Although blogging hasn’t been happening lately, I am nonetheless very busy in life and in my creative pursuits. Above is the first quilt I have entered in a quilt show and I won 2nd place! The quilt is all hand-dyed using compost ingredients — thus the name, Compost Composition — and hand-quilted. (I had to. It was the right method of finishing.) The idea for the quilt came from a lesson in my art quilting group on ice dyeing. The results were exceptional but the process involved a lot of extra materials, protective gear and waste disposal issues. Although stunning, I knew that I could never work this way so I started to look into alternatives.
Most everyone in the fabric world has heard of tea dyeing as it is an incredibly easy and useful method for an antiqued fabric look. I started to research natural dyeing both at the library and online and was pleasantly surprised by all of the resources available. I decided to start experimenting. My first attempts were with onion skins, avocado pits (seriously!) and turmeric powder. I did all of my first dyeing projects inside by boiling and soaking the dye materials and the fabrics. I used cheap muslin (lesson for my future self – muslin fabric is great for experimenting but it never irons out) and soaked my non-toxic dyes overnight. I was happy with the results so I decided that I should branch out. When my same quilt group decided we should flood the county fair with art quilts, I knew that I should really try something out there and dye my whole quilt using items typically thrown out (or in our case, composted or used for chicken food).
During my pursuit of natural dyeing I found that in order to document all of my trials, I should keep a fabric journal. This journal has proved invaluable. I take a scrap from each piece of fabric and I detail all of my recipes to achieve the color. It is all an experiment and there is a lot of chemistry that can go in to natural dyeing. I started off just dyeing the fabrics to see what colors I could get. I didn’t worry about mordanting and all of the chemistry — I just went for it. Since I was mostly using small scraps of muslin, this was not a wasteful way to go about learning. However, there were some fabrics that because they were not done properly, did fade very quickly.
Since I’ve been spending as much of my weekends in the above tent backpacking, I needed to find a method of dyeing that was less time consuming. Voila solar dyeing! Solar dyeing is exactly what it sounds like, putting your fabric and dye in the sun and letting nature take its course. For a couple of weeks, I stuffed fabric and dyes into mason jars and left them out to sit. It is basically the same process as making sun tea. Into the jars went red onion skins, tea baga, spent coffee grounds, red chile powder, nettles, dried black beans and more turmeric. Thanks to our 8,100 feet of altitude, these dyes cooked up nicely within a week. Sure some of the smells were a bit fermented and funky but the fabrics once rinsed were clean and odorless. This method allowed for me to spend a great deal of time outdoors while still working on my quilt.
Since all of my fabrics were very organic and natural, I wanted the same in my quilt design. Above is one of the quilts I made during a class with my heroes from Gees Bend. All of the lines are cut by hand and arranged intuitively. I love this method of design because it can never again be replicated. This has been my new love in quilting – creating my own designs from my heart. While working on Compost Composition, I laid my fabrics out and started to cut and piece in ways that felt right. Once all six blocks were complete, I arranged them as I pleased without concern about congruity. It is really nice to work on something without worrying about nesting seams and perfect corners. (Although I still do on other projects I work on.)
The colors in this quilt are derived from:
- Pink: avocado pits and peels boiled and steeped for 60 hours
- Blue: dried black beans soaked for 1 week and solar dyed
- Yellow: turmeric solar dyed for 1 week
- Light tan: spent coffee grounds solar dyed for 1 week
- Tan: tea solar dyed for 1 week
- Green: carrot tops boiled and steeped for 60 hours
- Purple: purple cabbage boiled and steeped for 60 hours
- Light pink: red onion skins solar dyed for 1 week
- Orange: yellow onion skins boiled and steeped for 60 hours
I will not share my recipes here, not because they are some great secret, but because there is no one true recipe that will work for everyone. There is a lot of chemistry involved with the pH of your own water and the material and also there are tons of resources available online and in books. The main idea is just to start experimenting and doing it. The results can be fun and sometimes they come out spectacular and fade away like a great mandala (I’m talking about you chile powder) and other times they turn out exactly as you hoped. Natural dyeing is how everything used to get dyed and although you are not going to get super bright, deep colors as with commercial dyed fabric, you are going to get something that is 100% your own creation.
Also, a quick note about entering your quilt in a fair or a show: just do it too! The judging can be intense and particular and no, my above quilt is not going to measure up under the magnifying glass. Nonetheless, I still got 2nd place in my category and it got my work out into the world. It is great to see the diversity of creativity at shows and it is important to promote all forms of quilts.