Cochineal Dream 3

Well, it’s really taken me rather a long time to get round to writing a post about the completed Cochineal Dream 3. It was completed before Christmas. When last you saw it, it looked like this – i.e. very raw and basic in its early stages:Putting together Cochineal Dream 3

The finished version looks like this:Cochineal Dream 3

I’m pleased with it, although I must say that I was also pleased to complete it and feel that I could give cochineal a rest for the time being. This dense stitching really does take some time and working at the rate I do means that I have to live with a piece for a long time. I like the effect of the three pieces together and I’d like to exhibit them as a group. I did offer them for an exhibition but was turned down. I wasn’t especially surprised as the exhibition was seeking somewhat larger pieces than these, and didn’t feel particularly disappointed. However, I will look for other possible outlets as I think they are worth exhibiting. I haven’t had them framed yet, but I know what I want and will probably sort that out in the near future. I was going to take them to a framer just before Christmas, but then the flooding happened in the north-west of England and getting about became difficult and even dangerous in places so I decided not to risk it. The moment passed and has not yet recurred.

I’m a little uncertain about what to embark on next as a project, and am having a good think and working on samples and ideas. Something that isn’t pink seems the most promising direction at the moment…..

Starting out

This post is about starting out on my third cochineal piece, just to show you how I actually get these pieces out of my head and into reality. First, I cut a piece of lightweight calico. This has to be sufficiently large so that I can comfortably use a small hoop. Then I gather together a selection of likely-looking fabrics. In this series the fabrics have mostly been those I’ve dyed with cochineal or logwood (for a bit of contrast), but I feel these are my pieces so I can include what I want. For example, in each of the three pieces, I’ve included a piece of silk gauze as an overlay for part of the piece. The reason for this is that I like a very small amount of low-level bling – nothing vulgar or showy – just a small hint of something glitzy in the background.

I lay out my fabrics on the work surface and have a think about them, trying out various combinations. I give the pieces a quick iron, if necessary. Everything is ironed before it’s put away in my storage system but it’s amazing how creased fabrics can get just sitting by themselves in a drawer. Once I’m happy with the combinations and placing of the pieces I pin them out on the lightweight calico ground. That’s the point I’ve got to in this photograph:Putting together Cochineal Dream 3

The very bright pink piece is a leftover piece of silk (bought from The Silk Route some while ago and partially used on a City & Guilds project) which I’ve been wanting to use. It’s not dyed by me, unlike most of the other pieces, but I wanted it there so I’ve used it. The slightly duller pink on the right is lightweight cotton lawn, and the stripy bit in the middle is one of the last fragments of recycled men’s shirt that I have. I rather like using this. The pale pink at the bottom is another piece of cotton lawn, from when the cochineal dye bath was pretty much on its last legs. Similarly, the very pale grey up at the top left is the product of the 8th or 9th immersion in the logwood dye bath (cochineal and logwood dyes are expensive but they both go a very long way). Barely visible, also up on the top left, is a square of silvery silk gauze and a piece of pale grey muslin. I measure a rough square and mark around its perimeter with pins, and that’s pretty much it. Ready to go.

While I’m assembling all this, I’m asking myself about thread colours. My intention here is to make a lighter, brighter, piece, so there will be quite a lot of whites, creams and pale pinks and greys. I’m using the same thread basket as previously. I probably won’t use the darker colours in it, but they will be there if I need them. The next stage in the process is to get rid of the pins by basting. If there’s a pin in a work I will draw blood with it, so it’s important to see them off as soon as possible. These pins, incidentally, are quilting pins, so longer than the usual dressmaker’s pins. I find the quilting pins very useful for appliqué work, as they anchor the fabrics more securely. I do as little basting as I can get away with (because it’s a tedious part of the process), but it’s important to put enough basting stitches in place to hold the fabrics securely.

When I’m putting these appliqués together I’m thinking about harmony and composition, but I don’t agonise over these elements. If I’ve got an odd-shaped piece of fabric (as in the case of the darker pink cotton lawn on the right, which was an offcut from something else) I’ll just use it if I feel like it. Not very scientific, is it? Or very artistic, either. Still, these are my choices, and I’ve become more confident about making them over the last two or three years. I’m less bothered than I used to be about things going wrong. If they do, they do. Laid back or what?

Update on the cochineal project

Cochineal Dream 2I thought it was time for an update on the cochineal project. I exerted myself a bit last week, and finished the second in my ‘Cochineal Dream’ series. I even pulled myself together sufficiently to line it and finish it properly, and here it is (with the first piece underneath it):

As intended, it’s darker than the first piece, but the theme is still definitely cochineal. Here are a couple of close-ups:Cochineal Dream 2 close upCochineal Dream 2 close up

I’m currently pondering whether to make a third or not. I’m happy to continue in this vein, and I do think a group of three similar things is more satisfying and altogether better than a group of two… but perhaps I should be heading off in another direction. I’ve got lots of ideas, but insufficient time…. we’ll see.


Overdyeing with logwood

I’ve been intending to try overdyeing at some point, and decided to have a crack at it with one of my favourite dyes: logwood. I’ve previously found that a small amount of logwood goes a long way, and I expect to get more than this out of the dyebath. For the moment, this is what I’ve achieved:Overdyeing with logwood




From top to bottom:

  • Silk dupion, dyed first with chlorophyll
  • Cotton lawn, dyed first with chlorophyll
  • Lightweight linen, dyed first with brown onion skins
  • Silk dupion, mordanted with rhubarb leaves to produce a strong yellow ochre
  • Silk noil, not previously dyed
  • Silk habotai, dyed first with madder
  • Wool, dyed first with brown onion skins
  • Silk velvet, mordanted with rhubarb leaves

As you see, I’ve got a wonderful range of grungy shades out of this exercise, and I’m looking forward to trying some more combinations.

I also dyed a few threads and pieces of wool. I find that I use up the threads very quickly and never seem to have enough. I should probably dye just threads for a few batches to lay in a supply. The second photo shows some of the threads. The yellowish-brownish piece of wool on the right hand side was mordanted with rhubarb leaves, but otherwise these are not overdyed threads. Logwood threads

The scope for this type of experimentation is infinite. You could overdye several times, and try out all sorts of colour combinations. The more I do this, the more I realise there is to know about dyeing. Watch this space for future experiments in colour….

Dyeing with walnuts

Last Christmas I saved all the shells from the seasonal walnuts with a view to trying them out for dyeing. However, I’d forgotten about them until I came across the box of shells the other day. So I thought it was high time to have a go. I boiled up the batch of walnut shells for an hour, then left overnight to steep. The following day I strained off the water, boiled it up again and added various pieces of material and threads. I left it all to steep for 24 hours, then rinsed everything and hung it up to dry. Here are the results:Results of dyeing with walnuts

The vegetable-based materials are always less likely to take up natural dye colour well, and this is no exception to that general rule. The silk takes up the colour best, but the wool is also good. I’ve wound the two-ply lambswool onto the black card in the centre; this has been very successful. Right at the bottom is the sock lace (a mixture of merino and silk) which is a beautiful yarn and which has dyed beautifully. I like these muted browns very much. I’m struck by the thought that perhaps I’m, at last, coming round to brown. The school I went to between ages 11 and 18 had a brown school uniform. Everything was brown: blazer, skirt, socks, hockey socks, even knickers. Even if you’d started your school career liking brown, it was pretty unlikely that you’d still like it by the time you got to stop wearing it. I’ve never been able to countenance wearing it since. Even brown shoes. So much for early conditioning.

Perhaps I’d have got deeper colours if I’d boiled the shells for longer. Or left the materials in the dye for longer. I just don’t know. Does anyone reading this have any experience of using walnut shells for dyeing? Please let me know if you have. Christmas will soon be on us again, with another opportunity to save some shells.

Cochineal Dream 1

I noted a couple of posts ago that I’d finished the stitching on my cochineal piece. However, this wasn’t quite an end to it as I needed to finish it off properly. I did this by padding the back with a layer of felt and then backing the piece with a medium-weight cotton (the medium-weight cotton is actually John Lewis curtain lining material which I find to be rather a useful resource for all sorts of things as well as for lining curtains). And here’s the finished article:Cochineal dream 1

You’ll see from the title of this post that I’ve actually named the piece. I thought ‘Cochineal Dream’ seemed right, and I added the ‘1’ because I felt motivated to create at least one more piece to make a mini-series. I keep having ideas about other things I can do with this particular approach to stitching, so I reckon I might as well continue with it for a bit longer. If I do make progress on this I will write more blogposts about it. I’ve read textile artists on the subject of working in a series; Lisa Call even has a course on it, and it seems to be generally regarded as a good thing to do. It seems to me it does make sense to be able to present, and to refer to, a coherent body of work, so I’m by no means averse to moving in this direction. But, at the same time, I have lots of other, different, ideas that I’d like to explore if only I had time. They can put that on my tombstone: ‘….. if only she’d had time….’.

I’ve been doing some more dyeing recently, and have been very absorbed in it. We’re having a few days of a kind of Indian summer at the moment, and this is a good time to be hanging cloths and threads out to dye. When I get it all organised, ironed and the threads untangled and wound I’ll no doubt write something more about it.


Finished cochineal piece

I’ve finished the cochineal piece that I’ve been working on for many weeks at a snail’s pace. Here’s the finished article just out of the hoop:Cochineal Klee-inspired piece

You’ll see that I put quite a lot of white and grey into it. Just because I felt like it. When I started this piece I wanted to get some pink and red contrasts (cool contrasted with warm reds and pinks) but didn’t have much clear idea other than that where I was going with it. I collected together various threads that I thought might work together and then just picked them out to use as I felt like it. This is fine in a sample piece. However, I think the next stage with this is to experiment with composition a bit more, so that the principal shapes and lines in the piece are more planned. I may also experiment with using line more, rather than working the colour in blocks. First, though, I’ll get this sample finished off, by backing it with something suitable and neatening the edges. I’ll post a photo of the finished piece once I’ve done this.

I’ve ordered a copy of Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith. This was published a couple of weeks ago, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it. Some readers may remember that I went on a course on natural dyeing with Claire a couple of years ago, and came away deeply impressed and very keen to try out natural dyeing techniques. If you haven’t come across it, Claire has a beautiful blog. She doesn’t update it as frequently as she once did (I can relate to that) but it’s well worth a look. And if you get the opportunity to go on one of her courses, drop everything and go.

I’ll probably get round to writing a review of Claire’s book at some point, so look out for that.

Back to dyeing

I thought it was time I got back to dyeing, as I haven’t done any for a while. This is partly because of other priorities, but also because a little dyed fabric goes a long way when you’re handstitching. You really don’t need that much of it. I’ve had occasional notions of perhaps trying to sell any surplus, maybe via Etsy, but I haven’t yet done anything about it. I’m probably too busy with work and household things to start even a small-scale commercial enterprise. And besides, I don’t have a clear idea of whether there’d be any demand for it.

A prompt to get started again was reading about dyeing with avocado stones. A few weeks ago I bought a copy of ‘Quilting with a Modern Slant’ by Rachel May, in which there is a brief instructional section on dyeing using avocado stones. We don’t eat a lot of avocados, so it took me a while to save up half a dozen stones. I followed the instructions, added the cloth…. and, well, it was disappointing. Maybe I didn’t boil them for long enough. Maybe they’re the wrong variety of avocados. Whatever the reason, the fabric emerged very little changed from the way it went in to the dyebath. Avocado is supposed to produce great pinks and purples. Not for me.

So, I turned to my rather substantial collection of onion skins. I had a large bag of plain brown onion skins, and a much smaller supply of red onion skins. What, I wondered to myself, would happen if I used both? (I didn’t have enough of the red ones to use them by themselves). Well, this is what happened – a rather lovely selection of pale browns: Onion skin dyeing

Not quite what I was expecting, but then that’s the lovely thing about dyeing with vegetable dyes; you just never quite know what you’re going to get. These colours are much more muted than the yellows I got a while back with dyeing with the plain brown skins only: Dyeing with onion skins - results

Both are lovely. Both add to my stock of colours and both are reproducible to at least some extent.

What I need to do more of, now, is logwood dyeing as I’ve practically exhausted my range of greys. I’ll report back if and when I get round to it.

Composition with cochineal

Sticking with the pink theme for the moment, I’ve been putting together a composition with cochineal. These sugary pinks can be a bit much, but I’ve set out to use the cochineal-dyed fabrics as a kind of creative constraint – what can I do with them? Can I create a successful and interesting composition?

Here’s where I’m at with it – see the photo. Using cochineal-dyed fabricsI started with a base of lightweight calico and then tried out some bits and pieces of fabric until I was happy with the result. The piece of white silk gauze on the top right hand side of the picture is something I picked up off the floor – it must have fallen out of a drawer. Serendipity? Or just too lazy to find a place for it.

There are some recycled fabrics in here. The luscious raspberry coloured piece off to the left is linen. Once upon a time I had an unlined, white, linen jacket which I loved to bits. And wore it until it was literally falling to bits and I had to consign it to history in its function as a garment. I cut out all the pieces I could from it and have used it to great effect for dyeing ever since. The striped fabric is leftover from a City & Guilds project. I made a draught-excluder out of a couple of old shirts I bought at a charity shop. This took ages as it was all kantha stitching but I was quite pleased with the result. Our house is well-insulated so we don’t actually need it, but my daughter has been making good use of it in her draughty maisonette in North London.

The other fabrics are scraps of new materials that I’ve dyed. Most of the stitching is going to be with commercial threads that I have lying about although there is a bit of cochineal-dyed thread I can use, and some bits and pieces from my logwood dyeing sessions. Below the fabric in the hoop is a glimpse of the drawing that I was describing the other day, where I’ve worked through some ideas and got used to the idea of the colour contrasts. I’ve lined up some scarlet threads and hope I’ll have the bottle to use them.

This is turning into a bit of a series – it’s the fifth piece I’ve worked on that uses the Paul Klee-inspired approach to stitching that I wrote about in a post last year. I’m still getting a lot out of it, so I think I’ll just carry on until I want to move on to something else. I don’t even particularly like satin stitch but I do like the effect of these little blocks. I’m working this one in a hoop which should help to keep it reasonably flat. The last one I worked on, which was quite a large piece, had a lightweight felt padding, so was more substantial and I worked it in the hand. As expected, it turned out quite irregular and textured, which was fine. But this time I wanted to achieve a slightly different effect. I’ll keep on working on this in odd minutes here and there and I’ll let you know how I get on. I’ve got a few train journeys over the next few days, and I expect I’ll be hauling this out to fill in some time as the train whizzes through England.

Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

Well, I’m pleased to report that I did manage to make the trip to Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, although not without getting lost near the M25 at Leatherhead. What a vile thing it is (the M25, not Leatherhead) but, sad to say, it’s very useful for getting round in the South East. Ditchling is a little village on the edge of the South Downs, about 8 miles outside Brighton. If any of you are familiar with Sussex you’ll know that, despite being so close to London and so heavily populated like almost everywhere in the South East, it remains gorgeously, sumptuously, beautiful. Ditchling, the village, is a little gem, full of delightful traditional English cottages, with hollyhocks and other cottage garden flowers adorning their sweet little gardens. I suspect, however, that the museum may not be an altogether good development for the village. The museum website points out that it has no parking, and suggests using the (free) village hall car park. When I got there at around 10.30 in the morning, the village hall car park was full. The village has charming but narrow lanes and parking is obviously a problem. This will presumably get to be an even bigger problem if the museum becomes more popular.

The museum is a lovely building comprising an extensive modern addition to an existing traditional building. As you can see in the photo below, it’s a modern interpretation of a traditional barn (at least I think that’s what it is).Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

The day I visited was extremely hot, by English standards, but the building is cool and very pleasant inside. The collection on display is quite small, but that’s sometimes preferable to a massive and overwhelming show. I spent time going round it slowly, then went outside to sit in the shade, then back in for a second look. Various artists and craftspeople lived in and around Ditchling during the 20th century and the collection is of their work. The most famous artist, by far, associated with Ditchling is Eric Gill. Here’s a lovely piece of his work that’s on display:Eric Gill

Anyone who’s read the warts-and-all biography of Gill by Fiona MacCarthy will know that he was a decidedly odd and somewhat unsavoury character. However, the man was multi-talented and his best work is remarkable. But many less well-known artists are represented in the museum. I was especially struck by the work of Ethel Mairet who used natural dyes in her workshop in Ditchling. In 1915 she published a book: ‘Natural Dyes: Being a Book of Recipes and Other Information Useful to the Dyer’. This is, amazingly, still in print. One of the displays at the museum claims the book is available on Kindle but I can’t find it, so I’ve ordered a print copy. If it’s useful, I’ll let you know in a future post.

The other set of exhibits that really resonated with me was the painting by Louis Ginnett of his daughter as a little girl, and, most of all, the letters to that same daughter which he wrote from the front during the First World War. One or two of these are exhibited under glass, but in the museum’s library there’s a set of photocopies of the full set of letters. They are heart-rending. Fortunately, Ginnett survived the experience and went home to his family at the end of the war. Here’s the painting:Louis Ginnett

So, in summary, well worth a visit if you’re visiting Sussex. The staff are pleasant and helpful, there’s a high-quality shop although the range of objects for sale is quite small, and I had a really excellent cup of tea. The cakes looked good, but I don’t eat cake so can’t review that aspect.