the itajimi in the photograph opening this post. Here’s the damask tablecloth remembering the storm:


And my favourite might be this, the rough linen shaped by beach stones from Trail Bay:


I expected a darker blue, given the number of times I dipped each piece. (The intensity of colour comes from the number of short dips rather than a long sustained soak — or at least this was what I gathered from the numerous things I read about indigo dye.) But maybe my indigo was old or weak. Anyway, it’s a ravishing blue.

And 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.

“I remember the silver light…”


Yesterday I was outside by the bench where I do my indigo dyeing in better weather. I was thinking about the long essay I’m current writing on blue, its various incarnations, and visual disturbances. The research has led me into the most amazing areas of scholarship, unknown to me before I fell on ice in Edmonton in November and tore the retina in my right eye. My son Forrest mentioned Oliver Sacks and his experience with indigo and so I read his collection of essays, Hallucinations.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

                          (Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”)

After that I was interested in the idea that the entoptic phenonoma I’d experienced before the retinal tear was diagnosed might be something one could induce. I’m not sure I want to induce them but I found myself thinking about the intense beauty I’d been reluctant to admit was the result of damage to my eye. The blue in particular, the blue of the sky billowing with white clouds: if I was a believer, I might have thought I was seeing heaven.

It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could summon indigo. My own recipe for producing it was pretty tame. Indigo powder (which is sourced from a farm in India, not grown in my garden and fermented in a vat),thiourea dioxide, lye, synthropol soap, and soda ash. I use vinegar for rinsing the dyed fabrics. Some of these are caustic but none, as far as I know, is capable of generating hallucinations.

Would I use a cocktail of hallucinogens to see that inner sky again? Would I mix a little of my precious vial of homemade cannabis tincture (Texada Timewarp buds soaked in Silent Sam vodka) with something else more powerful if it meant I could look upon that cracked red desert beyond my irises? An inner landscape entirely my own. I don’t know. But I would be in good company. Dr. Sacksand those who entered the caves perhaps 35,000 years ago to paint horses, bison, ibex, a gallery of lions, their own hands outlined in hematite.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress

Right now I’m reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. It’s quite a provocative analysis of the origins of image-making, the evolution of symbolic activity, and how certain percepts are wired into the human nervous system. I think of the spirals, the gridwork, the zigzag lines that are part of the complex non-representational patterns we see in cave art, existing alongside the most beautiful and coherent images of animals, keenly observed and anatomically represented. The quartet of horses in Chauvet, the polychrome bison in Altamira. The finger-flutings in mud in the Cosquer Cave. The finger-drawn grids in Hornos, in Spain.

I read, and I write, and I wait for better weather in order to set up my dye vat and pursue my own indigo dream.

I remember the silver light falling beside my face, like the tails of shooting stars, in the dark cave of my bed at night, fearful and blessed, and how I will try to replicate that sensation—not just the visual beauty but the awe—in some way for the rest of my life.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”


blue windows


Yesterday I had a laser procedure to mend a retinal tear in one of my eyes; the other eye is being monitored because of suspected vitreous detachment. This is probably a result of my fall on ice in Edmonton last week. I thought I had a badly bruised and possibly cracked coccyx (my doctor confirmed that either or both are likely) but then developed some visual, well, not problems exactly because the experience was very beautiful but apparently beauty is not a consideration when your retina is torn. You need to have it repaired, and as quickly as possible. I’m lucky.

Yesterday I asked my (new to me) ophthalmologist about some things I’d seen while being examined in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Eye Institute on Sunday evening (another lucky thing, because there just happened to be a young ophthalmologist in the Institute who was willing to examine me and who alerted me to the necessity of immediate action once we were back on the Coast) and he told me I’d experienced “entoptic phenomena”, visual effects within my eye. I won’t detail those right now because they fit so beautifully into an essay I am writing called “The Blue Etymologies”, an exploration of the colour blue, my work with indigo dye (the image at the beginning of this post is cotton dyed last year), some old blueprints associated with my grandparents in the 1940s Beverly (then a small mining community just outside Edmonton but now part of the city), some cyanotype prints by the 19th century English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, and some other elements a little too complicated to explain just now.

The world of our senses is extraordinary and profound. We see, and then we realize how that happens. We have intense lights directed into our eyes and we see images so beautiful that we weep. Maybe a little because of the discomfort of a cracked tailbone as we sit on the examining chair and the pressure of the ophthalmologist’s tools. But maybe we have been given something else. When I was trying to describe this sensation to my son Forrest on the phone the other evening, he wondered if I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Altered States”, in which he sees indigo. No, I hadn’t. But yesterday, before my medical appointment, I found a copy at our library and read the essay last night before sleep.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

His methodology sounds a little more interesting than mine (a hard fall on the butt and a torn retina) but yes, that was it. The colour of heaven. Right before, or rather inside, my eye. He never found it again.

the outlier


I’m writing about indigo right now, about that blue that is sort of the outlier in the colour spectrum, a between colour (and I have my own theory about why but will let this wait until I’ve finished the essay). In the meantime, I am looking at blue, at the dictionary definitions (using my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, sixth edition), at fabrics dyed on the cedar log near my vegetable garden on summer mornings while pileated woodpeckers taught their young to feed nearby, at beautiful examples of Japanese textiles, at the hands of Tuareg people who wear indigo-dyed clothing and have stained skins as a result, and more. I am living in blue (“taken as the colour of constancy, taken as the colour of sorrow and anguish”).


This is a celebration of the quotidian, the daily. This is for when I think everything is happening in other places. That real writers are those out in the world, on stages, represented by high-powered agents, writing, writing, in castle retreats or on Greek islands or in the mountains in their own snowy studio, returning only for meals at a table of other writers. This is a day when the wood box was filled, two loads of laundry done, a table cleared and laid for dinner tonight, when sourdough bread and a pie was baked (well, it was one frozen, unbaked, in September when the Merton Beauties sat on the counter),

apple pie

when biscuits were baked (Stilton and walnut) after the pie, in a cooler oven, to have with glasses of wine this evening,

stilton and walnut

when I folded laundry and thought about the book I’m writing, a collection of essays called Blue Portugal, and how when I was swimming my slow kilometer yesterday I realized how I could structure the book, mostly long essays about family history, fish libraries, and the nature of memory but what about using smaller “blueprints” based on some actual blueprints I’ve been studying and parsing, what about investigations into the process of modrotisk, the Czech blueprint I’m using as a back for a small quilted piece using a forgotten piece of indigo fabric tied with beach stones, what about tracing the evolution of blue cloth, what about including some of the Assyrian cuneiform tablet stuff detailing the agency of women weavers and merchants in the 19th century BC when their husbands carried their textiles to Anatolia by donkey caravan, what about, what about…You can see how the daily might add up to be something worth writing, and maybe reading.

in progress

“in a way remembering”

Years ago, in Yellowknife, I saw an exhibit of Gwich’in caribou skin clothing at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. I was enthralled by the gorgeous handwork, the unity of practical and beautiful, and this morning, looking for something else on my shelves, I found the book I bought at the time, Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember, by Judy Thompson and Ingrid Kritsch. It tells the story of Gwich’in women brought together to sew traditional summer clothing using some 19th century examples from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (later renamed the Canadian Museum of History). It’s worth looking for, 143 in the Mercury Series. Women carefully examine the quillwork and beadwork used as embellishment and realize that many of them are things they’ve adapted over the years. They know how to do this work even though perhaps they haven’t worked with skins for some time.

I see great possibilities with this technique [porcupine quillwork]. I think what I’d start off with is just putting it in tiny places, like the collar or the pocket, before I start anything extravagant. I’d like to just keep things simple. Even in my fabric art, I think I see possibilities. It would make a pretty good rainbow or Northern Lights. (Margaret Donovan, Tsiigehtchic, 2001)

I’ve been working on my indigo quilt this weekend, having replenished my shell button supply at the wonderful Button Button.


I use akoya buttons but if I had unlimited funds for such things, I’d choose abalone for their green-y splendor. And I know what Margaret Donovan means. I’ve been concluding my quilted spirals with a single button, using varying sizes depending on what feels right.

recent spiral

But what I’d really love to do, and maybe work up to trying, is trying to gather firelight into the stitching, trying for the kind of light I see looking into water. The Gwich’in women had each other to work with and I sew alone, in my quiet kitchen. This work is so meditative. I stitch and release what I can do nothing about, I gather all my hopes and my love for the world into each spiral. Some days I come into the kitchen and see the quilt waiting in a wicker chair by the door and I’m filled with pleasure at the thought of time spent sewing, thinking, and yes, in a way remembering.

waiting blossoms


the doorstep of winter

Yesterday I planted the garlic box, four varieties all tucked in for winter. And today I intended to tidy up and winterize some other parts of the vegetable garden. But somehow the basket of prepared fabric was calling. So this morning I prepared an indigo dye vat on the long cedar bench outside


and have just done the first dip of several different kinds of tied and knotted lengths of cotton and linen. The stuff is oxidizing as I type. The last time I dyed with indigo, the final colour was beautiful but not deep blue.


I’m not enough of a chemist to understand why. I know that the colour comes from many short dips rather than a long sustained time in the vat. And maybe I don’t really care. Today I thought I’d do ten dips of 20 minutes with a 30 minute period of oxidization between dips. We’ll see. Here’s a length of prepared arashi—it means “storm”— and I

first arashi dip

have to use a long plastic tub because the pvc pipe that the fabric is wrapped around is too long for my vat. The last time I did this particular technique, the end result was lovely in that the cloth remembered its turns.


I’ve also been penciling salmon shapes onto a vintage linen sheet (a single bed size) and if I have time tomorrow, I’ll wax them and then dip the sheet too. I’ve been wanting to make a quilt using full lengths of fabric rather than patchwork and using a kind of sashiko or functional stitching to bind the layers together. Red thread. So this might be the opportunity if the waxed salmon work out the way I hope they will. Sometimes I find myself filled with an urgency to make things with my hands. Not writing but something solid and durable. I can’t paint, can’t draw very well. But there are other ways to immerse myself in colour and texture and on the doorstep of winter, I’m hoping to do just that.