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Dyeing Mottled Colors…more on dyeing at IU

January 12, 2012

Where was I?…My last entry was September, 2008. It’s now January of 2012! Sorry to have left dangling those of you following my notes about dyeing yarn especially since I’d set up expectations for my next entry on mottled colors. I hadn’t realized how much thought and time would go into writing about my experiences as an artist making art. Writing was taking time away from art making itself as well as from other claims on my time. Plus I hadn’t intended on writing about the technical aspects of art making–such as dyeing wool–because it doesn’t interest me as much as writing about the art making process itself, and more important to me, about the finished object itself. More on this eventually…

Recently I got an email from someone who happened upon my dyeing entry and had gone through  the MFA program in textiles at Indiana University in the ’90s. My earlier notes rang true to his experience there and led to his contacting me. I realized there was more I had to say about dyeing yarn…mottled yarn.

In Budd Stalnaker’s Woven and Constructed studio classes, we had to gain expertise of the technical side of different textile processes. For example, in weaving: basics, like how to dress the loom; how to achieve even selvages by control of the sideways pull of the weft; various weft joining techniques and edge finishings. In dyeing wool yarn: how to achieve even, level colors; make dye solutions; do 2-3-way color mixes; achieve complex colors through the use of toners; etc.  All these took practice and patience to achieve control.

Impatience is one of my most endearing traits–and it sometimes leads to road blocks as I work be it while dyeing yarn, cutting shapes out of yardage, composing or constructing a piece. More often than I care to admit, I find that I have to re-do or unravel or re-cut or re-measure due to impulsive actions–not looking before I leap. “What have I done? Now what do I do?” The problems it creates for me are challenges I love to work out: how to extricate myself out of this hole.

Early  in learning how to dye wool yarn in the dye lab, I noticed that some of my colors turned out blotchy, streaked, or variegated. Not good since the aim was level, even colors. This result was unexpected…“What went wrong?” Being an impatient dyer, I’d strayed away from the do’s and don’ts. While the dye pots simmered over the gas flames  and the yarn was absorbing the dye, I’d gone off to do something else to make good use of my time. Every so often I’d run back to the burners to check on progress and give the yarn a stir . I’d crowded the pots with  many skeins of yarn so’s to cut down on the number of dye sessions–the more skeins to a pot, the less pots to dye.

This loosey goosey approach to dyeing practically guaranteed I’d end up with problems. I figured out what went wrong: I hadn’t kept the skeins of yarn from bunching up against each other in the dye bath nor had I diligently stirred the dye pot for umpteen minutes while the wool absorbed the dye. Hence the wool couldn’t absorb the dye–not evenly. Crowded skeins do not allow the dye to penetrate the fibers freely and evenly and the lack of stirring contributed to this fiasco. It reminded me of Julia Child’s advice not to crowd the pan with whatever you are sauteing or browning because by crowding  you end up steaming the food–a different cooking process which produces different results . I got unintended results rather than predictable ones–the whole point of being in control of the dye process.

Once I’d rinsed and dried and wound the yarn into balls, I had to make use of it. I couldn’t let that splotchy yarn go to waste (my third world background in which you find a use for everything), but how was I to make lemonade out of lemons? The goof, it turns out, was serendipitous good luck.

For me, the most exciting part of a project is to recognize a technical or aesthetic glitch when it occurs–what’s gone awry in the process,  composition or construction–and turn it to my advantage. I get great satisfaction in making pluses out of minuses–being able to salvage–better yet, to improve on the color or the shape or the line by incorporating the glitch and following where it might take me, or by tweaking it so that it becomes an intended and integral part of the process and end product.

I used this yarn to tuft  a section of a piece letting the ball unravel as line by tufted line I filled a shape with color. The result was an area of irregular color, often with a moire effect. Hmmmmmmm…. interesting! I recognized that these mottled areas added visual texture and complexity to that shape. Looking at the larger composition-in-progress, I could see that the mottling effect actually contributed to what I wanted my work to express. The splotchy areas of color convey messiness, capriciousness, randomness, whereas the areas with level,  even, “perfect” colors convey  control, precision and order. I had inadvertently hit upon an additional way to represent chaos in my compositions–the “chaos” in the play of chaos versus order that I feel and want to express. By seeing this possibility in the mottled hues, I’d inadvertently improved the piece. The key was recognizing the blotches for what they were…chaos. By looking and noticing I was seeing what was in front of me. Now you know why, when needed, I dye blotchy colors.

"Peruvian Lattice," ©1988 Martha Donovan Opdahl, 60" x 120", tufted wool yarn/ cotton backing/ acid dyes. Notice areas of mottled colors. Yessss!

Detail of "Peruvian Lattice." Mottling and moire effects are more visible here.

"Trio Incognito," ©1987 Martha Donovan Opdahl, 74" x 77,"tufted wool pile/ cotton backing/ acid dyes

Detail: "Trio Incognito." Mottled and moire effects contained by the geometric shapes = chaos/order

An added bonus: It turns out that this messed-up yarn was a perfect fit for my impatient way of working. I took to deliberately crowding the yarn in the dye pots and to being even careless and slap-dash in measuring the dye solution into the dye bath. So what if the yarn from pot A which “should” have matched the yarn in pot B didn’t–it’s close enough. The result was intentional. Plus I was inconstant in stirring the pot. I was totally irreverent toward the haloed rules. My method matched my purpose and it felt right–I made my impatience work for me.

2 Responses to “Dyeing Mottled Colors…more on dyeing at IU”

  1. Joseph Says:

    I like your discussion of happy accidents, and it reminds me of the book that I’m now (re)reading called “A Perfect Mess.” The main point of it being, a certain amount of mess can often improve the functioning of a system. You found this out through “impatience”, but perhaps it was a native tendency toward messiness. I also have this and try so very hard to prevent myself from it at every turn, and indeed, those moments where it creeps back in, inevitably create the life and human touch that all things with a soul need.


  2. Hmmmmmmm…I’m usually quite precise and orderly–probably too much so?–so I don’t think I’d characterize my work habits as prone to messiness or innately messy. But I do have an area in my life which others would consider less than tidy–my studio, aka “the maw.” I’m more prone to be impatient with messiness…in the sense that you have to clean up a mess (and who likes to clean up?), so why make a mess in the first place. Re work habits: I think there are two approaches to work–or cooking, or whatever–and people naturally follow their bent. Neither approach is better than the other–they’re just different ways of getting the task done. For ex. some cooks are so focused on the dish they’re preparing that the mess they’re making of the counter and the kitchen floor is the last thing on their mind; while others are tidy and clean up as they proceed with the recipe or invention. Whether one dish or the other is tasty or inspired depends on the cook’s talent, not on the approach used to get it cooked. The soul is in the dish via the cook’s talent.

    The type of “mess” I would lay claim to is the one that I use in my work (sublimation?) such as disruption, interruption, fragmentation, and breaks of line, shape, pattern, color and color gradations, etc.–the chaos versus order which is what my work is about. The latter represents rationality, predictability, precision, control; the former, chance, spontaneity, freedom, randomness. Neither order nor chaos wins; the fun lies in the completely natural encounter between the two. One could quite rightly say chaos (mess) represents life; order, death or soulessness. The vitality or energy (life) in a piece comes from this natural encounter I mentioned.

    Thanks for your comment.


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