25 January 2010

Making marvelous marbled fabric with Elin Noble

Finished product, drip drying.

Please forgive the alliterative blog title; I couldn't resist. In January I took a full-day workshop, Alternative Marbling: The Basics, with Elin Noble, surface design artist and quilt-maker. The workshop was sponsored by my quilt guild - workshops are one reason to join a guild -and it was a good introduction to this process.

9-inch squares of Kona cotton in pastel and off-white shades, packet of alum.

There was quite of bit of homework; the workshop is really a two-day affair, with one day of fabric prep at home. I just raided my stash of Kona solids, and then followed the directions Elin gave us, which I summarize in this blog. I washed the fabric in hot water and regular detergent, then dried it in the dryer - no fabric softener or dryer sheets, but I don't use those anyway. I checked the dried fabric for water absorbency - no beading on the surface - and then cut thirty-two, nine-inch squares. I labelled them with my initials; this step turned out to be unnecessary. The squares were then soaked in an alum solution. Alum is aluminum potassium sulfate crystals, and is used in pickling and for other processes. For our purposes, it acts as a bonding agent, allowing the pigments to adhere to the fabric. I purchased alum from Prochem, which sells it in small packets, enough for one gallon of solution. Simply mix with warm water and stir; I always get extra stirring sticks when I buy paint for just such activities. Rubber gloves are recommended as alum, while non-toxic, is astringent and your hands will become very dry. The Prochem website is here http://www.prochemicalanddye.com/store/home.php

Fabric in alum soak in my handy (and cheap) Home Depot bucket.

I soaked about eight pieces at a time in my one gallon solution. After 10-15 minutes, with intermittent stirring, the pieces are removed, gently wrung, and clothes-pinned to the drying rack. DO NOT rinse and do not let the fabric fold over on itself - this will result in an uneven coating of alum. I found that the dowels on my bamboo drying rack were too wide for clothespins so I just draped the squares over the dowels with minimum overlap, and this seemed to work fine.
A drippy business - soaked squares dry on racks in the basement.

Once the squares have air-dried, they are pressed using a low to medium - NOT HOT - iron to smooth; I think the alum coating might scorch if ironed with high heat. The leftover alum solution can be stored at room temperature for 2 - 3 months, but once it starts to crystallize out of solution, discard it. Any leftover treated fabric should be marbled within 2 - 3 weeks of treatment, as the alum will eventually disintegrate the fibers. Unused fabric can be re-laundered to remove the alum coating.

Workshop set up at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

Marbling is messy, so the floor and tables were covered with thin plastic sheeting and we all wore old clothes. I brought my iron and ironing board, for touching up fabric before marbling and for stencil printing using freezer paper (more on that below.)

The silver disk under one bucket is a plant mover from IKEA - very handy for moving the bucket from work station to work station.

The first step is to make the size, a solution of methyl cellulose, water and a bit of ammonia. Methyl cellulose is non-toxic and is used as a thickening agent in ice cream and other comestibles. The recipe is 3.5 tablespoons of methyl cellulose powder for every 1 gallon of cold water. Create a vortex by stirring the water and then add the powder; there will be clumps but these will dissolve with stirring. While mixing add 1 tsp of clear, unscented household ammonia. Elin uses broom handles to stir the mixture for 1 - 2 minutes, then intermittently for 30 minutes. Like a Julia Child demonstration, she had one batch made up before the workshop and than made another batch while we watched. The methyl cel solution should sit for at least 30 minutes and overnight is better. It can be stored for up a year at room temperature, covered.

Plain jane ammonia.

Paint applicators made with broom straw and rubber bands; trim end with scissors to uniform length.

The last bit of prep work was the manufacture of our own pigment applicators. Those corn brooms weren't sacrificed just for their handles.

The marbling tray - a cut-down cardboard box lined with a plastic trash bag.

Once the box is lined with a plastic bag, about 1" of methyl cel solution is poured into it using a handy dipper which is then placed on the bucket lid to drip.

Elin smoothing the surface by pulling a newspaper strip across it.

Skimming the surface by dragging newspaper strips across it smooths the surface and removes air bubbles.

Pigment application.

Elin squeezes her paints into small plastic cups and first checks each individual paint's ability to float by dipping one length of broom bristle into the paint and then applying a drop onto the surface. Once tested, Elin swirls the end of the broom applicator in the paint cup and then taps the applicator to disperse droplets onto the methyl cel, which she calls the goo. Marbling is all about manipulating surface tension - the result of attraction between molecules of a liquid which causes the surface of the liquid to act as a thin elastic film under tension. Basically, the goo acts as a canvas upon which to spread and maneuver pigment.

Droplets of red and black pigment disperse on the surface of the goo.

The colors don't mix into a muddy color, as they would if dropped into water, because each drop of pigment floats on the surface of the goo and can only spread so far before meeting another droplet of pigment. Controlling the amount of paint, and its movement, is the artistic challenge.

Elin lifts the prepared cloth by the corners.
The soft fold is set down onto the surface first.
The fabric drapes smoothly onto the surface, outwards,
corners touching down last.

The fabric just set down.

After it's soaked through, fabric is rinsed gently in water.

Finished piece, looking like ancient stone, on plastic.
Note leftover black pigment in tray.

The fabric picks up only that pigment floating on the surface; leftover pigment will sink to the bottom of the tray.

My marbling station, ready to go.

Not quite knowing what to expect, I improvised for my tray. It's a cat litter pan (scrupulously clean, of course.) We taped a trash bag right under our tray, for easy disposal of the newspaper strips.

When the design appears on the top - just a few seconds - it's ready to rinse.

Tray after marbling a few pieces.

A lot of pigment has sunk to the bottom, but the goo only needs to be changed when it's too difficult to view what's going on with your surface due to the visual clutter on the bottom. As each piece is rinsed, to remove any excess pigment, and gently rung, it's placed on the plastic-protected table. Wet pieces can be interleaved with layers of plastic wrap. At the end of the workshop we all just bundled our fabric stacks into the zip-lock bag in which Elin had packed our kits. She provided us with paper plates and cups for the pigments, the basic marbling kit from Prochem, as well as plastic pipettes for making our own droppers, and some paper envelopes for printing using the leftover designs in the tray. Elin showed us how to elongate the dropper end of the pipette using pliers; once clipped the stretched tip gives a smaller aperture for more control.

Using a plastic pipette to place pigment.

Concentric circles made by droplet placement.

Pattern made by ironing freezer paper shape onto fabric before marbling.

I ironed free-form freezer paper shapes onto my fabric.

After marbling - more contrast would have highlighted the shapes better, but you get the idea.

Linear design created by dragging a broom bristle directionally through the pigment.

Opaque acrylic paints can be added for effect.

Our kits came with surfactant and colorless extender; surfactant added to the pigments changes their dispersal rate. Applying the extender - essentially paint with no pigment - increases the surface tension of the goo, making it harder for the paint to spread. Adding opaque white paint to the marbling paints made them spread more easily on the surface and made the colors less "raw" and more pleasing. Clearly, though, another day of instruction would be needed to explore all the effects of these additives, and to learn more about troubleshooting. As they say, the possibilities are endless. Elin gave us very useful handouts with tips, directions for marbling on paper, and even a bibliography. Once our fabrics are dry - back to those drying racks in the basement - and allowed to cure for about two weeks, we will wash them by hand in warm water and mild suds, than smooth with an iron set at low. I'll post close-ups of the finished products when they're all done. Learn more about Elin at her website: http://www.elinnoble.com/ElinNoble/HOME.html

11 January 2010

First quilt of 2010

Tradition snow-ball pattern, pink and lime.

Happy New Year to all! While the snow piled up outside, and while listening to an audiobook of Dorothy Sayers "The Five Red Herrings", I finished hand-quilting a quilt. Here it is, pinned like a captured butterfly, on my design wall, over the pieces of another quilt. The quilt hasn't been bound and trimmed yet, so is still a bit rough-hewn.

Since my hoop is round, and the quilt is rectilinear, I must sew on extender strips of muslin to quilt the border and corners. In a fit of organization-itis, I once recorded the lengths of my assortment of extender strips, using a Pigma Micron waterproof pen.

Stack of muslin strips, all different lengths, for all sizes of quilts.

Extender strips sewn on, corner ready to quilt.

Empty spool - satisfying sight - all 220 yards of thread used up!

Just about halfway through quilting the border I ran out of thread and made a run to Fabric Corner in Arlington for another spool of Gutermann quilting thread, in color 9837. I like to use coordinating thread, to highlight the texture of the stitches, rather than draw attention to the color of the stitches.

For the diagonal lines, no marking needed - just lay down masking tape.

Close-up of quilting.

The outline quilting and circles are static designs, but the running diagonal in the pink inner border moves along dynamically. I used pink thread for this border, Gutermann 2626, which goes well with Kaffe Fassett's shot cotton in Rosy.

The chevron pattern in the outer border frames the whole work, and I like the contrast of diagonal lines with the horizontal stripes of Martha Negley's Horsetail fabric. Although as a whole I am delighted with this quilt, on reflection I might have mitered the corners of this border, and will try that the next time I use a striped fabric in a border.