Professor Hannah Barrett
Research Paper – Group 2
Why Hand-dyed Silk?
Why do I use hand-dyed silk in my art? I am not from Asia where it has been used in art for centuries. Nor am I working in fashion, where silk is seen more often. I myself had not even heard of silk as a surface for art until the 1990s.
I first explored hand dyeing in the 1970s, when I worked on cotton. I returned to dyeing again in the 90s because I was frustrated with watercolor: I loved the vibrancy of the color of the wet watercolor paint, but often felt disappointed that it faded once dry. I was looking for intensity of color and I found it in silk dyeing. The appeal of silk over cotton, which I had used in previous dyeing work, was its superior capacity to absorb color. I found I could create a range of colors from vibrant to extremely subtle, fully saturated color to more translucent for layering; the silk itself came as opaque or translucent, which opened up even more options for color interaction.
The possibilities for color alone attracted me to silk. However, I am now discovering another aspect: its sculptural potential. In their article, “Mechanical Properties of Silk,” Krasnor et al report that “silkworm silk has a tensile strength comparable to that of steel. But, unlike steel it is also extremely stretchable ... possessing a toughness with a fracture energy much larger than that of a high-tensile steel.” (Web)It must be this strength that holds my silk rolls dependably standing upright in my first venture into silk sculpture.
The history of silk’s entrance into the fine arts in this country at the end of the last century was due to influences on both the East and West Coast. On the East Coast, the French imports of gorgeous hand-dyed clothing popular in places like Greenwich Village aroused curiosity about how the art on the fabric was created. The French silk at the time was dyed using a resist called gutta to make fine lines. The formula for gutta, a substance firm enough to contain dye but pliable enough to make fine lines in hand dyed silk, had been a closely guarded secret among the family members of the czar of Russia, a secret that they brought with them to Paris when they fled during the Bolshevik Revolution. Gutta was important and so was the dye itself. In the 1950’s, the Maison Sennelier, famous for its paints and extra-soft pastels, created a line of 104 dyes branded Tinfix which continue to be favored by artists today, in spite of recent competition. The combination of the Sennelier dyes and the gutta technique of hand-dying produced the beautiful art that was seen on French imported clothing. Information about this technique gradually became available in this country. One person who taught the techniques in New York City in the early 1980s was a French woman, Klara Gordon. According to Susan Louise Moyer in Silk Painting, The Artist’s Guide to Gutta and Wax Resist Techniques, “Within a year, (of Klara’s workshop) other surface design studios began using silk painting...Professional schools such as Parsons School of Design, the School of Visual Art...hired silk painters to teach...” (13).
Meanwhile, information on traditional dyeing techniques from Japan were introduced to this country primarily through the teachings and writings of John Marshall in California and Betsy Sterling Benjamin in Massachusetts, both of whom spent years living in Japan. John Marshall’s book Salvation Through Soy, Blissful Dyeing for all Eternity, in spite of its humorous title, contains a wealth of information on traditional Japanese dyeing using gojiru, or soy milk. Betsy Sterling Benjamin not only wrote a book called The World of Rozome, Wax Resist Techniques of Japan, but also organized a world conference in 2005 at Massachusetts College of Art where artists from Europe, Africa, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan and this country gathered to share information on dyeing and resist methods. It was at this conference that I was able to witness demonstrations of a wide range of dyeing methods and applications. This included the traditional methods of Japanese kimono makers, as well as the more recent modernization of those techniques by Susan Louise Moyer, whose two books on silk painting; Silk Painting, Gutta and Wax Resist Techniques, and Silk Painting for Fashion and Fine Art are the most comprehensive I have encountered on the subject of silk painting.
So, what is my specific process of dyeing? I use the French Sennelier Tinfix dyes with the traditional Japanese method. In preparation, I soak dried soybeans for 8-24 hours before putting them into a blender with added water and grinding them to a pulp; I then squeeze this slurry through a piece of cotton, to obtain fresh soy milk. I use a traditional Japanese brush, a jizomebake, which is a deer hair brush that is made specifically for the purpose of applying soy milk to silk and is far more effective than other brushes: it carries liquid well and the bristles are shaped so that no matter how you hold the brush, there is maximum contact with the silk (Marshall vi). I then leave the silk to dry before applying the dye. The dye can be applied in any of the ways that watercolor paint is applied to paper; the soy acts as sizing which stiffens the silk and creates a resistance to dye spreading. In my most recent work, I have been working large areas of wet on wet, but, in the past, I have done more detailed work with distinct shapes and shading.
Once I have finished dyeing, I allow the silk time to cure, the longer the better, according to John Marshall:
Curing allows the protein in the soymilk time to shrink, biting into the fiber and becoming a permanent part of it. Some Japanese artists allow the soy to cure only a few days. I prefer to cure up to three months. The longer you allow it to cure the higher the quality of your product. (21)
After curing, I steam the silk to set the dye permanently; this involves rolling the pieces of silk, sandwiched between absorbent layers of cotton duck, around a cylinder which is placed inside a tall steamer and steamed for at least 2 hours. Finally, I iron the silk, which becomes again as soft and sensuous as it started before the soy was applied.
In a January, 2010, telephone conversation with John Marshall, I asked him to explain why soy is so crucial to the dye process. Marshall explained the chemistry of traditional Japanese soy milk dyeing to me. Silk is primarily a protein; soymilk is also a protein that is cellulose based. The protein molecule of the soymilk in contact with the porous silk entangles protein with protein into the fiber itself as it dries. When the liquid dye is then added, the soy becomes gelatinous and holds the dye, encapsulating it in a suspension that gives the dye much longer time to penetrate the fiber. This produces rich color and reduces the run-off, or wasted dye that comes out in the steaming process.
What about the substance silk itself? The precise origins of silk are unknown, although, according to Shelagh Vainker in her book Chinese Silk, a Cultural History, she refers to a 7th century BC legend that mentions a princess who smuggles silkworm to her wedding destination (8). In Rajat Datta and Mahesh Nanvaty’s The Global Silk Industry, the authors point to another legend of the fourteen year old queen Hi’s-Ling- Shi of the W’Hang dynasty ( about 2,500 BC) who saw the tiny silk worms grow big eating leaves on her mulberry tree. She watched them make cocoons, which she took into the palace with her. When the moths hatched, she dropped several cocoons into her bath by mistake, and out of these cocoons came “shimmering” threads, the threads that would become woven into silk (17). According to Shelagh Vainker, “Some of the mystery that prompted (these) stories was felt within China…both at the level of rural religious belief and, in a different way, at the highest level of government” (8-9).
For about 3, 000 years China guarded the secret of silk (Datta and Nanvaty- 17) and became known from the third to the ninth centuries for the 6,400 km Silk Road connecting China to the Mediterranean. Even though other countries have since acquired the means of silk production, the pre-eminent supplier of silk continues to be China, which produces four times as much silk as the next closest competitor, India. (Datta and Nanvaty 33)
Chinese silk comes in many weights and textures, both variables which affect dyeing. In my work I use two kinds: a sand washed charmeuse silk which is opaque with one shiny and one matte side, and has a weight of 19.5 mm (short for mommes, the measure of weight for silk). I also use a translucent organza, 5.5 mm. I purchase them in 50 yard bolts from Dharma Trading, a company based in San Rafael, California, which buys directly from China and sells to artists and industry. I love the silk charmeuse because it is thicker and heavier than most silks but still stretches evenly and takes dyes beautifully. When sized with soymilk it provides a strong surface for many different kinds of dye effects. In turn, the organza is sheer, and I can dye it for scrim or layering. It also is stiffer and is key to holding the shapes in my sculptural work.
Because I am using such large amounts of organza for my sculpture, I have modified my dyeing process. In order to dye lengths of it outdoors on sheets of plastic on my driveway, I skip the soymilk preparation and thus forfeit some dye retention. I am compromising absorption of color per yardage for quantity of material dyed. Later I wrap the silk in rolls for my sculpture, which creates compact forms with layers of color so I can still accomplish the depth of color I seek. I continue to use the soymilk process with the charmeuse so that it receives maximal absorption of dye.
Learning about silk and hand dying has been an unusual journey for me in which I have encountered artists from other countries as well as teachers who have spent years assimilating knowledge from around the world. My first reason for exploring silk hand dying remains the primary reason I continue to make art with it: color. With the Sennelier dyes and the thirsty silk, I am able to engage in my passion for creating work rich in color. The fact that silk is also a strong enough fabric to offer sculptural potential gives me even more territory to explore.
Benjamin, Betsy Sterling, The World of Rozome, Wax Resist Techniques of Japan, New York: Kodansha America. 1996. Print.
Datta, Rajat K. and Mahesh Nanavaty, Global Silk Industry. Florida, Universal Publishing. 2005. Print
Krasnov, Igor, Imke Diddens, Nadine Haupman, Gesa Helms, Mal Ogurreck. Tila Seydel, Sergio Funan, and Martin Muller. “Mechanical Properties of Silk: Interplay of Deformation on Macroscopic and Molecular Length Scales”. Hasylab, Research Center of the Helmholtz Association. Hamburg, Germany. 2008. Web. 14 March 2010.
Marshall, John, Salvation Through Soy, Blissful Dyeing for All Eternity, California: Whimsy. 2002. Print.
Marshall, John. Personal Interview. 21 January 2010.
Moyer, Susan Louise. Silk Painting for Fashion and Fine Art. New York: Watson-Guptill. 1995. Print.
Moyer, Susan Louise, Silk Painting, The Artist’s Guide to Gutta and Wax Resist Techniques, New York: Watson-Guptill. 1991. Print.
Vainker, Shelagh, Chinese Silk, a Cultural History, New Jersy: Rutgers University Press. 2004. Print.