parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

jellies

When I looked at the pantry shelves this morning, I realized we had no herbal jelly. Usually I make a few batches—orange basil; thyme blossom; intensely-flavoured rosemary (a perfect match for roast lamb). But not this year, not yet. Until now. One that I like is one I like to think I invented. I call it Scarborough Fair jelly and I date myself with that name. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?/Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” It’s the prettiest pale green and sometimes I put a dried chili in to give the jelly a kick as well as to watch over the months as the green takes on a little of the chili’s colour

Any child of the 1960s and 1970s will remember the Simon and Garfunkel version of the old “Scarborough Fair” ballad though I loved Marianne Faithfull’s sweet and delicate rendering. When I sing this on my own (and I intend to work up a version for my grandbabies), I’ll think of Marianne’s crisp enunciation and the way she draws out “cambric shirt” in the last verse.

And cambric! What a lovely word. A finely woven cotton or linen, first made in Cambrai. I have a basket of cottons, two vintage linen single-bed sheets, and even two lengths of pale raw silk waiting for me to find time for a dye vat and the work of preparing the fabric for shibori. Before the frosts, before the fall storms, I want to have them dyed and ready for a winter quilt. The other day I was sorting images in a digital file and I found this,

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the top of a quilt I finished for Forrest and Manon. It was the second fish quilt I made and the next two were better, I think, in that I figured out how to do the Mokume technique a little more effectively. And I used more shell buttons to articulate the fish-spines, to suggest eggs among stones.

The season turned on Friday and now we prepare for winter. Jellies to have with roast chicken and lamb, a big vat of squash and apple soup yesterday, and this basket of cloth waiting, waiting for its immersion into indigo, its transformation to something more than itself.

 

blue days

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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.

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

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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:

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

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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.

the rainy day arrived

For ages I’ve been planning a big project, a dye project, and have been waiting for a rainy day to begin the preparations of cloth. The actual dye vat will be set up outside and for that I will need clear weather and an empty clothesline to hang the results. But in the meantime the lengths of cloth have to be folded and stitched and clamped and tied. Today it’s raining. I’ve put writing work aside — though in truth the actual sense of inspiration, of excitement at the prospect of working with familiar materials in order to make something new of them, with them, is similar in both cases.

I’m a long-time quilter, though I always qualify that by admitting that I’m not very good at it. I love textiles, I love the sense of having my hands filled with cloth, love the meditative work of hand-quilting a large surface, making something slightly three-dimensional out of layers of fabric sandwiched together. I’ve taken to embellishing my quilts with shell buttons, in homage to the button-blanket makers of the Northwest Coast, who used abalone for its ability to catch firelight and create mystery. I always think of a quilt as the end-product of a process and for me the process, the quilting itself, is the best thing about it. I also like that the end-product is not only something practical — I make quilts that are bedcovers, with one exception (and that’s the “Euclid’s Orchard” quilt I made for my son Brendan and it’s kind of stiff with theory and mathematics, more a wall-hanging that a cosy blanket) — but also a repository for the thinking I do while stitching.

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I am drawn to indigo and the various shibori techniques associated with Japanese textiles. I’ve worked with indigo a little and have attempted some of the shibori and although my results were very rough and clumsy, I loved the process. I had something in mind — fish swimming in indigo water — and used batik as well as buttons to add to the shibori resist stitching (to create a watery effect).

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I’ve been reading Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada’s extraordinary Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, which has me so excited about trying some new techniques. The book looks at the history of shibori, its relationships across cultures, possible connecting threads between traditions as geographically removed from one another as South America and Tibet, and how textile design reflects our connection to the natural world.

Shibori is a Japanese word that refers to a variety of ways of embellishing textiles by shaping cloth and securing it before dyeing. The word comes from the verb root shiboru, “to wring, squeeze, press.” Although shibori is used to designate a particular group of resist-dyed textiles, the verb root of the word emphasizes the action performed — the process of manipulating fabric. Rather than treating cloth as a two-dimensional surface, shibori techniques give it a three-dimensional form by folding, crumpling, stitching, plaiting, or plucking and twisting. Cloth shaped by these methods is secured in a number of ways, such as binding and knotting.

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 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.

— from Memory on Cloth

I have the materials all ready, even a length of old pvc drain pipe which I’ll cover with a sleeve of fabric to create the resist technique called arashi. I found some lengths of raw silk I’d bought years ago, very cheaply, waiting for the right occasion. They’re not white but I think they’ll take the dye nicely. (I have both indigo and woad.) And the other fabric I’m using is a collection of plain white heavy cotton sheets for single beds (the single beds my brothers and I slept in as children), taken from my mother’s house after she died. They too have been waiting for the right occasion, memory already contained in their plain surfaces.

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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.