Indigo fish, blue water, red frame

I spent the morning finishing the salmon quilt top. In June I batiked fish onto cotton squares, applied a shibori pattern with thread, and then dyed the squares in indigo. Not really with a plan in mind, I submerged the remains of the old cotton sheet I’d cut the squares from in the bucket of indigo dye and left it for a few days. I was surprised and delighted with the marbled pale blue results. So I cut squares out of that cloth and alternated fish blocks with squares of marbled blue. I used 4″ strips of deep red cotton between the rows and then framed the whole thing with 6″ sashing of the same red cotton. I’m really happy with this top and look forward to sandwiching organic cotton batting between it and a backing I haven’t yet decided on, basting it all together, and then beginning the actual hand-quilting, which is probably my favourite part.

Here’s a photograph of the top hanging on the clothes line. The colours aren’t quite right. The indigo is deeper and the paler marbled squares are richer. But this gives the idea and I’ll add progress reports as I go along.

Waiting for the salmon

This is a view of our dining table right now. (We’re eating on the deck and let’s hope the weather lasts so I don’t have to tidy up any time soon…)

Some time ago I dyed the salmon squares and then took Forrest and Manon to Sechelt to choose cotton to frame the squares for a quilt. I am not a methodical quilt-maker. I never begin with a plan, exactly, but accumulate fabrics until they speak to me. Yellow might call out, “Stars!” Scraps of red might suggest the hearth square at the centre of log cabin blocks.

This is the way I write, too. I have a sense of pattern, though it’s often very flexible. (When I quilt, I seldom use templates so the pieces are uneven; this means I constantly have to adjust and adapt. Sashing is a great equalizer as you can see from these photographs. And even the sashing is uneven.) I have a deep need for texture, whether it arises from the prose itself, the shifts in sentence structure, or how a lyrical passage might modulate to terse description. (I always hand-quilt because I love the way a smooth square of cotton takes on the hills and valleys of landscape, the long running stitches of rivers, under my hands.) And I write from memory, the stores of experience and my personal hoard of sensory material. (I once made a quilt for Angelica in which I tried to replicate the astonishing sensation of seeing the Leonid showers. And a windmill quilt for Brendan and Cristen because, well, let’s face it, it was the closest image I could think of to suit a mathematician and an atmospheric physicist. I used buttons from John’s grandmother’s collection to adorn it.)

So I’m waiting. Waiting to see how the salmon might move across that deep red cotton which echoes the smell of blood as the fish make their way up Haskins Creek each autumn, how the watery blue (the result of leaving an old sheet in the bucket of indigo dye after I’d coloured each square of batiked fish) might balance the darker blue of the shibori squares.

fish, unwaxed

Today was warm and still, a good day for preparing a bucket of indigo dye and plunging in those squares of waxed fish. Well, since I last wrote about them, I stitched the squares in a kind of clumsy version of mokume, then pulled the stitching tight so that lines of the cotton squares would be protected from the dye. This is called thread-resist. Here’s what the squares looked like before they entered the bucket of dye.

The dye process is a bit lengthy — the squares sat in the bucket for half an hour while I stirred them frequently; then they were removed, some soda ash was added to the dye as a fixative; then the squared returned to their indigo bath and sat for another hour, with me stirring them every ten minutes or so.

Then they got rinsed, and rinsed, and rinsed. I sat on the grass and removed the threads, hoping for lots of contrast: white wavy lines across the deep blue squares, the mostly white fish marbled with blue. And I have to say I was a little disappointed that the watery lines didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. I know why this is. My batik fish took up quite a lot of the surface space so I couldn’t pull the threads as tightly as I think they needed to be. But a project like this is so much about the process, the immersing of one’s self into the various steps required. So here are the squares drying on an old red sheet on the grass:

I love the blue — and that’s a good thing because my hands are stained for…well, the time being anyway. I did wear rubber gloves for the dye process but for the last part of the rinsing and squeezing out of the water, it was easier to use my bare hands. It didn’t take long for the squares to dry so I set up the ironing board on the deck by the front door (where the robin’s empty nest still waits among the roses) and gathered up as much paper — newsprint, without the print, the kind of paper books are often packed in; we save it all for High Ground Press shipping — as I could find and then began to iron the wax out of the cotton. I know that one can also boil or steam out the wax but I’m not entirely certain of how securely the dye is fixed so I thought it best to use the old iron my mother dropped on the basement floor and then passed along to me for batik projects — the steam function no longer works and the base is a bit wobbly but it heats! I’m not entirely satisfied with the finished squares because there’s a halo of wax which no amount of ironing will remove, even with absorbent paper towel. But then I remember that I do this because I can’t draw, I can’t paint, so the whole process has been really interesting and I can’t wait to piece together a quilt with these fish in their indigo water.

Wax fish

This morning I’m finishing the first stage of a project I hope will result in a quilt. I’ve stencilled salmon images onto squares of white cotton (cut from fragments of cotton sheets I brought home from my mother’s apartment after her death; she’d saved everything and I was reluctant to toss the bag of sheets away, knowing that white cotton can always be used for something…), in varying configurations, and then have carefully brushed the fish with melted wax. A kind of batik, but it’s simply one step in printing a design on these squares. The next step will be to stitch the background with strong thread to create a mokume or woodgrain resist pattern. Then the squares will be immersed in indigo dye. I’ll crack the waxed fish images a bit so that the indigo bleeds into the white cotton. After the dye is set and dry, I’ll iron the squares to remove the wax and then use some fabric paint to detail the fish a little — red is particularly nice against the white and indigo. And if all this works out according to plan, then I’ll have 15 blocks to use for a quilt. I have to confess I’m not an artist. I have almost no graphic ability. But sometimes I have such an urge to make something, to make a visual thing with texture and colour, and so I keep trying to find ways to do this. Fabric seems to be the most forgiving. And this method of resist-dyeing is also kind of forgiving. I’ve made a quilt using this ancient Japanese shibori technique in the past and added batik to the mix with results that I still love (the quilt is on a daybed in my study…) so I’m hoping to expand on what I did in the past and add a few new twists. Stay tuned. I’ll add images of each stage of the process.