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  • Writer's pictureLisa

Dyeing in the Basement

One Saturday morning S. called and asked what I was doing that day. I told her, “I'll be in the basement dyeing all weekend.” That cracked her up, and I didn't understand what was so funny for a minute. She knew what I meant. I was dyeing scarves in my basement studio, but anyone could have thought I meant something else (dying). It's become our little joke.

Brightly painted silk shantung fabric.
Rainbow painted silk shantung, circa 1998.

So when did I start dyeing and painting fabric? Back in high school and college I often bought white t-shirts and dyed them different colors, not tie-dye, solid colors, and just because it was cheap. I also dyed muslin different colors and made clothes out of it, again, cheap. I've always been good at mixing colors, but didn't know the first thing about the chemistry of the whole thing. In college I took textile science classes. Groan inducing to some. I loved it. But when does that type of knowledge come in handy? In time, I would be teaching my own college textile classes. But soon enough I had to put that schooling to use in the costume shop.

Dyeing studio in the basement.
Basement dyeing studio today. Exciting right?

In big theatres there are these amazing people called painter/dyers, artists that can create the most magical textiles. They spend their days painting and dyeing fabric and costumes to fit the designer's requirements. I was in awe. In small theatres, the shop manager or costume designer wears that hat. That was me, and I spent many hours painting and dyeing, sometimes learning on the fly. In the theatre you never say you don't know how to do something. You figure it out, or loose your job.

After my theatre career I decided to start my own clothing company. In the “craft” world back in the 90's, commercial fabric was not widely excepted in “wearable art”. You had to weave or felt your own fabric, or alter the surface by painting and dyeing. Now was the time to learn the “nuts and bolts” of fabric painting and dyeing. I took weekend classes, read books, picked people's brains, and experimented. There was no internet back then.

Blue/green hand-painted silk yardage.
Painted silk yardage, circa 1993.

Over several months of errors, mistakes, and ugly messes, I worked out some techniques that made me happy and produced rather pleasing fabric. I'm not, and never have been a “Victorian water colorist”. I can't paint pretty pictures. I'm not that talented with a paint brush, or pencil for that matter. I wanted to paint yardage. So, I stretched fabric between saw-horses, and used foam brushes to paint big swatches of color with dye.

Painted panels on a tunic, circa 1996.
Painted panels on a tunic, circa 1996.

At first I only used my painted fabric for linings or pieced it with commercial fabric. When I became more confident, the painted fabric was made into shirts and vests. Eventually

scarves and men's accessories, ties, bow ties, and cummerbunds, for example, joined the collection. It was time to pick up those little paint brushes and compose designs that were appealing on a smaller scale.

Hand-painted men's vest, circa 1997.
Painted men's vest, circa 1997.

There is a product call resist, and it does just that, resists dye painted on top of it. For example, you can draw a butterfly on white silk with clear (or colored) resist. When it dries you have the outline of a butterfly, just like coloring book images. Then you can paint the butterfly with dye. Dye flows on fabric like watercolors, but you can thicken it and have a media similar to acrylic paint. Using these techniques I created my own signature dry brush painting style. I drew simple images with clear resist, painted the background, then highlighted the design with thickened dye. They weren't masterpieces, but it worked for me, and customers liked them.

"Bamboo" design painted on silk, circa 2000.
Painted dry-brush "bamboo", circa 2000.

Back then, mid 90's to early 2000's I was selling primarily wholesale. I sold my collection at wholesale shows a couple of times a year, then spent the rest of the year filling orders. It was at times, tedious. Every item made had to match those first samples. No one-of-a-kind designs, or experimentation after the collection was sold. Eleven color-ways would get pared down to about six. I've been painting my most popular colorway, opal (cobalt/teal/violet), for over 25 years.

Hand-painted iris design, circa 2002.
Painted dry-brush "iris", circa 2003.

Fast forward to today. I'm still in the basement dyeing, but my techniques, media, and business have evolved. One can't be stagnant and creative at the same time. A long time customer once said to me, “No one told Picasso to stay in his blue period.” She wasn't comparing me to Picasso, and neither am I, but you get the idea. What am I doing now? Well, your going to have to wait till next month to find out. It's just too long a story for one installment. Hope you check back in.

How have your creative pursuits developed over the years? Did they lead you down other paths? What are you doing now?

Be well, and do something fun,


April 1, 2021

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