pale fish on a pale ground

When I woke this morning, I wanted to go outside right away to unwrap the last shibori piece. But it wasn’t yet light! So I made the fire, fed the cat, ground coffee beans—a more seemly order to the day’s beginning?

And as I was doing those things, I realized that the piece would not look as I envisioned it would. I think the arashi technique is best suited to either a smaller length of fabric (I used a linen sheet, single-bed sized…) or else a long pole or pipe so that the most surface area possible is exposed to both the indigo dye and the process of oxidization. A further thing, I realized, is that the area where I’d drawn and then waxed salmon (a form of resist pattern) would be the area receiving the least exposure to the dye. So pale fish on a pale ground (or water). Maybe I was preparing myself for disappointment. But I also knew, know, that mistakes and errors and (let’s face it) lack of artistic skill and experience often make for beautiful results.

pale fish

And yes, I think the result is beautiful. Or will be, once the sheet is dry and I can remove the wax and then wash the piece. I’d intended to detail the fish with fabric paints in any case and then to embellish them with shell buttons.

shell buttons

I think of these projects like essays, in a way. When I begin an essay, I have ideas in mind, images, even particular sentence rhythms, but I don’t have an outcome that I’m working towards. I want to find things out, I want to try, to attempt, to weigh, all those old notions associated with the essay form. There are variables, stray plants encountered along the way, passages of poetry that somehow seem relevant, maybe a memory of a meal, someone singing, a rise of hill punctuated by umbrella pines seen from a train going between Avignon and Arles, and whoosh, there’s the essay. Or the first draft anyway. And these essays in blue cotton and linen? First drafts too, because now the work of finding out how to improve them, to make use of them in a practical way (as quilts, as clothing even), now that work begins.

All weekend I’ve spent my time immersing my (rubber-gloved) hands in pans of indigo dye while around me the bigleaf maples filled the woods with the most limpid yellow light. I remembered doing a batch of dyeing last summer and how the morning that I came out to cut the threads and roll out the lengths of fabric was the same morning a family of pileated woodpeckers was loud in the trees just beyond my bench. The parents were teaching the young ones to feed and the offspring kept flopping clumsily on the trunks of the big firs and squawking piteously. As I snipped and unwrapped, I wondered if they’d notice me and fly away but no. So the memory of that morning is in the cushion covers I made with the itajime fabric, the sound of woodpeckers imprinted in the process.

itajime pillows


So the cloth remembers…

This morning I unwrapped all the fabric I dyed yesterday and washed it, rinsed it twice, and hung it on the clothesline.


It’s never quite what I imagine or hope for but I’m always so excited about the results. The darker piece on linen (second from the right), for example. I tied stones from Trail Bay into a sort of diagonal grid for half the length, a technique called kumo, and then simply bound the rest with hemp twine. (It seems to hold best.) I love how the stones left their impression in the linen:

one stone

You can see a bird there, or a snow angel. Or the heart of a flower. I recorded this passage when I read Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada’s extraordinary Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now:

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.

So the cloth remembers but it also interprets that pressure, those shapes. A stone from a beach on the Sechelt Peninsula becomes a bird taking flight, a child in snow.

And maybe my favourite piece? A stained but intact linen tea-cloth from my mother. I used a technique called itajime, where I pleated the cloth and then used wooden blocks of varying sizes to make a resist pattern against the indigo. The larger blocks I tied with hemp string and for the smaller, thinner ones I was able to use some clamps.


Look at the light coming through those windows!

Yesterday I waxed fish onto an old linen sheet and then folded and wrapped the sheet around pvc pipe for the effect called arashi, or storm. When I put the cloth-bound pipe into dye this morning, I realized my dye vat was exhausted and so I had to prepare a fresh batch. I’ll spend the afternoon dipping and turning and by tomorrow morning I’ll know if I have what I’m hoping for: a watery sea with a spiral of salmon turning in its centre.


blue days


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.