Last week, in my initial discussion about the color blue, I mentioned that one of the first inspirations for my fascination may have come from my childhood neighbor, who was a fiber artist.
Nancy lived at the end of our lane, and I would walk my 9-year-old self down there with an armload of homegrown corn on the cob in trade for spinning lessons. Spinning, of course, meaning with a spinning wheel, which she had. And not only that, but she lived in a wooden 70’s house, with an abundance of houseplants winding throughout the rooms, and huge ceramic bowls for baking bread on rustic wooden tables, and wool blankets and pillows and Persian rugs. She also had a weaving studio, where she would end up once she got me going on the spinning wheel. The wheel was in the living room, by the big picture window where I could see the view that was the direct opposite of the one from my bedroom window a ¼ mile away.
I’d hang out there and spin a spool full of chunky yarn in each sitting, which I never knew what to do with. I didn’t knit, I didn’t weave, but I was nine, I had no idea what was coming. My yarn became better with every practice session. I acquired a spinning wheel of my own at some point, and I’ve taken it with me wherever I have gone since then, even the basement apartment in Utah in my early twenties, where I’d teach friends how to use it after a bottle of wine.
Nancy made those rugs that you make out of jeans and ripped up clothes. She also dyed her fabric with indigo, and she told me one day that to ferment the indigo vat you use urine. Urine? I didn’t ask about it again but apparently the thought lodged in my mind forever. She lived in the country, so her vat could be outside away from the house. Most of the people I know now with indigo vats do not use urine because they can’t locate it far away. But I’m still intrigued with the idea.
When doing all my research on Maya Blue and the other lost blues that I mentioned in the previous article, I began delving further into natural dyeing with other plants and mushrooms. It kickstarted an experimental process that I hadn’t been able to do before. I was throwing all kinds of plants and mushrooms into the dyepot, with mixed results. I began to understand my process better and then I began to wonder more about the resists that were used in previous cultures to achieve patterns. And I wanted to find out how to do it. I didn’t want to use any new materials, just what was actually used when the process developed. I also knew I wanted someone to show me—not wanting to reinvent the wheel with this one. I had to wait a while to find what I was looking for.
So then just a month or so ago, I noticed a rice-paste-resist indigo workshop on offer in LA with Graham Keegan. I gave it to myself for my birthday. My partner and I decide to drive down from the SF Bay Area to have an LA adventure, including this dye workshop in Graham’s Silver Lake studio.
When I walk into the place, I notice that the studio is a continuation in my creative memory of Nancy’s inspirational home, with a loft upstairs, a clothesline full of drying indigo pieces strung across the sidewalk outside, and best of all, a barrel turned indigo vat, with a wooden lid, where we can dip our work, take it out and let it drip all over the floor. I could tell he hadn’t used urine in his vat.
He shows us the process of making the rice paste, and how to apply it, and then dye the fabric. The method he shows us makes it simple, and I can see it has taken a lot of experimentation to figure it all out on his part. I also appreciate that he is game to figure out what to do with my silk that I had brought to experiment with, as silk is a different story than a cellulose fiber like linen, which is what we are initially working with.
By the end of the afternoon, I am looking at a book on Slovak textiles and have a resist-printed turquoise silk camisole and a navy linen square with a crazy pattern of lines and eyes that I have stenciled earlier in the afternoon flapping on the clothesline. The process is simple, but time consuming and materials intensive, neither of which seem insurmountable to me. My partner has spent the afternoon writing in cafes and attending a media event at the wax museum while I am doing this. He picks me up at 4:45 and I show him around the place, which he also loves. Now I just need an indigo vat, and a storefront studio to put it in where I can drip indigo all over the floor.