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"

In this post I will give you a broad overview of how my work has evolved. I begin with what my work is about and then show you examples of representative pieces.

I make large-scale tufted wool wall pieces and, on a more intimate scale, pieced organdy constructions sewn onto acrylic. My approach is intuitive and spontaneous producing compositions with the gestural line of drawings and the measure and control of geometry. Yet the pieces remain true to the special qualities of the materials.

In my work, I offer a structure that is formal and spare, stressing silhouette, shape, surface, and line. I translate felt tensions into visual tensions. I feel a strong drive for order and yet I immediately rebel against it, embracing disorder-which one can also call spontaneity, lyricism, freedom. Lines begin and disappear; patterns swirl and dissolve; an ordered structure is often subverted by the movement of the fluid background. I see these tensions as a reflection of a central conflict in real life. What life feels like is the narrative my work relates in abstract compositions. Neither order nor chaos wins; the fun lies in the completely natural encounter between the two.

I completed this piece right out of graduate school.  (It is now in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.)

Chromatic Fugue ©1986

Chromatic Fugue ©1986

My approach then was more painterly than what I do now. Current work is more linear and monochromatic as in Blue Matter, a recent commission (Wachovia Bank headquarters, Charlotte, NC):

Blue Matter ©2008

Blue Matter ©2008

In the monochromatic tufted pieces, you still do get zapped with an area of intense color which holds its own against the swirl of hatched patterning. And not just any color…but yellow! which I recall being told had to be used sparingly. It’s interesting that in the order/ disorder struggle, in these pieces fluid, energetic lines are actually stripes of alternating white and deep blue. You can’t get more orderly and controlled than by the repetition of parallel lines which become patterned channels of energy.

I’d never thought in terms of having a painterly or linear approach. I picked up on this difference among artists from reading some time ago that Picasso had a gift for line. Since then I’ve taken notice that other artists lean more in one direction than in the other (duh!). I love line. My emphasis on line comes at the expense of color for I pared it way down to monochromatic, especially in my stitched organdy constructions. Perhaps this leap from tufting on a large scale to piecing relatively small pieces came about as color dropped away and line ascended. Line plays a different role in the pieced work. It’s more architectural, as artspeak would put it.

Since 2003, I’ve needed a more portable process for making art for our lives now involved more travel which meant being away from my studio (though I continue to make large tufted pieces). I began working on a more intimate scale piecing white cotton organdy and sewing it onto black plexiglass . My love of line comes through in the stitched and folded seams which become structural, like scaffolding. The contrasting translucency of the adjacent shapes reveals the lines. The layering of shapes provides more opacity and more rhythmic contrasts. This work has evolved from an initial series of buttons + machine top-stitched organdy compositions, to pieced and layered formal constructs, to the more recent exploding silhouettes. Their intimate size and monochromatic palette of whites makes for quiet, meditative works–like whispers.

Construction #13 ©2003

Construction #13 ©2003

In my next post, I will write about how I, a late bloomer, got started making art.