All Blues – Indigo Residency at William Morris Gallery No 1

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Whilst waiting for a decision on my Arts Council application to support my residency at the William Morris Gallery  I thought I should start writing about the experience to date.

My residency explores the relationship between William Morris, Thomas Wardle and indigo, their skill in mastering the complexity of the indigo dye vat, their descriptions of the dye process and their meticulous artistic approach to documenting their samples and dye experiments.

I’ve called my residency All Blues inspired by the title of a track from the album Kind of Blue by Miles Davies. For me the lyrics and melody capture the beauty and complex, painful history surrounding natural indigo dye. Blues music was the spiritual connection between the indigo plant, grown in many southern American slave plantations, and the West African slaves who sang of their suffering as they worked on the cotton that the indigo dyed. These songs became known as “the Blues”. 

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I started researching material from the gallery’s library, a wonderful opportunity to see rare documents and images. The extensive dyeing dialogue between Morris and Wardle captured in ‘The Collected Letters of William Morris’ is impressive, obsessive, frustrating, often heated. It’s also complicated because of the inherent contradictions in the process. Morris was determined to revive the art of natural dyeing but as we know he often used harsh and toxic chemicals in his work. Nevertheless I am impressed by the dedication to understanding techniques. It’s an approach I’m taking with my work. I hated chemistry in school but I willingly embrace the alchemy of natural dyes.

I don’t like using toxic chemicals with natural dyes I’ve grown indigofera tinctoria organically in the Caribbean, it was introduced as a cash crop during colonisation and still grows wild in the region. It’s a fascinating plant to grow with benefits to the soil and has medicinal properties. After all the effort required to grow organic dyes I prefer to follow it through using safe chemicals. I know many artists use caustic soda to reduce indigo but I once accidentally inhaled caustic soda fumes and felt uncomfortable for days. 

I intend to experiment with different types of indigo vats and fibres, concentrating  on perfecting a range of techniques to introduce pattern to the process.  Finally, I hope to reconcile my machine embroidery practice with indigo dyeing.

I’m starting with iron to reduce indigo from its non water-soluble form. It’s an ancient recipe easy to make with rewarding results as it gives a very deep blue, a favourite of mine for cotton.  I prefer the lighter blues on wool. I’m also using a basic resist method to introduce pattern. It’s appears straightforward but I can see the potential for improvement with this simple technique. Colour is built up through a slow process of repeat dipping and exposure to oxygen which converts the indigo back to its insoluble form.  I need to find another way to photograph these samples because its difficult to capture the beauty of the fabric and the dye. 

 

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