NOTE: Skip if not interested in the procedural aspects of dyeing wool…though scroll down and see the embedded photographs of my work.

This entry somewhat overlaps an earlier post on ikat dyeing (aka space dyeing), but is more specific as to the preparation of the yarn and additions of color to the dye baths.

In an earlier entry on ikat dyeing (aka space dyeing), I showed photographs of pieces in which  dots and dashes of color or natural white added visual texture. These white dots are the original color of the yarn before I dyed it. To have sections of the skein of wool yarn resist absorption of the dye, I tightly wrap and tie random (or regular) sections of the (washed/rinsed/preferably dried) skein with plastic tape made specifically for this use. Particularly if I want only white dots, I’ll wind/tie one wrap of  bean string. I space the tied sections evenly or haphazardly depending on the effect I want. Then I immerse the skeins into the prepared, hot dye bath. This dye bath contains the proportions of the different dye solutions that make up the dye formula I’m using to get color X.

"African Folds," detail, © 1990

To get colored rather than white dots or dashes on the dyed yarn, the procedure is basically the same except that I have dye the same skein in different dye baths–an extremely labor intensive and time consuming process. Say I want a medium blue yarn with lighter blue dots/dashes. First I need to prepare the dye formula for the medium blue I want, but I will be using only 50% of this dye solution in the first round of dyeing to get the lighter blue that will become the colored dots/dashes.  I go through a whole dye session to get  this  50% lighter blue. When the dye bath is clear, the first round of dyeing is done. I remove the skeins from the hot pots and let them cool until I can handle them. I then tightly tie sections of the yarn with plastic tape or bean string. The length of the tape-wrapped sections depends on whether I want long or short dashes  of light blue. (Tufting produces loops as the needle goes through the backing. The amount of yarn that goes into each loop determines where the dots/dashes will appear on the tufted surface.)

I prepare a new dye bath with the remaining 50% of the dye formula for my medium blue. The wrapped sections will not absorb this dye and will remain light blue. I go through the whole dyeing process again and this time the unwrapped yarn absorbs the other half of the original dye solution for medium blue. When the dye bath is clear (all dye has been absorbed), I’m done except for rinsing the yarn, removing all the plastic ties, admiring the dashes of light blue against the darker blue, and  hanging the wet yarn to dry.

"Amazonas," detail, © 1986

Say I want a blue yarn whose formula is made up of 30% red, 10% black B, 10% yellow, and 50% of alizarine blue. I can get a blue yarn with red dots or yellow dots although these hues will not be a saturated red nor yellow, but rather a pink and light yellow (because of the amount of red and yellow the formula calls for). For red/pink dots/dashes I’d have to initially dye the skein only with the 30% red part of the formula for blue. I go through the whole dye process till the dye bath is clear, take out the red/pink yarn, let it cool and start tying sections with plastic tape. These wrapped sections will remain pink through subsequent dyeing sessions. For the next dyeing session, I prepare the dye bath with the remaining colors that make up the blue formula. I immerse the tied pink yarn into the dye bath and go through the whole process till the dye bath is clear. I end up with a blue yarn with pink dots or dashes. Had I wanted yellow dots/dashes, I’d have substituted the 10% yellow dye for red in the first dye session

If I wanted a blue yarn with yellow and white dots/dashes, I’d tie the “virgin” yarn skein with plastic wrap to cover sections that I want to keep white. I then dye the yarn in the 10% yellow solution; get my yellow yarn dyed, and tie sections with tape that will resist the rest of the blue dye formula which goes into the next dye pot. I add the yarn to get it dyed blue. When done, I  unwrap all the plastic ties and end up with my blue yarn with white and yellow dots/dashes.

"Jigsaw Puzzle," detail, © 1987

I find that ikat dyeing for colored dots/dashes works well with medium to dark colors. With lighter colors, I go for white dots/dashes because usually the % amounts of colored dots/dashes in the dye formula for color X are so light as to be not worth the trouble.

"Square Rug," detail, © 1984

"Square Rug," detail, © 1984

"Square Rug," detail, © 1984

"Square Rug," detail, © 1984

I practically ran amok in “Square Rug” in the density and variety of color and visual texture imparted on the piece via ikat dyeing. I get my dots and dashes to work in two ways here, both having to do with the illusion of space. When I use ikat dyed yarn to fill an area or shape, that area of color is pushed into the background giving the impression of  great depth, of infinite space. When I tuft a gestural line of ikated yarn and have it cut across shapes and ground, it pops to the foreground and pushes the shapes it traverses into an indefinite middle ground. Neat-o.

I don’t do ikat dyeing any more for large pieces…it’s just too laborious and my work has evolved beyond what its effects add to my artwork. Over the years I have simplified my colors and my compositions so much so that ikated yarns would detract from what I’m now after (in 2012). In fact, I’ve gone so far as to remove color from my work–other than black and white–as in the pieced white organdy constructions sewn onto black plexiglas and the black 3D rubber constructions I make. Also, my tufted wool compositions became simpler (which does not translate into less complex) as I pared down my palette to one or two colors. I made ikated yarns and mottled colors integral to my compositions at the time (mid-’80s/early ’90s). They contributed mightily to  the chaos and gestural aspects of my work and in defining illusionist space.  By now, as my work has evolved and in certain ways simplified, my visual vocabulary has changed. It’s a big relief not to have to spend hours in a high humidity and smelly dye lab (from the glacial acidic acid used in dyeing with acid dyes).  I did enjoy dyeing at the time, but wouldn’t do it today. I just don’t have the stamina or strength to repeatedly lift water-sopped or hot dye-bath sopped, weighty, industrial skeins of wool yarn in and out of wash and rinse buckets or dye pots.  When a commission comes along, I go into my notebooks with color yarn samples to find the colors I want and hire a professional dye facility that specializes in small batch dye projects.

Ikat dyeing aka space dyeing

February 24, 2012

Ikat dyeing is an Indonesian resist method of dyeing yarn or threads so that when woven into cloth the resist sections produce patterns or designs. Simply put, resist dyeing involves applying a resist element to specific sections of the yarn–you bind sections with plastic tape or bean string–so that those areas cannot absorb dye during the dyeing process. The bound sections retain the color the binding element covers, which is generally a lighter value than the rest of the skein. A single wrap around/tie with plastic tape produces a 2-1/4″ section; a single wrap around/tie with bean string affects 1/2.” In tufting, the length of the loop affects the length of the resist dots and dashes visible on the surface of the tufted piece

The preparation of the wool skeins for ikat dyeing is labor intensive, as is the dyeing process for it usually involves more than one dye session. The yarn preparation involves winding and weighing the skeins, washing and drying them,  and then binding sections to resist the dye. If  you’re after dots/dashes of various colors or values, that involves more rounds of tying and dyeing.

For tufting, I want random or regularly spaced dots or dashes that the resist can produce.  So I use the most elementary form of ikat in that I do not resist sections of yarn to produce definite patterns or designs as for ikat woven cloth. I bind the yarn either in a controlled  (evenly spaced and of even length), or random manner (haphazard spacing and length for an irregular, scatter-shot effect) so’s to get dashes or dots of color (the resist sections).

"Peruvian Lattice," detail, 1988

In “Peruvian Lattice,” I use ikated yarn that has gone through one dye session to produce white dots and dashes. As I fill a shape with an ikated yarn, I cannot control where the dots will appear. Sometimes I get lucky and get a moire effect which becomes random patterning. In this piece, the ikated areas read as ground to the solid colored shapes giving more spatial depth to the composition than it otherwise would have.

"Dance of the Crane," detail, © 1985

For the white dots in “Dance of the Crane,”  I used a bean string resist wound round once and tied–irregularly spaced. Some gray yarn I first dyed using part of my “Martha’s Gray” formula, then I wrapped/tied tape around 2″ randomly spaced sections and put it through a second dye session using the remaining ingredients to the formula. The dark gray triangle at top/center was done this way.

I pulled some yarn sample sheets from my “Constrictor Constrictor” folder to show examples of tape bound/tied and bean string tied resists.

dot and dash resist

You’ll notice that I did a sample dyeing on only 10 gms of wool to test results of the resist and of the dye formula.

ikat samples

Samples 1-7 above were bound/tied in 2″ – 3″ sections (to get white sections and in addition either a rust hue or burgundy hue in subsequent dye sequences).

To get #5:

Session 1:  I wound and tied tape over “virgin” skein every 2″ or so  for a 2″ – 3″ long resist (to keep those sections white). I used only the burgundy toner at 0.8%. After dyeing the yarn burgundy, I removed some  sections of tape (exposing some white sections but keeping some bound sections intact) and bound/tied over some burgundy sections (to keep them burgundy).

Session 2: this time I added 0.2% of rust toner. The white sections now took the rust dye. Sections that never got bound/tied absorbed both the rust toner and the burgundy toner (from session 1). So I ended up with yarn that had sections of white (remained tied throughout all dye sessions), burgundy, rust, and the rust/burgundy formula color–4 colors. I removed all ties and rinsed the yarn, then air dried it. Voilá.

Look at the first sample below the wavy line:  it’s burgundy, red, blue, rust, and white. (See the stretched out yarn below, left.) I followed sessions 1 and 2 above and kept the tape on bound sections. Rinse/dry followed the next dyeing session.

Session 3:  One taped section of this 16″ sample of #5 remained tied throughout the dye sessions to keep that section white. I untied some taped sections of white to take a blue dye in this dye session. I wound/tied some red and some rust sections to keep them red and rust. Then I overdyed the yarn with a blue dye solution (its formula is 3.0 % sky blue RL + 0.4 % of a warm toner). I got red, blue, white, rust, and the blur + over-dyed burgundy. I removed all the tape and rinsed and dried the yarn. Voilá.

2 ikat samples

The yarn sample on the right is white, rust + over-dye of rust/burgundy formula for #5 in the first photo of samples.

"Constrictor Constrictor," detail, © 1984

“Constrictor Constrictor” is the first piece I made in which I used ikat dyed yarn. The random dots are white though some show some coloration that can occur at the beginning and end of each bound section. This is due to some migration of the dye under the edges of the resist sections.

The finished piece:

"Constrictor Constrictor," © 1984 Martha Donovan Opdahl, 96" x 74"

"CrissCrosses," detail

The white dots are the sections on the yarn that resisted dye absorption. These sections were wrapped with plastic tape at irregular intervals and in random lengths before the yarn was immersed in the dye bath.

"Zick Zack," detail

"Zick Zack," detail

The ikat-dyed yarn was tufted into the different shapes in alternate rows.

"Cool Jazz." detail

More  visual texture and richness contributed by the ikat-dyed dots. The complex colors in this piece–the maroons and blues–are achieved through the use of toners which I referred to in an earlier post.

"Blackberry Winter," detail

More complex colors, mottled yarn and ikat-dyed dots in an early piece, “Blackberry Winter #1” (1985). I made three “Blackberry Winter” pieces. Their main structural element is a large zigzag that cuts through the vertical middle of each piece, its zags (elbows) jutting out beyond the edge of the body of the piece giving it an irregular contour. I particularly liked breaking past the edges and made sure these extensions were integral to the composition–not just tacked on for effect.

"Blackberry Winter," ©1985, 73" x 37". tufted wool pile/ cotton backing/ acid dyes/ ikat dyeing

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.